The Age of the Rock Star – A Play in Three Acts

The age of the rock star, like the age of the cowboy, has passed.”

So begins Uncommon People, the latest book by music journalist David Hepworth. Hepworth contends that the age of the rock star was finite and its span, like the Jazz Age before it, was about two score years. That’s not to say you can’t find good new rock music these days, or indeed good new jazz or classical music. But the chances of guitar-based music unearthing in 2017 someone with the cultural impact of a Presley, Lennon, McCartney or Dylan are slim to none. It’s hard to disagree with Hepworth on this. Indeed I would be more specific and say that the age of the rock star lasted almost exactly 40 years – beginning on 23 March 1956 with the release of Elvis Presley’s first album and ending on August 11 1996 in a field just outside Stevenage.

The Age of the Rock Star was in fact a play with three distinct but overlapping acts, with each act reaching its denouement on a stage in the open air to unprecedented numbers of people.

Act 1 – Rock n Roll – from Memphis to Shea Stadium

Each new age must destroy its antecedents. Provide a scorched earth upon which a new generation can roam free. So it was with Elvis Presley and the Rock n Roll explosion. 1956 was a musical Year Zero for kids all over America. Whatever they had been listening to the day before, from that point on Rock’n’Roll was the only music that mattered. Sure you could say that Bill Haley and others had got there first but it was Elvis who made millions of girls scream and millions of boys reach for the Brylcreem. From that point it was hard to imagine music not created by a combination of guitar, bass, drums and vocal.

The original rock’n’roll explosion was like the original Big Bang. Short-lived in itself, but sending out ripples which can still be felt. Within two or three years Elvis and most of the other main protagonists had departed the field in some way or other. Elvis joined the army and his manager Colonel Tom Parker felt he would be better served making formulaic movies every year rather than developing his music career. The day the music died according to the song was when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper came crashing to earth, but it could have easily been the day that Elvis joined the army. Two other giants of Rock n Roll – Chuck Berry & Jerry Lee Lewis – fell foul of the law and the court of public opinion with Berry serving time for sex with a 14 year old and Lewis marrying his 13 year old cousin. Little Richard went another way entirely, finding God and leaving the music industry to start his own ministry.

The thrill of early American rock n roll was soon subsumed into a preppy mainstream, saccharined and brushed up for a wider family appeal. But over the water people had been listening, and rock n roll thrived in the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg. If you want to hear full-on unreconstructed stripped back rock’n’roll at its best, listen to a recording of The Beatles in Hamburg. They played with the verve and energy that Elvis had lost by that point. So the music went underground for a few years, but The Beatles and the British Invasion they spearheaded brought rock n roll back home to its heartland and re-ignited the flame.

Beatlemania took rock stardom to a new level. It went truly global and reached all generations. When The Beatles played Shea Stadium in August 1965 to a then world record crowd of 56,00 it was the peak of Beatlemania and brought the rock n roll age full circle, and to its natural conclusion. Of course The Beatles would hit greater artistic heights over the next few years, but as rock n rollers this was their pinnacle. They were to quit playing live the following year after an ill-starred US tour marred by the ‘Bigger Than Jesus’ controversy. So the rock and roll story had come full circle, with a bunch of Englishmen reminding America of the excitement of the music and bringing to a close the first act of the Age of the Rock Star. But the story was by no means finished.

Act 2 – Rock – from LA to Live Aid

To both close the first age of the rock star and herald the dawn of the second takes a pretty special talent. The Beatles had such talent. Their legacy was to change forever the template by which rock music was created. From The Beatles on groups and singers were supposed to write their own material, release coherent albums rather than singles, experiment musically and take their time in the studio to create complex works.

Such was the creative energy inspired by The Beatles and Bob Dylan, there was no specific scene from this point on, no clearly defined movement as rock n roll had been. When Dylan went electric and The Beatles went Psychedelic, rock music shot off in a thousand different directions. People were not trying to sound like The Beatles, they were trying to create like them.

Things got heavier, and trippier. Guitars got louder. In the UK The Who went from edgy West London mods to rock behemoths with guitars clanging, locks flowing and hotel TVs defenestrated. Heavy rock abounded. Led Zeppelin became a money-making machine who re-defined what a rock tour was and how to get the most from it, both financially and otherwise. In LA and the West Coast bands like The Mamas & Papas, The Birds and Crosby, Stills & Nash took on Bob Dylan’s  Folk Rock mantle. By the time The Eagles came along to refine the sound to its commercial optimum it had become massive. Everything was AOR with the former hippies of Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac scoring huge transatlantic hits and selling albums by the bucketload.

Somewhere along the way rock had got very big and some people got very rich indeed. Five of the eight albums to have sold more than 40 million copies worldwide come from post-Beatles rock acts from this period*. Stadium gigs went from the novelty of Shea Stadium to becoming the staple of any major rock tour. And it all came full circle again one July day in 1985. In Live Aid, Bob Geldof and Harvey Goldsmith put together the biggest worldwide concert in history. Two concerts really, interchanging between Wembley Stadium in London and the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. All played out to a global TV audience of just shy of 2 billion.

As entertaining as the concert was and however much money it raised for the hungry in Africa, its biggest impact was on the music industry, changing it forever. In fact it heralded its demise, although this would not be clear for some time, and its demise was cultural rather than in income generation. With Live Aid came the realisation that rock had a royal family. Bands like U2, Queen, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones and singers like Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Sting had gone from being the favourites of the rock fans to belonging to the world. In a sense they would never need to work again. Their back catalogues alone would bring them wealth beyond imagination. Their next records were not nearly as important as their last. This removed the necessity of coming up with constantly fresh material or for a fresh generation of rock stars to come along and oust the old. People would attend in their millions to hear these same rock gods playing their hits. That was all that was expected or wanted, and rock has been dying a slow death ever since. Was 13 July 1985 the day the music died?

Act 3 – Indie – from The 100 Club to Knebworth

The second and third acts of the age of the rock star are necessarily overlapping. For much of the time they represented a culture and a counter culture. A yin and a yang that brought a balance to the cultural cosmos, or two different and competing visions of what rock music should be about. Take your pick. In truth the counter culture has been there as long as there has been a culture, but I will take the emergence of Punk in 1976 as its Year Zero. The reason for this is definitely not historical accuracy. To dismiss the influence of acts like The Velvet Underground and David Bowie on the counter-culture would be specious. No, punk is chosen for the way it cleared the decks – ‘burn the hippy’ and disown everything made before 1976 regardless of its merits.

As well as its scorched earth policy, punk came not just with a sound and a look, but also with an attitude and a manifesto. It was egalitarian – if you signed up to these four tenets you were in. Musical virtuosos were not required. As with rock n roll before it the trailblazers of punk were short-lived. Part of this was due to the three-chord DIY manifesto. Most of the bands in the punk explosion simply did not have the talent to sustain a meaningful music career. Those that did (Sex Pistols, The Clash, Buzzcocks) burned out before they could fade away.

What remained was the attitude and the DIY ethos. Small independent record labels started to pop up everywhere. Labels like Rough Trade, Creation, Factory and Sub Pop gave an outlet to anyone who wanted to make an interesting noise and fed the appetites of all those who felt un-nourished by the fare on offer by the rock mainstream. While the giants of rock were making millions, the indies were defiantly non-commercial. There was just enough money swilling about in the music industry to make this possible. For the aim of indie record labels to be to fund the next interesting LP. Success was inevitable on occasion, but the indie ethos was to use whatever money came their way from any commercial success to make sure that the next Bogshed album could be made.

Scenes proliferated as youngsters sought to create their own punk. Not a repeat of punk, but a version from their own area, from their own generation with their own clothes and own distinctive guitar sounds. From new wave to new romantics, shoe gazing to grunge and from The Smiths to Madchester the indie scene was awash with clusters of bands all wanting to be seen and heard on their own terms. Provincial cities like Seattle and Manchester drew the focus away from the traditional musical hotspots of LA, New York and London.

But in this creative proliferation lay also the seeds of Indie’s demise. There was far too much talent in Indie to be ignored commercially. Inevitably some bands got big. Very big. Manchester bands like The Smiths, New Order, Stone Roses and Happy Mondays started to have a string of chart hits. In America independent bands like REM and Nirvana became world stars. And with this came fame, money and pressure. Some were more able to cope with this than others. Noel Gallagher was happy to drive around in his brown Rolls Royce, but Kurt Cobain could never shake the feeling that he’d sold out.

One by one independent labels were swallowed up by the majors. They kept their names and much of their roster but they were in fact very un-independent arms of international corporations. By 1996 the biggest indie band in the world were Oasis. They appeared as first item on the BBC Evening News. Their battle to the number one spot with fellow Britpoppers Blur was the biggest story of its day. In the end Oasis lost this battle but in effect they had won. They had become the biggest, most important band around. Over two days in August 1996, at Knebworth House, they played consecutive open air concerts to over 250,000 people. Over two and a half million had applied for tickets. That’s about 5% of the population of the UK,

Their label manager Alan McGee was standing backstage at Knebworth with his best friend and Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie. They stood with arms draped around each other staring out at the sea of fans. McGee turned to Gillespie and beamed, “We won, Bobby! We won!” He was talking about all of the Indie movement, who’d gone from knocking out a few hundred unheard of singles at small record shops to ruling the roost. The indies had gone from outsiders to the top of the tree.  But the truth is that by this stage they had lost, and this concert was to signal the end of the rock age they had loved so dearly. It was never to get bigger or better than that day.

The End of an Age

Broadcasting legend Sid Waddell once famously said: “At the age of 33 Alexander of Macedon cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. Bristow’s 27!”  Well the rock star was 40 in 1996, and there was nothing new to say. Noel Gallagher himself claimed that his greatest ambition was to be in a Beatles tribute band (and he acknowledged that for all intents and purposes he probably was) The world belonged to hip-hop and the newly defined RnB. A splurge of new media demanded different qualities from its stars.

The end of the age of rock should not be mourned, rather celebrated and enjoyed. There’s plenty of good new music if that’s your thing. And if it’s not you’ve still got all of the old records and you’ll still get to see most of them on stage for a few more years. But when we lose the likes of  Bruce Springsteen he won’t be replaced. They simply don’t make them like that any more.

*They are – AC/DC Back in Black, Pink Floyd The Dark Side of the Moon, Meat Loaf Bat Out of Hell, Eagles Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 and Fleetwood Mac Rumours

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Three syllables good…

I have searched long and hard for a rationale to explain Donald Trump’s enduring popularity in America. Yes, I know the majority can’t stand him, but enough liked him to get him elected, and he retains the support of a big chunk of these followers even now. I have watched his rallies, as far as I am able, to look for clues. Sure, he knows how to rouse a rabble, but there are plenty of politicians who can do that. It could be that his message provides the answers people have been looking for, but there is no substance or detail to anything he says. Just vague, simplistic soundbites. Trump is pretty much without ideology, but he can work a crowd and tell people what they want to hear. And maybe that’s all there is to it. I had been looking in the wrong place. To understand Trump’s popularity you don’t look at Donald J Trump, you look at (and listen to) the folks in the audience.

Because the power here is in the crowd, not the leader. And the slogans all come from the crowd. They are simple, indignant and often hate-filled.

U-S-A! U-S-A!

Lock her up! Lock her up!

Build that wall! Build that wall!

The same three-syllables each time. They say nothing more than “There is lots of stuff making us angry and we want you to promise to sort it out”. Nothing detailed or nuanced is called for. Just good old-fashioned populism in easy-to-digest chunks.

Trump hasn’t so much built this audience as jumped onto its bandwagon.  Over the years he’s changed his position and flipped his loyalties on a regular basis, supporting the Democrats as much or even more than the Republicans. The Theory of Trump Relativity is developing on Twitter, where every current action has an equal and opposite historic tweet. Trump has over the years tweeted his disapproval of Obama’s visits to the golf course, criticised Obama for getting through Chiefs of Staff too quickly, for allowing North Korea to test a missile, for attacking Syria, for being soft on Russia. The list is almost endless.

But all of this matters little, as Trump is the chosen one for a significant portion of America’s electorate. Hillary’s ‘basket of deplorables’ have anointed Trump and see in him the qualities they feel their country needs right now. It could be that Donald Trump fits the political zeitgeist purely by syllabic coincidence. Those three syllables work for his name as well as for the slogans he has adopted:

Don-Ald-Trump! Don-Ald-Trump!

In both the US and the UK we have seen this pattern of unlikely candidates being thrust towards the head of a movement they seem unsuited for. Bernie Sanders suddenly became fashionable after years of being on the outside. Similarly Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage and initially Theresa May in the UK. But of these, it is Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn who have defied all logic and demonstrated a stickability few would have predicted. Is there a syllabic connection?

Britain as the birthplace of the common language can handle a higher level of linguistic sophistication in its terrace chants, managing as many as 5 syllables, all to the tune of the opening guitar riff to Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes. At least it may point to our linguistic sophistication, or possibly it’s because the White Stripes hit it big the UK long before they were accepted in their native land.

One of the sounds of the summer was the iconic young rugby player Maro Itoje being lauded by all and sundry on the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand – “Woah, Maro Itoje!” Even his team-mates were singing along.

There were players on the Lions tour who had played better than Itoje (Jonathan Davies and Sean O’Brien for example), but it was he who became an icon. Only 22 years of age, he has carried all before him in the last two years. Back to back European titles with Saracens, a Grand Slam and a Six Nations with England, and oh-so-nearly a winning Lion against the All Blacks. He achieved all of this through immense natural talent, but also through drive, intelligence, humility and a fierce will to win. He represented a bright and positive future.

On a very different tour back home in Blighty, Jeremy Corbyn was similarly feted. Firstly in the natural habitat of terrace chants at a football stadium, he was saluted with a noisy rendition of  “Woah, Jeremy Corbyn!”. This was then transferred to one of the biggest stages of all – the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. But how could someone so locked in the past herald a bright and positive future?

Could this be the same Jeremy Corbyn who not so long before had been considered unelectable? He soon put that to bed, by the simple trick of not getting elected. No, like Trump and Sanders in America he had not won the audience over, he had been anointed. A significant number of largely young people had decided that they had had enough of what was on offer by the political mainstream, and they chose someone seen as untainted  as their figurehead.

The pentasyllabic Hillary Clinton may have done a whole lot better if she had been born in the UK. We can thank our stars that Vladimir Putin wasn’t. Some politicians may just be born at the wrong time. Might Theresa May now be sitting on a significant majority if Here We Go! Was still a popular terrace chant – “Theresa May, Theresa May , Theresa May!”. Anyone?

Or might Boris Johnson’s  vault for power have worked out if we were still in the days of the 2-syllabled chants based on The Village People’s Go West!. “Bo-ris! For Prime Minister! Boris!….” He may have missed a trick by not picking up on last year’s chant of the moment to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Sloop John B: “Boris Johnson, he backs what he wants!”

So if there is anything in the idea of the potency of a three- or five-syllable chant in politics then liberals everywhere should be very afraid:

“Four More Years!” “Four More Years!”

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Ted Hawkins

When Radio 1 DJ Andy Kershaw visited Rounder Records in New York in the mid-80s, he was looking for roots samplers to try out in his evening radio show. He certainly wasn’t expecting to stumble upon a great, seemingly undiscovered, singer-songwriter. But pulling out an old album, first recorded back in 1971, that’s exactly what he found. The album in question was Watch Your Step by Ted Hawkins. The unremarkable sleeve, a middle-aged bearded black man strumming a guitar in a concrete courtyard, held a remarkable record by quite a remarkable talent.

Watch Your Step

Every song on the album was self-penned, taking in a range of styles and influences, from soul to country to folk and several points between. They sound familiar, the first impression being that you must be listening to an album of cover versions. But what really hits you is the voice. Deep, mellifluous and rasping – its soft notes lull you but its emotional peaks are almost primal. They punch through your chest and grab hold of your insides and then gently put them back in their proper place.

Kershaw couldn’t wait to get into the studio and share his discovery with the Radio 1 audience. The reaction was immediate and positive and Kershaw resolved to track down Hawkins and bring him over to the U.K.

Early Life

Ted Hawkins was born dirt poor in Lakeshore, Mississippi in 1936. He was often in trouble with the law, being sent to reform school at aged 12 and at aged just 15 to the notorious local penitentiary – Parchman Farm, serving three years for theft. The experience toughened him up, and gave him an education he must have found useful in his itinerant early life, moving from flop house to flop house across the Southern states.

David Hepworth once described Hawkins’ voice as sounding “as if the hounds of hell were chasing him”, and perhaps this rawness stemmed from his childhood. It could be heard most clearly on The Lost Ones, a cry for help from a troubled child thrust too soon into manhood, crying for a sick mother and an absent father.

It was while he was serving time that he first took up the guitar. Encouraged by the warder’s wife and inspired by the music of Sam Cooke, in the tough environment of reform school, he embarked on a lifelong love affair with music. The music provided a constant in the years that followed, years punctuated by drug addiction and spells inside. He found he could make a living from busking, entertaining locals and tourists while sat atop an upturned milk crate on Venice Beach.

Coming to England

Kershaw tracked Hawkins down to his last known address in Inglewood, near Los Angeles airport. Hawkins, now past 50 and not working in the music business, was somewhat surprised to see this enthusiastic English DJ standing on his doorstep, but recovered sufficiently to invite Kershaw in and to play four songs into his tape recorder which were to become his first Radio 1 session.

He was immediately taken to the hearts of Radio One’s evening audience – at that time a mix of indie, roots and world music held sway. He came to the U.K., swapping Los Angeles for Bridlington, and experienced the critical acclaim he would not have dreamt of as he busked on the boardwalk of Venice Beach.  He released three albums in fairly quick succession. Watch Your Step, a new album Happy Hour and a collection of songs from his busking days, The Venice Beach Tapes. None of these troubled the charts, but he earned critical respect and a loyal fanbase.

Happy Hour, by turns more poppy and more countrified than Watch Your Step perhaps lacked the raw emotion of its predecessor. However, again Hawkins wrote almost every song himself. And it contained the superb country of Cold & Bitter Tears. A domestic kitchen sink drama of lost love- “I cooled the hot dishwater with my cold and bitter tears.”

The Venice Beach Tapes saw Hawkins put his own stamp on mostly country standards. It’s hard to imagine a better version of the country song There Sands The Glass – a torch song for anyone who’s ever had a drink too many.

I Shook His Hand

It was during this period that I was lucky enough to hear Ted Hawkins sing at Birmingham Irish Centre. I’d dragged a workmate along to sit amongst a small but appreciative crowd. My workmate remained unimpressed and left at the end, while I was transfixed. The voice so good on record was just extraordinary at close quarters, squeezing every drop of emotion from his songs.

I stayed back to meet Hawkins, something I have not done at a gig before or since. As I waited patiently I watched Ted meeting the others in line, a large white towel around his neck and the trademark single black leather glove on his left hand. As I waited I thought of the searching questions I might ask – about his childhood, his struggles with drugs and crime and his rebirth in England. In the end I settled for “What do you think of Birmingham?” (he said it was “nice”).

Slipping Back

Of course, his meeting with Kershaw wasn’t the first time that Ted Hawkins had been ‘discovered’. You can’t have that much talent and go un-noticed forever. Before Kershaw, he had been discovered by another DJ, Bill Harris, who brought him to the attention of Bruce Bromberg at Rounder Records. His first two albums were cut by Rounder Records, albeit with a 10 year hiatus between the first and the second due to periodic visits to jail.

He was ‘brought back’ on several occasions, but perhaps reluctantly. Each time he would drift back to his old life, a stint in prison and busking along the boardwalk.

He was tracked down one final time and coaxed into another album by Geffen Records. He had just finished this record, The Next Hundred Years, when he died of a stroke, aged just 58.

It’s too easy to talk of a wasted talent. No, his life was what it was. He did not seek fame and adulation, and was probably quite uncomfortable when a little of it came his way. He did not claim to be a role model, but carried himself with a dignity and a humility that made it hard to be judgemental about his frequent incarcerations.

Aside from any of this, he did leave us with a couple of fantastic albums, a handful of songs that deserved to have become classics and memories of a singing voice that belongs right up there with his hero Sam Cooke. Not a bad legacy by any stretch.

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Will Trump last the year?

Will President Trump see out the year?

Whoever said that a week is a long time in politics may want to revise his line in light of Donald J Trump’s presidency, where so much high drama can happen in a matter of hours. Where so much happens yet so little is done. We see his administration lurch from scandal to crisis to twitter storm on a daily basis. His first two months have been a car crash, a hundred mile an hour car crash which leaves you breathless and convinced that things cannot possibly continue in this way for another 4 years.

I look at this presidency with an increasing conviction that Trump will not last the year. There are any number of things that could potentially bring him down, but this Teflon Don can brush most of these aside. So what could herald the early inauguration of President Pence?

It won’t be Trump’s unpopularity, although this will increasingly define his tenure. Although he still retains the support of a large, loyal and vocal base, it seems that more or less everyone else detests him. He is one of the most divisive, polarising leaders in recent memory. On one level, his appeal to the hardcore support will sustain him, but wider public opinion will weigh him down in two ways. Firstly, his acute narcissism causes him to overly focus on perceived slights in the media and he will take his eye off the ball in other areas. Might he have been able to achieve the repeal of the Affordable Care Act if he’d been concentrating on that instead of picking fights with the mainstream media?

And secondly he could lose the support of the Republican party. He is not of the party, which he hijacked to advance his political career, but this distance from the mainstream is part of his appeal. He is the non-politician a chunk of the electorate felt they needed to cut through the stagnation in government. He still needs the party though. He may have spent his first two weeks in office firing off executive orders, but he needs Congress to actually pass laws to get policies through.

Until now Trump has largely had the backing of the Republican majority in the House and Senate. With a few notable exceptions like John McCain, these career politicians are a pragmatic bunch and they looked to be  sticking with Trump, no matter what he says or does. This is partly because this is a generational chance to push through their policy agenda with majorities in both houses and a Republican in the White House, but also because they fear Trump’s popularity. They already have an eye on the mid-term elections and the calculus so far has been that if they go against Trump they could well lose their seats. That could very easily and very soon turn 180 degrees.

It won’t be that Trump gets caught lying. He does this with such a scattergun regularity that it has de-sensitised us to the concept. He is almost indulged in his fantasies. That’s just Trump being Trump, right? His Press Secretary Sean Spicer gets the job of spinning out his lies in press conferences that have become unintentional comedy gold. Of course he isn’t the first politician to deceive us, but the size and frequency of his whoppers is ‘unpresidented’ (sic). This is the man who told us as fact that Obama was born outside the US, that climate change was a fallacy spread by the Chinese, that thousands of Muslims celebrated in the streets of New Jersey on 9/11, that 3 million people voted illegally in the election and most recently that President Obama had ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower. Right now it would come as more of a shock if Trump was caught telling the truth.

And it won’t be the nepotism and the conflicts of interest. Well, at least not the publicly known conflicts of interest. He has appointed his daughter and son-in-law to key White House positions with barely a murmur of dissent. His has broken with precedent by not divesting himself of his business interests, simply passing day-to-day control to his two sons. He spends most weekends and hosts meetings at his Mar-A-Lago hotel in Florida, Members get to be extras in an international diplomatic soap opera, and their fees have doubled as a consequence.

Neither will it be his incompetence. President Obama described Trump as ‘uniquely unqualified to be president’, and President Trump is going all out to prove him right in this. He has blamed Democrats in the Senate for blocking appointments to his administration. But the truth is that the Senate gets to approve around 550 positions – Trump has put forward fewer than 50 nominees. Put simply he simply does not have the team in place with the knowledge and experience to help him achieve his policy goals. We see this in his inability to frame his immigration order (that definitely isn’t a Muslim ban) in any way that is acceptable to the courts. And most embarrassingly for him, his failure on Obama Care. The man who wrote Art of the Deal is showing a remarkable inability to get things done.

No, it will be Trump’s Russian connections that bring his term to a premature end. Much of this is the subject of an FBI investigation so is not yet in the public domain, but there is much we do know and much we can surmise. Trump has attacked China, Germany, the EU, NATO,  the media, the judiciary, Saturday Night Live and Meryl Streep. But he won’t have word said against Vladimir Putin. Trump and his team hinted at rolling back on sanctions, and went so far as changing the Republican platform to tone down the language on Ukraine. It is clear that Putin stood to gain a lot from Trump. It is less clear what America would get in return.

All the President’s Men

One by one his campaign team have fallen by the wayside because of connections to Russia. Or more specifically being caught lying about their connections to Russia. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from Trump-Russia investigations after being caught lying to the Senate Judiciary Committee about two conversations with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador, during the campaign.  His conversations may have been completely innocent and innocuous, but then why the need to lie?

Roger Stone, part-time Trump adviser and full-time nutcase, has admitted to contact with Julian Assange and with Guccifer 2.0, the Russian hacker of the DNC in advance of the release of e-mails on Wikileaks. Then there is Carter Page, whose name Trump picked seemingly out of the air as a key foreign policy adviser.  Page, a murky character with connections in Gazprom and Rosneft (Russia’s state gas and oil companies), is the most likely bagman in any collusion with Russia. He traveled to Russia often and met with Kislyak several times during the course of the campaign. Trump is quick to distance himself from any connection to these two now.

He is also keen to distance himself from Paul Manafort and one can see why. Manafort was political adviser to Viktor Yanukovych, the former President of Ukraine, who robbed his country of billions and was forced to flee to Russia after ordering the use of lethal force on peaceful protesters. Yanukovych had to depart so quickly that he left behind ledgers detailing off-the-books cash payments. These ranged from small amounts to be given to Titushky (thugs hired to beat up protesters) to larger amounts for political kickbacks. The ledger made record of 12 million dollars paid to Paul Manafort for services rendered. On the discovery of these payments, which Manafort denies, he withdrew from his position in Trump’s campaign team. It has recently come to light that Manafort also accepted 10 million dollars from Russian Oligarch and Putin ally Oleg Deripaska to ” influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government”.

In trying to distance the Trump campaign from Manafort, Sean Spicer described him as playing “a very limited role for a very limited length of time.” Manafort was Campaign Chairman.

It would be impossible for Trump to distance himself from General Michael Flynn though, the man he named his National Security Adviser.

Michael Flynn was an embittered former intelligence chief until brought back into the fold by Donald Trump. On the day that President Obama placed increased sanctions on Russia for their hacking of the US election, Flynn was on the phone to Ambassador Kislyak. The message was clear. Just hold tight and we’ll roll these back for you when we get into power. Of course that would have been completely illegal and inappropriate, by engaging in diplomacy without any authority and also by colluding with a foreign power. So Gen Flynn denied it. Then he found out he’d been caught on tape taking to Kislyak. So first he denied that they’d talked about sanctions, then he admitted they may have discussed them in general terms, then he resigned.

Later it transpired that when Gen Flynn was on the campaign stage leading chants of “Lock her up!” he was actually an unregistered foreign agent, in the employ of the Turkish government. This week it has been alleged that while working as an adviser to President Erdogan he discussed the illegal abduction of Fethullah Gulen from the US and return to Turkey where Gulen is suspected of coordinating a failed coup attempt. If we were to lock Hillary up for use of an insecure e-mail server, what should we do with Michael Flynn? I suspect he knows, and that is why there are strong rumours he has cut a deal with the FBI.

House of Cards

So what happens next? Events are unfolding at a rapid rate. Devin Nunes continues to compromise himself by being a very partisan head of a bi-partisan Congressional investigation. Manafort, Page and Stone have all requested hearings with Nunes’ investigation. I suspect that this is less of an urge to come clean and more of an attempt by the Trump team to control the narrative and put a lid on further investigation. I suspect they will fail in this. Even if the Congressional investigation is effectively shut down, there is still a Senate enquiry, and of course as was confirmed last week an FBI investigation. Not everyone will be easily fobbed off.

Flynn has gone quiet, fuelling the suspicion that he may have turned State’s evidence. Christopher Steele, the British security consultant whose dossier on Trump / Russia connections brought so much into the public domain, is also due to appear before the Congressional Committee in the next week. The drip-drip-drip of allegation is becoming a deluge.

There are some documents that could go a long way to settling all of this. Firstly, Trump’s tax returns, which he is very keen for us not to see. Of less interest to this issue is the actual amount he pays in tax. The crux is the source of his income and whether any of it has come directly or indirectly from Russia.

 The second set of documents which would prove extremely enlightening would be anything connected to the sale of a 19.5% stake in Russian state oil giant Rosneft. It is not at all clear who this stake has actually been sold to. The Steele Dossier alleged that a stake in Rosneft was offered to Trump via Carter Page in return for dropping sanctions. It would be good for Trump to have the evidence to lay this allegation to rest.

And finally, the report of James Comey’s FBI investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign team and the Russians, whenever it is completed. I suspect that Comey knows and will shortly confirm all he needs to put this matter to bed. Investigative journalists like Louise Mensch and John Schindler, who have sources in the intellegence community and who broke many aspects of this story, are convinced it is only a matter of time.

And when it all comes out, either Trump will be able to continue his car-wreck of a presidency without all of this background noise – or he will be impeached. And if the worst of the allegations are true he will be imprisoned.

Let’s hope for his sake that the baying choruses of “Lock her up!” that he led throughout his campaign do not come back to haunt him. He could expect little sympathy.

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The Lengths That I Will Go To

I had the title and the theme of the article all planned out. It was called “Losing My Religion” after the REM song, and it was all about how my love for the club and the game had been gradually sucked out of me through Ashley’s tenure at the club. How once Newcastle had been everything to me and how I lived for the next match, and wherever I was in the world those two hours on a Saturday afternoon would define my whole week, my mood and my view on life. Define me, if I’m honest. I was going to set out step by step how this had happened, how each cynical or ham-fisted manoeuvre had chipped away at my ardour until my relationship with the club was largely loveless and in need of counselling (or at least a good cup run) to get it back on track.

But before I’d even got to the end of the first paragraph the idea began to bore and depress me. Documenting the state of Ashley’s United is not exactly a cheery way to spend a Sunday afternoon. And as I sat in the back bedroom of my flat in Kyiv, instead of looking back at all the damage done, I found myself thinking back about what I love so much about the club in the first place. As the old REM song ran through my head, I got stuck on the line “The lengths that I will go to…”, and thought back to all of the things I had to go through to watch the Toon, or even just get news about them. All the memories made me smile, and I realised while they might be different stories to those of many fans, they didn’t set me apart. Quite the opposite in fact, the lengths that we will go to is one of the things that unites us.

That’s me in the corner. Supporting Newcastle was never a doubt in my family. Although I was brought up in Durham (and occasionally further afield) I am from a Ryton family obsessed with Newcastle for as long back as anyone could remember. Although my Mum’s family were Sunderland fans from Durham, these genes completely passed me by. My parents divorced when I was young, and my Dad moved down south. I think he was worried about my footballing education, so he took me to games whenever he was back up, and whenever he could afford it he’d buy me a season ticket next to my Nanna and my Aunty Margaret, two wonderful women who deserve their own book and who played such a big part in my ongoing love of the club and the city.

When there was no season ticket on offer, I had to find a friend to go with. So for one season I stood with my friend Jeff in the corner paddock next to the Leazes, which I loved. What I hated was that Jeff’s Dad insisted that we leave 10 minutes or more before the end “to beat the traffic”. No matter what the state of the game was we’d be dragged away and made to run through town to where he’d parked his Austin Allegro. The look of satisfaction on his face as we drove out of Newcastle on clear roads has stayed with me. To this day I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would want to leave a match early. I think it is the Schadenfreude linked to this memory that makes 4-4 Arsenal my favourite game. The second half performance was a joy, but so was the knowledge that all those fair weathers who left at half-time missed a classic. I hope that at final whistle that day Jeff’s Dad was in whatever is the modern day equivalent of an Austin Allegro driving down the A1M and regretting every minute he made me miss.

Like most Newcastle fans, I could never be accused of being a glory hunter. I left the North East in 1984, just after we had signed Keegan. And I left the country in 1994, just after Keegan had taken over as manager. I hope the great man doesn’t take it personally. Living in Birmingham wasn’t too bad for getting to away matches as me and my Dad could drive to a lot of grounds within a couple of hours. The midweek games were a challenge though, and usually involved sloping off work early, meeting my dad in a car park somewhere and finally running the last bit to make it in time for kick off. In those pre-satnav days we navigated by floodlight, which normally worked, but on one occasion left us the wrong side of the Trent with the option of watching a Notts County reserve fixture, rather than seeing us take on Cloughie’s men as we’d planned and sprinted for.

Describing how little technology there was in Slovakia on my arrival there in 1994 makes me feel like a pensioner describing the days of rationing. But there really was nothing, at least not in the small town I was living in (Martin, in the Velka Fatra mountains if you want to Google it). I’m not sure when the internet was actually invented, but like Punk to Durham I’m sure it took a few more years to arrive in Slovakia. In my first six months there I had no radio, a big black and white TV that could only pick up Slovak soaps and MTV. There was a betting shop in town called Nike (pronounced Nick-ay). They used to print up the fixtures of all Europe’s leagues and put this huge sheet up in the window so everyone could choose their bets. At 10am every Monday morning someone would come in and write all of the results up in pen. I’d be there waiting for him. After a couple of weeks he had assured himself I wasn’t a dangerous lunatic and gave me the Newcastle result first, which was a blessing particularly in the winter months when the temperatures went as low as minus 20. Of course the results were just the results. They had very little meaning without knowing what had actually happened, and for this I had to wait for ‘the clippings’ to arrive.

My wonderful Nanna, who had done so much to nurture in me a love for the club, used to faithfully cut out all of the articles and match reports from The Chronicle, The Journal, The Pink and The Sunday Sun. These would arrive a week or so later packed into one of those thin blue Airmail envelopes. These clippings would often be annotated, with the thick blue ink of Nanna’s favourite pen, with words like lacklustre underlined (twice), “I told you he was rubbish!” scribbled in the margin. I would receive those small blue envelopes each and every week of my next 8 years in Slovakia. My Nanna came out for my wedding some years later. I proudly (and stupidly) showed her how I could now get every single article on the internet, quicker than it would take her to to get to the paper shop and buy a paper. I think it may have broken her heart.

In my second year in Slovakia I was given a short wave radio. Now if ever you hear anyone waxing lyrical about the BBC World Service, saying its an institution we must protect, please feel free to shout them down. Or even shoot them down. It’s rubbish. You’d get to the second half of one of the matches on Saturday afternoon (which was rarely Newcastle). Then you’d have to listen to Alan Green whining about what a boring game it was just in the hope that they’d give you an update from St James (they rarely did). Then with 10 minutes of the match remaining they’d cut over to a report on the Angolan election. Yet despite all of this, I’d still end up glued to the radio every Saturday afternoon. It was that or wait until Monday. To allow me to have some kind of active social life, my friends came up with the idea of attaching the radio to the handlebars of my bike with gaffa tape. I got many an odd look as I passed through mountain villages shouting at the radio at some chance missed or danger unfolding, and I had a visit to the hospital once thanks to a late Rob Lee equaliser during a rapid descent.

One of the best goals I’ve ever seen was David Ginola vs Ferencvaros. Except of course I’ve never really seen it. Not properly anyway. By this time I had adorned my big black and white set with local satellite TV, where unfortunately all of the sports channels were scrambled. I didn’t let that put me off though. The chance to watch Newcastle in Europe was not going to be passed up, so I squinted my way through the game trying to cancel out the bars and squiggles that made up the TV coverage. Although there was no commentary and the picture was all ablur, I had no doubt it was Ginola. The body shape, the drop of the shoulder and the sheer audacity could only have been Ginola. My joy at that goal was in no way diminished by the poor quality of the picture. It is entirely vivid in my memory, and to this day I refuse to watch the goal on YouTube in glorious technicolour. It couldn’t get any better than I see it in my mind.

But that was just a dream. It’s these memories that keep Newcastle in my heart, even when the rational part of me wants to stop loving them. Besides, if I’m completely honest I can’t blame Ashley entirely for my current loss of love. It may be my age. It may be that I’ve lived outside the North East for 30 years and outside of the country for 20. It may be that I watch most of my football now on TV or on the internet. And we know that Sky are ruining football anyway. People say us fans are fickle. You bet we are. I know that with the excitement of a decent centre forward, a cup run and a last minute Sammy Ameobi equaliser I’ll be right back to where I was, going to any lengths to watch my team and living and breathing for the Saturday. I’ll stay off the bike this time though.

 

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Continental Drift

Sir Alex Ferguson has a lot to answer for. Two of the greatest managerial fallacies trotted out by British pundits and managers cite Ferguson as their main basis. Granted, Ferguson has employed most of these pundits or managers at some stage or other, so we shouldn’t be too surprised. The first and most laughable fallacy is that you need to give managers time in the job, and as evidence they point to his tricky first season or so at Manchester United and the cup run that saved him. The absence of logic is staggering. As if all managers, given sufficient time would go on to win a stack of trophies. And also, he did win a trophy. Which bought him time. Imagine that. Winning a trophy would not buy you time at Newcastle. It would get you a statue built.

The second part of what we can call the Ferguson Delusion, is that the ‘continental’ structure – with Director of Football, Head Coach and Head of Recruitment – will not work in the Premier League. There is apparently something so special about English football clubs that they can only be run by all-powerful individuals responsible for every aspect of management. Part of this comes from the myth around Ferguson. Although he had more control than most, the truth of it is that he delegated very well and where he didn’t have control, he was very good at getting what he wanted. In business, a division of managerial responsibilities is seen as the norm. In fact in the Premier League, if you ignore the media and look at how clubs are actually run, you’ll find that this so-called continental model is already in place at most clubs. Even Mourinho at Chelsea is not all-powerful, but relationships are good and he’s happy with what he’s given, so you don’t spot the cracks.

Of course there have been plenty of examples of where this structure hasn’t worked, and to be fair a lot of them have been at Newcastle. But these were mostly down to appalling decisions. Bringing in the odious Dennis Wise over the head of the old school Keegan, and then handing recruitment over to the Chelsea chancer Tony Jimenez. Then appointing Joe Kinnear over the head of Pardew to teach him a lesson. In fact, employing Kinnear in any capacity is dooming any system to failure. The management model that is now being made clear in the club’s pursuit of a new Head Coach is fine. The head coach runs the team, Graham Carr finds the players, Lee Charnley does the business and Mike Ashley has the final say.

So why didn’t this work with Pardew? Partly because of Ashley’s capriciousness and tendency to do daft things. And partly because Pardew got too big for his boots and started to want more power than had been promised him when Ashley plucked him from obscurity. The ingratitude must have annoyed and Ashley must have felt like that guy from the Human League – “You were working in a waitress in a cocktail bar when I met you…” We’ll see how Pardew gets on at Palace now he has complete control (a chance to reference a Clash song there, but I’d already gone for the Human League – very poor). But bear in mind that one of his first signings at Palace was Shola, so we shouldn’t look on with too much regret.

So the management structure we’ve chosen can work. What about the business model? Buying young players to sell on at a profit? We have become a selling club. Cue resigned shake of the head from the old pros in the media. Yes, a selling club. Just like current La Liga winners and Champion’s League finalists Atletico Madrid. With plans in place, good networking, judicious use of the loan system ,and crucially a top draw coach – the model can work. Look at Southampton too, who lost the guts of their side in the summer and are riding high this year, giving us a spanking in the process. I don’t buy that top players won’t come to a selling club. Of course they will. All players dream of the really big move, and Newcastle can be seen as a stepping stone. We shouldn’t then be too upset when the likes of Cabaye and Sissoko try to engineer such a big onward move, as that’s how they were sold the club in the first place.

So we’ve got a good management structure in place, and a financial structure that keeps us in profit and could take us all the way to the Champion’s League. Sorted. Well no, the bad news is that the way Newcastle is run won’t, and probably can’t work. And this is because the plans are not pursued with honesty or ambition. Honesty is key. The parsimonious approach which has led to decent profits tells only half the story. Not all of the money generated by the club goes to the club. There is the money from merchandising, which goes straight to Sports Direct and then the millions of pounds worth of free advertising around the ground. This is supposedly unsold space, but it seems to cover most of the ground and you don’t hear  about other Premier League unable to sell advertising space in their stadia. Again, to the best of my knowledge, not a penny goes to the club. Just imagine how much better we could build the team if it did.

And most of all, and this is what crushes the spirit, the model as operated by Newcastle United is completely devoid of ambition. If we were buying low, selling high, then buying again at a slightly higher level, then we would be getting better year on. But we don’t. Every season is Groundhog Season. We could also bring in the odd older professional or a high level loanee to help the young players along, but the club see no value in this. And when the club says value, you know they are only talking financially. It must be remembered that the club’s stated ‘ambition’ is to finish top ten. But that’s it. The unstated ambition is that we finish no higher than 8th. This is for the same reason that the cups are not a priority, to avoid the expense of the bigger squad needed for a subsequent European campaign.

Our players are commodities. Ashley buys cheap, adds value and sells on at a profit. Top ten finishes and no cup wins allow us to sustain this at low cost. That is a successful business model, but it won’t build a team, let alone a football club. So instead of building and progressing we simply drift. Not doing too badly, and occasionally able to sit back and enjoy the view, but we’re not going anywhere. This is enough for Ashley, as we are now a reliable revenue stream to Sports Direct, but it will never be enough for us. In many ways, this could be the perfect season in Ashley’s eys. Safe by January, out of the cups, comfortable finish between 8th and 12th, next big sale (Sissoko) lined up, and a great big profit on the way because of transfers and the increased TV money. But will he use this opportunity to take us to the next level? No chance. We will buy in the summer, but this is just buying in stock for the 2016 sales and we watch the whole depressing cycle go round again.

 

 

 

 

 

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Eton Mess

Original Eton Rifles“What a catalyst you turned out to be. Loaded the gun, then run off home for your tea.” Eton Rifles, The Jam

Paul Weller’s 1979 song about the futility of the working class fighting against the establishment has never been more relevant. What chance have you got against a tie and a crest? And this line in particular could have been written about any of the crowd that has got us into this Eton mess called Brexit.

That arch old Etonian David Cameron set the ball rolling. He called the referendum, and also made it a straight in or out choice. Complex economic and constitutional questions were left to a public already angry with the status quo and distrustful of politicians. Why on earth did he do it? This was not some grand exercise in democracy, he offered it as a sweetener to the Euro-sceptics in his own party to ensure he got re-elected. And besides, Dave was sure he would win and then we could get back to the usual routine. When you are from the gifted elite you have the confidence to roll those kind of dice.

Then Boris Johnson joined the great game. I am convinced that Johnson is at heart pro-EU. When he decided to lead the fight against the Remainers he had one goal in mind. That goal was to become the heir apparent when Cameron stepped aside before the next election. His tactics a glorious defeat that would ensure he kept enough friends in the Eurosceptic camp, and a well-fought campaign that would keep his ratings high.

And then his side won. That wasn’t supposed to happen. And Cameron resigned to compound the shock. Boris, who is an extremely intelligent man despite his best efforts to convey a more bumbling persona, realised that not only had he brought about a catastrophe for Britain, but he would be the one who’d have to clean up the mess. One look at his ashen face on the day after the vote showed that he clearly understood the depth of the doodoo he had helped to land the country in. Imagine his relief when the slippery Gove stabbed him in the back over the leadership.  The palpable relief of a man finding himself on the outside of a burning tent, most definitely pissing in.

Nigel Farage’s contribution to the Brexit campaign was unconscionable , but then we always knew it would be. His Breaking Point poster showing a line of Syrian refugees exactly mirrored a Nazi propaganda poster and it was despicable. A low in British politics. But it wasn’t out of character. Unlike the conniving and calculating MPs at the head of government, Farage is a buffoon. A buffoon lucky enough to have hit on an issue that thrust him onto the grand stage for his 15 grubby minutes of fame. A buffoon lucky enough to arrive at a time when the British public have ‘had enough of experts’. A reality TV star masquerading as a politician, whose populist appeal is based on liking a pint and a smoke, and not knowing much about politics. He’s just like us!

But while you could never seriously call Nigel Farage anti-Establishment, he wasn’t of the Establishment, and I feel that  despite his latest attempts to withdraw from UK politics, he will not be able to crawl under a stone, and will be made a scapegoat for the lies of the Leave campaign and for the ugly outpourings of racism that it has unleashed. The public school mob will throw him under the bus. Probably a large red bus with spurious claims written in large letters on the side. He was the fag who could conveniently take the blame if everything went tits up.

It annoys me greatly that we have allowed what is essentially an age-old Tory squabble to so dominate the future of our country. For let’s make no mistake, this was a Blue on Blue fight for power within the Conservative Party. Where was the traditional left and how did they allow this to happen? The trade unions and the Labour Party had a duty to focus the debate on the effects of the decision on working people. Jeremy Corbyn I think will pay for his virtual abstention with his political career. It is no coincidence that Corbyn’s Director of Strategy Seamus Milne is in the pocket of just about the only world leader pleased that Britain is leaving the EU, Vladimir Putin. “Seamus I’m not sure this is a great idea.” Too late now, Jeremy.

I am convinced that the only solution to this Eton mess will be a second referendum. Clearly this is a decision of such importance that we should be allowed to say “Really? Are you sure?”. I don’t mean straight away. I don’t think us Remainers get to say “Best of 3 / 5 / 7…!” until we get what we want. But as consequences emerge I believe and hope that the public clamour for a second vote will be deafening and undeniable.

When people realise that leaving the EU will not mean we have full control over immigration. Or as they realise, and let’s start saying it now and often, that immigration is not in fact the cause of all of the country’s ills. When they realise that the UK’s contribution to the EU is the fee we pay for immeasurable financial benefits. That we can’t just stop paying the EU and put the money into the NHS instead. That those derided experts in the Treasury and the Bank of England were right after all and Britain is going to get poorer through this decision. And we don’t do poor well. It certainly does not bring out the best in us.

When people realise that their golden age thinking is a false nostalgia. We are not going back to a Britain of full employment, where you could leave your back door open and you’d stroll down to your local and have a chat with Pop Larkin and the cast of Heartbeat. It never existed, and if it did exist in any way it was a lot worse than you remember it.

I hope and pray that common sense will at some stage kick in, but as the main parties remain rudderless and beset by infighting and backstabbing, as confusion and anger ripples through the country on all sides, as racist attacks both verbal and physical increase fivefold, well common sense seems in very short supply.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Putin & Godwin’s Law

Godwin’s Law states that as an online discussion grows longer, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism. It’s the updated internet version of Reductio ad Hitlerum. I fell into this trap quite early in Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, during its annexation of Crimea in 2014, via a Facebook argument with an old colleague. It wasn’t that I felt that Putin’s actions or his intentions were on a par with Hitler, more that he seemed to be using the same playbook. Drumming up stories of persecuted countrymen (for Sudetenland Germans read Russian-speaking Ukrainians), then intervening to ‘protect’ them, conveniently grabbing a chunk of land as an added bonus.

Being a reasonable chap, and on being directed to Godwin’s Law, I immediately retracted. It was not that I felt any more disposed towards Mr Putin, merely that I acknowledged that I had made a lazy argument, based on emotion and a few vague historical comparisons. Then I dug a little deeper into Godwin’s Law. It was created by an American lawyer called Mike Godwin to be used in internet discussion groups. It was actually never intended to prevent an argument, rather to force people to think a little harder before wheeling out the Fascist comparisons. “If you’re thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler and the Nazis.” I felt suitably challenged. Godwin was actually talking about Donald Trump here, but I thought I’d go for the main man in the relationship, Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin.

I’ve mentioned Putin’s justifications for invading Ukraine.  And by justifications I mean the excuses he gives for the interference rather than the actual reasons for it. And here we have a valid comparison. Both men, at least in their public pronouncements, claimed to speak for and protect a large group of people, based on ethnicity rather than citizenship, and therefore not constrained by the inconvenience of borders. Thus the Nazi concept of Volksdeutsche was used both to persecute non-Ethnic Germans at home (largely Jews) and to justify the Anschluss of Austria and invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia on the pretext of protecting ethnic Germans abroad. Putin has used the same justifications for invasion of Georgia and Ukraine, and for agitations in Moldova and the Baltic states.

Both played on the fears of their populace, whilst simultaneously stoking those fears. With its large land borders and history of invasion (from the Mongol Horde through Napoleon to Hitler himself) it’s virtually part of the Russian national psyche to feel under constant threat from abroad – and thus need a strong autocratic leader for protection. Putin and Hitler both proclaimed theirs a great country that had been ‘brought to its knees’. With the Germany of the 20s and 30s it was the Treaty of Versailles, with modern Russia it is the break-up of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO.

Both leaders spin a tale of betrayal, not only by foreign powers, but by their leaders at the time. Germany’s patsy civilian government of 1918 had no choice but to sign the surrender terms on offer, allowing the myth to develop that the German Army and its citizens had been stabbed in the back, a perception that Hitler was able to exploit to his advantage in his pursuit of power. Gorbachev and Yeltsin are virtual pariahs in Russia now. Gorbachev for walking blindly into a situation he would quickly lose control of, and Yeltsin for presiding over the complete lawlessness that caused chaos in the country, created the oligarchs that now hold the wealth of the nation in a small number of hands, and established the conditions for a strong man like Putin to offer a deal of stability in exchange for the erosion of civil liberty.

Putin famously called the break-up of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”. Quite some hyperbole in a century that gave us the two bloodiest wars in history. He constantly talks of NATO encroachment as if Russia is being threatened and penned in. He uses the symbol of the Russian bear – “They won’t leave him alone. They are always trying to put him on a chain. They will always try to put him on a chain and as soon as he is put on this chain, they will pull out his teeth and claws.” This is paranoia as state policy.

Both Hitler and Putin in their way appealed to a false nostalgia and a folk myth. Like many politicians Putin appeals to ‘traditional family values’, although takes it one step further by enacting actively homophobic laws. This is all linked to the regime’s reorientation away from a European rules-based system to a Eurasian set of values where anything goes and might is right. I’m not sure that this actually means anything ideologically, and it is pretty offensive to suggest that Asia and the East are places that do not value rules or respect international agreements. It all just gives Putin a convenient get-out clause for not following international norms. World record pole vaulter and Putin mouthpiece Yelena Isinbayeva backed the regime’s stance: “It’s unrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians. Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands. We have our law, which everyone has to respect.”

The Nazis appealed to ‘blood and soil’, the interconnectedness of the people and the land.  From an early promotion of physical health and May Day parades, this was to lead ultimately to the Aryan ideal and the final solution. A whole history and creation myth was built around this to justify the horrors about to be perpetrated.

Another common factor between Hitler and Putin is the importance of propaganda to both regimes. Joseph Goebbels took propaganda to levels (depths) that we had never seen before. Hitler himself set out the blueprint in Mein Kampf:

“The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses. The broad masses of the people are not made up of diplomats or professors of public jurisprudence nor simply of persons who are able to form reasoned judgment in given cases, but a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another.”

Putin’s propaganda machine has added several layers of modern sophistication to this, but retained the basic premise. Led by Dmitry Kiselyov as the modern day Goebbels, Russia has two distinct operations running concurrently. For the home market it is all about Brand Putin. Television and the news media are full of his good works, constantly repeating the theme. It’s daily mantra building up a cult of personality around the leader probably not seen since Stalin’s time. It is interesting that they have been so successful in this. Yes, the Kremlin controls virtually all print and broadcast media, just as the Nazis had done, but the internet is still freely available there. It seems that the ‘broad masses of people’ prefer the comforting tones of their state-run television and newspapers, rather than the uncomfortable chaos offered by the internet.

For Russia’s image abroad, it is down to RT and a gaggle of Useful Idiots in the foreign press. Here it is all about the conspiracy theory, where any anti-establishment nut job can be presented as an expert. The aim here is to muddy the waters. Like in the case of MH-17, where every possible and impossible scenario is put forward, not with the aim of establishing a chain of events, but instead to sow doubt in the public’s mind, so they say “Who knows what actually happened?”, instead of examining the overwhelming evidence that the plane was shot down by Russian separatists, using a weapon supplied by the Russian government, which was then removed by the Russian government before international press or investigators could see it. Another theme of RT is to highlight all that is negative in the Western political sphere, to enable the Russian press to indulge in ‘Whataboutery’, demonstrating that Russia may be corrupt, but ‘look, so is everybody else’.

So Godwin’s challenge has been accepted and a case for comparison made.  But here’s the thing. Given a fair wind and a modicum of research you could make  comparisons between Hitler and just about any dodgy autocratic leader from the past 100 years. But almost all, with the possible exception of Stalin (currently being rehabilitated in Putin’s Russia) pale by comparison to Hitler, the man and his deeds. The American State Department, quite correctly, always states that you should judge Putin’s regime not by what they say, but by what they do. And although what they have done so far has been pretty reprehensible, it does not even come close to the scale, ambition or downright evil of Hitler and the Nazi regime.

For example, despite his claims that he could be in Kyiv within two weeks, Putin has never had any intention of doing so. He may be correct in his bold claims from a military point of view, but he does not have the resources to hold a defiant Ukraine nor to withstand the inevitable condemnation of the international community. Far better to do what he has done in places like Moldova and Georgia. Retain a portion of the country under Russian control, keep the conflict either warm or never very far from the heat, and use the situation for leverage and to ensure that the country in question cannot join NATO or the EU while a conflict still exists in one form or other.

Look to America, as Godwin suggests, where Donald Trump is now being painted as the most dangerous man in the Western world. He is the most dangerous man in the Western world, in that he is ignorant, shallow, petulant and crucially is one step away from having his finger on the nuclear button.  And the last place you want to find one of Putin’s Useful Idiots is in the Oval Office. But he stands for nothing. He is a reality TV star thrust into the limelight.

No, the real comparisons to be made lie not in the leaders but in the times. Hitler found a fertile ground in a German populace impoverished and embittered following World War 1 and its subsequent reparations. He could not possibly rise in today’s Germany. Putin came to the Russian people with an offer that they desperately wanted to accept – to bring stability and to make Russia a world power again. Small men of the West like Trump, Johnson and Farage have offered a rejection of a change that people feel uncomfortable with and which has not in their perception improved their quality of life.

No, the dangers today lie not in the autocratic world leaders and their proximity to Hitler. Rather in the conditions that exist in the world and the self-destructive nature of its people. I have no idea whether austerity or anti-austerity is the way forward, but we desperately need some good times. When the world seems to be a mess, its people will reach for any remedy.

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Happy birthday to EU

It was my 48th birthday on Friday 24 June 2016 and I was celebrating it at Glastonbury.  I woke in my tent about 6, full of aches and pains and a strong feeling I was getting to old for this lark. I flicked through my phone for birthday messages, then checked the BBC site for news. First thing I saw – Britain had voted to leave the EU. I shook my head, the news not fully sinking in. Maybe they were still counting. Surely we could not have made such a monumental mistake. Soon the chatter spread all through the camp site. The sound of people trying to make sense of something, to get their heads around the enormity of the decision and trying to imagine how life would change.

After lunch I made my way to the front of the West Holts stage to watch DakhaBrakha, my favourite group from my three years working for the British Council in Ukraine. Three years that were traumatic and challenging for the country, but three enriching and happy years for me personally. Ukraine is a country that is desperate to join the EU. And not for the chance to flood into our country and sponge off our benefits. Rather to help them to change themselves, to take on a ready made set of laws and values that bring stability and hopefully sustained prosperity.

My Ukrainian friends reacted to the referendum result with shock. The EU is a dream for them and the UK a big part of this dream. Some Little Englanders would have you believe that the rest of Europe don’t like us, perhaps because they never vote for us in Eurovision or laugh when we lose at football. Not a bit of it. We are liked, respected and admired. For our traditions, for our creativity, for our honesty, our tolerance and for democracy. I have lived abroad for more than twenty years, most of the time in different European countries, and have found nothing but kindness and friendliness, and my nationality has opened many doors and the occasional heart. We are seen as leaders and exemplars and I couldn’t understand why we would turn our backs on this.

The more I thought, the more I talked, the angrier a felt. A deep directionless anger. Just a feeling I was being taken to a place I didn’t want to go. A bleak and sad place which offered little hope. I was angry at all of those who had voted Leave, angry at the media and the politicians who stoked fears and intolerance and manipulated the public for their own political gain, I was angry at the Baby Boomers who had voted for Leave in their droves, despite the overwhelming desires of their children and grandchildren to stay in. This selfish generation who had all the benefits of free education, universal healthcare, the stability that peacetime and the EU have brought, and now they want to pull up the drawbridge without a thought for the young people who have to live in the smaller world they are creating.

The only thing to do at this stage was to go and see Billy Bragg at Leftfield. Me and Billy go back a long way. I’ve been a fan for 30 odd years and I have seen him innumerable times. Billy has a talent for articulating an experience, whether it’s through a love song, a social comment or a political polemic.There was comfort in singing along to all those familiar songs – New England, Sexuality, Levi Stubbs’ Tears – but focus too, and he’d chosen his songs well. The highlight was The Few, a song about English football hooligans abroad. Those “Little John Bullshits” who “piss in their fountains to express our national pride”. There was bitterness in Billy’s voice as he sang the refrain “What do they know of England, who only England know?”

By the Saturday however I was determined to put aside the politics and focus on the music. There are always one or two moments at every Glastonbury, when the emotion overtakes me and I start to well up. This year it happened during Madness’ set at the Pyramid Stage, as I flung my arms and head back, and sang along to It Must Be Love with 80,000 other happy souls. I looked across at my friend and saw him choking back a happy tear as well. I tried to analyse what it was that made us react in this way. For me it was a link between the past and the present. I had loved Madness as a 12-year-old kid, bought their first seventeen singles (stopped at Michael Caine for some reason) and played them to death. That was me, alone in my box bedroom, just me and the record player and my Madness records. And now here I was in a field in Somerset, surrounded by thousands and thousands of people of all ages and all backgrounds, all sharing the joy of the experience. That feeling of community, of shared experience just got me right in the gut. And it got me thinking about the EU again. That we’re better together. Despite the differences in perspectives and priorities there is more that unites us. And it’s emotional, based on a feeling not facts. That’s why I feel European. I see no conflict between this and also feeling English and British. I feel European and I want to stay that way.

I’ve come away from Glastonbury feeling politicised and determined. I dream and will campaign for a second referendum. But in reality the democratic process needs to be respected and their are few good options. The push for a second referendum should perhaps come from the Leavers. As it dawns on people the damage that will be done to the economy in the short and long term, as they realise that immigration will not be curbed to any great extent, as they realise that the benefits of the single market come at the cost of net contributions and the free movement of people. Perhaps we will get a second chance for common sense to prevail. I’m not looking for a new England, I’m happy with the old one, in a United Kingdom and a united Europe.

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Goodbye Spaceboy

 

This Christmas for the umpteenth time I watched the Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life. A warm life-affirming movie in which an angel visits the suicidal James Stewart and shows him how his home town would be if he’d never been born.

It is hard to even conceive how the cultural landscape of the last 40 to 50 years would have looked had an angel attended a rock’n’roll suicide and decreed that David Bowie had never been born. His music alone puts him right at the top of the musical firmament, but his legacy is so much more than that. He was chameleon, corinthian but no caricature. An artist in the truest sense. His career was all about creation, forever looking to make something new and refusing to be penned in by considerations of form. He wanted to be an artist who did much more than write and sing pop songs. Performance and mythology were just as important. He was writer, performance artist, producer, choreographer and fashion icon.

I’m pretty sure that when a young Bowie was pushing for a breakthrough in the mid-sixties as an Anthony Newley wannabe he had no masterplan. He wasn’t working towards Ziggy and world domination. He was soaking up influences and allowing something to emerge. And his influences were drawn from everywhere. He was the ultimate curator, bringing in elements from anywhere, from Japanese Kabuki to New York street mime. His magpie sense applied to people too, and in collaborations with the likes of Mick Ronson, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Brian Eno and hell even Queen, he was able to pick out talents at the top of their game and allow them to take him to a higher ground than he could have managed for himself.

My favourite Bowie LP is Hunky Dory, the 1971 album where he announced himself as a major talent. Melodically and lyrically it was superb, strange and unfamiliar yet accessible and singalong. There is not a weak track on there, from the hits Changes and Life On Mars, to the rocky Queen Bitch and the deliciously dense Bewlay Brothers. But it was his next album The Fall & Rise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars that would go stratospheric. So many people today, many stars in their own right, have said that Bowie changed their lives. If so, it was probably this album that did it. An album that changed the perceptions of what pop music could be. Equal parts musical genius and theatrical innovation, it is very difficult to hear as a young person and not be transfixed by it.

And this is Bowie’s real legacy. Yes his music was fresh, unique and brilliant. Yes, he was ultra cool and always several leaps ahead of fashion. Yes, he took pop performance to places it had never been before. But it was his influence that really sets him apart. He is in an extremely small group, probably only Elvis, The Beatles and Bob Dylan can make the same claim. They have all made great music, as have many other acts, but they have in turn inspired so many talented artists to pick up a guitar, a pen, a microphone and go out and do something special. They have all changed popular culture forever and for the better.

Music in the late twentieth century is unthinkable without the influence of Bowie. Bowie defined and virtually created Glam Rock, although he shouldn’t be held responsible for everything done in its name. Punk may have had its Year Zero ‘Kill The Hippy’ manifesto, that rejected everything that had been before. But the truth was that there wasn’t one of the original punk contingent who weren’t massive Bowie fans. Besides, you could draw a line from Bowie through the New York Dolls and Iggy Pop straight to UK punk.

The New Romantic period simply would not have existed without Bowie, and the worlds of pop and indie music would have been considerably less colourful, interesting and experimental. Part of Bowie’s appeal and one of the reasons he was so influential, was that he speaks to the misfits and the oddballs. This was never me, but these are the people that, suitably inspired and energised, go out and make the best art.

Everyone has their own David Bowie. Mine is definitely the early 70s version of Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladin Sane. But others are equally attached to different incarnations. His trio of Berlin albums – Low, Heroes and Lodger – are beloved of the arty crowd, and while they largely pass me by they do contain the stunning Heroes. Very few artists could manage to create an epic that was simultaneously anthemic and understated, but Bowie carries it off and it still leaves me speechless.

Although always otherworldly and unique, he retained a core of the Beckenham boy throughout his life. He seemed to pour his weirdness into his art. Not that he was ever the normal bloke from the pub, but he never became a freak show. He remained very private off-stage, and always came across as grounded, approachable and polite. It is hard to find people from show business who speak negatively about David Bowie, although it’s probably equally as hard to find people who can say they knew him really well.

He leaves us today undoubtedly saddened, but enriched by a legacy that will live on long after his passing. His gift for self expression is limitlessly infectious, and multiple generations have been inspired by his music, his performance and his vision of what was possible.

David Bowie. Indeed a wonderful life. Check ignition and may God’s love be with you.

 

 

 

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