Thursday, December 21, 2006

Fighting for the New Snobbery

The best things come to those who wait etc, and one of 2006's better essays, on Time magazine's dated, pretentious and precipitate award of 'Person of the Year' (among previous laureates, A.Hitler) to 'anyone who uses the internet, democratises information' et seq ad nauseam) is reprinted in full below. That Marcel Berlins' jeremiad should appear in the Guardian, a newspaper whose relationship with user-generated slurry, sorry, content, seems almost promiscuously intense, is signally ironic. Any cynic with a black enough heart will do worse than consult Paul Fussell's superb 1991 polemic BAD, or the Dumbing of America, to trace the roots of the monstrous fraud behind this so-called 'democratisation' of the media, written long before the web's advance. There is one nice para on CBS's Dan Rather, in which the qualities of that blameless broadcaster are stressed not in terms of his prowess as a reporter or journalist, but as a 'regular guy'. As Fussell puts it; 'who wants distinction, anyway?' Fussell also argues, via De Tocqueville, that people rarely feel as 'no-count' as in a democracy; why else phone-ins, viewer participations, tabloid bellowing, moral panics, if only to reassure Ordinary Joe that he counts, even if in reality he might not?

As a journalist I declare a selfish interest in 'ordinary' people in the media. I have studied subjects in the arts and social sciences to graduate level; I have long years of experience, gifts, the wisdom of a profession, above all the eagerness to learn more within my fields (including a way to express such things without such insufferable pretentiousness); I write about what I know; I hope it reaches people. I can do what I do rather well. Despite borderline knowledge, I have no desire or need to march into a pharmaceutical laboratory and impose my ideas, any more than I have a desire to change the course of a rugby or volleyball match. And so, I 've a downer on a dental hygienist from Porto Alegre or a web designer from Stalybridge getting into print about something (Magnus Magnusson's underwear? VD in the Andaman Isles? the size of Kerry Katona's nipples?) about which they are not remotely qualified to comment on (cf Wittgenstein). Conversely, and egg-sure, they would despise my own depositions on the colour of that mouth-swill and web design, and rightly so. If I want to know about either, I want it from someone who knows - and who will receive a fee for deposing his or her opinions, with, if necessary, a fee for whoever has sub-edited it into acceptable copy. How many England cricket fans would have contradicted Duncan Fletcher's coaching decisions in the Ashes series? Doubtless many; but it's preferable to see Fletcher fail by his own means than entertain and act on amateur ravings apparently legitimised by cybernetic publication. Ditto I'd like to see informed, preferably balanced and professional journalists paid decent wages to fill space, not gobby geeks.

I despise ordinary people until they prove themselves to be otherwise, as an individual or as part of a dialectically-driven mass. And expect to be regarded thus by any right thinking person. By the way, if this makes me a snob, then I refer detractors to Jane Fonda's line in Neil Simon's script of California Suite (1978); 'thank God there are a few of us left'.

Anyhoo. Marcel Berlins. Guardian. 20.12.06

Time magazine's "Person of the Year" awards were started in 1927, since when there have been some pretty dodgy winners, Hitler among them. They clearly should not be taken too seriously, other than as a subject of mild end-of-the-year controversy. The 2006 winner, though, has troubled me for reasons that go well beyond mere dissatisfaction with the verdict. The winner was "You" - that is, us - and to make sure we got the message, when we look at Time we see ourselves in a mirror embedded in the cover. Actually, the You is not quite all of us, merely those of us who have contributed to the growth of the internet and all it contains - for instance blogging and participating in YouTube, MySpace or other "user-generated" sites.

A spokesman for Time admitted that, had they chosen a single person who "most affected the news and our lives, and embodied what was important about the year, for better or for worse", it would have been President Ahmadinejad of Iran. But a lot of people would have been upset at that decision, so they plumped for the feel-good group, You.

Time's editor, Richard Stengel, commented: "You, not us, are transforming the information age." That was a profoundly depressing statement, as was the fuller citation explaining the reasoning: "For seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game ..."

The misguided and misleading use of the term democracy in this context, and the manifestly incorrect claim that You have conquered the professionals, are bad enough. But my main objection is wider. The Time award and the reasons for it promote what I believe to be one of the most pernicious and disturbing philosophies of our age, extolling the cult of what is often patronisingly referred to as the "ordinary" person. I emphasise immediately that if I use the word "ordinary", it is in quotation marks - it is not to suggest inferiority or any comparison with an elite of extraordinary people. The philosophy I object to, which the internet's information explosion has fostered, is that the "ordinary" person is as - no, even more - important to the dissemination of knowledge, information and opinion as the expert or the professional.

It manifests itself in various ways, here and elsewhere. South Korea has a news website, OhMyNews, that uses "citizen journalists" to provide most of its material. It has some 40,000 non-professional contributors; they are, of course, untested and unvetted, their submissions unchecked, their motives unknown. The reader of the website can have no idea about the accuracy of the information on it; yet it is one of the main sources of news for South Koreans. Nor can entrants into the social network sites for the young, such as MySpace, have any real idea of the genuineness, truthfulness or hidden motives of their fellow joiners; and it is impossible for the web's operators to monitor who registers. Not surprisingly, meetings engineered over the internet have caused anguish and tragedy as well as happy associations.

Then there is the proliferation of - though they don't yet call them that yet - "citizen reviewers". Hardly a newspaper here (this one included) is free from readers' opinions on the holidays they have taken, restaurants they have dined at, films they have seen and so on; it seems that no cultural or leisure activity escapes being assessed by "ordinary" people.

A few months ago the usually reliable Routier Guide to good, honest, affordable English eateries folded. People were no longer buying such guides, we were told. Instead, they searched for places to eat on various websites carrying accounts by people who had chosen to make public their dining experiences. A favourable opinion on a website by, say, a DS of Bristol (who may well be, a recent survey revealed, the chef using a pseudonym) takes precedence over a balanced review of a meal by a trained, independent inspector.

How long can it be before professional critics and reviewers - people who know what they are talking about, who perhaps have had years of experience in their field - are jettisoned in favour of "ordinary" people's views? After all, the expert costs money; the amateurs come free. Why do we need our own film/restaurant/book reviewers when hundreds of cinemagoers/diners/readers are only too anxious to tell us what they think? But Time's assertion that those working for nothing are "beating the pros at their own game" is nonsense. They are providing a different service, an opinion based not on expertise and experience, but on their less tutored feelings. I am not saying that the amateur's view is less legitimate than the professional's; but it should not be given some sort of mystical prominence.

Looking at the information revolution as a whole, the greater participation by You has been a benefit. But the movement is losing its sense of proportion. It has become too successful, too cocky. The role played by those who possess special talents, skills, knowledge, training and creativity should not be undermined by the desire to include the remainder.

SPORTIN' LIFE: It's genius, stupid

Gideon Haigh on Shane Warne. Guardian, 21.12.2006

Cardus, Arlott, now Haigh. A great sportswriter on a great sportsman. Fuck, I wish I was this good. Enjoy. Guardian, 21.12.06.

One was bouncy, beamish, a prankster, a prestidigitator; the other was tall, taut, utterly dependable, the natural straight man. Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath: it was hard to imagine one without the other. And now, it would seem, we will not have to.
Steve Waugh was great. Ricky Ponting is. But no two cricketers so separated Australia from the rest of the cricket pack in the last decade or so as Warne and McGrath: the best slow bowler of all, and the best seam bowler of his era. It is a freak of nature that they should have coincided, and ended up playing more than 100 Tests together. To call them a combination, implying planning and foresight, is not quite right. They were more, as Palmerston described his coalition with Disraeli, an "accidental and fortuitous concurrence of atoms".

When they walked off The Oval together at the end of last year's fifth Test, the sardonic smiles masked a brooding determination. Australia had lost the Ashes. That would never do. The physical expense of going on was acute, but the psychological toll of stopping would have been too great.

Their last two years have been full of personal upheaval: McGrath took time off to be with his wife; Warne, rather more publicly, took time off from his wife. But target 2006-7 became their objective, and is now to be their swansong.

Warne seems to have been around forever, and not long at all, so vivid is the memory of him in England in 1993 as a 23-year-old blond blur with turn to burn. But the man who bowled the ball of the last century has kept serving up candidates for the ball of this, even if they haven't been as rippingly obvious. For all the talk about his flipper and his zooter, his woofer and his tweeter, it was his subtly but scientifically varied leg-break that remained the eternal mystery ball. As Graham Thorpe observed last year in comparing the Australian with his statistical shadow Muttiah Muralitharan: "Warne was always varying the degree he spun the ball, while Murali generally just tried to spin the ball as much as he could."

In his private life, of course, Warne has always been the soul of indiscretion. Even now, Warne marches to a different drum in this Australian XI, listening for his personal bongo while others keep in step with the martial snare. That, though, has involved one of his most amazing feats, persuading Australians to cut him the slack he always thought was his due. He is like the eternally mischievous kid brother: incorrigible to a degree that has become endearing.

The 1993 Ashes series where Warne made his name was watched at the Australian Institute of Sport Cricket Academy by McGrath, also 23, who got by on four hours' sleep a night so he could follow the feats of Allan Border's all-conquering team. Little did McGrath know, but he was watching the opening of the vacancy that he would fill. Craig McDermott was injured; Merv Hughes was injuring himself; McGrath played in the first home Test of the southern summer as a kind of research and development project. His breakthrough tour was 18 months later in the West Indies, when he met the challenge of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh with his own brand of homespun hostility.

McGrath's bowling career began on a dirt track on a poultry farm with an upturned water trough for a wicket. It retained that unadorned, unrefined, self-sufficient practicality. "Keep everything simple" was his golden rule. "Don't complicate things for the sake of it." He brought to fast bowling the philosophy of the Model T, mass producing deliveries just short of a length, just wide of off stump, just doing enough, just about unimprovably.

Warne and McGrath both epitomised Australian excellence and embodied Australian aggression. Warne was a tease, a flirt, a provocateur, tripping up even the nimble feet of Mark Ramprakash. "Come on, Ramps, you know you want to," he taunted the young batsman in a famous spell at Trent Bridge in July 2001. "That's the way, Ramps, keep coming down the wicket." So Ramps did - too far, and another English Ashes challenge stumbled and staggered to a halt.

McGrath, meanwhile, was the trash talker extraordinaire. In his autobiography, The Wicked-Keeper, a few years ago, New Zealand's Adam Parore took the trouble to transcribe a standard McGrath monologue: "You guys are shit. We can't wait to get rid of you so we don't have to play you. Get the South Africans over here so we can have a real game of cricket. We can't be bothered playing you guys. You're second raters." Rubbish, of course - but annoying rubbish, the kind that one recalls and ruminates on, as did Parore.

Above all, they have been winners, each a talisman for the other. McGrath has been on the winning side in 82 out of his 122 Tests (67.2%), Warne in 90 of his 143 (62.9%). No bowlers with more than 200 Test wickets have played in a greater proportion of victories. It's a safe bet that no bowlers can have contributed so much to victories so often.

The farewells of Warne and McGrath will elicit tributes aplenty. What they mean for Ponting's Australians is less clear. Cricket in this country has nursed a dread of a sudden glut of retirements since the Sydney Test of January 1984, which first Greg Chappell, then Dennis Lillee and finally Rod Marsh chose as the stage for their final curtain call. They left in charge Kim Hughes, who proved unequal to the burden, and Border, who took a while to feel comfortable with it, and the Australia XI for three years marked time when it wasn't retreating.

McGrath now has a near body double in Stuart Clark, who has been probably the most consistent component of Australia's attack this summer. But while Warne has an effective understudy in Stuart MacGill, the wrist spin ranks thin drastically thereafter. Warne made leg-spin look easy - much easier than it was, in fact, as numberless imitators have discovered. No new Warne looms, any more than does a new Bradman.

That is something, however, Australian cricket will have to deal with on its own. McGrath's wife is sick. Warne's is sick of him. Age is only one factor in their decisions. As important as their pasts are their personal futures. These are not simply retirements about where Warne and McGrath have been; they concern where the pair want to end up.

SPORTIN' LIFE: Goodbye James

Goalaccioooooo!!!!!! Paul Stump says a qualified addio to Football Italia

Any day now, like an unwanted guest at a Christmas party, Football Italia will sidle anonymously away into the Christmas ether even before the DJ's got going, clutching a bottle of cheap spirits, shyly and shamefacedly, never to be seen again. Bravo's axing of a show that, in its mid-90s heyday attracted nearly four million viewers to Channel 4 on Sunday afternoons (Four million. I'll repeat that for the benefit of Russell Brand) is a cause for regret. Football Italia was - lest we forget - the first as-scheduled terrestrial broadcast shown in Britain after the death of Diana, at 2pm on The Day After (Inter won against I forget whom, and shiny-barneted Uruguayan Alberto Recoba scored a left-foot, long-range screamer).

We know why Football Italia was good; we know why it had its time in the peninsular sun; we know (sort of) why it failed. James Richardson was a hitherto unseen type of presenter; Chrysalis's Neil Duncanson a fantastic producer; the theme tune was a funky firecracker; Serie A was, until c.1998, the best league in the world. Football Italia was, like the opening of the Chunnel and the sensationally successful 1994 visit of Le Tour to Britain emblematic of a progressive new Europeanism.

It couldn't last, and didn't. The stars left; standards fell; bungs and bribes crowded in; and despite Football Italia's young AB1-2 audience's pretence to cool internationalism (founded on not much more than Easyjet dirty weekends where speaking the lingo was not mucho necessario) hidebound, swing-low-sweet-chariot, anglocentric insularity did the rest.

Shameful, all of it. Richardson, an intelligent and discerning man, was the first British sportscaster to ally the argot and discourse of fanzine and music paper fandom with football coverage - tellingly his heyday was also that of Fantasy Football League. It was possible for Richardson to insert puns on the oeuvre of Elvis Costello into an otherwise urbane discussion of Italian football issues. He didn't shout; didn't overdo; he knew his limits. Obviously a professional journalist, not an ex-pro, Richardson sussed and sampled Michael Robinson's Spanish schtick in the phenomenon of El Despues del dia. JR never slew the chimera of the panellists' old pals' matiness à la Football Focus - and was somewhat let down by a less than glittering array of pundit sidekicks, despite Butch Wilkins' engagingly epiphanic wonder which made almost everything 'quite remarkable' - but at least tilted at its creaking windmill. In 1995, all male media studies students wanted to be James Richardson.

Sadly Football Italia's legacy has been to scarcely touch the tabloid mainstream of football media, and those eager students are now in jobs at broadsheets. Unfortunately they seem to be stuck in their Union Bar mode - shirt out, necking Moretti and Grolsch, discussing Super Furries albums or Bill Hicks bootlegs. One need only glance at the clodhoppingly bad attempts at 'irreverence' that form things like The Guardian's 'Clogger' column and the acres of mediocrity that passed for 'humour' during the last World Cup, which allowed redbrick standards to run riot. Richardson, Baddiel and Skinner did po-mo references to obscure 80s bands a decade back, and what's more, they did it with a bit of style and had novelty on their side. For well-turned laffs by people who quite clearly know what they are doing, read The Guardian's Jeremy Alexander or the Torygraph's Martin Johnson; the former's excellent TV sport critic Martin Kelner at least has professional experience of comedy at the sharp end beyond an expensive bar in north London, at least enough to spot a bad line at a hundred paces.

But isn't this all much of a curmudgeonly muchness? So low has the Grauniad's sport bar been lowered on the altar of user-generated content that they actually considered making a fight of their staggeringly awful 'over by over' cricket commentaries in the face of the ICC's excellent decision to sanction this tatty phenomenon in which talented sportswriters like Sean Ingle are forced to pander to the moronic bloggery of the underinformed and underoccupied, the 2:2 media studies failures for whom the laptop is the equivalent of a day-long residency as the Barmy Army's trumpeter - and yes, more references to obscure pop culture, bad gags, and approximately zero added to the sum of human knowledge about sport. Gaz from Skelmersdale (hi, Gaz!) thinks Glenn McGrath looks like a member of Ned's Atomic Dustbin. And a representative of a national newspaper (presumably also an NUJ member) indulges this drivel? Richardson, worryingly, now works as a podcaster for the Guardian, a de facto member of an outfit that endorses material of a trivial shoddiness that would never have passed muster in the Chrysalis salad days of 1993-4 when the only excuse for including nonsense was if it issued from the mouth of comically-hatted Don Howe.

To blame JR and his friends (and whither the underrated mic maestro Peter Brackley now?) for this dumbing-down that dares not speak its name is akin to blaming Lord Reith for Ant and Dec, and so let's not. Shooting the messenger is never a rational option. And, let's be fair, Richardson the messenger is simply a national broadcasting treasure - his unsung and largely unseen contribution to Eurosport's cycling coverage this summer was expectably exemplary. Imitation may be regarded as the sincerest form of flattery, but Football Italia and Richardson have, as yet to spawn even remotely worthy mimics. But that is no reason not to mourn this weekend; and no cause for a shameful exit.

TRAVEL: Wine on the line and the Rhine

Trains can be an ideal and cheap way to sample Germany's wines at harvest time, writes Paul Stump

German stereotypes? Rubbish. They're not always efficient. They do have a sense of humour. And you can mention the war. But one stereotype that's spot-on is that their railways are absolutely brilliant. Example? The Schönes-Wochenende Ticket. From midnight on Friday to 3.00 on Monday morning you can go anywhere in Germany on local trains for just 30 euros. The possibilities are pretty staggering, but the autumn offers a particularly rewarding way to milk this giveaway.

It's wine harvest time and Germany's principal wine regions - the Rhine, the Mosel and the Nähe - are all served well by rail. The city of Koblenz, where the Rhine and Mosel meet, should be your base, and after that all you'll need is a decent corkscrew.

THE MOSEL. A river of notable sinuosity, almost every inch of its steep sides are blanketed with vines from Koblenz upriver to the ancient Roman citadel of Trier. And while the Rhine's castles may enjoy the greater fame, one wouldn't want to be charged with capturing the Teutonic bulk of the fortresses at Cochem and Eltz.

Riesling's the thing here - on some of Europe's steepest vineyards (55% gradient in some places), more than half of the Mosel's production is given over to this grape. The steepness maximises the vines' exposure to the sun and this, along with the slatey soil, lends Mosel wine its character. The result is some of the world's classiest dry whites. Traben-Trarbach, at the end of a delightful little branch line from Bullay, is an excellent place to sample them. Martin Müllen (2 Altemarktstrasse) is a smart and serious wine-grower drawing plaudits from all over Europe for his toothsome Rieslings. But not as much as the famous Weingut Heymann-Löwenstein at Willingen, near Koblenz. Their beautifully balanced sweeties strain the pocket a tad, but even at 20 euros a bottle it's worth the outlay (10 Bahnhofstrasse).

THE RHINE. The Mittelrhein, south of Koblenz, is the landscape of Wagner's music-dramas. You half expect the locals to be kitted out with spears and winged helmets. Castles by the score - desolate ruins or neo-Romantic follies crowning promontories and pinnacles, including the diminitibe Burg Pfalz, stranded on its midriver sandbank like a toy yacht - forbidding watchtowers, towns of arthritically bent houses and crooked alleys. Anything in Bacharach, for example, would be swiftly half-timbered if it stayed still long enough. It's only now - after the cliffs and crags north of the Loreley Rock - that the slopes become suitable for vines in any great number.

Toni Jost's products stand out in Bacharach; the family are devotees of getting Riesling and Spätburgunder just right at the right price (circa 8 euros). Their wines are flinty and flirty, with only the slightest nod to the ubiquituous Chardonnay tang of the Chablis greats (14 Oberstrasse). The 2002 vintages are particularly winning. The Josts' eldest daughter Katharina is the reigning Wine Queen of the Mittelrhein; these popular contests, I am assured, are not beauty pageants. The winners are elected for their knowledge of local culture and winemaking. Nonetheless, all the winners seem to be, well, exceptionally easy on the eye.

A maverick in these parts was the late Georg Breuer of understatedly beautiful Rüdesheim on the east bank of the Rhine (take the ferry from Bingen, or simply take a train from Koblenz). Until his death in 2004, Breuer opted out of the meticulous but formidably bureaucratic classification system of German wine (Tafelwein, Qualitätswein mit Prädikat etc)to concentrate on perfecting his own idiosyncratic Rieslings and Grauburgunders of great craftsmanship and delicacy- certainly even after his demise, plaudits for the Bruer vineyard haven't dried up (8 Kirchgasse).

Bingen is a pleasant enough town notable for its stately but sinister Mausetürm where, according to a gruesome medieval legend, the villainous Archbishop Hatto of Mainz was nibbled to death by a horde of hunger-crazed after he had burned the local peasantry alive during a famine. Bingen is also where one should change for the Nähe wine region, specifically Laubenheim, near Bad Kreuznach, where Sclossgut Diel (16 Burg Layen) is picking up good ratings. There are a,lso trains south down the Rhine to Speyer, through more vine-lined terraces.

TIPS. The Schönes Wochenende Ticket cannot be used on trains classed as D, IC, EC or ICE. Consult the yellow departure tables before boarding. Station staff are almost always helpful, and printable itineraries can be found and printed off from German Railways' astounding website, Always phone ahead when contacting winemakers, especially during the autumn harvest. Most welcome visitors, but not all. Wine festivals are plentiful at this time, however, details of which can be found by surfing to

Wine-tastings are uncountable; the local tourist office will unfailingly direct you to those that best suit your palate and pocket. These affairs are normally the nearest most folk come to tasting the manna of Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese vintages, Germany's rare dessert vintages and their answer to Sauternes. Don't bother cutting cost corners in supermarkets; most weingüte (which sell their own and/or others' local wines) are fairly priuced, the staff clued-up and the settings sometimes idyllic. I enjoyed a full ;unchtime bottle or rather acceptable 2002 medium dry Riesling from a decent local producer in a Bacharach courtyard with an autumnal sun decanting through vines - for just 8 euros. Takeaway prices are even lower.

WHERE TO EAT. Hotel Hohenstaufen (41 Emil Schullerstrasse) in Koblenz is a good touring base, but budget accommodation is not hard to find, thanks to the wonderful German phenomenon of fremdenzimmer, B&B rooms in private houses. In wine towns, these may well be located within the property of a winemaker or dealer.

One snag; owners may not always speak English but will, at the very least, provide a breakfast large enough to intimidate even Mr Creosote. Railway buffs alert - views from the basic bu very comfortable Haus Trude/Hotel Rheinterrasse in the tiny but lovely village of Rhens, south of Koblenz, give directly onto the Koblenz-Mainz main line, one of the great rail arteries of Europe (16 Koblenzerstrasse) - and all for 40 euros. Unlikeminded partners will at least be compensated by majestic views onto the Rhine in full spate just beyond.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Bulletin, 6.10.2005

MUSIC: Pen and Piano, interview with Helene Grimaud

Down boy. Paul Stump tries to keep his cool while alone with the stupendous Hélène Grimaud as she talks about pianism and penmanship

"It's a shame," sighs Hélène Grimaud, staring out of her hotel window near Brussels Airport. "It was so nice when I left London this morning." Outside the sky is the colour of wet cement.

The pianist isn't staying long - just an afternoon of interviews promoting her new CD of Brahms and Schumann - also cellist Truls Mork, mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen - and her second book, Lecons particulières. Then it's on to Berlin for a week of rehearsals.

Grimaud is sleek, poised, with a piercing grey-eyed gaze and, for her slightness of frame, an incongruously powerful handshake. She's also formidably and ostentatiously clever, something she says got her into trouble as a child. "I was considered a disruptive influence at school," she giggles. "I was always asking too many questions." This was in Aix-en-Provence in the early 1970s. "My parents tried to find a channel for this hyperactivity. Tennis, dancing..."

Hmm. The next Francoise Durr or Sylvie Guillem? No.

"...and finally they got me interested in music. That was when I knew I'd found what i needed. I just had the idea - perhaps subconsciously - that no matter how much I learned about music, I would never stop exploring it."

Her talent led her to the Paris Conservatoire at 13 and she made her first recording at 16. Eventually the Parisian milieu tired her and she moved to Flordia in 1991. She's now based in upstate New York and continues to be one of the world's most in-demand instrumentalists. Her range might seem comparatively restricted - principally core Germanic repergtoire, plus Chopin and Rachmaninov - but that's the way she likes it. "My repertoire changes slowly because it takes me a long time to absorb all the information about a work - its phrasing possibilities, for example - before I feel ready to play it in public."

Recently she's strayed into contemporary music, notably by the Estonian Arvo Pärt and American John Corigliano. "But only because I felt that I'd reached a point in my life where I was ready to air those works before an audience. I dabble a lot in all kinds of music at home, but unless there's something that makes me feel I am ready to do full justice to a work in a hall then I won't do it."

Rachmaninov's discursive and restless Sonata No.2 is on her programme at Bozar this month [gig postponed till March 2006 as it turned out - blogger's note]. She broke through with the original version of the work in 1985 but is now returning to it in its revised 1931 guise. "You have to learn what Rachmaninov changed - the revision is lighter, more personal - and I have spent time trying to figure out how rhe pianist should approach those changes mentally and technically." This fastidious approach is reminiscent of players like Serkin and, more recently, Brendel and Zimerman's endless reworkings of their own favourite pieces. Is it true for her that, in Paul Valéry's words, a true work of art is never finished?

"Absolutely," she laughs, " even my books... they take a long tie because I am never satisfied with them. I'm always editing." Her first, Variations sauvages (2002) appears in English in autumn 2006. It's a loosely autobiographical tale about Grimaud's own discovery of and efforts to assist in the conservation and protection of American wolves (she has a family of them on her Westchester farm). The new volume, Lecons particulières is a more abstruse and ruminative piece, part-novel, part-memoir. It's about an internationally-famous pianist named Hélène who is on a journey of spirital and artistic self-discovery. One German critic summarised it as "a cross between Jack Kerouac's On The Road and Hermann Hesse".

"Oh, that's very flattering," she says. "I read a lot of German literature when I was a child, and I suppose there's got to be an influence there." The motifs of the voyage to enlightenment in nature, religion and art are also clearly discernible in her approach to music. "That's true," she sadmits. "I needed to refocus on music, and writing this book - perhaps paradoxically - helped." She didn't even need to take a break in her career to do so. "It wasn't a problem. Things were going too fast anyway - I was starting to lose sight of ehat I wanted to play music for. Writing my thoughts down seemed to calm things and finally, when I finished, I was able to approach my career with a fresh mental outlook."

Which must help when one is in London for breakfast, Brussels for lunch and Berlin for tea.

This article appeared in edited form in The Bulletin, 1.12.2005

MUSIC- Playing With Fire, Roby Lakatos interview

Violinist Roby Lakatos has made Belgium his home, but as Paul Stump finds out, he's a world citizen

The bustling ambiance of the bar at the Hotel Metropole is all wrong for the surprisingly soft-spoken gypsy violinist Roby Lakatos. Given his promiscuous virtuosity onstage, his reticence is almost incongruous.

Lakatos is packaged as a kind of dandified teddy-bear, in clothes that might charitably be described as 'rococo', a sumptuously coiffed head seemingly too big for his body and a moustache waxed to within an inch of its life. But I still have to encorage him to raise his voice.

"You know what?" he says with a twinkle in his brown eyes, "I did that whole image bit for a laugh. My manager and record company said, 'that's it!' and I've used the whole thing ever since!"

Not that he needs an image to impress. He's the seventh generation in a family of violinists traceable to virtuoso Laszlo Bihari, whose playing bewitched the court of Habsburg Emperor Franz-Josef. Bihari's mesmerising marriage of gypsy fiddle voicings and traditional Hungarian dances - most notably the csardas, a two-step variant of older Carpathian and Transylvanian dances - inspired Liszt and Brahms.

At first a classical violin student, Lakatos was a prize-winner at Budapest's Bela Bartok Conservatory in 1984 before trying his luck in the west. "It was easier getting to and from Hungary than any other Eastern Bloc country back then," he remembers. "I was with a gypsy band in Liège, liked the place, so I was able to stay and still visit Budapest. Now I think of myself as Belgian."

It's when Lakatos talks music that he truly comes alive. "I try to mix as many influences as I can. Jazz, folk, classical. Being nomadic, gypsy music and culture have always had to adapt to the local culture. Look at flamenco guitarists or Mariachi bands. These days, gypsy music all over the world is different. There can be differences beteween regiuons and even districts within a certain country."

So, he thought, why be constrained by one tradition? "Our violin tradition hadn't moved on fast enough. It was too heavily associated with kitsch, with hack musicians serenading diners over a plate of goulash." It's an enduring stereotype - the gypsy violinist as maudlin eulogiser of onion domes and ox-carts, the tears of exiles who've had too much paprika and Bull's Blood. This, though, isn't Lakatos's bag at all.

But by its very definition, gypsy music is always moving, evolving, transforming itself, I offer. "That's right. At first my family weren't happy with what I did, but then they accepted it. Hungarian gypsy music is full of influences. The Turks ruled Hungary for 500 years, so there's an Eastern influence, too. And look at the gypsy traditions in jazz. I played on one of Stéphane Grappelli's last dates, you know," he adds, with deserved pride.

At the Cirque Royal, Lakatos reveals another aspect of his musical buttwerfly mind - klezmer, another music of nomadic tonalities and rhythms, and featuring his manager, the Belgian singer Myriam Fuchs. "That'll be the next CD," declares Lakatos. "We're taking the music on the road before Christmas, and then recording."

Lakatos has known most of his sidemen for a good part of his adult life. "It's unusual for musicians to stick together like that," he says, "and even rarer for them to have such a good rapport on the bandstand."

Symphony orchestras and chamber dates have also comes Lakatos' way. Russian pianist Polina Leschenko has recorded a Prokofiev sonata with him on a session that included the great Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich. "I hadn't played classical music formally since I left Hungary two decades ago," confesses Lakatos. "But when a beautiful girl asks you to do something like that, you do it!" Another twinkle - of roguish gallantry this time.

But it's improvisation that clearly thrills Lakatos the most. "It's all about imagination. I went to see the latest Harry Potter movie when I was in Hollywood last week. Brilliant stuff! That's the sort of imagination a true improviser needs, no matter what kind of art. I love it when I improvise and the audience responds. The audience and me, ideally, we work off each other. The better they respond, the better I respond."

This article appeared in edited form in The Bulletin, 8.12.2005

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

TRAVEL: Kandersteg


Paul Stump is dizzied by Kandersteg's sights and heights

The smart blue and white Lotschberg train begins to climb. The line rises 800m in a little over 20km, doubling back on itself twice. It heaves its way through tunnels of unlined rock, along giddying ledges, before the floor of the Kander valley rises abruptly and we're pulling into Kandersteg.

As a kid I read the railway writer Cecil J Allen's enthralling accounts of travel in Switzerland. The Lotschberg main line between Bern and Milan was a favourite, and the above is a paraphrase of one of CJ's accounts.

The Romantics made this part of the Bernese Oberland into the tourist destination it is today and Kanderstef has few rivals in showing why. The scenery would exhaust the most thorough of thesauri. The trinity of the Balmhorn (3701m), Altels (3699m) and the wondrous snow-sugared Blumlisalp (3663m) dominate, but other peaks, crags and precipices of breathtaking scale surround the village.

For those eminently sensible souls who find the acquisition, donning and wearing of skis and their various attendant accoutrements a bit of a pain in the old behind, Kandersteg is nearly perfect. You CAN ski here, but as long as you do it at a discreet distance from the village. Mostly the place is devoted to langlauf and walking, and as such is spared the blight of yoof that disfigures so many Alpine resorts. You won't find a Mulligan's bar in Kandersteg. Posters advertising 'Der Snowboard-Party' are rare. The word 'DJ' is almost unknown.

Sounds stuffy? Wrong. Kandersteg still has working dairy farms and a sawmill. Not everyone earns their money waiting on townies in ghastly psychedelic artifical fibres. Sounds expensive? Wrong again, chum. Kandersteg, by the standards of the Oberland, is reasonably priced.

The 50km of Wanderwege, or hiking paths, are mapped and signposted with meticulopus attention to detail (this IS Switzerland, after all). Kandersteg tends to get a lot of snow, and as such the network is somewhat attenuated in winter. For instance, the long-distance footpaths over the high passes into the Valais region to the south are closed as is, alas, the path along the Lotschberg-Nordrampe path created by the BLS/SBB, tracing the spectacular line on its ascent to the summit. This thing of wonder, usually placed within a few metres of the metals, is one of the wonders of the trainspotter's world; this is not opinion, it is verifiable fact.

But wonders are attainable even in winter. The Oeschinensee is a 400 metre climb to the east of the village; lying below the tumbing cliffs of the bewitching Blumlisalip, one almost wills water-sprites and other Germanic folk figurtes to attend its shores. There's a helter-skelter toboggan run down from here to the cillage for those with strong stomachs and/or a pathological death-wish.

Byron wrote Manfred in these parts and the soaring eagles, sheer rock faces and raging torrents in the impressive defiles around Kandersteg lead one to believe that the poet at least passed through. A walk south from the village brings one to a 1000-metre wall of rock; the railway line plunges into the legendary 14-km Lotschberg Tunnel, and the only way up and over is via a tiny road hewn into the cliffs, unlit tunnels and all, bringing the hiker into the gorge of the upper Kander. Looking up cricks your neck, looking down turns your stomach. But this is the only access to the Gasterntal, a place of almost supernatural beauty and silence. There is not a sound anywhere; even footfalls sound indecent. If the hereafter has a sound, this may be it. Even Byron couldn't describe it adequately, so I am not gonna try.

Accommodation in Kandersteg is plentiful. The Hotel Zur Post (0041/33.675.12.58) is central, and with shower-equipped double rooms with B&B from 80 euros, offers a coy and cheerful hearth. Visit for other options.

Food is... well, Swiss. Served in abundant portions and still the same unsophisticated, calorific, hearty fare of cheese and fatty meats required to sustain mountain folk, it's an acquired taste, and the station buffet is as good a place as any.

The BLS Lotschberg line is, of course, one of the jewels in the glittering crown of Swiss railway achievement, not to mention one of the most stupendous civil engineering feats in Europe. The tunnel, completed in 1912, is an epic in itself. In 1906, excavators hit water-bearing rock under the Gasterntal and the infant Kander; 25 men and much machinery were swept away. The detritus was walled up in the mountain and the tunnel took a bizarre detour to reach Goppenstein in the Valais, from whence the line descends to Brig and then on through the even longer Simplon Tunnel to reach Italy. Car-carrying shuttles run through the Tunnel, and in summer take motorists all the way from Kandersteg to Iselle on the southern side of the Simplon.

The superhuman efforts of the Lotschberg engineers in this amazing place are perhaps the most eloquent tribute to the mammoth assetion of nature in this mountain byway. Their achievement beggars imagination - but not as much as when one looks up to those ethereal fastnesses above 3600m. Kandersteg is a place that offers humblebness - and through it, fulfilment.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Obscure True Fact No.94

There is no Welsh language word for 'orgasm'. And that's true, that is.

SPORTIN' LIFE: Gideon Haigh - Read Him Now

He's the best cricket writer in the world. Maybe the best sportswriter full stop.

SPORTIN' LIFE: Martin Johnson on Adelaide

Daily Telegraph, 6.12.06

All sorts of theories have been advanced for the increase in global warming over the past couple of decades, but the boffins agree that it's largely man-made. However, while most have blamed aerosol cans and rain forest destruction, the most obvious suspect is the heat generated from Shane Warne's spinning finger.
Warne sent down the thick end of 90 overs in this match, and in the unlikely event that the Australians celebrated one of the most outlandish victories in Ashes history with nothing stronger than a pot of tea, they could have used Warne's business digit to boil the kettle. It was all the more remarkable for the fact that the same man who sent down an assortment of meat pies in the first innings, turned up for the second with a sackful of hand grenades.
There are two ways to play Warne, and somewhere between their two innings England decided to abandon the Fred Astaire routine which had served them so well for the first two days and switch to the kind of footwork that would have embarrassed a boxful of battery hens.
There's a new Monopoly game here in Australia, based on a cricketing theme, and they might now consider launching something similar for the English market. "Ashes 2005 – Advance (in open-topped bus) To Trafalgar Square". "Ashes 2006 – Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect £200. Go Straight To The Tower of London".
This was supposed to be a pitch so bland that, with Australia in the grip of a nationwide drought, you suspected the groundsman had done away with the watering can and prepared it with embalming fluid. However, the events of the final day in Adelaide were so morale-shredding that the only way you could now describe England as heading in the right direction is that they took off today on a flight to Perth. After this debacle they might as well keep right on going – past Singapore, over Asia, and not stop until they get to Heathrow.
There was every reason to believe from the way England batted in the first innings that the great man was about to finish his career as Shane Worn. It's a miracle he's still going at all at the age of 37, with a lifestyle that rarely sees him stray far from a packet of fags or a takeaway pizza, but not even Warne could have expected England to be so supine yesterday.
There are many ways of asking for trouble, but one of the better ones when Warne is spinning it yards is to just stand there and tug the forelock to him. It also resulted in one or two umpiring decisions going against England. When Jim Laker was taking 19 wickets in an Ashes Test in 1956, his appealing took the form of a series of polite inquiries, but modern cricket is not like that and Warne and Co were allowed to batter the officials into submission with more appeals in an over than Bob Geldof has launched in a lifetime.

Warne also managed to put one over on his nemesis, Kevin Pietersen, defying the laws of geometry to bowl him, from over the wicket, behind his legs, and hitting not leg stump, but off stump. It was almost as gobsmacking as the first ball he ever sent down in Ashes cricket, to Mike Gatting. No one has ever made a cricket ball behave like Warne does, not even Wilson of The Wizard.
It is hard to believe that an Englishman can ever have batted for 11 hours and 54 minutes in a Test match, as Paul Collingwood did here, and finished on the losing side, but Warne's performance effectively turned Australia's second innings into a limited overs run chase. And we all know how good England are at one-day cricket.
We wondered, for a moment, when Australia lost a couple of early wickets, whether England's think-tank had devised a plan of Baldrick-like cunning in its conception. Namely, that their best chance of winning was to bat like wallies, and lure the Australian batsmen into on orgy of adrenalin-charged destruction.
However, it would be hard enough to give credence to this scheme even if they had had a Warne of their own, never mind Ashley Giles. Worthy cricketer though Giles is, if England have brought Monty Panesar out to Australia in order to further his education, then Monty is coming on a treat in terms of future employment. Either as a porter, or a drinks waiter.
There was just one moment when Australia threatened to blink, when a bogged-down Michael Clarke had played out five consecutive dot balls against Andrew Flintoff. At this point Pietersen came up to yell some encouragement into his captain's ear, and when Clarke took three runs off the next ball, Pietersen was still so hyped up that he turned it into a seven with a ridiculous shy at the stumps.
England's last engagement of the day was a Robbie Williams concert in Adelaide, though an evening with the Barmy Army trumpeter perhaps ought to have been substituted by way of punishment. As it is, they leave Australia's City of Churches with barely a prayer in their mission to retain the Ashes.
The next few weeks threaten to be unbearable. As England's innings was in its death throes, Warne stood in the slips and shouted, somewhat curiously, to Glenn McGrath: "Come on, bowl him a ham and pineapple!"
Maybe it was some kind of code involving Warne's favourite topping, but one thing's for sure: England are now in for a long stretch of listening to cocksure Aussies taking the pizza.

SPORTIN LIFE: Olympic Realities - Andrew Rawnsley, 26.11

Andrew Rawnsley
Sunday November 26, 2006
The Observer

In the time that it takes you to read to the end of this sentence, the cost of the London Olympics will have risen by another billion pounds. Worse, I have no idea whether that is an exaggeration or an underestimate of the soaring bill for staging the Games. After the grisly experience of the Millennium Dome, you might have thought that this government would have been once burnt, twice shy of the construction and mass entertainment business. After the money-guzzling, credibility-munching monster that was the dome, Tony Blair half-apologised for that fiasco and sighed that there would be 'lessons to be learnt' about the running of large infrastructure projects. Well, if remedial classes in event management and construction ever happened, no one involved with the Olympics seems to have attended them. The disaster that was the dome is now being replicated on an even more gargantuan scale on the other side of the Thames.

Just as with the dome, Tony Blair was initially sceptical about the Olympics, only to allow himself to be seduced by the thought that the Games would be a glamour project to put Britain at the centre of world attention. Just as with the dome, Gordon Brown bit his nails about the costs, but didn't publicly voice his doubts for fear of being cast as a killjoy. Just as with the dome, the Tories and most of the media were all for the Olympics until the project started to go off the rails.

Just as with the dome, those who were sceptical about the costs and doubtful about the purpose were dismissed as whingeing spoilsports. When the government was debating whether to back the bid, Bill Bush, an adviser to Tessa Jowell, did some confidential research into the Sydney Olympics of 2000. He found that the Olympics generated a fortnight of euphoric public and media opinion when the bid was won and another fortnight of feel-good when they were on. In between, there was six years of ferociously hostile media and public opinion. Politically, that made the Olympics a sport the government was always bound to lose at.

Just as with the dome, Mr Blair shrugged opposition aside once he got seized by the notion of adding a grand projet to his legacy. When cabinet colleagues and Downing Street aides expressed their doubts about going for the Games, the Prime Minister told them: 'Don't be such wusses.'

Just as with the dome, responsibility for this project is divided. Tessa Jowell, Ken Livingstone, Seb Coe - the minister, the mayor, the Tory peer and a large cast of political and sporting panjandrums - all have a finger in this project. When everyone is in charge, no one is in charge. The chief engineer, Jack Lemley, has fled back to America for fear that his reputation would be wrecked by continuing association with the project. He quit complaining about political meddling and warning that the costs would escalate 'exponentially'.

Well, of course. It was both predictable and predicted that the Olympics would be a black hole sucking money out of taxpayers and lottery funds and away from good causes. Try justifying these Games to disabled groups whose lottery funding is being cut. Cost overruns are as integral to the tradition of the modern Olympiad as are cheating and corruption. The Games are a serial financial killer. The taxpayers of Montreal are still paying for the 1976 Olympics 30 years after they were staged in the city. The cost of the last Olympics in Athens went so out of control that the Greeks had to go begging for a bail-out from the European Commission. The Olympic legacy to Sydney was another huge budget-buster and a splendid stadium which sat empty and unused afterwards. Beijing is believed to be flushing away going on for £20bn to host the 2008 Games.

I have to say that even a hard-core Olympic sceptic like myself has been staggered by just how rapidly and wildly the bill for the London Olympics is escalating. The chief spinmeister of the bid effort has written a revelatory book in which he plausibly argues that the figures in the original budget under-stated the true cost because no one in charge actually expected London to get the games.

In front of MPs last week, Tessa Jowell added nearly a billion pounds just to the budget for constructing the venues. The bill for buying and cleaning up the land for the site has more than tripled. The budget for policing and protecting the games has ballooned from £190m to £850m because it had apparently occurred to no one that the Olympics might be a tempting target for terrorists.

And it will get worse. There will be revelation after dismal revelation like this for the next six years. The Observer today exposes another phoney figure in the Olympic dodgy dossier. If the main stadium is going to have any useful life afterwards, then money will have to be spent converting it, virtually doubling the cost originally given for the stadium alone.

The most priceless moment of Ms Jowell's appearance before MPs was when she got to explaining the 'delivery fee' for the management of the project. What was £100m in August has now inflated to £500m. The cost of cost-control has quintupled! In just three months! This is the mad, mad world of the Olympics.

An amazing £130m is to be spent fabricating a 'permanent media centre' on the site. There might, I suppose, be some point to that. A venue will be needed for all the press conferences that will have to be given to explain how it went so horribly and expensively wrong.

From Wembley Stadium to the Scottish Parliament building - oh, and did I mention the Millennium Dome? - Britain has a miserable record at bringing in big infrastructure projects on time and on budget. The crucial difference with the Olympics is that they can't be postponed which means they are even more likely to inflate in cost. When Wembley wasn't ready, at least the FA Cup Final could be moved to Cardiff. The deadline for the Olympics is an iron one. You can't tell the world that you're a bit behind and would they kindly come back in 2013.

The Olympic contracts are not fixed-price contracts. Every landowner, developer, contractor and builder, from the corporate suits to the sparks installing the lighting has been handed a loaded revolver to put to the head of the government. Pay up - or the Games get it. Whatever figure anyone is giving you at the moment, the real cost is going to be even more stratospheric. £8bn? Do I hear £10bn? The man who designed the Montreal Olympic park reckons we will eventually be landed with a bill of not less than £15bn for an event to which only the very wealthy and the very well-connected will get a ticket.

We could carpet the country with spanking new hospitals or double the aid budget with the sort of money that is going to be blown on just 17 days of Olympics - and still have change to buy back all those school playing fields that have been flogged off.

The Games' supporters do not like to speak about cost; they prefer to talk about 'investment', implying there will be some sort of return. Which will be what exactly? The experience of other cities is that international sports festivals do not attract tourists - they repel them. Tourists stayed away from Germany during last year's World Cup because they did not want to spend their holidays in the company of thousands of football fans. When Australia and Greece staged the Olympics, tourists boycotted the countries, fearing traffic jams, a security clampdown and hotel rooms to be had only at rip-off prices. Who in their right mind is going to want to holiday in London in the congestion and security hell that will be the capital city in the August of 2012?

Just as with the dome, supporters of the Olympics say they will regenerate part of London. I'm all for the regeneration of the East End, but you didn't need to do it by bringing this overblown, ludicrously expensive spectacle to town. It is a perverse and wasteful way to regenerate that area of the capital by squandering money on facilities for which there is no long-term use and stuffing the mouths of developers and contractors with gold.

When all their other justifications turn to dust, the cheerleaders fall back, just as did the supporters of the dome, on the claim that the Games will be some sort of tonic for the nation's morale. The unfailingly optimistic Tessa Jowell proclaims that we should cheer for the Olympics because three million primary schoolchildren think they are going to be medal winners.

That's three million children who are going to be bloody disappointed, then.

When the French lost the Olympics, they were stunned and upset that they had come runners-up to Britain, almost as stunned and upset as those of us who never wanted these impoverishing Games in our city. France has a better record of making a reasonable fist of grand projets like this. In the French presidential elections, Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy will be competing to please French national pride. How about inviting Sego and Sarko to bid to take the Games off our hands? Just a thought. A better one, surely, than the idea of squandering ballooning billions on this benighted five-ring circus.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

RIP Fluff

Just to interrupt work-related blog silence to report on THE story of today. Goodbye, Fluff Freeman.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

MUSIC: Petula Clark - Blue Lady

BBC4, 17.11.06, 21.00

Whatever happened to her, then? Whatever happened to Pet Clark?

The questionable come-on of this hour-long show was to prove the arguable assertion that had happened to her, she was still just as big a star as a kiddie crooner or chansonneuse or epic-pop heroine, just a wee bit different. It didn't quite convince us either way (though locating her in any big-name agent's Rolodex would be a long haul); but it sure as hell faded away slowly and pitifully by its own terms.

Pet began, notoriously, as a Temple manqué, a Great British Garland, a trilling moppet, and hit the big time as Diana Dors' sister in Here Come The Huggetts (although seemingly a decade and several dozen or so bra sizes seemed to separate them, there was only a year's age difference). This was all dispatched smartly and with due attention to period charm and detail, as professionally as Pet might have perked and smirked her way through 'The Little Shoemaker'. It was TV as warm and comforting as Start-Rite shoes.

The show's most valuable segment was a rare lens for the casual browser into 1960s Continental pop and showbiz - Clark was a superstar in mainland Europe prior to the Beatlemaniac onslaught, and her husband, Claude Wolff, now a rubicund and jolly fellow with an accent as thick as Gauloises smoke, was a chunky A&R man resembling a swarthy Corsican heavy waiting for a Belmondo uppercut; she met him in Paris. British TV has always ghettoised francophone pop as overwrought, quavery melodrama à la Brel/Piaf or plinkyplonk banality à la Trenet. Here was at least the suggestion of an antidote to this received, and quite mistaken, wisdom.

Clark, at her best, was a superb if limited pop singer, boasting a mellifluous voice with perhaps too-open vowel sounds. Melodies and harmonies she'd learned from the chanson tradition were incorporated into her homeland material by the mid-60s, granting her material thst was robust enough to withstand the ravages of the moptop revolution. She was privileged to work with arrangers and musicians from Joe 'Mr Piano' Henderson to Tony Hatch who could conjure luxuriant and evocative chord changes as well as textures both soothing and stimulating.

Sadly, the classic epic pop of Pet's 1960s prime - 'Couldn't Live Without Your Love' and 'Downtown' (1966), for which most viewers surely would have tuned in, was relatively overlooked, although the co-authoress of those songs, Jackie Trent, appeared. Permatanned under a vanilla swirl of spun-sugar hair and as assertive as Les Dawson's old housewife caricature, she gave a sterling account of her own (substantial) contributions to some of the best pop of that, or any, decade. There was a blizzard of excellent footage, including a gooey video of a song recorded with Andy Williams that resembled a c.1970 Smirnoff ad shot through a Paisley filter.

An extraordinarily sad decline in the 1960s and 1970s was tackled at inordinate length and subjected to an almost Stalinist makeover. Apart from the assertion that 'bands' took over the late 1960s and 1970s, there was nothing to suggest that Clark found it very difficult to adapt. Her version of 'The In Crowd', heard here, has the emotional tenor of a Venn diagram. In fact, Clark's slow subsidence into the MOR schlock that was really the only refuge for a voice which, while precise and supple and lyrical, lacked attack, bite and soul - was apparently nothing of the sort, but a cunning plan to keep 'reinventing' herself. This patent nonsense reached its sidesplitting nadir in Paul Morley's suggestion that the anodyne sessions she recorded in Nashville (Blue Lady, 1975, from which the show took its title) and Memphis - where Clark desperately tried to hitch with the singer-songwriter bandwagons of King, Harris, Simon, Taylor et al - was hobbled not by lacklustre material or public indifference but by the fact that record companies found her 'too dangerous... too experimental'. Oh yeah? What next? 'Sussudio' as radical Deleuzeian manifesto? Terry Scott's 'I Like Birds' as ironic comment on sexism? As to the whys and wherefores of this 'danger' and 'experiment', we were given only a rationale only a little less vague than 'because I say so'. But that's postmodernism for you; everyone's point of view is valid, if you can get someone to publicise it.

Morley owes his career as a 'cultural commentator' to a late-70s vogue at the NME for a half-baked postmodern relativism, which enables one to have one's ideas accepted as fact if one shouts loud enough, obfuscates them with enough jargonistic prattle, or dupes suggestible editorial staff into giving it space. Alas, there are too many influential media people who grew up reading (or maybe writing) that rubbish who are still credulous enough to not only air it but pay its progenitors, no matter how cock-eyed the premise. Now, if you or I or 99.999% of the people reading this were to try selling the patently stupid idea that Uriah Heep's success in central Europe in the mid-1980s wasn't actually the last flail of a flatulent musical anachronism but actually a knowing exploration of their roots, we'd be laughed out of town. Morley and co can still get away with it, and Blue Lady is the sort of culpable show that allows them to do so merely to fill a few minutes of airtime.

Unintentionally, these encomia are as pathetic as the feelgood bromides one hears in This Is Spinal Tap to flimsily rewrite what is uncomfortable and embarrassing. If there's one thing worse about talking heads than Jamie Theakston pontificating on programmes shown five years prior to his birth, it's the likes of Morley - or rather his employers - peddling this kind of intellectual fraud.

Things got weirder, though. Even more problematic was the curious preoccupation with Clark's absence from the mainstream. The last British hit of any size (notwithstanding a 1988 remix of 'Downtown') was in 1967. There was an awful lot of poppycock talked about that deplorable word 'reinvention' (sullied forever by its constant association with fatuous apologists for Madonna), much in the way that washed-up thesps bluster about 'developing new ideas' or moving to Australia or appearing in Doctors. The bottom line for all 'reinventions' is this; showbiz stars go where the money goes, point. Artistic fancy, pace those interviewed here, rarely comes into it.

But among all the dodgy speculations and punts and half-baked opinions, there was one lulu that sank the whole enterprise below the waterline, a candidate for flimsiest historical judgement of the year, a green-ink scribble from the playbook of the kookiest conspiracy theorist. It was that Clark's (long-forgotten) 70s recordings with the producer Arif Mardin effectively prefigured Norah Jones' debut album. The fact that thirty years divided the two efforts mattered not; the producer of both albums was Arif Mardin. QED (apparently).

Clark today seems happy, fulfilled, admirably centred, rich, content - she does musicals now - but are these productions not footnotes to a glorious heyday, and to be treated as such, rather than as a subsidiary happy ending to a career path that available evidence suggests has - fairly or otherwise - sloped gradually downwards? No - we got a full ten minutes plus on this or that forgettable production and an exposition from Pet herself about getting inside the role of Norma Desmond in Lloyd-Webber's Sunset Boulevard (now there's a man in need of publicity). It was not inconceivable that Clark, far more than the makers of this slowly wilting hagiography which grew lame and old and irrelevant at a rate of knots, recognised the mirror the Desmond role held up to her own advancing years and receding gifts.

Yes, Pet's still out there, still a pro, still a trouper, still a treasure, after 60 years. After 60 minutes, alas, Blue Lady was pretty much washed up. Pet's star diminished by degrees but never quite lost our attention and shines on. This tribute's candle burned out long before the legend ever did.

SPORTIN' LIFE; Let the Debacle Commence - Postscript

Or possibly one of a series of postscripts.

I made a serious error in my aforementioned post a fortnight or so ago, citing possible London 2012 overspends of 100 million or 200 million. What I actually meant was 100 and 200%. To the 0 people that placed bets, my sincere apologies.

Well, looks like even that forecast might be whimsically optimistic. 2.4bn is now looking like 10bn... or 20bn... or... hey, pick a figure, any figure. Whoever wins can finance the whole thing themselves! Hurrah!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Service Disruption

To all the countless thousands who devour my every word onm this, please be patient. I've a particularly onerous assignment coming up. Posts may be few and far between. There may be something about Ferenc Puskas coming up soon, or maybe a self-stirring coffee mug or Howard Goodall's new music show on C4 but bear with me, people. Try and make it without me for a bit.

MUSIC: Vangelis as Progressive Rocker - Draft Essay

Vangelis prog? Hard to argue against it. Whyever should he not be? I sometimes think that cognoscenti place him outside the pale - without denigrating his talents - because he and Yes didn't hit it off. Whether that's true or not is superfluous, because the case is an open-and-shut one, surely. Vangelis is prog - albeit, at worst, at one remove.

A tougher nut to crack would be those - Mr Papathanassiou at their head - who would define Vangelis as a virtual one-man genre, defying all classification. He has refined his hybridising of influences and working methods to such a degree that he almost resembles the Borg - part humanoid, part machine, relentlessly absorbing and processing forever in its own multifaceted, kaleidoscopic image. Jazz, symphonic, folk of all kinds, pop, electronic - it all ends up sounding like Vangelis. As Alan White perceptively put it many, many years ago; 'he was an entity, a sound, and that... was called Vangelis'.

And let's be honest - is there anyone who has a sound, a sonic footprint, remotely like his? Since that ill-fated Yes encounter, he has made only one serious musical collaboration with another artist, the Spanish electronic merchants Neuronium, in 1981.Believe me, I've been looking for another Vangelis over 20 years and haven't found anyone yet. I remember that many moons past Kitaro was billed as 'the new Vangelis' when Polydor and Kuckuck were first marketing his LPs in the West. Very, very borderline case; only a faint spicing of ethno-exotica, too many synths and some catchy tunes linked the two men. Kitaro never ventured within a country mile of Vangelis's sterner stuff, the likes of the impressive Beaubourg, the lengthy extemporisations of Soil Festivities and China, not to mention entirely missing the Greek's uncanny talent for atmospheres on Blade Runner and Kavafy. One possible comparison might be Russia's Eduard Artemiev, whose film scores, particularly Solaris and Stalker are vaguely Vangeloid in nature.

Perhaps the best and closest analogue is, tellingly, Jon Anderson's Olias of Sunhillow, which mysteriously credits Vangelis, although most intelligence suggests the Greek never played on the album. Listening to this quite unique artefact, not to mention the pair's four-album collaboration, it's hard to credit that Vangelis didn't do a bit more than suggest what hardware to buy and fit a few pick-ups. Sunhillow is - I am sure nobody would disagree - quite unlike anything else not only in prog, but in popular music per se. Apart from perhaps - you've guessed it - Vangelis. And is Sunhillow prog? I rather think it is.

Vangelis's Heaven and Hell appeared in January 1976 - with Anderson guesting on one track - and the album's modus operandi appears to be similar to that of Olias - which, thanks to a host of technical problems, would have come out considerably earlier than its eventual June 1976 release. That m.o. is simply to utilise available technology (and analogue synthesisers were undergoing what was eventually to become the polyphonic and then digital revolution) and combine it with an array of traditional acoustic instruments of all kinds to enable a true synthesis of styles at all levels, both in terms of compositional and improvisational conception of tone and textural colour, but also of practice. Put simply, it meant the conception of Yes music circa 1974 taken to its technical and harmonic extremes. It sounds high-flown and a bit silly - and of course it doesn't always work. There are some quite hair-raisingly overblown pieces of nonsense on Heaven and Hell. Side one in particular starts with one of the most vulgar pieces of wannabe-rock-oratorio ever committed to vinyl (the choral writing throughout is laughably naive, almost as crude as the diabolically kitsch cover art), but the album gradually emerges; side two is excellent from start to finish, preferring to concentrate on atmosphere than flatulent, empty gestures. Albedo 0.39, from later in '76, contains the incongruously insane jazz-prog workout Nucleogenesis, eight minutes of shrieking moogs and Animal drumming (the album as a whole has as much to do with mid-70s Pink Floyd as Yes, and the inclusion of found sound and human voices throughout his work harks back to this LP). This, it must be conceded, is an exception to the Vangelis rule (I know - I own 35 of his albums. I'm sorry, but there you are). Part of the problem for prog purists - and it's not an invalid objection - is that any music driven not by audibly human input - i.e. electronics - must in some way be beyond a given conception of rock popularised in the late 1960s. It doesn't feel right, man, is the motto. Some of those commercially cheesy, coffee-table tunes - step forward, Chariots of Fire - haven't helped either. What's more, Da Big V doesn't play live (much. But when he has done the shows have been so extravagant they make ELP look like a pub band).

Furthermore, there's little doubt from there on Vangelis preferred to concentrate on a symphonic conception of sound based on 19th-century orchestral practice, as opposed to anything to do with rock. Up to and including Spiral (1977), there are attempts to mimic electric guitars and basses; henceforward, scarcely ever, except on the stupendously weird dog's dinner of an album See You Later (1980). The tunes, and ABA song structures still crop up, but the overall thinking behind the music gradually became more and more diffuse, more and more referential to itself first and its manifold influences second.

Yeah, yeah. But the fact remains - none of Vangelis' music could have happened without prog. In terms of the technical kit required for its creation - not to mention a climate of transgression of the boundaries of musical conception and thought, prog was and is central to Vangelis. He is a satellite of the genre, true, but remains firmly within its gravitational field. He's out there - any proghead worth his salt should embrace him into their orbits, too.

Vangelis starter pack:
Heaven and Hell
Albedo 0.39
See You Later (side 2)

Thursday, November 16, 2006 it draws in...

"... it was not till summer was long over, and cold and frost and miry ways kept them much indoors, and the swollen river raced past outside their windows with a speed that mocked at boating of any sort or kind... in the wintertime the Rat slept a great deal, retiring early and rising late. During his short day he sometimes scribbled poetry or did other small domestic jobs around the house..."

Kenneth Grahame may have been given to whimsy (not Kingsleyesque, but...)... nonetheless late autumn and early winter in England have rarely been so neatly observed as in chapters 3 and 4 of The Wind in the Willows.

This morning, the Afon Llwyd, not much fuller than yesterday, hurrying faster, to escape that gunmental mountain sky for the jaundice sunshine over the Bristol Channel? And - yes -no - yes! - a wren! Really, incongruously, shyly, a darting wren amongst a hedgrerow's ivy, even in November.

Even when it is cold - perhaps when it is coldest of all - I crave the shelter of a little place in the woods or the fields. This is when silence is heaviest and most enjoyable. Maybe a secure and well-hidden old caravan, a little generator and a one-bar fire, a book, lots of woollen blankets, a torch, soup, soap and water.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Review: The Cult Of... Adam Adamant Lives!

BBC4, 14.11.06, 20.30

I've been trying to dig up the past. For some reason, Gerald Harper, the star of BBC1's Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-7) was referred to in my family as 'Old Lemonade-Bottle Shoulders'; after a few years nobody could remember why. Nobody can today. And it bothers me.

Especially because that 'why' recurred watching the first in a highly-promising BBC4 series of half-hour histories of cult fantasy TV that kicked off with a tribute to the titular hero. And kept on recurring, because just what was it about such an obvious dogs' dinner of a programme that could inspire memorious devotion? At a recent BFI preview screening of a new Adamant DVD, Juliet Harmer, the series' jiggle factor and one of the great lost 60s starlets, was asked how much fan mail she'd received way back when. 'Oh, masses - mostly from 14 year old boys,' she admitted. 'All of whom are here tonight,' quipped her husband. No disrespect to the astonishingly well-preserved Ms Harmer but if any of those grown-up boy fans went away from the screening of a rather awful old programme with their juices flowing as freely as 40 years ago, they were en route to a secure ward.

This hardworking tribute's commendable balance of seriousness and dry humour transcended most other retro-clipjoints insofar as it allowed those involved to make a case for their work, and a reasonably good fist they made of it. But, crucially, not quite good enough a fist. Because Harper's Adam Adamant came across resoundingly as the dud history has always held him to be, and for once one didn't need the ambassadors of the bleeding obvious (Theakston, Maconie) to tell us why.

For the tinies, a brief recap; in 1902 Edwardian gent, detective and adventurer Adam Adamant is double-crossed by fiancée, frozen in a block of ice and then dug up in swinging London by cloth-capped labourers, whereupon his travails on adapting to modern mores and morals go hand in hand with his resumption of doing the Right Thing, offing cads and thwarting dastards (as scriptwriter Brian Clemens wryly pointed out, "just a simple enough storyline"). There is a suggestion that the absence of almost all sexual chemistry from the programme (Harmer's character 'Georgina Jones' was always Adamant's platonic friend) was an attempt to gag Mary Whitehouse's ever-rising gorge with a clean, Sexton Blake-esque hero for the times - although this doubtless didn't mean that Kleenex didn't do very well out of adolescent fantasies about Juliet Harmer. As per the look of the show, all the cliché boxes were ticked in short order; predictably Art Nouveau-ish titles and typefaces, given Carnaby Street's burgeoning obsessions with hyper-stylised turn of the century chic; Harper was a proto-metrosexual, Wyngardesque fop; obligatory Mini; there are discothéques; pop art ensigns and Union Jacks; and a visual language informed by maybe one too many Nouvelle Vague nights and De Sica specials down the Arts Lab.

But the most important thing about Adam Adamant was the elephant in the room called The Avengers.

The genial and personable Harmer, Clemens, Harper and producer Verity Lambert all owned up to the clunking obviousness of the series' hamfisted and, in retrospect, laughable attempt to trump ABC's masterpiece. Even an otherwise impartial and unironic script compared the two shows thus: 'Edwardian gent teamed with beautiful girl... and Edwardian gent teamed with beautiful girl', the unspoken tag, of course, was that The Avengers had queered this pitch three years previously.

By this time the narrator had all but given up; The Avengers was 'sexier, slicker', i.e. better-funded... which made one wonder why on earth we were watching a show about a show which was playing against a stacked deck from the start. But it was worth watching, a kind of TV autopsy on a patient who is still alive. Clemens and Lambert tried to limit the damage, but when one compared the surviving Adamant footage - too few cameras, too much flare, bad stock, shoestring lighting, school-pageant swordplay -with the sleekness of Emma and Steed, one knew the game was pretty much up. To 'get' even a fraction of the premise behind Adamant, suspension of disbelief had to be as entire as the leading man's cryogenic immersion. As Clemens said, 'where did Adam learn to drive that Mini?' We never found out. One could equally have asked 'where in the name of God did that ridiculous name come from?' No wonder the guy was so good at fighting; in 1902, he must have copped a lot of diss for a handle like that.

Clemens and the ever-enjoyable sci-fi expert and allround good egg Kim Newman (who seems to be turning into Walter Becker out of Steely Dan) tried another tack; stressing the show's 'weirdness'; but evidence of this, aside of a premise so hair-raisingly daft that for a viewer to assimilate the absurdity of Adamant's situation per se was to intrude on the drama of an individual episode, we saw few examples save for a flimsy generic grooviness as ultimately empty as The Mod Squad's. Tellingly, the tribute did not trail a 'classic episode' because on the evidence here one suspects that there weren't any. There were, apparently, no storylines of landmark mindfuckery. No Fall Out, no They Keep Killing Steed. But how else? Production values were feeble, 13 shows assembled in as many weeks, the sort of schedule that would keep Crackerjack going but not a prestige prime-time thriller. Even Harmer came close to admitting the self-defeating stupidity of such a scheduling situation.

Clemens summoned the 'best pop music... fashion... football... in the world' from a lucky-bag of 60s shibboleths, as though to lend the programme reflected glory simply by the period in which it was made. Actually Adam Adamant came across as a 60s remnant as cheap and inglorious as the Tracked Hovercraft or Ronan Point.

The jarring and unsettling undercurrent of nauseous paranoia informs all the best British postwar film amd TV fantasy (Quatermass, Danger Man, The Prisoner, The Avengers) in which the very stones and mortar of civic normalcy, stability, propriety and sobriety (government 'facilities', army camps, deer parks, embassies, Ministries) become in true Amazing Stories fashion, loci of the irrational, surreal and downright scary. This is absent from Adam Adamant Lives. There are no megalomaniacs on the London Underground or robotic assassins in chalk quarries on the north Downs. The very fact that a son of luxury and indulgence was reborn into a similarly luxurious and indulgent world of supposed dippiness and discontinuities, all neon and mandrax and Woodbines and kohl and indulgence (where's the Floyd? Is that Syd there? or is it Jeff Beck?), somehow distances him from us, as it must have done four decades past. Dr Who could bring aliens to mining communities; what did Adam Adamant ever do to relate his swashbuckling to those gawping at six-inch screens in Mexborough or Abertillery?

Postwar Britons appreciated classic screen fantasy when it promiscuously impinged on their quotidian realities. One of the most chilling sequences in British cinema history opens the Wyndham-derived The Village of the Damned (1960) in which the only indication of lurking horror is a little Bedford coach skew-wiff in a ditch on a grave-silent mist-filled country lane where even birds are holding their breath - and the paralysis that noiselessly fells anyone who strays near. There is a shadow of the unknown and shocking, somewhere... as in the ETA Hoffmann story of the semi-supernatural Scarbo from the Nachtstücke (Night Tales), we are not quite sure of this terror, 'how it had got in' to an otherwise ordinary existence, the monster under every child's bed come uncannily to life.

Similarly, The War Game knew what it was about, using comparable juxtapositions of the everyday (repointed suburban brickwork, school playgrounds) and the unthinkable. Adamant's existence in swinging London was anything but ordinary for most Britons. Fantasy, benign or malign, works best when it has a base and earthbound antipode against which to shine.

Adam Adamant Lives wasn't a disaster, an abortion, a tragedy, an OTT. It was just rather sad and bad (even the theme song was rendered by the washed-up Kathy Kirby). But no matter; if we do not experience the mistakes of the past, how can we expect to learn from them? And of course, by the end of this series, Mr Harper's creation could end up looking like a colossus. Because next up come Survivors, Doomwatch, Starcops (erm...), Blakes 7 (oh dear) and (swallows hard) The Tripods... gulp. Sell those and you'll truly be a man, my son.

Angus McIntyre, the man who both produced and directed this splendid and affectionate attempt at rehab, is to be roundly congratulated; from the most unpromising seam he has unearthed a valuable piece of TV history, a programme of questionable value which nonetheless provokes comment and discussion. Nobody has yet been able to make a series about failed cult comedy shows, for example; Hardwick House, The Continuous Diaries of Ian Breakwell, They Came From Somewhere Else, Nightingales, Big Jim and the Figaro Club, Trinity Tales. In other words, with this disinterment McIntyre has pulled off an intelligent coup for TV archaeology which should spawn imitators and for all those who care or think about the genre, a goldmine. Let the excavations commence.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Sunday, November 12, 2006

MUSIC: Hey Mr Conductor 5

Fancy a different Christmas? Well, it's too late now to assemble a large orchestra, organist, four choirs and SATB soloists but pencil this one in for the future - part one of Liszt's mammoth oratorio Christus is one of the most Christmassy things in the repertoire.

Begun in 1861, the 180-minute monster, a neo-Romantic updating of the Messiah which apparently inspired Mahler's Eighth wasn't completed by the Abbe Liszt until 1873 and wasn't performed very often (duh). It's a shame; basically alternating beautifully orchestrated tone-poems with elongated acappella choral passages, it's some of the most wonderful music Liszt ever wrote. The first part is full of light orchestral textures, harp and woodwind and daintily skipping rhythms. Nothing too frivolous, mind, depicting the shepherds and the three kings on their way to Bethlehem. But the harmonies are full of not only reverence but almost childlike expectation and anticipation, as though every star in that black sky is blinking with eagerness at what's going on down below. The Stabat Mater speciosa setting is gentle, modestly passionate, makes Rutter sound like Ferneyhough on a bad day. Quite beautiful; one for very late nights, mince pies, Sauternes, and distant church bells as the midnight frost comes down. Helmuth Rilling's Stuttgart recording from 1997 is the most recent; Conlon and Forrai have also braved this mighty edifice, but the killer recording, for this writer is Antal Dorati, taking it in such an architectonic way that makes you yearn to hear what he could have done with Bruckner and Mahler.

More festive fun to sing next time, folks!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

SPORTIN' LIFE: Let the Debacle Commence

The Olympics will ruin London, hike taxes and rob the national lottery. Is it too late to give them back?

Wednesday November 8, 2006
The Guardian

We should seriously be thinking about giving the 2012 Olympic games back, before it is too late. It's all very well to say that it will be all right on the night, but that's now looking increasingly unlikely. Tessa Jowell's performance in the Commons on Monday confirmed that there already exists a state of mild chaos.
It is almost unbelievable that the VAT liability for the games was not clarified before the costs were drawn up. The background is rather murky, but it seems that someone at the Treasury gave someone else an assurance that VAT would not be levied on the construction and other costs of staging the games. It now appears that the Treasury, perhaps even the chancellor himself, is saying that VAT will have to be paid after all because - here it comes again, the usual excuse when no one knows what's really going on - European Union rules insist on it.

It has been estimated that this may add £1bn to the costs- or possibly only £250m, depending on whom you ask to pluck a figure out of the air. But no one seems to know how much the total bill is to be. It is a major issue that "we are working through" said Jowell; "Work is still continuing to finalise the budget," a spokesman for her department explained. What we know for certain is that the cost estimates are already a lot more than the figures that were bandied about only last year. And that they will be a lot, lot higher as we approach 2012. We can safely assume - following many precedents, of which I need name only two, the Scottish parliament and Wembley stadium - that costs will rise quickly, inexorably, and by a large multiplicand of the original estimate.
To pay for this folly, London will be nearly bankrupted, the national lottery will have to be robbed (thus taking funds away from many good causes), and taxes will have to be raised (or services diminished).

But let us assume for a moment that we are willing to pay the exorbitant price for the glory of being allowed to stage the games - and to continue paying for decades after, as every other city that has taken on the games has been forced to do. What makes us believe that we can get everything ready in time? Years of delay didn't matter with Wembley or the Scottish parliament. They didn't have deadlines. But 2012 is a real date. You can't postpone the Olympics, or move it to Cardiff, like the cup final.

Wembley was just one stadium. The games require several new sports complexes to be built from scratch, new transport links to be laid, and many infrastructural improvements to be made. Why is it thought - against all recent precedent - that big sophisticated British constructions can be finished on time? Whenever I mention Wembley in support of my pessimism, I'm told, "That's different, and anyway, we've learned a lesson." The details may be different, but the potentially explosive ingredients - including contractual disputes and workforce attitudes - are still around. I'm often confronted with another, somewhat patronising argument: "If Greeks can do it for Athens, surely we can do it just as well, if not better?" Wrong. London is bigger and far more complicated than Athens, needs more new buildings and more protection.

In one sense, the biggest blow to the games came the day after it was awarded to London, with the July 7 bombings. Had the outrage taken place a couple of days earlier, London would not have won. Fears over security would have taken votes away. Paris would have had the games, and I can't imagine that the city's plans and ideas, 16 months on, would have been in as much uncertainty as London's are now.

The security issue will affect the future of the games in two ways - cost (of security measures and people) and enjoyment. I wasn't too worried at first: 2012 was many years away and surely, by then, we would be living in a relatively safe capital. Not so, apparently. We are constantly being told by police, government and an assortment of experts that London is a prime target for terrorism and will remain so for a long time. Imagine then, getting around a London filled, not only with more visitors than it has ever held before, but with a network of security devices and personnel never before assembled in any capital city. That hellish vision assumes that we will get as far as actually holding the games.

The games organisers did a good thing in bringing in Jack Lemley, renowned for delivering large projects under budget and on time; but he has now resigned, because (being American, he didn't quite put it this way) everyone was faffing around, talking and not getting down to the business of building. Jowell did nothing to dispel the feeling of slightly complacent muddle-throughism. That's not good enough.

Of course there is not the slightest chance that London will relinquish its spot. The loss of face would be too great, multiplied several times by the knowledge that Paris is smirkingly ready to take over. That would be one humiliation too far. Instead, I fear that London - Britain - will be the subject of other humiliations - of unfinished structures, strikes, transport delays, crashing computers, quarrels with security guards and anger at rip-off prices; above all, of the London Olympic games, if they do take place, being less than a glittering success.
BLOGGER'S NOTE- ANY BETS? 100 million overspend? 200million? Roll up, roll up.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Onion, 7.11.06

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Are British Youth The Worst?... Yes, for now

That's the title from today's Observer. I could subtitle it, Why I Want to Marry Agnes Poirier, who wrote one of the best articles of the year so far.

Is British youth the worst? Yes... for now

French youngsters may be rude, but they're only 10 years away from matching Britain's teens

Agnes Poirier
Sunday November 5, 2006
The Observer

The latest think-tank report on British teenagers behaving badly, so badly they top the league of worst behaving youth in the Western world, makes irresistible reading for the French chauvinist. Irresistible because, by contrast, French teenagers reveal themselves as the best behaved (alongside Italians and Portuguese).

In short, French 15-year-olds fight less (38 per cent compared with 44 per cent of British 15-year-olds), binge-drink far less (3 per cent to 27 per cent), seem less sexually promiscuous (22 per cent to 38 per cent) and when they are, they use condoms more (82 per cent to 70 per cent). They eat more with their parents (89 per cent to 64 per cent) and hardly hang out with friends on weekday evenings (17 per cent to 45 per cent).

Having said that, I never thought that French teenagers were particularly well-behaved. On the whole, they still seem today the way we were 15 years ago: moody, awkward and serious, with little social flair. Our expression skills varied from a shrug to a puff to raised eyebrows, to all kinds of body gestures accompanied by sounds of one to two syllables, such as bof, mouais, putain, super

Though not particularly articulate, we were, however, craving the attention of adults. In our book, adulthood was super-cool. We couldn't wait to be older and do what adults did: talk for hours, argue theatrically over politics, make up over a good meal, smoke, wear glasses, stay up all night over the issue of lost love, take to the streets, call riot police names and go to cafes.

As early as 13, we would mimic adults by falling desperately in love, pretending to embrace lost causes, battling over abstractions to which we understood rien de rien, practising to say the word non with conviction in front of our mirror, ingurgitating espresso by the bucket and puffing on our cigarette-holders without inhaling.

Why were we fighting in the streets, while wearing our best polo-neck for which we had saved for months? Why were we drinking, when we needed a clear head to write love letters? Why were we having sex, when we knew we should make suitors wait and drool? Why were we having a takeaway (it hardly existed then) with friends, when Dad's pot-au-feu was à se damner (worth selling your soul to the Devil for)?

We were serious Parisian poseurs. When I say 'we', don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about a little clique: it was a time when social segregation hadn't overwhelmed us. It was a homogenous 'we' from all creeds and social origins. We represented a democracy of mildly rude French adolescent tosseurs

Today, however, a different portrait of youth in the west is emerging and if, according to the report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, 'Freedom's Orphans: Raising Youth in a Changing World', teenagers from Latin European countries still behave differently, they are closely following in their British friends' steps. Soon, in France, too, social class will be the most powerful indicator of behaviour. The riots in France a year ago seem to have heralded this new age in which children's personal and social development depends entirely on their parents' profession or, worse, on the state of their bank accounts.

British society can appear extreme. Seated at a cafe in London, I remember hearing the voice of a 10-year-old boy: 'Papa, would you be so kind as to pass the salt?' I turned my head, bewildered. The little Lord Fauntleroy caricature went on complementing the waitress for her cup-juggling skills in the most sweet and charming way, but with that unbearable classist touch.

A few days later, I had to fend off a 'you fucking cunt, innit' breed of teenager on a night bus. If a child could absorb frighteningly elaborate social skills, he could also be reduced to insulting people as a way of interacting with them, with school, it seems, unable to correct either bias. Hooligans or clever clogs: we have started experiencing a similarly increasing social divide in France.

But who are the culprits? All of us who refuse to grow up and take responsibility. The parents, who, in a time of cosmetic surgery hysteria and national binge-drinking, refuse to act like adults, let alone look their age. All of us who refuse to be serious, who dress like teenagers and adopt their jargon. Why would children look up to silly behaving adults? Why should children respect adults whose motto seems to have become: go shopping and be happy?

The frantic consumerism of British society has turned children into clients, not citizens. Now brands, on which they rely more and more to get a sense of identity, provide their set of values. Tell me what you bought yesterday and I'll tell you who you are and what you believe in.

As with most things, France is 10 years behind Britain. Let's savour the little time we have left during which young and old continue to share views, meals and take to the streets together to defend ideals, rather than the right to shop.