Dear Jeremy…

Re. Your email of 18th April, 2017

I’ve had several “no, Jeremy” moments over the last year or so. Yesterday, I had another. Around 24 hours after Teresa May announced her intention to push for a General Election, and a little before Parliament rolled over and granted her wish, I received an email from you. You signed it off under the title “Leader of the Labour Party,” helpfully avoiding the inclusion of the word “Parliamentary” which might have led to confusion. You were writing to ask for money.

Fair enough. Labour coffers could doubtless do with a boost and appealing to those who have previously signed up – at the last General Election – for updates from several major parties makes sense. The politically engaged, or at least the politically curious, are a reasonable target group and there is doubtless more transparency and less political capital expended in asking the people over relying on the largesse of high net worth individuals or major corporates. Doubtless, as Sandi Toksvig once joked, the Lib Dems will be relying on a bring-and-buy sale, although whether the book token from Nick Clegg’s maiden aunt is still available is a matter of conjecture.

The appeal for cash – John McDonnell helpfully clarified this morning that the amount could be £5, £10, £20 or “other” – was not what irked me. No, it was the brief campaign message that rounded off the appeal:

Labour will be offering the country an effective alternative to a government that has failed to rebuild the economy, delivering a fall living standards and damaging cuts to our schools and NHS.

Together we can work to ensure the British people vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first.

Now, hang on a minute, Mr C… Wait, John just emailed me something similar:

Together we can take the fight to the Tories and elect a Labour government for the many, not the few.

So, what shall we take from this? That John likes bold fonts less than Jeremy, certainly. But what else? Here are the words that irk me: “British people;” “interests of the majority first;” “government for the many;” “not the few.” Now, call me a bleeding heart liberal – go on, I don’t mind – but these feel most like the words of a movement, barely those of a political party and, less so, the ambition of a government.

Let’s break it down. First, British

It is a sad truth, not universally acknowledged, that in this world of Brexit (of which more later), Trump, Erdoğan and, god knows, Marine Le Pen, references to national identity now come freighted with additional meanings, not all of which are welcome. We have Le Pen shouting “I will protect you!” and the members of the Front National responding with their traditional “This is our home!” We have Trump’s commitment to “America First” by which he means white Americans as defined by Donald Trump – Sean Spicer has already confirmed that German Jews living in Germany were not Hitler’s – at the time, Chancellor of Germany – “people,” so presumably Donald has some flexibility. Here of course we have Britain First, an organisation which, to quote the late Linda Smith doesn’t deserve the oxygen of oxygen. I’m sure the concepts of “America First” and “Britain First” are in no way related.

For me, “British” is tainted. The Government of Dave required all schools to teach “British Values,” which is all well and good, but could, just as easily, be called “Human Rights.” The Government’s view on Human Rights is a little less committed. Doubtless, like the flag of St George, there is a case to be made for reclaiming Britishness (autocorrect suggestion: Brutishness, for all you commonwealth readers) from those that tie it to the yoke of nationalism, but whether that can be achieved in the 80 days available before the General Election is a moot point.

I want a Government for all people in Britain, not just the British, and one with a mindset that favours all of humanity over any narrow population hemmed in by lines drawn on a map in the last few hundred years – or even the geological catastrophe that led to the formation of a sea 425,00 years ago when floods stormed the Weald-Artois chalk range. To be clear, these are the only floods that interest me: water, that’s what comes in floods: not economic migrants or those seeking asylum – the latter eroding nothing but the quality of intellectual debate between politicians.

Next up, the notion of government “for the majority” and putting the “interests of the majority first.”

Woah there, Jezzer!

John states that “Labour is building the biggest people-driven […] campaign our country has ever seen.” I have no problem with this. The conflation of the need for a popular mandate with a campaign makes sense – after all, the first duty of a political party must be to get elected or else what is the point of making policy? However, the idea of a people-driven, dare I say populist, government is one that fills me with horror.

Here’s a personal view with which many won’t agree:

…the fate of any government is to become unpopular and this should be accepted and embraced.

Admittedly, that unpopularity should evolve gradually, but while governments must seek to enact the manifestos that got them elected in the first place, they also gain a duty to do so with one and a half eyes on the people that did not vote for them – I’m assuming this is not the majority to which you and John are referring.

At the last General Election, the Tories secured around 11.3 million votes to Labour’s 9.3 million. That leaves a hell of a lot of people that did not vote in favour of the Tory manifesto to whom Government has a duty that the Tory campaign did not, not least to the 2.4 million who voted Lib Dem and the 1.5m Scottish Nationalist voters.

In general, the popular majority has the critical mass to look after itself. Like the market, if something is likely to be popular, the majority will find a way to participate in it without the prop of government support. Where government then has a role is in ensuring that the remaining minority – being those excluded from the majority by inequality, divisiveness or, to pick a random example, religious choice – has a voice,  is protected and can also access the same quality of service and/or opportunity as everyone else.

For example, the majority view might be that immigration is too high and a drain on public services. As such, it might be popular (and therefore appropriate if the job is to get elected) to campaign on a platform of addressing this issue by committing to reduce immigration – unless, I don’t know, promising to boost public service spending is an equally valid alternative, of course! (But we best let that lie, for now…). Once in government, however, there is an additional requirement to understand the consequences of a promised political approach and to adapt the approach accordingly.

For example, when preparing a manifesto policy commitment for implementation once in government, it might be appropriate to:

  • Undertake an analysis of the net impact of immigration;
  • Give due consideration to how those pesky individuals (be they Syrian, French, Australian, Icelandic… or simply human) with a genuine reason to fear for their lives or livelihoods could be processed outside any controls designed to prevent those issues of health and/or benefits tourism that are so whipped up in the court of public opinion: you know, how they could benefit from those British (Human) Values (Rights) that we purport to espouse;
  • Look up some robust evidence to sit alongside the gut instincts of those encountered on the doorstep

The result? Well, hopefully, in the given example, a balanced immigration policy that recognises the net benefits of immigration and draws a distinction between migration and asylum seeking. We Guardian-reading liberals can but hope.

To be clear, the current crisis in Europe is not a Migrant Crisis, no matter the shorthand that has emerged. It is a People-Fleeing-for-their-Lives-Because-of-a-War-in-part-Evolved-from-the-Actions-and-Inactions-of-Western-Politicians Crisis. There’s a distinction, and not even a fine one.

If ever war came to the UK, perhaps as a result of an uprising of fundamentalist Anglicans from Norwich, I’d like to hope that the citizens of the word would open their arms to receive me and my family as we flee a country under the oppressive slip-on loafers of jumble sale-hosting, tea cake-eating and 24 hours a day reruns of the Antiques Roadshow-watching vicars.

So, Jeremy, John – Lads…

By all means pitch for the majority in your effort to get elected (hint: the majority are in the middle – that’s why it’s the middle). But recognise the purpose of Government is different from the objectives of a movement: you need to govern for everybody, not the majority; you need to lead (but not seek to convert) those who will not follow you or believe in you, as much as those that will.

Sadly, I suspect that whatever pitch you make, the effort will not yield the number of seats required for Labour to unseat the Government on its own. By dint of the electoral system, where I live, I will not be voting for Labour, I will be voting against the Tories. (Hey, Jeremy, you’re right on bold fonts – I’m into it).

Does the best placed second candidate in my constituency represent a party with a manifesto and a track record which I can wholeheartedly support? Not especially, but she could well win and seems committed to serving her constituents in a manner the incumbent does not. And that would be a better outcome than voting with my heart for someone else and losing.

Truth is I have never voted in a General Election for the party which has subsequently gone on to form a Government. Truth too is that I have always voted tactically, the exception being 1997. I have, on two occasions, got my preferred MP.

In Tooting in 2010 it was Labour’s Sadiq Khan who benefited from my vote against the clearly reprehensible Tatler Tory Mark Clarke – my instincts as to his odious character later upheld, however unsatisfactorily, by Clifford Chance’s review of Clarke’s activities within the Tory Party.

Finally – and I promise it is the final point – I am struck by what is missing from your list of things your government will address. It is the key point on which Mrs May is seeking a public mandate (while incidentally benefiting from her profoundly obvious tactical advantage, which is by no means the intention of calling an election now): Brexit.

Remember, you said:

Labour will be offering the country an effective alternative to a government that has failed to rebuild the economy, delivering a fall in living standards and damaging cuts to our schools and NHS.

This is not a typical General Election.

I am less concerned with what the Government, across two terms and seven years, has failed to deliver. I am most concerned with what it intends to do next. If the Tory’s achieve, say, 15 million votes and a clear majority on the back of a manifesto built on the platform of a hard Brexit, it will be able to argue that the votes of 25% of the population give greater legitimacy to the notion of committing economic and cultural suicide than did the vote of the broadly-in-favour-of-leaving-in-some-form-or-other-to-a-greater-or-lesser-extent-but-we-haven’t-really-thought-it-through-and-anyway-I-wasn’t-really-voting-on-that-it-was-a-protest-against-the-political-elite-I-want-my-country-back-(no-I-didn’t-mean-like-that-!) 51.9%.

If that sounds like remoaning, that’s fine. If remaining is no longer a valid option, then I’m happy to lose an “i” and gain an “o” – at least it’s close to the original. I live in a constituency of remoaners, so I’m not alone.

So, Jeremy… was there something you wanted to say about what your version of Brexit would look like? I’d encourage you to say something, because where Mrs May has long argued that to reveal her plan to parliament would be to weaken her hand in negotiations, surely the Conservative Manifesto will be silent on Brexit

…unless she just was making excuses

…you don’t think

…no, that can’t possibly be it

…sorry

…I don’t know where my cynicism comes from sometimes.

Either way, Labour can make its position on Brexit clear – perhaps it is:

  • For an exit that preserves the opportunity for businesses and social enterprises to access the free market in exchange for a fair contribution to the EU budget and a commitment to the (not unreasonably) free movement of people outside the Schengen Agreement – oh, hang on, the UK wasn’t subject to Schengen anyway… Oops, did everyone know that?
  • Against an “exit at any cost” approach that puts the future economic prosperity of the UK at risk;
  • For an approach that continues to recognise the progress made on human rights, employment protections and tax co-operation in conjunction with Europe and furthers these around areas such as the gig economy, the gender pay gap and offshore tax avoidance;
  • Against the rolling back of security and intelligence co-operation threatened in Mrs May’s first missive to the EU

(Do you like how I formatted the text, Jeremy? I’m an approval junkie…)

 I don’t think you’ll win. (Sorry, I’ll turn that off now).

But I do retain a hope, sequestered safely within my little liberal social media and friendship bubble, that between Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Independents, there might coalesce sufficient parliamentary heft to offer the country and the 75% minority that can’t / won’t / don’t vote Tory, an effective voice and maybe even a hand brake against the ideologically driven pursuit of a hard Brexit. (I understand why you and Come-on-Tim! are against the formalised left of centre co-operation suggested by Caroline, but there are, perhaps, softer means at your disposal.)

With such a collective of anti-Tories (for want of a better term) would come an opportunity to fight for a properly funded NHS, in which services critical to those that cannot afford private healthcare are not left in the hands of publicly-contracted private healthcare providers; a position from which the mess left by the ideologically-driven reduction in affordable homes funding in the desperate hope that private finance could be leveraged off Government’s balance sheet against increased social rental rates, can be pointed up and despaired of before the House as the disaster it has proven to be; where education funding – including the revisions to the schools funding formula and amended definitions of deprivation within it – is scrutinised and challenged.

Come on, Jeremy. You can do this.

I do not think – and have never thought – that you are the leader Labour needs, but your elevation to that position is hardly your fault. Twice. I don’t even disagree with much of what you stand for. But it seems to have been forgotten by some of your supporters that Labour is a political party and not a movement. The aspiration of its leader should be to become the CEO of UK plc, not to remain the plucky activist shouting forever from the sidelines.

These roles seem broadly incompatible and perhaps CEO, UK plc is a position that you cannot, in good faith, aspire to fulfil. It appears to contradict the values that define you.

If that’s the case, good on you: you should be proud of your commitment to pacifism and social justice; you should take pride also in serving the people of your constituency generously and with dedication. In short, you should be an MP.

It’s just that the leader of a political party that aspires to government cannot be the person I suspect you are. Ruthless pragmatism is ultimately more electable – even if eventually it will lead to derision and the loss of popular opinion. Prime Ministers always fail because the system requires it. Like Timelords, there will always be a surge of optimism when the role is recast, followed by recriminations in series 3.

Sorry about that. I really am sorry about that. That’s what happens when the head rules the heart.

Well, Jeremy… Best of luck for 8th June, and all that.

In the interim, look around you. It might just be that the least of your enemies will be more helpful than the best of your friends in the weeks ahead, when it comes to fighting the common enemy without.

 

Yours sincerely etc.

Re. thinking


If to drive to Edinburgh from East Sussex is beyond the call of duty, then to drive back again a few days later is barely rational. But this was not about duty, it was about family; and as my mother dozed on and off on the way there and more soundly on the return the purpose was clear and the rationale convincing – to me, at least. 

On the way up, music sustained us: the relatively countrified airs of the likes of Margot Price prevailed, as if the iPhone’s shuffle function were steering away from Nick Cave, John Spencer and paeans to the freedom of Satpal Ram because it knew who I was with. Later though, I felt the need to introduce my mum – insomniac and boxset omnivore that she is – to the podcast Serial. 

By the time we hit Edinburgh, we were about eighty percent through the story of Adnan Syed, Hae Min Lee and Jay. From the M6 Toll up to the A71 that cuts across from just south of Glasgow to the one way roads and 20mph speed limits of Scotland’s capital, Serial baton twirler Sarah Koenig, all journalistic fervour, logos and pathos in perfect balance, made the story re-familiar to me, and stirred mum’s interest in her fitful woken moments.

Later, what passed in Edinburgh was both sad and affirming: the sadness of illness, the uplifting freedom of someone breaking past their grief, the surprising balance of those more notorious for their sense of familial injustice and grudge. For me, it was a trip to level the cycnism developed in absentia; for mum, it was, I think, a chance to say goodbye – and also hello – to those she’s been away from so long.

Maybe I’ve always been a cynic: I joke, from time to time, that I hit forty-three at ten and I’m just waiting to catch up. But in my return to the country that laid the foundation for perhaps half of me, the perfectionism of a cousin I’d assumed itinerant and lost in drugs applying a third coat of gloss to the bedroom woodwork of an aunt who won’t live to see it yellow; in the walking liberation of my uncle from the oddities of his grief, and in the acceptance of the uncles who’ve been barred from the bedside of their dying sister for a distant sleight, I feel ashamed of my preconceived distaste. 

But if that’s not to be lingered on here, then the journey back provided another chance to re-assess a given and to emerge in a more positive frame of mind. Serial, season two, commenced somewhere around Carlisle. This was the season that, initial commitment faltering, I left around episode 6, unable to sustain forced loyalty. But here, in the five or so hours that followed, was a chance – above the sound of mum’s breathing as she caught up the sleep denied the night before by fire alarms and worry – to reappraise. 

And I think I’ve come to appreciate Serial 2 for what it is: superior journalism; a good This American Life or RadioLab episode, a solid New Yorker profile. Like a long-form essay, Bowe Bergdhal’s story – so recently extended as the motion to dismiss on the basis that Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric constituted “unlawful command influence” was denied – is told with rigour (or maybe rigor for American cousins), tenacity and charm by the Serial team. Yes, there are shortfalls versus the case of Adnan Syed: less focus on the what and more of the why; a less sympathetic, empathetic character in the lead role; the extension of the narrative in the geo-political and away from the personal: but stil, superior journalism from Koenig and co. 

In just the last few days it has been trailed that the new series S-Town from producer Dana Chivvis – one of the twin beating hearts of Serial – will be deliver en block in March 2017. With my faith reaffirmed I will be listening. 

As for Edinburgh, it seems likely – though I hope it’s a while away still – that there will be another trip coming up. Perhaps the journey will present the chance to binge, boxset-like, on S-Town. Whatever, I hope that, like Serial 2, my next trip to Scotland pre-empts a similar reappraisal. There are times when brothers should act as brothers and sisters as sisters, if only out of respect for the departed (or departing). And if not, perhaps I’ll force the issue. Peace must break out, even if it takes desperate sadness to provide the path.

I’ll Never Subscribe to a Streaming Service…

All right, we’ve got Netflix and Amazon Prime but then I’ve got kids and there’s Ninjago and Paw Patrol and, god help us, Horseland… And The Good Wife, Designated Survivor, Jessica Jones, Touch, Sense 8, but that’s beside the point. I mean, I’ll never subscribe to a music streaming service. 

I like to own my music. I like to feel the product in my hand, to run my fingers along the fissures in the brittle jewel cases, to read, braille-like, the indentations in the squidgy cardboard sleeves born in the early-00s. There’s no substitute for battered bits of plastic and paper lying around, their erstwhile contents getting scratched as careless hands replace them in the wrong boxes.

Then my phone provider (EE, to give them a call out), sent me a message inviting me to access Apple Music for free for six months. In the process, not only have they committed me from July 2017 to paying £10 per month to access my music, but they have re-invigorated my interest in “new” music. I say “new” because little of it is truly “new” but rather is those albums that, in the last twenty-years or so, I was never quite ready to splash hard-earned cash on. Those albums that, when faced with in the CD exchange in Wimbledon never quite made it to the top of the list – often leapfrogged by albums I’d never heard of by artists I knew only by association through written reviews in Uncut, the Sunday Times and the Guardian.

So, now I am truly hooked on this nagging Apple drug, here are the top five discoveries I have made – and should have made (for the most part) 10-20 years ago…

Can – Ege Bamyasi

I really don’t have the musical vocabulary to describe Can. Suffice it to say that the album sounds ahead of the curve, insistent and infectiously flirtatious; frighteningly danceable rhythms, fluid and free – no Can, no Pavement, no Siouxsie, no mid to late period Radiohead (or a thousand other bands now at the forefront of modern “post”-“rock”). It is almost impossible to believe you are listening to an album from 1972.

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

I don’t really like what has come to be known as R&B (as distinct from rhythm and blues), and while iTunes has it that Freetown Sound is an “alternative album,” it has strong elements of what I think of as that genre. But, what I really hear is soul. Curtis Mayfield’s version of soul, with something of his intensely political but affirmative voice, guided along the pathways opened by Massive Attack and refined by Dev Hynes in his Blood Orange guise. 

It’s not an album designed, I think, to speak directly to a middle class, middle aged white man like me, but like Janelle Monàe’s The ArchAndroid, it transcends my limitations. I don’t understand it. The reference points I do get – Michael Jackson, 80s funk… – are not highlighted on my musical map. But, damn, it’s great to listen to.

Calexico & Iron & Wine – In the Reins

Phew. After Can and Blood Orange, I feel like I back on familiar terrain. Guitars? Check. Shuffling drums? Check. Pedal Steel? Check. Calexico is one of those Uncut championed bands I never quite got around to. I had a few tracks from the magazine’s Unconditionally Guaranteed CDs and, whenever they came up, I nodded along and thought “I like this.” Similarly, Iron & Wine was a band I knew more as a reference point for bands that I liked than because of any particular listening experience.

Listening to these two bands working collaboratively has led me to downloading more of each back catalogue, but this is the album I’ve most frequently come back to. I suppose at 28 minutes, I should probably call it an EP rather than an album, but it feels whole and complete. The harmonies between Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam and Calexico’s Joey Burns are tight and prove more than the sum of their parts, the bursts of stax horns on History of Lovers have the transformative quality that I find in all my favourite songs.

Case/Lang/Viers – Case/Lang/Viers

Skimming through my record collection reveals a soft spot for singer songwriters, and specifically for the literate, intellectually engaged ones, such as Thea Gilmore, Cat Power and Sara Watkins. And here are three of them, working together: Neko Case, KD Lang and Laura Viers.

I know each to some degree or other, with Neko Case being my strongest suit but Lang perhaps the best known. I know none well enough to easily pick out who might be leading each track. But that hardly matters where there is no weak link (in absolute or relative terms) and the true magic is the way they blend their voices in service of the material, the harmony’s recalling Jenny Lewis’ collaboration with the Watson Twins, while never allowing one voice to stand above. 

If the Case/Lang/Viers moniker suggests the dusty offices of a regional firm of accountants, there is nothing about the songs that sounds as if bean-counters have been at work. Each song sounds crafted, the songwriting and arrangements mapped out to punch in the right places and lull in others, the guitars, bass and drums foundation supplemented by inventive string arrangements and pedal steel. Just beautiful.

Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker – Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour

I first heard of Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker via Jim Moray’s Low Culture Podcast. Like Moray, C&W take folk music in a direction where more is seen as more. However, where Moray is, on occasion, a folk McCartney with no-one to hold him back, C&W introduce a little more light and shade, though mostly shade. NCBBTH is a melancholy listen, but not a depressing on.

The key hooks here are the clarity of Clarke’s vocals (neither overly mannered, in the way that makes us impure-folkies cringe a little, nor a faux American sop to Anais Mitchell’s reviled “poppers” in Hadestown), the musical complexity of Walker’s guitar lines and Clarke’s multi-instrumental flourishes. Added to these, traditional arrangements aside, Clarke’s lyrics are thoughtful, the glass half full, but still filled with a sweet liquor. Time moves on, losses are felt and it is well worth joining Clarke and Walker on the journey.

So, I was wrong. I owe my friend Pip an apology for being so absolute in my conviction that nothing good would ever come of music by subscription. And I owe EE for dangling Apple Music before me. I will still buy music that enthrals me so that I can hold it and turn the pages of the liner (something digital has yet to provide with any great facility). 

That aside, the entity I will doubtless end up owing most to is Apple. From what I can see, Apple Music pays artists around the same as Spotify, within a band running from around $0.0010 to $0.0019 and, according to data on http://www.informationisbeautiful.net, has a reach exceeded only by Spotify and YouTube. 

Is that enough? I’m not sure and those that can afford to challenge the business model should do so. Doubtless the market will finally assert itself over the artist, but there is little doubt that, through Apple Music, I will listen to a wider variety of music, more often than I would have done without it. Maybe that’s a contribution of sorts.  

Lambchop at the Roundhouse, lightly grilled

Photo (c) Andrew Lynch

As Kurt told us, it’s not over ’til the fat lady gets home. Well, the little fat man got home at 2am on a bus masquerading as a train. And yet, the memories of Lambchop’s gig at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm remain, well, not fresh exactly, but warm, sentimental and somewhat romantic – but then, it’s a Lambchop gig, so that should come as no surprise. 

This was a much smaller line up than when I saw them at the Barbican playing their way through the whole of Nixon, the album that brought their commercial peak. Tonight, bass, drums (digital and acoustic, with a smattering of synth noodling), piano (doubling up on stand-up routines) and Mr K Wagner Esq. on Gibson archtop, synths, midi-controller(?) and vocals, played mostly from the songbook of new album FLOTUS – a reference to Democratic political activist and former record shop owner Mary Mancini, whose husband just happens to be the Lambchop front man. 

FLOTUS is not an album I know well yet, suckered as I am still most often by the charms of What Another Man Spills, which is where Lambchop started for me in 1998. (Even at 21 I was essentially 42). If pressed, I couldn’t write out a set list for last night, not least because many of the new songs are built on similar foundations: lightly brushed drums, intricate but mellow bass lines, deft piano accents and Kurt’s voice, swamped in analogue delay and a softly doubling chorus that substitutes for the album’s experiments in autotune.

And it’s a unique voice: a rich, mellow (there’s that word again) baritone. Settled in a comfortable mid-range, words are half sung, half spoken. It might become monotone if not for occasional swoops from subterranean Isaac Hayes rumble to highfalutin’ Curtis Mayfield yelps. In truth, over the last few albums, Kurt’s vocals had, to my ears, become more staccato and compressed. Here, the swathes of delay fill out the sound until it becomes truly organic, despite its digital support. The side effect is that many of the words are indecipherable, which for a band benefiting from Kurt’s unique, sharply observed and very funny view of the world, seems a shame initially. But on the FLOTUS songs, the voice is treated as another instrument in the mix and I couldn’t be absolutely sure there were actual words for which to strain. Of course, just occasionally clarity broke through the soup and when it happened my companion and I were reduced to fits of giggles as a perfectly created and witty image was skilfully sketched in a handful of words.

If FLOTUS really is the album Kurt wrote in the hope that Mary might find room for it in the car alongside her more modern pop sensibilities, then I hope she only plays it on journeys without a pressing time of arrival. As the band settles into each casual groove, moving along with impeccable taste and little haste, the audience is lulled into a meditative state. This is music for travelling at a steady 55mph on a die straight highway with the wheel locked off, roof on, lost in thought. Some people took the chance to sleep. And it was quiet enough to sleep. Never have I heard a band delight in playing as quietly as Lambchop. Had the set continued until 1am, none of the Roundhouse’s neighbours would have had cause to complain. 

After a solid hour and 40, the gig ended with an encore straight out of Lambchop playbook. Would they play the big hit (if there is one, it is probably Up With People from Nixon) or maybe wheel out the cover of Young Americans that wowed the Barbican audience back in January 2015? The band shuffle back on, drop into a easy groove and another low key, soulful gem emerges: Lambchop please by doing things their way and sincerely hoping you like it. And that’s that. Warm appreciation all around, received and reciprocated with typical Southern charm. Then we’re off, Lambchop most likely to sip a beer in silent companionship while I savour the delights of the train and the bus. 

Always Meet Your Heroes

Mark Kermode is a film critic – and yes, they really do matter – for the Observer and BBC TV and Radio, and he has a book out: Hatchet Job, in which he asks whether critics remain relevant (yes), whether they can sink a stinker (no) and how their role is evolving while even the content of a good review remains constant. And tonight my friend Rhiannon and I went to see him in conversation with Andrew Abbott, with whom Kermode had made the documentary The Fear of God, amongst others.

You aren’t meant to meet your heroes, but here he was, albeit Mayo-less, be-quiffed, as black as a Johnny Cash-a-like and large as life in the V&A holding forth before a rapt audience, selling familiar jokes with studied confidence and always referencing the work of others: Roger Ebert scoring best, but closely followed by Philip French with nods to Peter Bradshaw, Kim Newman, Alexander Walker and Chris Tookey. Simon Brew of Den of Geek should also grab a copy of the recording whenever he’s next feeling a bit low.

And alongside the familiar jokes, the intellectual capital advanced was also familiar. If you have read The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex and Hatchet Job, and indeed had them read to you by Kermode himself via the audiobooks; if your iPod is groaning under the digital weight of multiple podcasts (that’s if hard drives get heavier the more information that is on them…); if you are that, er…, dedicated then there was nothing new.

But that did not mean it was fresh. More it was comfortable without lulling the audience to sleep, knowing without being smug. Kermode is an excellent raconteur and, with Abbott allowing him full flow in front of an audience well primed to survive the erudition and insights without the need for Mayo’s always relevant intercessions for the casual listener on the a Radio 5 show, easy on the ear.

The evening ended with a relaxed Q&A:

Can films be so bad they’re good? Mostly bad films are just bad… Cannibal Women in The Avocado Jungle of Death gets a mention as a possible exception to that rule.

Any tips of would be film critics? Keep plugging away. After 6 months most wannabe film critics don’t want to be film critics, but persevere and you’ll probably make it if it’s really what you want.

A run through some good old Trotskyite views on the value of labour and the anecdote about Werner Herzog getting shot during an interview and time has flown by.

So, Mark Kermode… Tick!

Maybe I wouldn’t go so far as to say hero, but Kermode is certainly one of my touchstones, that endlessly BBC, Guardian-toting list of cultural icons that would leave a hole if they decided enough was enough and exited, stage left.

Some, Alan Coren, Humphrey Lyttleton… have already made that exit leaving only the memories of learning to dance with Sergeant Wronga or King Alfred’s proclaimation: “I have the Hampton of a Norse!”

Maybe one day the heady recollection will be of Kermode’s reviews of Transformers 1, 2 and 3, or Sex In The City 2, or anything by Gore Verbinski (and I’m sorry Mark, but it will always be the rants that remain longest in the mind).

But for the moment he exists with the others on the touchstone list still creating new insights, humour, poignancy and affection: Jeremy Hardy, David Sedaris, Sandi Toksvig, Stephen Fry, Jesse Bearing, Armand Marie Leroi, Terry Pratchett… and Mark Kermode.

And long may it continue.

Wilco, Anna and Out

Two gigs in one weekend at my time of life – all right, I’m only 33 for a few more weeks, at least – might be stretching it a bit, particularly in two different cities, with two different companions and an added visit to the parents with a three year old in between, but Wilco at the Roundhouse (Camden) on Saturday and Anna Calvi at Concorde 2 (Brighton) were well worth the effort and also, I think as the JavaTM cup of tea winks at me suggestively from the corner of the screen, worth an addition to the occasional blog.

In many ways – the fantastic Mr Tweedy notwithstanding – the weekend was, partly by virtue of where I ended up standing, about two guitarists; or three, if you include Wilco support act Jonathan Wilson. For Wilco, Nels Cline came bounding on, long, loose and maroon shirted prompting Mrs Duck to turn and say: they’re really quite old, aren’t they. You’d never think Anna Calvi was a bit old – and certainly younger than the majority of the crowd at Concorde 2 – but between them they shared a sort of thin angularity that seems to make for the best guitarists. Indeed, both dragged sounds from their various Teles (Calvi), Jazzmasters, Danelectros (Cline) which seemed as outwardly angular and sharp.

As you’d expect with a band with seventeen years behind them, not to mention a wide-ranging pedigree outside the day job, versus an up and coming artist, Wilco demonstrated more range over their two hours on stage, starting up noisy and dragging in a squall-of-sound as they built from One Sunday Morning through to Bull Black Nova without much pause for breath, before Tweedy finally took the chance to say hello. Tweedy himself was on powerful form, his voice fuller and deeper than on recent albums rasping out his oblique, ambiguous words; a rumble through the mix.

Calvi started with the opening track from her eponymous album, standing to deliver a masterclass in the sort of clean tones you can wring the combination of single coils and Vox amp, summoning a storm in baroque, semi classical motifs, revelling in the space between the notes. There was to a simple, stumpy mind, a whiff of Buckley (jnr) to her performance; something in the vocal range, superb control of dynamics and ability to draw on an almost operatic vibrato at the top of her range. Or maybe it was the Gary Lucas-y magic guitariness that hinted at the opening bars of Grace (see the “Songs to No-one 1991-1992” version). Or it could just be that I’m aware that the co-founder of Domino Records (Calvi’s label) was at Big Cat and gets a name check in the Grace liner notes and I’m being fanciful… In any case, even with the guitar set aside (to rest a wrist injury), crooning an Elvis cover, Calvi is a magnetic presence.

A third of the way through Wilco’s set, they are on what must surely count as one of the more spectacular party pieces in rock. With Tweedy and John Stirrat (increasingly prominent on backing vocals as the night progresses) picking up the rootsy vibe, Wilco pushed into their murder ballad Via Chicago only for, part way through the song Glenn Kotche to go into meltdown on the drums before the song bursts through back into the country air. Three times this happens, first with Kotche alone in the middle of his breakdown and then joined first by Cline and then by Stirrat and Pat Sansone to leave Tweedy gentle strumming through the carnage. Surely this is what Tweedy’s famous migraines must’ve felt like.

Such is the brilliance of Wilco’s playing and unity as a band, that such musical coup de theatre are liberally scattered across a set that became more jovial and relaxed as it progressed, the audience warming from appreciation through to genuine love. It’s hard to think of another band that could inspire a large crowd to chorus the opening line “impossible Germany; unlikely Japan”. The culmination of this progression towards feel good was perhaps the appearance on stage for the encore of Nick Lowe, introduced by Tweedy as the Jesus of Cool, for a spirited reading of Cruel To Be Kind, with Tweedy and Stirrat singing back up vocals into a single mic like a later day McCartney and Harrison.

Calvi’s encore then was The Devil, finding her standing apparently alone centre stage, holding the attention of the rapt Concorde crowd; and after that an Edith Piaf cover that drew on similarly devilish imagery before we all departed late into the Brighton night.

Wilco obviously benefited from the warmth of the crowd toward them and the substance of their back catalogue. They were musically superb, assured and apparently capable of rolling out any song you wanted with precision and drive. Calvi is more glacial and crowd more obviously musos than fans; occasionally, you maybe wish for a crack in the ice, a burst of emotion through the control and hauteur – her intersong chat, as minimal as it was suggested a shyness that the performance overcomes. But still she is a dynamic presence with a surfeit of ideas and the technical accomplishment to go anywhere. Overall, a hell of a weekend, and an excellent use of that extra hour.

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I’m with the mutants across the road

On Sunday just gone, Teddington Theatre Club (TTC)’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man” won (jointly) best play at the Richmond-Upon-Thames drama awards (the Swans) for 2010/11. That achievement reflects the excellent efforts of the cast and crew and rewards the decision of TTC’s artistic committee to both suggest and back the production. It also rewards the commitment we made, cited by the judges, to craft a production that was a sensitive treatment of disability and difference that a modern audience would grasp and, hopefully, reflect on. It seems appropriate in that context to republish here my programme note by way of thanks to all those who made the production possible.

Director’s note

Eighteen months ago I read Armand Marie Leroi’s book “Mutants”, in part in preparation for “Elephant Man”, although it has since taken on a broader importance. I have since read it twice more. If I’m honest, my understanding of the science of genetics probably reached its peak about a third of the way into the second reading – and will never progress further – but my appreciation of the story has continued to grow. There is a key theme, building on Francis Bacon: mutants – those people with genetic difference arising from errors in the code by which they’re programmed – are central to understanding what we are, why we develop in the way we do and why our bodies malfunction and die.

Or in summary, if we understand those people who are different from ourselves, we understand ourselves better.

Leroi tells this story through a mixture of modern science, teratology – the archaic study of monsters – and descriptions of early genetic experiments from splicing newt DNA in Freiburg just prior to the second world war to experiments on dwarves in it; there are also case studies of some of the more celebrated mutants throughout history, including Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man.

Merrick’s doctor, Freddie Treves, late of Dorchester, friend of Thomas Hardy and physician to the wealthy and successful, wrote his own case study of Merrick, famously misnaming him John. It is from this text that much of the material for Bernard Pomerance’s play is drawn. Indeed, David Lynch’s film draws from much the same source as the play, although the two are not linked otherwise.

In the film, of course, John Hurt’s Merrick comes replete with prostheses, beautifully rendered in crisp, brightly lit black and white. In the play, Pomerance proscribes the use of prosthetics and, whilst the actor must approximate the physical form and recreate the initial difficulties Merrick faced in making his speech understood, his physical deformity is of secondary concern.

That might seem a strange thing to say of a play about the Elephant Man. It’s Richard III or Quasimodo without their hunched backs; Leroux’s Phantom without the mask. The question perhaps is what we’ve come to the theatre to see.

Many of the mutants whose stories Leroi recounts were amongst those collected by the high ranking nobles of Europe for display at court: piebald Javanese children, people covered from head to toe in luxuriant hair, conjoined twins. They were there, as Merrick was, to be stared at in amazement and with amusement. Those highborn courtiers responded in much the same way as their lower born counterparts responded to the freak shows of Barnum and others. People, it seems, are always drawn to extremes.

But Pomerance’s play is not a freak show. And a reasonable question is: do the prostheses in Lynch’s film assist or detract from the story of the man beneath them? Perhaps there’s a zeitgeist-y parallel here: when Susan Boyle sang on Britain’s Got Talent, did you also think, in the words of Amanda Holden, “I wasn’t expecting that” – by extension, a “beautiful” voice to come from someone who was unattractive physically? To make up our Merrick with lumps and bumps would be to present the audience the opportunity to betray itself with the thought: I never expected something so ugly to see so much beauty in the world. It’s an instinctive thought, and one that I’m sure we’ve all had. And it does majority a disservice. Most of us feel the immediate guilt that follows.

There should be no need for guilty consciences here. My hope is that you will note the physical difficulties Merrick faces – they do, in the end, lead to his death – but to think about what he says about the world around him, his lack of bitterness and his capacity for love and faith, and to focus on what Pomerance wants us to see: just another man, with his challenges to overcome, poorly treated by those around him but doing what we all do best: become a little better every day.