Sunday, 4 December 2016

The Love Cat is a tease

While I keep returning to prog rock and musical poetry, my most enduring favourite music genre is pop music. But especially pop music when it is as poppy and catchy as Abba or the Monkees, but played with a bit of bounce, a bit of edge and preferably a rather cooler image. There are plenty of examples from the 50s to the current day, but the most perfect examples come from the new wave era, with its spiky riffs and sparky attitude. Things like Sound of the Suburbs by The Members and Ever Fallen In Love (The Buzzcocks). Examples from other eras but almost identical in genre to my ear would be the early Kinks hits from 1964 and Decent Days and Nights, The Futureheads splendid minor hit from 2004, in which the kazoo part is the shiny sixpence in the christmas pud.

But perhaps the most perfect example and, for me, one of the most quintessential pop songs ever recorded, is The Lovecats by pop genius Robert Smith's The Cure. Pop genius because he released 40 singles in the 30 years from 1978, all but 6 of them achieving a chart position. As well as Lovecats (number 7 in 1983) the other top 10 hits were Lullaby (1989), High and Friday I'm In Love (both 1992).

We saw The Cure at Manchester Arena on Tuesday evening. Smith has a devoted following, a non-trivial number of whom dress and style their hair just like him - a style that looks rather as if you've just been dug up from the cemetery, a friend remarked. There were at least as many dopplegangers mimicking the main man's  hairstyle as you see at a Paul Weller gig. Though I did smirk at the chap who, along with his knee length shiny boots, appeared not to be wearing drainpipe trousers so much as actual drainpipes.

It was a good gig but Smith, who has little stage presence (but still 1000% more than Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds, the least charismatic well-known front man we've seen) is a tease. The main part of the set lasted 80 minutes or so, with the 16 songs including a run of 4 of The Cure's better known songs in the middle, in particular the tremendous Lovesong which reached number 2 in the US charts in 1989. They then shuffled off, returning with an "encore" of A Forest, their 2nd single, much played by John Peel before their big breakthrough. They returned again to play a lesser known song with the audience not exactly bringing the roof down. After quite a delay, they returned to reel off 5 of their most poppy efforts, all well known and including their biggest hit Lullaby and the equally well known Friday I'm In Love and Close To You, leaving the place bouncing.

So they kept us waiting. And, disappointingly, they didn't play The Lovecats. To be fair it probably wouldn't sound right with electric rather than string bass, but I'd have liked to hear it re-interpreted.

Smith has a reputation for knowing his own mind and being outspoken: comments he has made to journalists about Morrissey and Bono didn't pull any punches. He doesn't hang out with other well known musicians and is married to his girlfriend from his schooldays. You have to take him as he wants you to find him.

I'm left with Lovesong on a permanent replay in my head for a few days yet. It's not easy to write good love songs, or any ballads actually and Smith's produced quite a few gems, including this one. You can see a super video of it at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ks_qOI0lzho. And no, Smith didn't get specially made up like a vampire for the video: that's his everyday appearance.

A very unique talent.

P.S. according to setlist.fm he did play The Lovecats at Wembley a couple of nights later. But only on one the first of 3 nights there and they were longer sets - probably a later curfew. But I'm still feeling cheated.....

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Good luck Nord

I was pleased to see Gareth Southgate get the England job. I think the England manager should be English and he has served a decent apprenticeship. People say he failed at Middlesbro but they were well positioned in the Championship when he got the boot. And he has done well with the young England age groups. He seems to be an intelligent and thoughtful chap. It won't be long before the honeymoon is over, but I hope England stick with him through at least two tournaments (the next World Cup and Euros) and allow him to learn on the job. After all, we've tried big name foreign coaches (Eriksson and Capello) and it hasn't worked. So what's there to lose? After all, there isn't exactly a queue of experienced English managers available.

And the reason? It's not just that the big clubs only go for foreign managers (after all, would that be racist?) There is something rotten at the heart of our game and I'm not referring to the abuse of young players. We have gone badge mad - it takes four and a half years minimum for a pro footballer to progress from level 2 (they are exempt from level 1) to a UEFA Pro licence. And it costs £4885, though only £1034 in Spain and £457 in Germany. Probably as a result we have only 203 qualified coaches in England, compared to 5,500 in Germany and 12,720 in Spain. And to what avail? Curtis Woodhouse, who played for 8 different Football League clubs and has had success managing non-league clubs, says many former players have given up trying to get a management job. They have spent time and money ticking all the boxes, but can't even get an interview. He says a former England international has applied for 27 jobs and not had one interview in 3 years, so has gone into another line of work. How can there be a conveyor belt of future candidates when so few experienced pros can get a job, even if they want to do so, rather than go for media opportunities?

As Martin Samuel said, we can't really bemoan that there aren't plenty of English candidates for the England job - the FA are lucky to have found one. So let's hope he does well and it encourages others to get a chance.

Southgate revealed his nickname as a junior footballer in the memoir of his playing career, co-written by David Walsh (aka Lance Armstrong's troll), called "Woody and Nord - a football friendship". Southgate only wanted to have the autobiography written if it told the story not just of his career but of his best friend as an apprentice at Crystal Palace, Andy Woodman. While Southgate went on to play for a succession of Premiership Clubs, Woodman, after being released on the day Palace were promoted, shuffled around the lower divisions. The story of a friendship that endured as two wildly divergent careers progressed gave an insight into the national game, from the staggering money and prestige of the Premier League to the precarious living and hard knocks of the then Nationwide League. Walsh has said that the best bits in the book were sections that Southgate penned himself.

Oh, of course Woodman was called "Woody", so Southgate was called "Nord" because the scholarly teenager reminded his team-mates of TV presenter Dennis Norden.

Good luck Nord - you'll need it.

2nd and 3rd para above draw on Martin Samuel's Daily Mail column on 14 November.


Sunday, 27 November 2016

Strictly respect for Ed

I never had much time for Ed Balls as a politician, though we all ought to be eternally grateful to him for frigging Gordon Brown's 5 rules to make sure we didn't join the euro. But despite that, his ridiculous "flatlining" gesture to Cameron and Osborne in the Commons whenever they rose to speak, repeated ad infinitum and long after it became clear post 2010 that the economy was growing - and in due course at quite a lick -  was tiresome in the extreme.

So I had no great expectations for how he would move his lardy figure around the Strictly Come Dancing dancefloor. But he was a revelation. My other half and I know how difficult it is to keep time and dance the steps without plodding, but balletic arm movements and acting are another thing altogether. The judges marks were a poor reflection of his significant dance achievements. But the entertainment value, at least until his rather awful tango when he finally went out of the competition, was immense. Funny because it was good, not like John Sergeant, Ann Widdecome, Greg Wallace or Scott Mills who were just bad.

What was most impressive was how Ed was so much fun but also dignified. Not an easy combination. And he responded just as well to going out of the competition as to the enormously bigger blow of losing his parliamentary seat. So respect.

Not only that but we also saw Ed's wife, Yvette Cooper, in a new light. I always thought she seemed a rather miserable individual but the amount of joy she took from Ed's performance gladdened our hearts.

Whether Ed can realistically make a return to front line politics - even if he wants to - rather than moving on to I'm A Celebrity, seems doubtful. A Portillo-esque media career seems more likely. But Lord knows Labour need him. After all, back in the day, Dennis Healey and Roy Hattersley, both Ed Balls figures in more than one way, stuck it out to see off the hard left. Wouldn't it have been strange if they'd gone off dancing while Michael Meacher (the nearest equivalent I can think of to Jeremy Corbyn as an unlikely leader of the Labour party) had become leader of the Opposition?

We live in strange times.

Credit when due - BBC get the balance right

The BBC radio news bulletins yesterday headlined on the death of Fidel Castro.

Castro famously tried to get his country annihilated in a few nano-seconds by egging on Kruschev to go for a nuclear first strike attack against the USA from Cuba in 1962, despite Kruschev pointing out that the Cuban people would have perished.

So instead of turning Cuba to dust quickly he adopted policies that did almost the same but slowly and progressively (to use a favourite word of the left). Yes there was free education and healthcare but that is of little comfort when there is rationing and poverty all around.

The BBC chose to have Jeremy Corbyn prominent in their bulletins, eulogising Castro for his achievements. This was followed by the newsreader's deadpan delivery about the large number of Cubans killed by Castro to defend his tyrannical regime and the lack of freedom of speech.

It was brilliant radio. Perfectly balanced and extremely funny I thought. Whether that was the editor's intention one can only guess. It certainly kippered Corbyn: an easy target yes, but I hadn't noticed the BBC hitting that bulls-eye so precisely previously.

In case you haven't read or heard it, Corbyn said "For all his flaws........he will be remembered both as an internationalist and a champion of social justice" and praised Castro for building "a world-class health and education system". He acknowledged "there were problems and there are problems of excesses by all regimes" but "we have to look at the thing in its totality" and Mr Castro had "seen off a lot of US presidents". Former Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith said the reason Mr Castro "'saw off' so many US presidents is because they're democratically elected".

I also heard Ken Livingstone making almost as much of a prize tit of himself, but that would be because he is almost as much of a prize tit as Corbyn. But though we laugh at these people - as we must - it is worth remembering that Mr Corbyn seems to think a country's leader, once in power, is entitled to remain in power until he dies. Not funny at all, really.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Stop calling my friends racists

"These second-referendum people puzzle me. If at some point you hope to persuade Leavers to defect, why call them thickos who fell for propaganda and lies? Why try to ban their newspapers, blame them collectively for Jo Cox’s death? Why tell them they are low-lifes and oldsters who hopefully will soon die? Doesn’t sound very persuasive to me."

So said Janice Turner in the Times today. The thrust of her piece was that liberal-minded folk in the UK and USA could stay in their safe spaces, no-platforming anyone who has a different point of view, pressuring businesses to try to get them to stop advertising in the "right wing press" (which unfortunately customers of said businesses read) and refusing to engage. They can stay pure, stay aloof and stay out of power for ever. Or they can listen, engage and try to understand. I imagine she feels this just might lead to a revised, coherent and appealing package of ideas and policies which could persuade and influence "our compatriots, who are the same mix of good and bad they were before June 23".

It didn't sound like she was holding her breath and neither am I. I expect the dialogue of the deaf will go on for some time yet, at least while the Remainers see the chance of thwarting Brexit by one rearguard tactic or another. And if they succeed? Well, there will be an equivalent howl of rage and dialogue of the deaf, won't there?

I can see only a divisive and divided future ahead just now. And I do resent my friends, a clear majority of whom voted Leave and none of whom regret it, being called racists when they are not.

Janice Turner, Liberal minds have snapped shut like clams: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/comment/liberal-minds-have-snapped-shut-like-clams-bwxxkg38f

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Christmas has come early - what will the new year bring?

In the 3 months to Sept unemployment fell by 37,000 to a ten-year low. But 95% of the new jobs went to immigrants, mainly from the EU. I imagine companies are filling roles quickly while they can. And the economy is going well - but that growth is clearly being fueled by immigrant workers. Nevertheless it is going well. Consumers are behaving as if it was Christmas already: October sales were up 7.4% on October 2015. It was the best single month in over 14 years.

So was Project Fear wrong or is it just pain delayed? Well, in terms of immediate impacts, it was clearly wrong. Inflation surprisingly took a turn down, though most commentators think it could get uglier come January, driven by the exchange rate, when price fix deals run out I suppose. But the large retailers seem to have some appetite for finding ways of keeping prices in check. The figures for business investment, due next week, are not expected to be rosy (but then neither were most of the above stats).

I warned that the Brexit transition could be messy and lengthy. I said it "weighed heavily on me" in my decision on how to vote (21 June). And that it could "easily" take 5 years (23 June, the day of the vote - did I really only say 5 years?!) I am keeping fingers crossed that the gloomsters will prove to be wrong. But, despite normally being an optimist, I am not confident. The more upbeat end of the Leave lobby who crow at every decent stat don't seem to realise that this transition hasn't even started yet!

And that transition could be very problematic. Writing in The Times, Philip Collins noted that "the Leave campaign was recklessly cavalier about how easy leaving the EU was going to be. Disentangling Britain from a series of legal treaties is not one event but many. The EU has about 50 international trade agreements from which the UK benefits, all of which will now have to be begun again. It will be a mammoth task even to replicate these arrangements, let alone improve on them. Maybe one day Liam Fox will return triumphant from Bosnia-Herzegovina with a new deal. Next stop Costa Rica, Mauritius the week after."

And he went on to say "Dr Fox cannot even start until Britain’s relationship with the EU is settled. The laws that frame the markets for financial services, employment, restructuring and insolvency, data protection and intellectual property have all been painstakingly drafted in chambers of the EU. Pension law, competition, telecommunications and media are almost as complicated. There are some bills, such as the Equalities Act, in which some provisions refer to the EU and some do not. That’s not to mention clauses whose parentage and application is a matter of legal dispute. Somebody is going to have to go through all of it and say yes or no to every clause. Every change will be the subject of well-informed corporate and charity lobbying. It is going to be fabulously complicated. If the referendum question had only been “can you really be bothered?” we would have voted to remain. This negotiation can only be done badly in two years and it probably cannot be done at all."

I think this view is amazingly negative. I can't accept the view that we can't start to negotiate with other countries until our deal with the EU is done - who could possibly stop us getting deals ready to sign? Europe might threaten sanctions against countries they have a deal with who have the temerity to talk to us - try that with Trump! Anyway, it sounds like the Europeans are setting their stall out for a take it or leave it negotiation, forcing a 'hard Brexit'. Well, that makes our decisions easier as well as there being little point in Parliamentary debates on what the deal should look like! We are in a strong position to negotiate trade deals with most countries and so the idea that they will all be different seems ridiculous: a template deal will developed by doing the first deals. And we can read and our computers can copy and paste, so all that work drafting the EU deals is available for us to vet and cherry pick.

Collins concluded "there is an inescapable sense of nobody taking back control", which does seem the case. So he argued for a transitional step, in which we leave the EU and join the EEA while further negotiations proceed. I can see the logic I that, but it would leave us in a half-way house at the next election, with myriad options for untenable positions to come out of the next General Election.

All very messy indeed. However, if we want to have control of our borders, control over what trade deals we do and not to have judges outside our system of democracy over-ruling those inside it, then there is no alternative: we have to leave. I wanted all of the things on that list but I decided I didn't want the aggravation of getting there more. But that's the job Mrs May and her government have been given: the electorate made it's choice and she accepted it - and so do I.

Though I fear it may turn out like the Stevie Winwood song for Mrs May's negotiators:

"Sometimes I feel so uninspired
Sometimes I feel like giving up
Sometimes I feel so very tired
Sometimes I feel like I've had enough....
I don't know who's losing and I don't care who's winning
Hardship and trouble are following me"
(From Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired, the last track on Traffic's 1971 album Shootout At the Fantasy Factory. Great guitar in this bluesy song - very simple but very effective. You can hear it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cu1slvK6oIk)

Economic stats: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/autumn-shoppers-provide-best-retail-sales-figures-in-14-years-zlnpvhx75

Philip Collins piece is at http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/comment/how-may-can-break-free-from-brexit-muddle-x6l877x99

Europe's leaders to force Britain into 'hard Brexit' in The Guardian: http://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/europe%e2%80%99s-leaders-to-force-britain-into-%e2%80%98hard-brexit%e2%80%99/ar-AAkvya7?ocid=spartandhp

Friday, 18 November 2016

The indefinite Article

What a lot of noise over Article 50 and the High Court ruling. But I doubt it makes much difference in practice unless the legal process ends with the conclusion that primary legislation is needed AND the Lords decide to block it, in principle delaying things for a year. (I probably should say the "unelected Lords" using the language that many of the politicians in what I might call the "Hard Remain" camp have used in the past, even though they would become huge short term fans of the Lords in this scenario). In which case they might get the General Election they are angling for.

Owen Smith, the former Labour leadership challenger, indicated that he would use a parliamentary vote on Brexit to push for another referendum on the terms of any deal. “Labour should amend the Article 50 bill to give people the final say on the real terms of Brexit." This poses two problems. The EU will not start negotiations until we invoke Article 50. Once we do, I thought we were definitely leaving within 2 years. So there would be no point putting the final deal to a referendum, would there, because we'd be on our way out anyway! However, I have seen it suggested that the Article 50 filing could be revoked. Clarification on this point would be welcome. I suspect it could only be revoked, or the period extended, by the other 27 countries unanimously agreeing to do so. Let's assume that's a "no" or at best a "maybe". So there would be no point in committing now to putting the terms of a final deal to a referendum if, come the day, there was only one choice on the ballot paper - out or out. I suppose people who want to stay in at any cost might say we would vote between out and begging the other 27 countries to let us stay in. Not a great choice......

More importantly for me, we would be in a very difficult place if the final deal were rejected by Parliament, the people having voted to leave. I'm sure that would lead to an election and, if it produced a government committed to leaving (which it could with less than 50% voting for leave supporting parties, which would be fraught if the Remainers then tried to claim they'd won - when they hadn't). This scenario begins to sound a bit like the hokey cokey....in, out, or what?

But I think there is a yet more important question. Who says 650 MPs are more likely to come up with a better answer than the 34 million or so people who voted in the referendum? Not Matt Ridley, writing in The Times (7 November) who says "Elitists who pour scorn on the people’s views don’t appreciate how often democracy comes up with the right decision". He reminds us how often a "crowd-sourced" answer gets it right, even if hardly any single punter guessed the weight of the ox, or number of sweets in the jar. And he pours total scorn on the idea that only the more educated or intelligent are capable of understanding the issues. “It’s time for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses,” read the headline of an article by James Traub in Foreign Policy in June this year, referring to both Trump’s nomination and the Brexit referendum result. Ridley thinks Traub is just wrong: the crowd still has a wisdom that no individual can match, and the results of modern elections do not contradict this. In a new book, Against Democracy, an American political philosopher called Jason Brennan argues that democracy is the "rule of the ignorant and the irrational" and that "political participation and democratic deliberation tend to make people worse. So in it's place he recommends an "epistocracy" where you should have to earn the write to vote by demonstrating a modicum of knowledge. Sounds like a slippery slope to me...a great many decisions are taken on our behalf by such groups of the great and good - quangos are staffed, public sector organisations are given budgets etc. So Ridley argues we already have a kind of epistocracy, though one where we all get to cast our vote every so often and throw the bastards out. As Ridley says "And rightly so, because the ideal future government of a country is too complicated a question for any expert, even if, like Mr Brennan, he is the associate professor of strategy, economics, ethics and public policy at the McDonough School of Business, at Georgetown University. Besides, there is no such thing as general ignorance or general expertise. Every brilliant person I know is also astonishingly ignorant on certain matters."

Risibly, Labour MP Paul Flynn has said the result of the European referendum was illegitimate because most of the people who voted were ignorant. This takes my breath away, as have other comments which have hinted that universal suffrage should be limited on some grounds of intelligence or qualification. Try putting that to a referendum, chum! In any event, Paul, I think many MPs would prove too ignorant to be allowed to have a say on almost any issue, if they could just be tested. As for the intelligentsia, Richard Dawkins, among others, argued that he should not have had to vote on a matter he did not understand. He says that is what parliament is for: to hand such decisions to experts, who understand the details. But Ridley notes that members of parliament are not experts, let alone omniscient ones. Even brilliant people can also be astonishingly ignorant on certain matters, even Messrs Brennan and Traub.Whether Britain is right or wrong to leave the European Union is a question that nobody, however clever, can possibly know the right answer to unless they have foresight and a crystal ball.

Anyway, the MPs may get asked to agree we should trigger Article 50, even though they are in no better position to figure out the pros and cons than we all were in the campaign. If that is the correct process I don't have a problem with that. But they must vote unconditionally that we should. It's what 17+ million people voted for, in a referendum that Parliament itself approved by 6 to 1. There is no logic in debating the terms when discussing Article 50. This is because Article 50 is not about trade deals or freedom of movement; "hard" or "soft" Brexit. Vernon Bogdanor, writing in the Sunday Times (6 November) pointed out that Article 50 triggers a negotiation on the withdrawal process, involving technical but important issues such as rights of British nationals in the EU and EU nationals in Britain. It provides for negotiations to take "account of the framework" for a country's "future relationship with the Union". But that future relationship, which can take years to negotiate and evolve, requires separate processes to undertake and to ratify.

I think we need to watch these people like Flynn. They believe in democracy when it gives them what they consider to be the "right" answer. A bit like the Corbynistas who are say they believe in democracy but shout down and vilify opponents. So I reckon that means they clearly don't.

I also can't help thinking that people who want to have a detailed, open debate about what we should negotiate are actually trying to make the negotiation impossible. As Philip Collins argues in The Times (18 November) "It is not unreasonable for the prime minister to wish to keep her detailed thoughts secret. A comprehensive wishlist would be an open invitation to critics to denounce its contents and deplore what was missing. It would inevitably, thanks to the trading nature of negotiating, ensure that some of the wishes were denied. The published list would therefore have to include dummy options that the prime minister was secretly prepared to lose. Then she would be denounced, either for dishonesty or for not bringing home the bounty promised."

However, Collins goes on to say that "None of this makes silence a virtue". He is very concerned about the difficulty - nay, impossibility in 2 years - of the transition. (I may return to the difficulty of the transition but not here). He argues that the only way out of this for Mrs May is to negotiate a transitional arrangement in which the UK leaves the EU but, temporarily (or maybe not) joins the European Economic Area (EEA), which is an agreement to secure the free movement of goods, services, capital and people between Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and the 28 member states of the EU. This would permit us to opt out of those EU laws, such as fisheries policy, which we found burdensome. We would have bought temporary certainty on commercial and social policy. Crucially, we would also have bought time to do a proper negotiation and Mrs May would have the scope to play poker her own quiet way.

This might be a very sensible approach. Politically it could be difficult, internally in the Tory party for a start. With the UK in a kind of half way house at the next General Election, it would almost certainly leave the whole issue to be debated all over again, with stay here or go further options, though no doubt some would also want to include "try go back in, if they'll have us". But the big problem is that the EEA requires freedom of movement, which is the one red line identified by the government so far.

However, it could be a workable way forward if the EU is prepared to negotiate on this point. Several sources have claimed the Germans and others are prepared to compromise to some extent on freedom of movement. Indeed, recently there have been suggestions that the eurocrats are well advanced in developing their Brexit negotiating strategy and one part of it is to introduce a US-style ESTA visa waiver which British visitors to Europe would need to obtain, at a cost of about a fiver (pounds or euros, can't remember), though it would last for at least a year and cover multiple visits. Stephen Kinnock, who I had hitherto thought had at least some sense, said this was a "hidden cost of Brexit". There are two problems with what Kinnock said. Firstly, as I read it, the visa waiver would be needed to enter the Schengen area, so we would need to have one even if we stayed in the EU - though they may not intend that. But if they did we would have potentially got a way of limiting freedom of movement by introducing the equivalent process. Secondly, if a fiver for a year's travel to the EU is high on Kinnock's list of issues and priorities, I'm afraid he has just reinforced Matt Ridley's point much more eloquently than I have. You see, Stephen, out of your own mouth has come the proof that MPs are no more competent than the rest of us in this matter and so there is no case for you to try to "call back in" a decision made by a larger and, per Ridley's argument, more intelligent group.

It's undeniable that 34 million people have more brains than 650 and are therefore, between them, more likely to have got it right.

Matt Ridley's piece is at http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/comment/the-crowd-has-a-wisdom-no-expert-can-match-nrx820tkl

Melanie Phillips article http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/comment/high-court-judges-are-wrong-about-brexit-nqkh0tqxn

Philip Collins piece is at http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/comment/how-may-can-break-free-from-brexit-muddle-x6l877x99

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/16/britons-may-need-to-apply-for-online-clearance-to-visit-europe-p/