Tuesday, February 28, 2006

RIP Linda Smith

Really shocked and saddened to just hear that Linda Smith, easily one of the funniest and cleverest English comics, died today. What awful news. There's going to be a special episode of the News Quiz on Radio 4 dedicated to her on Friday. Jeremy Hardy, who appeared on a lot of R4 shows with her, noted that she was "the wittiest and brightest person working on TV or radio panel games".

"Working with someone so funny always reminded me of what comedy is all about. Her banter and flights of fancy were amazing," Hardy added. "In a second, she could summon up the perfect word, the daftest English expression, the most appropriate literary quotation or line of movie dialogue, or the most savage put-down of any fraud, bully or tyrant in the news."

Monday, February 27, 2006

galloway and god

Over at the always interesting Bloggers4Labour, Andrew points to an interview given by George Galloway to the El Khabar newspaper in Algeria - it makes for pretty unbelievable reading, assuming that the translation is accurate and was not altered in its original state by the original paper. The full interview is transcribed on Harry's Place, but I've singled out a few choice extracts below...

[on the cartoons controversy]

"What happened is an insult to Islam and Muslims. Personally, I condemn these barbaric and evil acts. Today, the objective of the Western states is to control the oil of the Muslims whatever the price. In fact, the cartoons published in Denmark did not surprise me because the Western states have been waging fierce attacks against Islam for years. These began by humiliation, insults and then occupation. Today they reached the point of ridiculing the prophet. This incident is worse than the 11 September attacks in the US and the 7/7 incidents in London"

[asked how he thought Respect would do in the forthcoming elections]

[Galloway- smiles and says in Arabic]: "Praise be to God". [Then in English] "Our party will be very strong in these elections. The proof is the fact that I am an MP. In the near future, Respect will become one of the strongest political parties in Britain."

[on his religion]

[Halimi] "Many people are wondering where you derive this strength with which you speak and defy the powerful. Is there a secret power behind you?"

[Galloway - in Arabic] "This strength comes from God."

[Halimi] "You constantly use nice Arabic words, in addition to your relations with Arabs and Muslims. Does that mean that you have converted to Islam but you cannot admit that publicly?"

[Galloway - shaking his head] "This issue is between me and God".

Andrew points to a later comment and suggests that Galloway gets in an anti-semitic statement too; I'm not sure if his intepretation is correct - but it's not as if Galloway doesn't make enough of a case against himself in the rest of the interview. Hopefully this will be published widely.

Friday, February 17, 2006

arctic monkeys and maximo park

With only one night of the tour remaining, the NME Awards Tour finally rolled into Brighton last night, featuring what was (probably) a spirited and odd set from Mystery Jets (I say probably because we turned up late and missed them), a middling, occasionally impressive turn from We Are Scientists and two great sets from the impossibly confident Arctic Monkeys and the impossibly passionate Maximo Park.

Despite the fact that I've now lived in Brighton for the best part of ten years, on and off, I'd never actually been to the Brighton Dome before last week, improbably enough, which is either testament to my cooler-than-thou indie cred (it's tiny, ramshackle venues or nothing for me) or a reflection on the fact that I'm never organised enough to buy tickets for the big events which sell out quickly. Last week's visit - to see a live version of the Mighty Boosh - was hardly a piece of stately theatre, but it showed the Concert Hall in its more cerebral light - the Dome is part of the Royal Pavillion Estate and boasts a pretty impressive interior, a classic 1930's Art Deco hall with comfortable, well positioned stalls.

Last night the venue - packed to the gills with youthful and delirious indie kids - was in rock mode; most people abandoned the seated areas in favour of cramming into the smallish pit before the stage, and soon rendered the floor gummy with spilt lager and fag butts. The Dome has been a non-smoking venue for years, so their inability to stop a bunch of 17 year olds having a cigarette bolds ill for the inforcement of next years smoking regulations. The PA was bone-shakingly loud with real depth. They even put up a couple of big screens at the sides of the stage so that we could admire We Are Scientists' moustaches from afar. Oddly, the 'Monkeys and the 'Park had the screens switched off for their sets.

On the way in, we speculated on what our fellow audience members would think of us; "I'm glad that my parents didn't insist on coming along", was one suggestion. In the event, though we had a good ten years on half the audience, we weren't the only ones who had crossed the unnaceptable line into adulthood, although the audience was certainly the youngest I've ever seen. Parents did, indeed, abound.

We Are Scientists were already underway when we arrived. Their set was decent without being anything too unusual - they seem to have put together a fashionable blend of styles, coming out as a kind of Strokes/Radio 4/Franz Ferdinand/Walkmen hybrid, with a slight mainstream rock instinct. They indulged in a bit of nerdy onstage banter between songs. "What do you guys think of the Mystery Jets", they asked? Despite getting a slightly muted reaction, they continued their vaudeville routine as if we'd shouted the house down. "Well then we agree".

I'm annoyed I missed the 'Jets, but it doesn't look like they went down a storm; for a bunch of 17 year olds, having your singer's dad as your lead guitarist, as the Mystery Jets do, is surely the apotheosis of uncool. As for We Are Scientists, they delivered a short, loud set which was impressive but not much more. The Young Knives do this kind of thing with incomparable panache, and it's a shame they weren't on the bill instead.

The fact that the Arctic Monkeys - justly, as it turned out - were beneath Maximo Park in the pecking order is testament to the fickle, fast moving nature of pop. When the tour was booked they were very much the lesser band. We all know what happened next. Me and Vic speculated that this tour - such an impressive idea, incidentally - should really run all year round with a different four bands every month. As it is, it happens once a year and the Young Knives, who have already released what might turn out to be the best single of 2006, will have a year to wait 'til they get another chance to get on the bill. And the Arctic Monkeys must be content with playing second fiddle to Maximo Park, for another night, at least.

Actually, they're probably glad to be out of the spotlight for a bit. Their set last night was, truthfully, everything it was cracked up to be in the hyperbolic press reports we've got so used to in the last month or two. As I've admitted before, I really like the record, but live they're a great deal more impressive. The fact that they've got, considering their tender youth, five or six songs of such surprising quality is something we already know, but live they seem to imbue these songs (and they're so cocky that they dispense with their two number one singles at the start of the set and don't even bother playing 'Mardy Bum', which they already refer to it as 'the hit', apparently) with such a kinetic swagger that it's very difficult to resist movement.

In addition, the weaker songs get dragged along in the slipstream. The whole set sounds fantastic, with all the voices singing along threatening to outstrip Alex Turner's vocals at times. They play a new song and it sounds as good as anything else they've done. Then Turner teases us by offering to play their light-hearted, Kinksy cover of Girls Aloud's super 'Love Machine' but deliver 'Fake Tales of San Fransisco' instead, a song which sounded paper thin when I heard the original demo last year (causing me to deliver my first damning assesment of the band). It sounds great tonight. They close, predictably, with 'A Certain Romance', and it's bloody marvellous. I'm left with the odd feeling that Arctic Monkeys play a style of music I don't much care for, in a cocky arrogant way which sometimes reminds me of bands I detest (they have more than a little in common, after all, with bands like Oasis) - and yet I'm embarrasingly impressed by them. I hope it isn't me envying their youthfulness, that would be shameful.

Cocksure, calm, nonchalant. Damn them.

Ah, here are Maximo Park - as Sam pointed out, pretty much the diametric opposite of the Arctic Monkeys. Maximo Park, you see, are desperate. And they will pull every trick in the book to make you love them; flattery, gymnastics, and passion. Paul Smith is barely still for a second here, throwing himself from the drum riser in a full scissor kick at the outset and repeating the move at what seemed like regular ten second interludes. Elsewhere he jumps, turns, twists and flings himself around the stage, extending his thin, impeccably tailored legs out at right angles in a way which can only be described as Cockerian. He recalls Jarvis in more ways than one, too - it's apparent in his urgent delivery and his lyrics too; "I sleep with my arms across my chest / and I dream of you with someone else", he sings. When they play 'Postcard of a Painting', with it's delightful unfurling guitar, I unveil my long-lost 'Smiths dance', last seen at an indie disco when I was 17 years old and they played 'This Charming Man'.

And, as great as the Arctic Monkeys were, it's plain that the right band are headlining tonight; Maximo Park, unlike the young whippersnappers, have simply honed their act to perfection, and the extra few years that they've put in have rendered their songs as tight and lean as you could imagine. The singles (and you suddenly realise there have been a bunch of them) sound fantastic - 'The Coast Is Always Changing' is prettiness personified, 'Graffiti' daftly sentimental ("I'll do graffiti if you sing to me in French"), 'Apply Some Pressure' impossibly exciting and set closer 'Going Missing' inspiring a mass singalong. Adding to that canon of great pop-punk singles, the new one, 'I Want You To Stay' is more of the same but just as good, a little less high-octane but brimming with lovely observations, where a "mesh of tones surround your eyes" and a "camera runs just to collect". Expanding on the theme, cranes exist "to collect the sky". It's damn good pop, but it's artful where the Arctic Monkeys are instinctive.

Beyond all that, the band are just plain exciting - the keyboardist frequently gives up playing his synth in order to vault around the stage, or just to clamber all over it. Smith is a blur of energy. The crowd, which thins out after the Monkeys' triumphant set, begins to stream back into the pit. It's like Smith is willing them back. So the set - which also features a stellar take on my favourite Park tune, 'Limmasol' - ends having seemingly fixed a grin to the face of everyone present.

Which isn't a bad thing to be going home with.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

i like reading swearing in the guardian

This is a good article on the Guardian newsblog, speculating that Bill Rammel, like David Blunkett and Charles Clarke - both of whom held Education minister briefs before him - is a bit of a berk, following the tradition that it's right and proper "to pose as philistines, tough men of the people innit, who couldn't give a monkey's about yer poncy subjects like history and fine art?"

Donald MacLeod writes:

"today Bill Rammel, the higher education minister, was at it, praising students for abandoning art history and philosophy."

"An initial reading of figures suggests to me that there is some evidence that students are choosing subjects they think are more vocationally beneficial. If that's what they are doing I don't see that as necessarily being a bad thing," he said.

To which the fastidious philosopher will reply: "Bollocks".

There is absolutely no sign that students are abandoning pure humanities for vocationally oriented subjects. Yes, history applications fell by more than 7% but so did marketing and there are still nearly three times as many would-be historians as marketeers".

The main reason I'm linking to it, however, is because it's linked to on the Guardian frontpage with the article title: "Vocational study and other bollocks".

the percentage game

A good letter from today's Football365.com mailbox:

"Something Doesn't Add Up
In the old days, managers used to demand 100% from their players, quite reasonably. At some point that became, somewhat unreasonably, 110%. Yes, it suddenly became demanded that players perform to a higher level than that of which they were physically capable.

Yesterday, Sam Allardyce described the handball by Frederic Dehu in Bolton's match with Marseille as "a 120% penalty", maybe alluding to a situation where a successfully-converted penalty would yield 1.2 goals?

Baffled by the seemingly rampant inflation in football, I walk into work this morning to hear my boss saying that he expects - and I kid you not - 1000% from me.

Can anyone else match this, or do I have the most irrationally demanding boss in the world?
PS: In spite of my being expected to perform to what is technically the maximum ability of myself and nine identical clones, I expect no more than the customary 2% annual pay rise this year."

hardly debt cancellation

Despite all the talk last year about making poverty history and cancelling third world debt, it's instructive to note that the British government will shortly receive its share of a ridiculously uneven debt cancellation deal with Nigeria, one of Africa's poorest nations and a country where one in five children die before their fifth birthday.

"In January 2006, the UK received more than £800 million from Nigeria, with a further £900 million following in March. This is the UK's share of £7.2 billion being demanded by rich countries in exchange for cancelling around £10.5 billion of Nigeria's debt - a crippling demand being made despite Nigeria already having an externally-monitored fund set up to ensure money from debt relief is spent properly."

This sum which the UK will receive - incidentally more than any other country will get - which combined adds up to £1.7bn, is twice the amount of money that the UK gives to Africa per year. The Jubilee Debt Campaign (which put together a petition to cancel third world debt in the year 2000 that 24 million people signed) is asking people to write to Gordon Brown urging him to return this money to the Nigerian government. Details of how to do so are available on their website.

I can read after all

Roughly a year ago I posted a message complaining that I was having difficulty reading - or rather difficulty choosing which book to read and finding it hard to see it through without picking up another. "My concentration has just gone", I wrote. "As soon as I start one book I lose the thread, get distracted, start other things, forget where I am...". I picked out seven books, six of which I had started to read since Christmas 2004 and only one of which I had finished. Amongst the books I'd started but failed to see through were Francis Wheen's book on Mumbo Jumbo, Iain Bank's sci-fi epic The Algebraist and Michael Palin's Himalaya. A year on I have to admit that I didn't finish any of them, although I made it to the finish line with a couple of others.

In fact, looking back, I'm ashamed to say that I probably read less last year than I have in any year in ten to fifteen years. Why was this? I'm not sure really - a combination of factors; an increasingly dependent addiction to newspapers meant I spent more train journeys with the paper than with a book. My iPod further limited books read, as I find it completely impossible to either (a) go a day without listening to Pavement and (b) read while I am listening to music.

Further to that, I certainly watched more TV and cinema last year than I ever have before, although that isn't quite as cretinous as it sounds; I find non-fiction reading quite hard going and a developing interest in history, nature and the environment has meant I've turned to documentary series like Schama's History of Britain, Alistair Cooke's America, the BBC's excellent Coast, and their even more wonderful David Attenborough and Michael Palin programmes. Equally, I've turned round a long standing lack of interest in film and an inability to stick any film longer than about eighty minutes. Nanowrimo in November meant I went an entire month without reading a book (other than the one I was writing), which is a first.

Which is not to say that I didn't read some excellent books last year, but not perhaps as many as normal. I'm determined to get back on track this year and, although I've employed a similarly chaotic method to my reading habits (two or three books at a time), I'm ploughing through stuff and really enjoying it.

Finished so far in the last couple of months:
Tim Parks's Rapids - which is by no means his best work but still utterly thrilling.
The Strange Death of Tory England by Geoffrey Wheatcroft - which features remarkably vivid descriptions of all sorts of nightmarish folk.
The Life of Pi by Yann Martell - a guilty unfinished secret from way back which I finally completed.
Banksy's Wall and Piece - which, OK, doesn't feature a lot of text, but it's comparitively rare to find an art book where the text is this interesting - even if it is all a bit glib.

Currently reading and making good progress:
The People's Act of Love by James Meek - hard to believe that John Banville's 'The Sea', which beat this to the Booker Prize, could be a better book.
Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive - which is tough going but fascinating.
Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything - which I tore through last year and am now reading more measuredly, with a great deal more pleasure.

And sitting in an impatient pile on my desk:
Cleaver: A Novel by, yes, Tim Parks again. It just arrived from Amazon this morning. I'm improbably excited.
The Rough Guide to Montreal - because I'm going there in a couple of months
The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting back - and How we Can Still Save Humanity by James Lovelock - more guilty "I-really-should-read-this-because-otherwise-the-world-will-die" stuff. Looks good though.

So perhaps I'll get a bit more stuff read this year... Tune in next February to find out.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

whipping and smoking

A good point from Jon Snow in his snowmail email last night, speculating on the fact that the vote to ban smoking was a free vote (in other words, MPs were allowed to vote - horror of horrors - according to their conscience or their constituents' wishes). Fixing Jon's bad spelling as I type, this is what he notes:

"It's a funny old thing because there's a free vote and in many ways it's a victory for common sense. Why on earth should political parties be whipped into a particular line on this matter? Indeed maybe there should be a whole lot more free votes?"

A fairly obvious point, but a good one.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

arab centre of the modern world?

The most impressive feature of the re-designed Guardian is their willingness to run long, detailed features in G2 - I'm thinking particularly of their investigations into modern China, Israel and - now - Dubai. Yesterday's long article was really fascinating. And if you admire large-scale articles with plenty of detail it's hard not to be fascinated by a city like Dubai.

"Dubai is growing faster than any city on earth. "Mushroom City", Ravi Piyush, a plumply content dealer in the Gold Souk, said to me. "Nothing today, everything tomorrow." The World Bank reckons that the reconstruction of Iraq is going to cost $53bn. Here, along the strip of footballer-friendly sand that stretches 25 miles or so along the shores of the Persian Gulf, there is, at a rough estimate, about $100bn worth of projects either underway or planned for the near future. That is a numbing figure, ungraspable."

What are they trying to achieve? Unlike Abu Dhabi, Dubai does not have vast oil resources, which means that it must establish itself in other ways; as a port and a financial centre. The scale of the ambition with which this Arab Emirate is pursuing this is quite outstanding. But the article, by Adam Nicholson, hints at something more; Mustafa, a businessman, tells him of the greater vision,

"which is that Dubai should become a fully developed city, with the best life of any city that has ever been created. The whole city is growing as a single organism. We have planned this, very carefully, ... so that in time Dubai is going to become the first ever Arab modern metropolis".

Perhaps so, but it is far from a democratic state, and living and working conditions for the worst off remain appalling. Nevertheless, it's hard not to be impressed by the vastness of the operation and the staggering speed of growth, much less the ambition. Although that's probably not why the England football team all own properties out there....

"This is the Dubai sandwich: at the bottom, cheap and exploited Asian labour; in the middle, white northern professional services, plus tourist hunger for glamour in the sun and, increasingly, a de-monopolised western market system; at the top, enormous quantities of invested oil money, combined with fearsome social and political control and a drive to establish another model of what modern Arabia might mean in the post-9/11 world. That is the intriguing question: can Dubai do what Libya, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, or almost anywhere else in the Arab world you might like to mention, have failed to do? Is Dubai, in fact, the fulcrum of the future global trading and financial system? Is it, in embryo, what London was to the 19th century and Manhattan to the 20th? Not the modern centre of the Arab world but, more than that, the Arab centre of the modern world."

Monday, February 13, 2006

great books coming in May...

Your latest dispatch from the frontline of publishing.... OK, this is information freely available to anyone with a subscription to the Bookseller (or access to Amazon, thinking about it), but there are some good books coming out in the next few months so here's a quick heads up to the ones I'm getting excited about it.

First up, on the 4th of May, comes the new Philip Roth, Everyman, which is only 80 pages for a ten pound book, but it's likely to be worth every penny once it gets a few discounts; the Bookseller describes it thus: 'Taking it's title from a 15th Century allegorical play whose hero Everyman is intended to be the personification of mankind, it's the story of a lonely man with three ex-wives, described as a "savagely sad" tale of loss and regret'. Sounds like something by John Updike (except of course in his book the three wives would return to him reincarnated as sexually available fawns, or some such).

Amazon puff it up as a 'painful human story of the regret and loss and stoicism of a man who becomes what he does not want to be. The terrain of this savagely sad short novel is the human body, and its subject is the common experience that terrifies us all'. Ugh, I hate advertising blurbs.

The week after, meanwhile, Serpent's Tail are reissuing the first Lionel Shriver novel, but as I've not read We Need to Talk About Kevin yet, and as her column in the Guardian annoys me, that might have to wait. Either way, Double Fault will doubtless be good and publishes on the 8th May.

A book which publishes on the same day is getting one of those whispering campaigns in the publishing world, and I dunno if that's because of it's quality or because it's very deft marketing. Londonstani, apparently written in impeccable Hounslow patois by an unassuming, er, FT journalist (Gautam Malkani), is the book everyone is talking about. The novel is 'about many things: tribalism, aggressive masculinity, integration, cross-cultural chirpsing techniques, the urban scene seeping into the mainstream, bling bling economics, 'complicated family-related shit'. It is one of the most surprising British novels of recent years'. According to Amazon. Well, according to the press people at Fourth Estate, really. There, I described the book without once using the phrase 'the new Zadie Smith'. Good. Anyone know what 'chirpsing techniques' are, meanwhile?

Two non-fiction books catch the eye too, although I'm not sure that either will be very good. Alain de Botton veers from writing beautifully and insightfully (How Proust Can Save Your Life) to statin' the bleedin' obvious (Status Anxiety), and it's hard to tell in advance on which side of the fence his forthcoming The Architecture of Happiness will fall. But a book about buildings and the way they make us feel sounds - to me - potentially fascinating, and there's a C4 series to accompany the book. Hopefully better than his last one.

Niall Ferguson is a preening right-wing shit, but he's also a historian who is able - like Boris Johnson in his excellent recent series on Rome - to bring history to life, although everything I've seen of his so far has impressed only in bursts, as his tone often sabotages his narrative. He's got a new book too, however, and he's got a C4 series as well, and - suck on this, Alain, he's probably saying - his is primetime. His The War Of The World: History's Age of Hatred 'examines how and why the 20th Century, which dawned with such optimism, became the most violent and savage century in history'. Probably not got time for the book, but I might give the TV series a go.

Saving the best 'til last, David Mitchell's Black Swan Green finally arrives at the start of the month, and I really can't wait for it. I know everyone says it, but Cloud Atlas was just completely astonishing and a complete surprise. This time round Mitchell eschews the massive scope of his last book and concentrates on just over a year in the life of a teenage boy growing up in Worcestershire in the early 1980s. '13 chapters, each as self-contained as a short story, follow 13 months in his life as he negotiates the pitfalls of school and home and contends with bullies, girls and family politics. In the distance, the Falklands conflict breaks out; close at hand, the village mobilises against a gypsy camp. And through Jason's eyes, we see what he doesn't know he knows - and watch unfold what will make him wish his life had been as uneventful as he had believed. Vividly capturing the mood of the times - high unemployment, Cold War politics and the sunset of agrarian England - this is at once a portrait of an era and of an age: the black hole between childhood and teenagerdom.'

People are selling proof copies on ebay, I note, and I'm sorely tempted, because I don't want to wait. Bah. You mean I can't just download it? Pop music spoils me.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

israel, south africa, and ronnie rosenthal

There have been, you may have have noticed, some deeply fascinating articles in the Guardian by Chris McGreal this week concerning links between modern-day Israel and Apartheid-era South Africa. The first made a direct analogy between the treatment of the Palestinians and the Black South Africans (McGreal points out that just as Afrikaaners falsely claimed there were 'no black people in South Africa when they first settled in the 17th century', Israel was hailed as 'a land without people for a people without land' - despite the presence of the Palestinians), the second explored, shockingly, the actual links between the two - so close at one point that they were assisting eachother with the arms race. I urge you to read both, but feel - especially in the light of the feedback which the paper printed yesterday and today - utterly unequipped to advise you whether the comparison is just, fair or malicious. It is certainly bold, and certainly worth a read, but I don't know enough about it to judge. Like a lot of people with leftish instincts, I sympathise with the Palestinian cause - I feel fairly sure, however, that I do so without having done sufficient research. Anyway.

I do, however, know quite a lot about Tottenham Hotspur, who - like Ajax - are well known for being a 'Jewish' club. What this means, of course, is just that a large population of the local area is Jewish and that this community has always (although perhaps not so much nowadays - much of the Arsenal board these days, incidentally, is Jewish) allied themself with Spurs. We were the first club to field an Israeli player, the much loved Ronnie Rosenthal. Conversely, we spent much of the 90s worshipping our Arabic midfielder, Nayim. Anyway; we've been long the targets of crass and often disgusting anti-semitic chants from other teams (I once heard Chelsea fans singing 'Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz'...), so it pains me deeply to feel duty bound to link to Simon Hattenstone's article in the Guardian today. He writes of a Spurs-supporting friend:

"On Monday he came into work, distraught. He'd been at White Hart Lane on Sunday and said he'd never heard anything like it. "It was bloody horrible," he said. "You know me, I can take most things, but ... I felt embarrassed to be there." Spurs fans have chanted against Sol Campbell ever since he left for the enemy, Arsenal, in 2001. Last week, as Campbell broke down and did a runner from Highbury, the abuse reached its nadir."

Go to the article to read what the Spurs fans sang, if you wanna know. I dunno if the articles about Israel and South Africa crossed the line into anti-semitism. But the songs Spurs fans sang about Sol Campbell on Saturday are grim, sickening, racist, homophobic bile, and I feel ashamed to call myself a Spurs fan.

Hattenstone does, at least, manage to end on an upbeat note, so I'll nick his closing paragraph and do the same.

"Meanwhile, Bob is mourning a lost innocence. In his email he asks: "What happened to the light-heartedness of the days when we sang songs such as this one for Man Utd games (to the tune of My Old Man's a Dustman): Posh Spice is a slapper/She wears a Wonderbra/ And when she's shagging Beckham/ She thinks of Ginola."

Monday, February 06, 2006

islam, protest and some very unfunny cartoons

It's obvious that we need to strive for consistency in the reach and application of laws, which is just one reason - and there are others - why those whose participation in Friday's and Saturday's more peaceful marches - which protested against the publication of the 'satirical' cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad - crossed the line from protest to incitement to violence should be cautioned and possibly prosecuted for their behaviour. It's no good decrying the fact that two leading members of the BNP were acquitted of inciting hatred for their xenophobic rants at private meetings if a blind eye is turned to street protests which encourage the beheading of all who insult Islam. However, we also need the application of the law to be sensible as well as consistent, which is why it is entirely right and proper that the police did not arrest the more extreme protesters at the event and risk turning a peaceful march into a violent one, as well as stirring up this mess even further.

There are also a couple of factors which should encourage us to tread carefully. Firstly, it is quite clear from the placards and banners held aloft on the march that all were created by the same hand. As anyone who has attended an anti-nazi or anti-war rally will testify, it's very easy to get handed a banner by some unsavoury type and hold it aloft - although in my youth we took the precaution of tearing off the bit at the top which read 'Socialist Worker'. I'm not suggesting that the (mainly young) men who carried the placards should be excused as naive; just speculating that it would be very easy in the heat of anger and spurred by the desire to protest to use the most shocking, beligerant slogan possible, if it were available. It's clearly the case that extremist groups were exploiting the situation to further their own agenda.

Secondly, the article which best mirrors my position on this whole debate is Gary Younge's article in the Guardian on Saturday. Younge, like me, deplores the publication of these incredibly unpleasant, misleading cartoons - though neither of us would deprive the press of the right to publish them - and he makes plenty of good points about the protests, although looking at the article again now I note that it was not Younge, but another commentator whose article I can't find now, who pointed out that Muslims have had little experience in establishing a tradition of protest in the same way that we in the west have, and the ferocity of their demonstrations in recent days reflects this. No excuses, but it's worth remembering.

Younge, meanwhile, apart from pointing out the obvious fact that "If our commitment to free speech is important, our belief in anti-racism should be no less so", observes that "the right to offend must come with at least one consequent right and one subsequent responsibility. If newspapers have the right to offend then surely their targets have the right to be offended. Moreover, if you are bold enough to knowingly offend a community then you should be bold enough to withstand the consequences, so long as that community expresses displeasure within the law." I'm far from convinced that the reprinting of the cartoons in the Danish and French press is a representation of the Press's commitment to freedom of speech; or at least, if it is, it's a crass expression of dumb machismo rather than thoughful journalism. More likely it's what it appears to be - islamophobia (thinly) disguised as satire. Denmark is, lest we forget, a country where Islam can be discussed as a 'cancer in our midst' by a leading politician.

Writing before today's knee-jerk reports - most of the press are urging 'immediate action' on protesters - Gary Younge points out that Muslims:

"are vilified twice: once through the cartoon, and again for exercising their democratic right to protest. The inflammatory response to their protest reminds me of the quote from Steve Biko, the South African black nationalist: "Not only are whites kicking us; they are telling us how to react to being kicked."

Elsewhere, Sarah Joseph - who despite her name is the editor of Emel, 'the muslim lifestyle magazine' - makes an obvious but valuable observation:

"The Holocaust did not occur overnight. It took time to establish a people as subhuman, and cartoons played their part. Does Europe not remember its past and the Nazi propaganda of Der Stürmer?

Now the great shape-shifter of fascism seems to have taken on the clothes of "freedom of speech". If these cartoons were designed to provoke Muslim fundamentalists, maybe they have done more to reveal the prejudices of Europe. Europe has a history of turning on its minorities. Will that be its future too?".

Thursday, February 02, 2006

griffin gets off

Remarkably, it seems that the jury have acquitted both Mark Collett and David Griffin, the leader of the BNP, of charges of using words or behaviour intended or likely to stir up racial hatred. Erm, I've seen that tape. How did they reach that conclusion? I guess that bought that crap about Griffin meaning Islam, rather than muslims. Ridiculous.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

graham coxon - love travels at illegal speeds

It never pays to laud a record too early; two things can happen - the first is that you marvel on first listen, get all evangelical and then never tune in again. The second is that you set a precedent for objectivity which looks increasingly stupid as the month goes on. It's a bit dangerous giving a record 10/10 in January and calling it the best album of the year when a better one could very easily come along a week later. It's especially daft, thinking about it, to call a record the '5th best album of all time' the week it is released, as the NME may one day find when they look back on the fact that they awarded the Arctic Monkeys record that same accolade a week or to ago.

I'm not trying to undo the deserved praise which I handed out to Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I Am Not; I still think that's a great record. But I've spent the last couple of days immersed in Graham Coxon's forthcoming Love Travels At Illegal Speeds and - again, I'm wary of making claims for it which I'll regret later - it's on a whole different level to the Monkeys record. Granted, this is Coxon's 12th album (he's racked up six solo records a lot quicker than Blur managed their first half-dozen) and so you'd expect him to have nailed his sound and grown enormously as a songwriter. But then how many artists can make an record 11 albums into their career which sounds as fresh and energetic as anything a bunch of 19 year olds can manage?

Love Travels at Illegal Speeds is an absolute joy. Each Coxon record has been a progression from the last, but most have been dizzily eclectic and varied - only on 2004's decent Happiness In Magazines did it sound like he was moving towards a level of consistency. But this time round all 13 songs are both tremendously self-contained and perfectly in sequence. Ostensibly an album about the many colours of love, here Coxon focuses on two approaches; fast, snotty power-pop which references the Buzzcocks and The Who, and gorgeous, melodic melancholia which recalls nothing so much as, well, Blur.

The album opens with Coxon in a familiar frame of mind, observing 'a thousand grey waves breaking over me'. But lead-off single 'Standing On My Own Again' isn't a slice of dreary self-pity but rather a 'Freakin' Out' style burst of adrenelin, a propulsive bass line and coruscating riff matched by a snotty, confident vocal. If McFly recorded this it'd be number one forever. 'I Can't Look At Your Skin' is even better, a hilarious, angsty slice of punk-pop which finds Graham yelping "I can't look at your skin / 'cos it's doin' me in". From that point on the album is packed with lovely, biting pop music and Coxon's naive and lovelorn vocals documenting what sounds like the theme music to Tucker's Luck. Considering he's 36 it's incredible what an ear he has for 'teenage kicks', even if it's all rather nostalgic.

The first two tracks, along with 'Tell It Like It Is', 'You And I', and a handful of others scarcely deviate from the snappy Buzzcocks meets Pete Towsend template, but each and every single one features brilliant guitar playing, a fantastically melodic chorus and a short and fizzy guitar solo. Everything here is brilliant.

The first track to deviate from the template is 'Just A State Of Mind', which sounds like one of Damon's bleak mid-90s ballads; "First time I saw you", Coxon sings, "teeth squeezed my lips". The song shimmers with pretty melodies and a beautifully executed vocal - not something anyone expected of Graham a few years back. At one point he sings "Just be happy, you are strong now / it's so lonely to love someone" before a gentle explosion of guitars gives way to a three second pyschedelic interlude. This in turn melts into a fuzzy guitar solo which recalls The Pixies at their most lovely. It's a staggering ten second sequence and completely unexpected.

'Gimme Some Love' is the best of the Pete Shelley homages, Graham refixing 'What Do I Get', his vocal clipped and bright, his guitar line conjured up with all the restraint, bite and finesse of his best work, on Blur's Parklife. 'I Don't Believe Anything I Say' could be straight off that record, with it's perky bassline and lovely farfisa melody. Again, the guitar is exquisite and the vocal performance incredibly accomplished. On 'Flights In The Sea' we see Graham's skill as an arranger, blending stately acoustic guitars with fizzing electrics, tinkling pianos and dramatic wind instruments. On 'What's He Got', meanwhile, he manages to come across as a meeting point between Magazine and Steely Dan. 'You Always Let Me Down' is back to The Who, but recalls the Stones, too - possibly the first time I've heard that influence on a Coxon record.

By now it should be clear that we're talking about here is a gloriously sustained sequence of mini-classics. It's hard and perhaps unnecessary to separate the body of work which has emerged from the original Blur line-up, but it's obvious fairly early on that this is up there with their very best work. Final track 'See A Better Day' illustrates, despite the stong influences apparent in his work, how recognisable Coxon's writing and playing have become - within ten seconds it could only be him. And where he used to illustrate his insecure love songs with mumbled, hesitant tones, now he has the confidence to explore the full colour of his palatte; the result is remarkably uplifing and charming.

Taking Damon's Think Tank and Demon Days on the one hand, and Coxon's spectacular pyrotechnics on Love Travels at Illegal Speeds on the other, it's pretty damn clear that they're in a league of their own when it comes to creativity and progression. One wonders if it might not be a cause of celebration, rather than regret, that Britain's best songwriters and musicians are working independently rather than together. Both, astonishingly, just keep getting better and better.

A real ten out of ten record, even if it is only February.