Wednesday, May 28, 2008


On Monday night, Channel 4 showed a programme, laughingly called a documentary, entitled Life After People. Though it pulled down a good deal of opinion, most of it seemingly of scientific repute, it was more like an apocalyptic Hollywood vision without any actors. There couldn't be actors. As the title indicates, the programme posited a world beyond humanity.

The narration offered no rationale for a people-less world and so the entire exercise was built upon sand. The first concern of the story, chronologically, was the fate of animals. The survival of domestic pets was understandably – if unrealistically gently – addressed. Most mysteriously, the cities of the world appeared to be overrun by escaped zoo animals too. How did they escape? We were not told, any more than we learned how so many dogs got out to roam when you know that, in the endless absence of its owner, almost every dog would starve to death shut in a building. The exotic animals in city settings allowed for interesting computer-generated juxtapositions and these heralded the primary concern of the programme, which was to get to the computer simulations of great landmarks degenerating and eventually toppling. If we saw Brooklyn Bridge collapse once, we saw it six times. It wasn’t so much a science-based documentary, more a video game.

Now what kind of Armageddon will it be that wipes out humans and only humans and leaves all the buildings standing? Not a nuclear war, obviously. Not a global biological incident. Not even a viral epidemic: after all, it’s hard to imagine a virus that only affected humans yet could not be contained either medically or physically. The reason that bubonic plague took hold is the same reason that avian flu was so scary: it’s spread by uncontrollable creatures and it can jump species. A virus that jumps species will mutate sufficiently to infect at least all mammals, if not cockroaches, the most likely survivors of any catastrophe.

The day after the Channel 4 programme, BBC News reported the extent of the global threat to animals. “A third of the world's animal species have become extinct in the last three decades, figures show” the BBC website announced, a claim also made by Roger Harrabin in the report. I’m as pessimistic as anybody about the future prospects for those creatures with which we share the planet but this estimate seems way over the top. What “figures” are these that show such a thing? Harrabin cited only one creature “thought to have become extinct this year”, the Yangtze River dolphin, a rather specialized, limited example, you would think. If a third of species have gone since 1978, wouldn’t some of them be familiar, wouldn’t we have heard about them? The lion, the emu, the bullfrog, the haddock?

Of course, all life on earth, all evidence that there was ever life on earth will eventually be swept away when the sun explodes or fizzles out or the planet gets hit by a rogue meteor. Shakespeare knew this, long before all but some old tortoise somewhere was alive and he had Prospero describe it:

"Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep" [The Tempest Act IV, Scene 1]

The makers of Life After People, Americans who allowed Channel 4 to part-anglicize their work, might pay a little more attention to the giants of literature and a little less to CGI geeks.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


I happened upon BBC1’s Breakfast yesterday morning – something I usually avoid but my partner has it on in preference to the rival fare – and who should be on the studio sofa but Bobby Vee. Ah, young Robert Thomas Velline of Fargo, North Dakota. Not so young any more: 65 in fact. Not cute any more either, indeed rather odd looking, but having had something extremely expensive done to his hair, of which he flourished rather more than when my friend and I saw him at the Albert Hall in 1985. The British tour, of which that gig was the climax, featured other rock and pop legends including Ricky Nelson whose stock had been low for some years. His career thereby revived, Nelson toured the southern States later that year and died (while apparently freebasing cocaine) in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve.

Vee’s career began because of a famous plane crash, the one that killed Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and, most significantly, Buddy Holly. The stars were flying to Fargo to play a gig and 15 year-old Vee (an authentic Holly fan) and his outfit (called The Shadows: yes, really) volunteered to stand in when news of the crash broke. It will be fifty years since that event next February.

Buddy Holly was five minutes before my time. Vee and his contemporaries were the big sellers when I first bought singles. They had a very short span. Sian Williams on Breakfast hazarded that “the mid-‘60s” was his main period but by the mid-‘60s Vee and his contemporaries were dead meat, swept away by the Beatles and the British invasion and the American groups who flowered at the same time. Just as Vee began as a Holly clone, his career went down the pan pathetically imitating the mop-tops: I bet there are very few who, like me, can muster a bit of Vee’s rip-off of ‘She Loves You’, carefully entitled ‘She’s Sorry”.

Months of pestering finally brought me my own record player for my 14th birthday in 1961, which was Vee’s annus mirabilis. A Brill Building product, he was lucky enough to be assigned several songs by the cream of Brill songwriters. Lyricist Gerry Goffin and composer Jack Keller wrote ‘Run to Him’, a simple up-and-downhill stroll (compare Cliff Richard’s later and very similar ‘The Next Time’) and hence enormously addictive. Even better, Goffin wrote with his wife Carole King ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’, one of the dozen or so greatest pop singles of all time with its brilliantly bouncy harmonic tensions and that genius discord in the accompaniment near the end. Vee told Sian Williams that he’d sung this imperishable hit at his daughter’s wedding “because it was so appropriate”. I’m afraid he’s not a very interesting man. And the choice was only appropriate at the most superficial level. ‘Take Good Care’ is not about losing your baby daughter but losing your baby doll.

This was the defining feature of Vee and his contemporaries. The great majority of them were young, white, American males of a boyish appearance. And, on single after single, they sang about how horribly women treated them. The tears shed in the singles of Gene Pitney, Del Shannon, the Everly Brothers, James Darren and the very unboyish Roy Orbison would have floated the US fleet. Self-pity was the order of the day. These chaps were utterly unmanned by their women and frankly presented their predicament as terminally woeful. Quite why this parade of tearful wimps connected to the 1961 Zeitgeist is pretty hard to figure. It was the first year of the Kennedy presidency: you’d think American youth would have their tails up.

There were other young male singers who indulged less frequently in lachrymosity. Bobby Darin, as old as Orbison and in the charts since 1958, was generally upbeat, but a self-penned B side, ‘Not for Me’ (not to be confused with the Gershwins’ wry and rueful ‘But Not for Me’), is as bitter an outburst as pop music has ever devised, reinforced by an astounding burst of Rachmaninovesque piano flourish right in the middle. Neil Sedaka – never hip or fashionable but a singer/songwriter of the highest class – could even make his partner Howard Greenfield’s most pleading lyric, ‘Breaking Up is Hard to Do’, into a sunnily clap-along number (and another contender for all-time great pop single).

But the prevailing mood was doomy and tragic. “I’m a-walkin’ in the rain,” sang Del Shannon in ‘Runaway’, just about the biggest selling disc of 1961. “Tears are fallin’ and I feel the pain”. Was it the girls who were buying these singles and feeling that they had the boys over a barrel?

Perhaps the most extraordinary example of this curious sub-genre of pop came in the following year. Johnny Burnette, the most country-inflected of the pop idols of the early 1960s, was generally celebratory about women in his singles: ‘Dreamin’, ‘You’re Sixteen’, ‘Girls’. But ‘Clown Shoes’ is a buttock-clenching tale of the public humiliation of a boy by a girl, quoting her with a kind of self-lacerating relish as she presents the gift that constitutes the song's title: “I bought these specially/For all your friends to see … In these you’ll look real smart/Because they match your heart”. The soaring melody and lush string backing only add to the small-town melodrama foregrounded in the yarn. It was written by one James Marcus Smith, who was later better known for the outlandish performing persona he adopted as PJ Proby. One of Smith’s Proby singles was called ‘I Apologize” and he should have done so for his complete lack of probity as the trouser-splitting Proby. But ‘Clown Shoes’ is a perverse work of genius.

At least Proby is a survivor, like Bobby Vee and Neil Sedaka. Several of the performers who sang of such heartache died prematurely: Burnette at 30, Darin at 37, Shannon, a suicide, and Orbison – whose life was marked by personal tragedy – before they were 60.

Gene Pitney suffered a fatal heart attack a couple of years back at 66. He died the classic showbiz death, alone in a provincial hotel room. Pitney was a songwriter before he was a singer – he wrote Ricky Nelson’s biggest British hit, the catchy, optimistic ‘Hello Mary Lou’ – but as a singer he favoured tragic material penned by others. His biggest hit in Britain was 1964’s ‘I’m Gonna Be Strong’, written by another great husband-and-wife team from the Brill Building, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. This song, built simply on a relentlessly rising figure, belies its own title with the lyric’s climax: “And you’ll never know, darling,/After you’ve kissed me goodbye,/How I’ll break down and cry”, the last word sustained over a succession of notes that rises into the stratosphere. Its opening musical phrase is identical to that of Chris Farlowe’s biggest hit two years later, Jagger & Richards’ ‘Out of Time’ (Pitney knew and worked with the Stones). Both songs deserve support as all-time-great-pop-single contestants, along with Colin Blunstone’s revival of the crushed boy threnody in ‘I Don’t Believe in Miracles’ of 1972. But Farlowe’s hit is the opposite of self-pitying, a disdainful dismissal of a “poor, old-fashioned baby”.

Of course Farlowe’s generation of heroes of popular music had their own share of casualties, as well as the odd song that wallowed in the fickleness and faithlessness of women. But I doubt that any other period of popular culture has ever announced itself as quite so sorry for itself or quite so sexually insecure.

Friday, May 09, 2008


Once again, the rest of the world stands aghast, wringing its hands and doing nothing, while a gigantic, avoidable tragedy unfolds within the borders of a nation led by dictators. Just as Robert Mugabe waits out the slow-motion fixing of the presidential run-off election that, through repression and intimidation, will ensure that he stays in office until his death, so the tin-pot Hitlers who run Myanmar (Burma) turn away the world’s proffered assistance and instead concentrate on a make-believe referendum to fix the nation’s constitution in the junta’s favour.

A week after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy delta, killing tens of thousands of people, tens of thousands more have still not received the most basic aid. Trapped by floodwater full of bloated corpses and by the collapse of the transport infrastructure, these survivors will not remain survivors for much longer. They will swell the casualty numbers, slain by starvation, disease and the hubris of the military.

Emergency rations, clean water and shelter stand by at the country’s borders. The aid workers may not cross the borders because they have not been issued with the ‘necessary’ visas. The office that issues the visas has today closed for a three-day holiday. (What a nice idea: I hear the Bay of Bengal can be lovely at this time of year).

The regime has suggested that it is happy to accept aid from anywhere but in reality is only allowing representatives from China, Russia and India (nations it considers relatively friendly) to convey equipment and supplies. It pretends that parcels of aid handed out by ministers and petty officials in small, thumpingly staged ceremonies demonstrates that the problem is in hand. Just as Mugabe is indifferent to the suffering of his people – may indeed be in clinical denial about it – so the Burmese dictatorship kabal is oblivious to conditions that its members will never see at first hand.

That the UN cannot summon the will to intervene is a scandal. UN forces should simply enter Myanmar as an advance guard to clear the way for the aid workers. Any resistance from the half-million-strong military should be quelled with whatever force is deemed necessary. If the regime tries to turn this compassionate invasion into a war, the junta should be bombed out of their offices and palaces – in a poor country, it is not difficult to identify where the rich live and they all live at the expense of the poor. Any members of the government who are seized can be brought before the international courts of justice in due course. The same action ought to have been taken in Zimbabwe by now.

“Oh, but …” you may cry “… this is a sovereign nation. You can’t just go in and throw your weight about”. Oh, but you can. Iraq is the very useful precedent. However illegal was the invasion of that nation in 2003, no government or statesman has been called to account. The humanitarian motive for invading Myanmar is rather more noble and pressing than the protection of American oil interests that was the true motive for the attack on Baghdad. Let the UN go into both Myanmar and Zimbabwe in the name of humanity and democracy everywhere and bring down these scoundrels and save the people of these nations from, respectively, oppression, poverty and disease and (in the other case) oppression, poverty and disease.

Saturday, May 03, 2008


Boris Johnson is the most preposterous figure in professional politics since Sir Gerald Nabarro. Yet the citizens of London have elected him mayor by a comfortable margin in preference to Ken Livingstone, one of the wiliest and most accomplished politicians this side of Bill Clinton. Have Londoners taken leave of their senses? Do they hate Gordon Brown’s government so profoundly that they are prepared to sacrifice a consummate operator for an indisciplined twit?

Nothing in politics is ever simple, except when it is. There can be little doubt that Livingstone, along with hundreds of humble local councillors across the land, has paid the price for the government’s ham-fistedness over the last six months. BBC commentators keep issuing what they call “a health warning” against extrapolating calculations about the state of play at Westminster from the local election figures but there can be little doubt that, with some notable exceptions (Wales, Liverpool), voters are more concerned to “send a message” to Downing Street than to reward or punish local councillors of whose work they are at best very dimly aware.

Time and again, the national coverage (again, the BBC especially) has been apologetic – perhaps with no great sincerity – for giving time to the race for mayor. No need for apology in my book. Ken Livingstone was certainly the only mayoral figure in Britain to whom I could put a name and I surely am not unique. Livingstone always had a national profile, as Johnson does. So does Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat candidate who came in a very distant third. I doubt that any of the parties – certainly not the Tories and Labour – will ever run a London candidate who does not already have name recognition. It’s a chicken and egg thing, but I suspect that the London mayoral race will always be followed nationally and that the candidates will reflect that following.

Livingstone certainly made a contribution to his own demise. His cavalier way with public funds is hardly unique among public servants or peculiar to one or other party. His embrace of Islam would have been sufficient by itself to prevent me from voting for him (though I would never have voted for Johnson). But he has also been subjected to a sustained and vitriolic attack by Associated Newspapers (the Mail group), concentrated in the Evening Standard, the capital’s only surviving citywide paper that is not a free sheet. Moreover, there was a disgraceful television hatchet job by a man who, strangely enough, is evidently the political editor of the New Statesman. The poisons from such biased and unproven coverage were bound to have some effect. Belatedly, The Guardian tried to drum up a head of steam against Johnson but I suspect it was largely preaching to the converted.

Previously sound voters appear to have turned out for Johnson. One old friend expressed “hatred” for Livingstone, founded, she admitted, on his accusation that a Standard journalist was behaving like a concentration camp guard. I frankly don’t understand the argument that, because the journalist declared to Livingstone that he was Jewish, the then mayor should have withdrawn the remark. He wasn’t being gratuitously anti-semitic, he was making a point about people who justify their behaviour by claiming that they’re only doing their job.

The reporter door-stepped Livingstone as he returned from a party. No doubt Livingstone was not wholly sober. He spoke unguardedly to a pushy reporter from a paper he had every reason to despise and mistrust. Who can blame him? As one was who a member of the National Union of Journalists for thirty years, I say without a qualm that journalists are, by and large, the scum of the earth. Livingstone made a slighting remark about a reporter. His Jewishness was neither here nor there. Indeed, Livingstone could have argued, reasonably enough, that, being Jewish, the reporter ought to have been all the more reluctant than any gentile to use the doing-my-job justification. I am sure that Livingstone is anti-Zionist but then so is every Jew that I know.

Boris Johnson, on the other hand, is avowedly and gratuitously racist, sexist, homophobic and a snob. What kind of a signal does that send to the world? Yet people who blithely deplored Italians voting Silvio Berlusconi back into office last week went out and voted for Johnson this week. Another reason my friend gave for voting against Livingstone was that she remembered covering the Poulson/T Dan Smith scandal in Newcastle some 35 years ago and reckoned that being too long in office is corrupting. I’m not wholly persuaded by this. It seems a slightly less daffy version of the reason my Auntie Freda gave for voting Tory back in 1970: “I think it’s their turn”. I remembering thinking at the time: “it’s got nothing to do with being their turn and everything to do with you being a Tory”. Five’ll get you ten she couldn’t bring herself to vote Labour in 1964, even out of that professed sense of fair play.

If you’re going to argue that parties in power lose touch with their roots and their reality, you’re arguing for changing your own politics on a regular basis, merely so that you can vote the other lot in after a suitable interval. That makes no sense to me. I think Blair was the worst prime minister of my lifetime and that Brown has been a crushing disappointment. After an adulthood of voting Labour, usually for somebody who didn’t get returned to parliament, I voted Liberal Democrat in 2001 and 2005, not because I thought it was Charlie Kennedy's "turn" but because I thought Blair was a warmonger. I can’t imagine that I will feel moved to vote Labour in 2009 or 2010, though of course a lot may change in the meantime. But I sure as hell won’t vote Tory. As things stand, there is no party I feel I can comfortably vote for.

Among the things that will have changed by 2009 or 2010 will be that London will have had a year or two of Boris Johnson as mayor. It’s an understandable expectation that he will screw up big time and that he will hence prove to be an embarrassment to David Cameron, presently basking in the success of gambling his own reputation on Johnson’s success. But as I said before, nothing in politics is ever simple. Nor is it predictable. Johnson will know that it will all fall apart in his hands if he doesn’t prove to be an expert manager and an instinctive delegator. He will give himself his best chance by surrounding himself with able people and no doubt the Tory Party will not only help him with that but want a big say in his choices. In that sense, the likeliest outcome of Johnson’s mayoralty may just be that he falls out in a big way with the party machine.