Friday, May 22, 2015

Back in the doghouse: Seasick Steve at Le Bataclan, Paris

© Simon Poulter 2015
Some years ago, there was a brief flurry of amusement about Big Daddy, a band that produced ‘50s doo-wop versions of contemporary songs like Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark under the pretence that they were an actual band from the late 1950s, captured during a USO tour of south-east Asia to be rescued in the 1980s to make “old versions of new songs”.

Nobody, for one moment, was taken in by the creaky plot, but that didn't interfere with the band's brief season of patronage by metropolitan musos in Britain.

A similarly arbitrary hipster fad could be attributed to Steve Wold - aka Seasick Steve, he of the colourful backstory and unlikely, late-in-life fame which came out of bemusing the pants off festival-goers with his itinerant blues traveller act.

While Wold's initial flourish of fame may have come from the semi-ironic appreciation of wigged-out Glasto punters (those who turn up for the Foo Fighters and end up digging Dolly Parton), his subsequent progress has rightfully installed him in the spectrum of performers dutifully interpreting the music of the Mississippi Delta in their own sweet way.

Of course there is some degree of caricature in Wold's stage persona: the John Deare tractor cap, the improvised guitars and a never-far bottle of something to swig from does suggest schtick to frame the whole hillbillyness of it all.

But with seven albums since 2004 and countless more festival appearances under his belt, you'd have thought the novelty would have worn off. It hasn't.

You only have to stroll down Beale Street in Memphis to Handy Park to see pretty much the same concept being relayed throughout every authentic hour of the day of that living museum of the Delta blues.

And while Memphis affords tourists a genuinely engaging nod back to Beale's origins, Wold's version of the blues traveller is increasingly playing a vital role in keeping this chapel of Americana alive.

It's hard not to mention BB King at this point. He may have become ever-more cabaret towards the end, but his status as the last of the original bluesmen, with the dirt of Southern cotton fields still beneath their fingernails, placed him at the apex of a movement keeping this vital piece of American culture alive. Clapton, Buddy Guy, Tedeschi and Trucks, the mighty Popa Chubby, and Wold are its remaining custodians, authentic patricians of blues heritage and guardians of its legacy in equal measure.

If there’s one misunderstanding about blues music, it’s that it is maudlin. True, distress of the human condition has always been a lyrical mainstay of the blues, but much of that was tongue-in-cheek. Moreover, the blues is at its most joyful when expressed with the warmth and richness that Seasick Steve applied last night at Le Bataclan, spending much of the evening grinning as widely as most of the vocal Parisian audience (“we love you Sea-sick!” hollered one beer-soaked punter, failing to see the irony of such nautical malady).

Accompanied by the thunderous drummer Dan Magnusson, Wold rattled through the 13-song, 90-minute set, getting the crowd stomping furiously from the get-go with My Donny, the bottleneck blues workout that did so much to endear him to festival crowds to begin with, before easing into Bring It On, which doffs a trucker cap to Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks (and for a former hobo, the choice of Ramble On, amongst an assortment of Led Zeppelin songs, seemed eminently appropriate to warm up the yappy crowd). Indeed, Wold makes it easy to see how the hypnotic rhythms of the Mississippi Delta had such an effect on the British Blues movement and the likes of Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham.

Over the Tennessee chugging, Wold gets to talk about the places he has drifted from and to: Summertime Boy references his own West Coast history (at one time living under the roof of abusive father in Oakland) as he painted an idyllic picture of surfing off Californian beaches, and the drive north on PCH that I can personally vouch is one of the greatest, life-affirming experiences one can have. Barracuda ’68, much later in the set, casts the same effect, a seemingly effortless stomper for the ultimate road trip soundtrack.

With Walking Man, Wold strays into Bono territory by pulling a blonde from the crowd in order "to sing you a love song”. It is indeed a beautiful blues ballad, evoking a southern porch with fireflies jigging about. The warmth and tenderness of both Wold's vocal and his slide guitar never surrendered to schmaltz.

The pace is cranked back up again with Roy’s Gang, on which Wold breaks out a guitar made from a washboard and a banjo neck and played with a thimble. At this point you might question whether this is too much humility, but the earthy grind that Wold and Magnusson concoct is every bit as inventive as Jimmy Page and his violin bow, or Hendrix playing with his teeth.

© Simon Poulter 2015
With the audience now frugging in unison, Wold piles into the standard Baby, Please Don’t Go (popularised by Big Joe Wiliams, immortablised by Van Morrison’s Them), which takes the crowd along with its infectious repetition.

“Play the blues Steve!” shouts someone in a crowd noticeable for the number of plaid shirts and John Deare tractor caps. "I ain't playin' no blues, man, I'm a hillbilly!” is the response, as Wold grinds into Keep On Keepin’ On, which says everything you’ll ever need to know about Seasick Steve and his professional ethos.

After the briefest of breaks, Wold re-emerges on his own to cover John Hartford’s Gentle On My Mind, a countrified ballad about life on the road, and again, another example of Wold’s delightful balance of chugging blues and a gentler take on the genre.

We end with another Seasick Steve signature, Dog House Boogie, another rousing, growling, floor-thumper that provides a consolidating demonstration of why, playing this old, weather-worn, venerable form of music, live audiences were so bowled over by Wold to begin with.

It wasn’t about his sorry tale of life on the road, of seeking out a living and sleeping in hedgrerows, it was the fact that with a guitar made out of the barest of components, Seasick Steve was able to - and continues to - demonstrate that music, proper music, isn’t created on a computer, or in a TV studio - but by soul. Simply wonderful.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mojo still working: Paul Weller's Saturns Pattern

When the late James Brown was handing himself titles like "The Godfather of Soul", "Soul Brother Number 1", "Mr. Dynamite" and "The Minister of Super-Funk" (in much the same way as Idi Amin, who made himself "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular, Victoria Cross", and, of course, "King of Scotland") - the only sobriquet that could be questioned was "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business".

Not that Brown lacked the work ethic to justify the description, but it would have been hard to prove, given that any one of a number of stand-up comedians, singer-songwriters, film and TV extras and, of course, Michael Caine, could mount a serious challenge to the description. Even the now-dear departed BB King averaged up to 300 shows a year well into his 80s.

However, we're not here to debate the industry of entertainers at large, but instead give regard to Saturns Pattern - incredibly, the 35th album to be released by or involving the current Hardest Working (or Woking) Man in Show Business, Paul Weller. Just think of that: 35 albums - including 12 under his own name post-Jam/Style Council. That is, by any stretch of the imagination, prodigious.

In 2004, though, the covers album Studio 150 suggested an easing up on the creativity. Faithful, but not particularly inspiring versions of the soul classic Wishing On A Star, Gordon Lightfoot's Early Mornng Rain and even All Along The Watchtower made many question Weller's career path at the start of his fourth decade in the business. There was talk of writer's block, tabloid whispers about his lifestyle, and sundry other diversions from what what should have been the discussion, about one of Britain's most consistent artists.

While All Is Now, featuring the delightfully rambunctious From The Floorboards Up, suggested that Weller's mojo was back, it was 2008's 22 Dreams that suggested - no, insisted - that whatever had been holding him back had been well and truly exorcised, delivering a deluge of expression, experimentation and unrestricted avante garde.

Since then, the albums have come - relatively speaking - thick and fast, each one pushing at the notions of what the so-called Modfather should be doing. Because no-one and nothing can or will dictate what Weller will commit to record.

Hippy-dippy psychedelic woozeouts? Fill yer boots. Ray Davies-nodding stompers? 'Ave some. Gentle, Laurel Canyon-esque ballads? Be our guest. Although you'd never guess it, given his famously stoney expression (which always reminds me of De Niro), the nine tracks of Saturns Pattern suggests a Paul Weller having fun. 

There is a striking ease to it: songs like Phoenix recalling long hot summer soul boy days (and Dusk Til Dawn on the Deluxe Edition brings back memories of The Style Council's Down The Seine); White Skies, the album's opener, kicks in with eviscerating guitar and distorted vocal without so much as a by-your-leave; and These City Streets harks back to the gentle white soul of Remember How We Started on Weller's solo debut, an album which, like its mega-selling follow-up Stanley Road underlined his remarkable ability to combine tone, texture and melody without either selling out to mainstream pop, while remaining totally faithful to the cause. And then there's the title track, which sups from Weller's original source, The Small Faces, with its rinkly-tinkly piano and carefree giddiness (so carefree Weller clearly wasn't bothered by the heinous titular omission of a possessive apostrophe...).

Weller doesn't stand still, and I don't just mean from the propensity of his output, but from his seemingly restless desire to expand and explore, to mix it up and try this and try that. Take In The Car... for example: bluesy acoustic guitars, bottleneck slide electric guitars - instruments you would struggle to associate with the younger Weller - are blended together with splashes of psychedelic Hammond organ, providing solid evidence that this 56 year-old (he turns 57 next Monday) refuses to adhere to any conformity of expectation.

It's always possible that Paul Weller will, one day, produce a dud. A real stinker. He could so easily descend into self-parody, or head off, Spinal Tap-like, into the realms of jazz-rock experimentation, or reinvent himself, sort of, as a Neil Young tribute act.

But on current evidence, there's little to no danger. Saturns Pattern is, like it's most recent predecessors, another solid sleeper lying across the railway line of Paul Weller's solid career trajectory. OK, a convoluted analogy, but you know what I mean. 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

A 99 cone please: Blur's The Magic Whip

Now, I'm not going to drag up all that Britpop brouhaha because it was 20 years ago and the world has moved on. But to hear a brand new Blur album, 13 years after their last studio release and a massive 16 years since they launched one as a fourpiece, messes with the head.

Because there is much about The Magic Whip, released last week, which seems unaged, timeless even. And yet, for the rest of us, the difference between the salad days of Britpop and now is the distance between carefree abandon and the burden of mortgages, middle-aged spread, grey hair and random bladder-related ailments.

20 years is, though, a long time in any rock band's history. Imagine how The Beatles might have sounded in 1986, twenty years on from Revolver? Would it have been, like so much of that period, a cacophany of over-production, Fairlight samples and Simmons drums? With added Jeff Lynne for good measure...

Thankfully, then, Blur have managed to bridge the decades effortlessly with The Magic Whip. It's opening track, Lonesome Street, harks back to the bop-a-long past - a chugg-a-chugg Country House rhythm coupled with Damon Albarn's maudlin take on modern life (which is rubbish, in case you weren't aware) and the mundanity of taking the "5:14 from East Grinstead". Perhaps disingenuously, it has even earned the nod of approval from one time bête noire Liam Gallagher. How times change.

In reality, so much has passed since Messrs Albarn, Coxon, James and Roundtree were last a recording fourpiece. Albarn has pursued polymath offshoots in Chinese opera and smartarse collaborations with street artists and old punks, Graham Coxon has honed his somewhat underrated skills as an exquisite guitar-based singer songwriter, Alex James took up being a posh farmer and Roundtree returned to his criminal legal practice.

Given all this, it was hard to predict what The Magic Whip would deliver, especially given the somewhat accidental way it came about - the result of a Hong Kong studio jam session two years ago during a tour, with Coxon resurrecting interest in the recordings at the end of last year and Albarn adding lyrics to complete the album.

Improvisation led to 13 and Think Tank - their previous studio albums - but The Magic Whip has the air of a relaxed, Sunday afternoon day-off, Coxon in particularly delivering fluid, understated guitar riffs, if aimlessly plucking out motifs while kicking back on a settee.

Picture: Facebook/Blur

The album is a mix of the joyful and the warm, contemplative and the cold, with frequent lapses into the reflective mood of Albarn's introspective Everyday Robots, released a year ago to the week. All of which gives us gems like the understated New World Towers, Thought I Was A Spaceman and the standout My Terracotta HeartOng Ong returns to singalongaBlur, while Mirroball - nothing to do with Elbow, you may like to know - is another wonderfully woozy afternoon of a song, with beautifully expressive guitar work from Coxon.

Pyongyang mixes the dystopian sparsity of Bowie and Brian Eno's Warszawa, with Albarn recalling a visit to North Korea to create, it must be said, a beautifully bleak postcard. The subject of There Are Too Many Of Us won't come as any great surprise, either - literally, too many of us "living in tiny houses" (in the country and elsewhere). Not exactly uplifting, but somehow, Albarn's hangdog outlook doesn't grate as much you'd expect.

Picture: Facebook/Blur
Lightening the mood, Ghost Ship is a playful piece of blue-eyed soul, seemingly cast in idyllic waters with James plunking away at an ice-cold glass of Chardonnay's worth of summer bass, redolent of nu-soul one-hit-wonder Omar's There's Nothing Like This.

Ice Cream Man might be comparable with the sort of whimsy of Ernold Same, The Great Escape's nod to Pink Floyd's Arnold Layne, but in trying to be quirky, it tries too hard and misses. That, though is probably the only miss on the album.

While The Magic Whip throws up few real surprises, it certainly isn't the comfortable pair of mail order drawstring trousers it might easily be. Blur aren't pretending to be the the 20 years-hence version of their younger selves, even if photographic evidence doesn't suggest much of an ageing process.

But everyone - Albarn, Coxon, James and Roundtree contribute with an assuredness, as if returning to an artisan hobby that had been packed away under a spare upstairs bed.

Monday, May 04, 2015

There was only one word for it: inevitable.

Picture courtesy of

It's not over yet, although it is, and in truth, has been for a long time. The party streamers and champagne corks strewn across the pitch at Stamford Bridge tell the tale of relief, elation, vindication and many, many more emotions.

Chelsea have become Barclays Premier League champions for the 2014-2015 season. That title might suggest a competition that began in August and is will end on May 24 (with the champions still to play three more games), but in reality, it was probably over before 2015 had even begun.

That is not meant to be a boast - truly it wasn't. But the Usain Bolt-like speed with which Chelsea sprinted out of the traps in August was truly breathtaking. In fact, such was the rapidity and regularity with which Diego Costa was scoring goals so early in the competition - good goals, exciting goals, goals created by Cesc Fabregas - that many jaded Chelsea fans were still caught discussing whether the club had bought yet another couple of misfits from La Liga (thanks, of course, to Spain's limp performance in the World Cup).

Clearly it hadn't, and even if injury, suspension and fatigue has, respectively, removed Costa from the battle and Fabregas from effectiveness in the second half of the season, their contribution in the first half must not go unrecognised. The fact that suspension and a recurring hamstring injury has limited Costa's involvement since Christmas is all the more remarkable when you consider a goals-to-games ratio of almost 80% for the season as a whole.

Picture courtesy of

When the season began, a large majority of pundits noted how well balanced Chelsea were. That, with Costa up front, Hazard, Oscar and a choice of other attacking midfielders, Matic in the holding role, a solid defensive quartet and Courtois in goal, Jose Mourinho had the potential to make good his prophesy last season about the little horse winning the title this time.

What the experts didn't note, however, was the intellectual aspect of Mourinho's game, that he hadn't just assembled a squad of some potency, but that his tactical nouse was pretty much the 12th man in Chelsea's team. And thus it has proven to be: blitzkreig before Christmas, a "strategic" (his words) approach when injury denied him his main battle tank. 

Love him or loathe him - and we all know there are plenty in the latter camp - you simply cannot deny that Mourinho is a special one: 22 career trophies as a manager (an average of one every 34 games), league titles in four countries, and a win rate of 135 out of 193 Premier League matches played. A staggering achievement.

So, then. Chelsea boring? There's no doubt that in being "strategic", Mourinho has had to abandon creativity for pragmatism. The loss of Costa was significant, the decline of Fabregas a pain. But Mourinho managed to conjure team performances that compensated for this. And as for all that 'parking the bus' nonsense, how many teams have come to Stamford Bridge to do just that? It takes two to tango.

Picture: Facebook/Chelsea FC
There's no point comparing Chelsea and Barcelona. Barca are Barca, in their own world, surrounded their own romantic notion of football. Madrid too. I watch a fair bit of Italian football, as well, and while I love the theatre of it all, theatricality is too often what you get. 

For that reason, it still pains me to see a Chelsea player go over like a dying swan. And, yes, Eden Hazard, I do mean you. A little.

On the other hand, the arguments about Chelsea being boring lack any intelligent rationality: with striking options limited, what was Mourinho supposed to do - just say "fuck it lads, knock it about a bit, play some tikka-takka, and if we win, we win, and if not, we've had fun trying"?

That does not cut with any Premier League team. The object is to win. Sometimes you win pretty, sometimes you win ugly. Sometimes you face an opponent who gives you the space to play elaborately, another game, you're up against the proverbial wall. Chelsea can't be derided for mixing and matching their style of play to the opponent they face. Winning is the objective. 

As a Chelsea fan I am, of course, beside myself with glee that the club I've supported since childhood, and until a decade ago hadn't won more than a couple of major trophies since 1955, has won its fourth Premier League title in ten years. Of course they've done it with Abramovich's money. Yes, they've done it three times with Mourinho's intelligence, guile and tactical cunning more than any discernible style. But, yes, they've done it at all.

Picture: Facebook/Chelsea FC
I'm always amused by the baying, braying chants of opposition fans, especially those challenging the apparent Johnny-come-latelys that the gentrified Stamford Bridge has drawn. 

"Where were you when you were shit!" is the most popular. "Right here", is my usual retort, remembering seeing the tail-end of Mickey Droy and Ron 'Chopper' Harris's careers, the Second Division mudbaths, the so-called "new stand" that almost bankrupted the club (and which I still sit in...and refer to as "the new stand"), and the dismal, 7,000-attendance bores during which would look up at the old away end and see no more than a handful of brave souls who'd trudged in from the provinces to watch a low-end encounter.

That, by the way, isn't a sob story. And nor is it a story of genuine survival and progressive betterment, such as the remarkable rise of Bournemouth, and their well-deserved ascent into the Premier League next term. 

No, it's the reality that after decades of watching Chelsea trade off its supposed 1960s glamour and Hollywood connections (Sophia Loren anyone?) and be perennial underachievers, that we're enjoying the sort of sustained success that I and many others moaned about Liverpool in the 70s and 80s, and Manchester United and Arsenal in the 1990s. And like them, Chelsea can now join that small band of clubs whose fan refrain is "no one likes us, we don't care". Perhaps the highest accolade of them all.

Monday, April 27, 2015

We were only being boring...for a reason

The general consensus this morning, following yesterday's predictable 0-0 draw between Arsenal and Chelsea, is that the Blues are boring. Oh, what delightful irony.

No one is any doubt that yesterday's match at the Emirates lacked goals - actually, it lacked shots on goal, too - but it certainly didn't lack excitement. Barclays Premier League football simply can't. The pace and physicality alone means that you'll always have something to keep you occupied. Of course, we don't watch football for the spectacle of two teams going at each other like rutting wildebeest. Goals, and preferably spectacular goals, have to be a part of the entertainment.

And, despite the bilious nonsense about Chelsea killing football from those flooding radio phone-ins, Twitter and comment boxes yesterday evening, it shouldn't be forgotten that in being ten points clear at the top of the league, Chelsea have taken 65 goals from 33 games, and have a positive goal difference of 39, five more than Manchester City. That doesn't strike me as particularly boring, although I'll readily concede that Chelsea were at the most entertaining best up until Christmas, with Costa scoring almost every time he was on the pitch, and Fabregas providing some of the best delivery play I've seen Chelsea produce in the 35 years I've been visiting Stamford Bridge.

But yesterday, with the Premier League's runaway leaders and a resurgent Arsenal going up against each other just over a month from the end of the season, what were people expecting? Free-flowing carelessness?

That the blame for a 0-0 result should fall solely on José Mourinho is ludicrous. It takes two teams to make a game and Arsène Wenger would have - or, at least, should have - known that this fixture would have found Mourinho at his most infuriatingly pragmatic.

If it hadn't been apparent in the build-up, it was certainly obvious when the teamsheet was posted: no recognised striker (albeit the ageing Drogba on the bench), a frontline featuring the mercurial Hazard (and, now, deserved PFA Player of the Year) flanked by the increasingly anaemic Oscar and the talented but uneven Willian, Matic and Fabregas holding the midfield, and the Premier League's most efficient back four behind them.

Let's not be naive: if you or I were managing Chelsea, sitting on top of the league since God-knows when and with points to spare, the electric striker who mostly put you there out injured, and the rest of the squad visibly looking jaded, what else would you do, when a prize that has eluded them since 2010 lay so tantalisingly close? You wouldn't want to blow it now.

I won't deny that the game lacked flair, or that Mourinho packed the midfield, but that should have been Wenger's problem to solve. Arsenal have clearly shown their mettle in recent weeks, and have been particularly good at home. But yesterday they simply didn't ask enough questions of Chelsea. They just didn't have the approach. I've seen the same at home: teams coming to Stamford Bridge simply to park the bus and thwart their hit-on-the-break play. Thus, there have been times when I've trudged out of the Bridge, just about happy with three points from a goal nicked in the final minutes after an hour or more of similar to what we saw yesterday, albeit with the bus parked by the visitors.

At the Emirates, Chelsea were disciplined: John Terry defied his age to earn Man Of The Match with distinguished aplomb, with Cesar Azpilicueta, in particular, brilliantly solid at left back. Their organisation overall, as the visiting side, was impeccable. And Arsenal? They are the side people should find frustrating. They have the talent - their league position says so - but they lacked the nouse to unlock Chelsea. They've won just two of their last 13 league games against the Blues, and have gone eight hours without even scoring against them. Add to that, they've had just one shot on target in their two league fixtures against Chelsea this season.

Arsenal and Chelsea: "what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object"

Can Chelsea be "blamed" for that? Well, sorry if I misread the instructions, but I thought the object of the exercise was that one side aims to score more goals than the other in order to win. Which, if I understand the principle further, means that each side has to do as much as it can to prevent the other from scoring.

Somewhere between the two, I agree, should be exciting attacking football. And if not, we end up with, to quote The Joker, "...what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object."

If, as expected, Chelsea do win the Premier League this season, there is only one message for the teams around them who failed to beat them: do better next season.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Six weeks of misery begins here

When I left Britain 16 years ago for a new life abroad it was hardly an emigration to the farthest ends of the Earth. It was, in fact, to Amsterdam, which meant I was only a 40 minute flight away from those things I still held dear - my family, my friends, and Stamford Bridge, where I'd prudently taken out a season ticket some years before.

A couple of years later, I moved further afield, to California, but yet thanks to the Internet and its world-shrinking prowess, I was hardly disconnected from the home island for long - an eight-hour time difference the only real physical barrier.

Now I'm in Paris, and in principle, a two-hour train ride from London, if I miss anything at all, it's not that big a deal. In fact, it's probably easier to get to London than it is from Birmingham. Or, for those who still commute into London to work, its outer suburbs.

One thing, however, I can say - H on H - is that I haven't missed British politicians. They're no worse elsewhere in the world, of course, but I say that in the comfort of having been kept well clear of local politics elsewhere thanks to constitutional restrictions.

But now, as the countdown to the 2015 General Election has officially begun (even though it feels like it's been dragging on for months), I find myself oddly disenfranchised from the country of my birth, and one in which I have been entitled to vote for almost 30 years. Because, having lived outside of the UK for more than 15 years, I am, apparently, no longer eligible to vote.

I could get seriously up in arms about this, but, frankly, it's just not worth it. I know that sounds democratically irresponsible - my parents' generation fought for such freedom, and all that - but by being formally refused the vote, I have been freed of the responsibility of worrying about sending a boob to 10 Downing Street. Or No.11. Or whatever arrangement they came to last time.

It must be said that I have long held a healthy and underlying disregard for politicians. All of them. In fact, they are my least favourite species to this Earth born, after rapidly mutating viruses, mosquitoes and salesmen. I have yet to encounter one politician - either via the media or in person - with whom you'd willingly wish to spend any time with.

I'm sure there are some perfectly decent politicians, earnest individuals seeking the best for their constituents via worthy deeds, but unfortunately, those who rise to prominence or, even worse, the top, seem to be cast from the same mold of narcissistic, self-serving ego-maniacal weasels who have taken up politics in response to some deep childhood issues.

So, back to the election. Britain faces an impossible choice on May 7. Because national politics has descended into the same vanilla mediocrity as Saturday night television. Even the means of electing a future government has taken on the superficiality of American electioneering, with a lot of fuss about TV debates turning the whole process into The X Factor (or should that be Britain's Got Absolutely Zero Political Talent - arf!).

I don't wish to come across as dewy-eyed and nostalgic, but British politics has lost its personalities. Even Margaret Thatcher - as much as I loathed her doctrine - stimulated discussion, debate, anger, hatred, a rise in blood pressure or, for those who adored her, a figurehead.

And today? If the primary options are Cameron, Clegg and Milliband, you have three virtually indistinguishable versions of each other. Bland, bereft of charisma and more intent on saying what they've been instructed to say rather than any discernible conviction, lest they upset the grandee factions that hold together the fragile structure of their respective parties.

After the last general election Britain ended up with an absurd forced marriage of a government, run by two such ideologically mismatched parties I'm surprised they didn't install relationship counsellors from the off. But to make it work, we were treated like dumbasses and made to believe that the Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition was a beautiful "partnership".

The best take on this came from the brilliant American comedian Rich Hall. Spreading his time between rural Montana and a home in the UK, Hall returned to Britain after the last election to be surprised to find the country being run "by a couple of gay antique dealers”.

As Prime Minister and deputy, they have been the 'taupe' premiership (though, to be fair, the PM does change hue for his annual summer holiday, when he can be seen pointing at dead fish while wearing a considerable amount of navy casualwear). Undistinct, uninteresting, uninspiring.

"Call me Dave" Cameron has done little to dispel his Harry Flashman image, leading an obsequious gang of elitist throwbacks who have ended up in a coalition with all the ridiculous contradictions, compromises and conveniences these tend to generate. That includes making Nick Clegg the second-most powerful man in the country. I've met him, and can vouch say that, even for politicians, he is one of the dullest you could ever encounter. Seriously, charisma-free and, apparently, equally under-endowed on the policy front, too.

Don't, however, think for one minute that I'm letting Ed Miliband off, either. Has there really been a less electable leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition since Michael Foot? Blair might have sold Britain down a river of deceit with his misadventure in Iraq, but in 1997 Labour - under him - reversed 18 years of Conservative misery. He was a truly viable opportunity to revitalise a moribund Britain and its political life. And, yes, he had charisma. All that Cool Britannia nonsense did, partially rub off. Britain felt good again (though I do have to acknowledge that I left it two year later...).

Can anyone truly see Milliband as Prime Minister? Does he really have the chops to represent the UK at the highest level, as a statesman and political equal? Sorry, but no. Britain doesn't need a leader who comes across like the head prefect of a progressive North London comprehensive school.

I have, I note, been alarmingly traditional so far. What about other parties? No disrespect intended to those who fall under the 'Other' category, but the only other party to consider, in the interests of balance, is UKIP, especially as it is currently third in the latest opinion polls. Which is remarkable, when you consider how much dysfunction Britain's self-appointed loony right have within its ranks, no sooner weeding out one nutjob for another to appear, foot - or worse - in mouth.

Much of that dysfunction must be attributed to Nigel Farage, UKIP's bug-eyed, ale-supping, nicotine-stained, tweed-clad, Home Counties golf club captain of a party leader.

He is more caricature of himself than anything else: all clubhouse bonhomie, a posh spiv always ready to be pictured with a pint like a "regular Joe", as they'd say in America.

Farage's aim may be to challenge the apparent domination of British politics by a metropolitan elite, but this Middle England-orientated self-image masks a danger.

And here's why: "It took me six hours and 15 minutes in the car to get here [Port Talbot in Wales]. It should have taken three and a half to four. That has nothing to do with professionalism. What is does have to do with is a country in which the population is going through the roof, chiefly because of open-door immigration, and the fact the M4 is not as navigable as it used to be."

For the record, the UKIP leader, a Eurosceptic MEP, is married to a German, is of Huguenot-French descent, and had a German great-great grandfather. I suppose he's entitled to his opinions. I just wish he didn't forced it down the throats of the rest of us.

So, if I were still able to place a vote that would, somehow in the UK's arcane electoral system, elect the next government of my home country, the world's sixth largest economy, I would be truly stumped: a choice between the taupe twins, Gromit's erstwhile human friend, and a man constructed largely from Benson & Hedges and Greene King IPA.

Forgive me, then, if I can't help feeling like Britain is screwed. Leave the Tories in power much longer and, like starving lions, they will soon turn on each other. A mess, a power vacuum and then what? Elect the Lib-Dems? Wet paper bags are more adept at governing. Labour? Even they've reduced themselves to an homogeneity of windy rhetoric that varies as far as bland and blander. And UKIP? Vote them in and the lunatics really will have taken over the asylum.

So what is Britain left with? Not much, really. Come May 7, the country will trudge off to church halls, libraries, school gyms and all the other venues that double as refuges in times of natural disasters to place a tick next to the name of that baby-kissing, eager-to-please reformed (or partially reformed) bed-wetter who came to your front door one evening, or you ran into handing out stickers in the high street. And here's where the bizarre crapshoot begins. The candidate you actually vote for might not make the slightest bit of difference to who actually walks through the door of 10 Downing Street on May 8.

Between Britain's batshit-mad electoral system, and the array of blandness on offer as eventual beneficiaries of it, I could be forgiven for giving a cynical sneer to the next six weeks and its outcome. Knowing that I have no say in it, and not much if I had, has left me in a state somewhere between calm and caustic. It will be nigh on impossible to avoid the coverage and the glorified circus that the parties will run as they present themselves as governing material. But I will soldier on. Happy in the knowledge that a Netflix subscription will see me through until the fuss has died down (though I will, for obvious reasons, be avoiding House Of Cards...).

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

You say "fracas", I say "punch-up", let's call the whole thing off

And so, an alleged incident last week gets reported by the Radio Times (didn't it used to be a TV listings magazine?), and before you know it, BBC upper management has the excuse it has been waiting for to formally discipline Jeremy Clarkson.

Curious. And on the day after Rona Fairhead, head of the BBC Trust, came under fire for her relationship with the scandal-hit bank HSBC. Seeing as Clarkson's alleged "fracas" last week was only reported by the BBC's own publication yesterday, with the corporation suspending him soon after, you could forgive the suspicious for thinking they'd caught a whiff of conspiracy.

It was, though, Or, at least, a bit of a joke, given the Beeb's choice of "fracas" to begin with. How very British. How very PR. A fracas is defined as "a noisy, disorderly disturbance or fight", so no doubt lawyers came up with the word as a polite catch-all.

The facts of the case, however (and despite apparent chapter-and-verse details reported in today's newspapers), are not yet fully clear. Stories vary from Clarkson merely remonstrating with the assistant producer, Oisin Tymon, over, apparently, the absence of catering at the end of a Top Gear shoot in Newcastle, to Clarkson "aiming a punch at" him, to Clarkson actually hitting the producer. No doubt there is a span of reality between all three.

All of this reminds me of the incident many years ago in which two Sky News presenters, Chris Mann and Scott Chisholm, got into a proper fight. This was no "fracas", no "disagreement", "brief exchange of opinions" or any other PR euphemism. Even "altercation" sounds like Victorians observing Queensberry Rules. No, this was an actual punch-up. A Ron Burgundy-style face-off. A burly scot and a burly Scott (and both colleagues of Kay Burley) rolling down an Osterley corridor like clothed versions of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. The pair were suspended with immediate effect, but not without Sky enduring ceaseless ridicule from every newsroom between London and Sydney.

If the Sky dust-up had taken place in any other office, it would have barely bothered the pages of a local rag. And to be honest, at the time, Sky was still in its infancy, and neither Mann or Chisholm were big names outside their own self regard.
Clarkson is different. He is, to all intents and purposes, Top Gear. And Top Gear, in the 'new' format he and executive producer Andy Willman created 12 years ago, has become a global hit making oodles of money for the BBC from show syndication, DVDs, iTunes downloads, Stig toys and all the other Christmas-bound detritus that has built up around what is essentially Last Of The Summer Wine with cars - three blokes "cocking around", as they like to describe themselves.

I can understand those who don't like Clarkson, Top Gear or both. He is/it is decidedly blokeish, at times painfully scripted, 22 seasons in, very formulaic, and in Richard Hammond, televises some of the most exaggerated mannerisms in the industry. But I also get its appeal: its high production values make for some genuinely excellent television. The specials, challenges and longer-form films have been brilliant. And, no, it doesn't take itself seriously. If you're going to be offended by the things Clarkson says, you're going to be offended by Alf Garnett, which means that you're missing the joke entirely.

That said, clearly Clarkson - for it is almost always him - knows how to get dangerously close to the line, one that - like guard fences in World War II POW camps - has a minefield either side of it. The "slope" joke during the Borneo special was appalling and actually offensive, and the excuses made by the BBC in its wake were just as bad. And I'm still hugely suspicious that the 'H982FKL' number plate of the Porsche driven by Clarkson in Argentina was no accident.

It's exactly this sort of thing that divides opinion so. Much - if not most - of Top Gear's personality is Clarkson himself. And readers of his weekly column in The Sunday Times will see no difference, either. He is partly a caricature - public schoolboy (Repton), politically incorrect, probably a Tory, hangs on to being a professional Yorkshireman saying shocking things to scare old ladies, not, for effect, either, and has spent the better part of three decades (since his first appearance on 'old' Top Gear) nurturing this image of belligerence.

Some say, if I can use those words, that it is calculated. It's not. Clarkson is Clarkson. For every tweet calling for him to be reinstated there have been those congratulating the BBC for finally calling their "vial" [sic] cash cow to account (an ironic typo given the toxic associations of such a vessel).

If the BBC does sack Clarkson, his somewhat sanguine banter on Twitter last night suggests that he's not bothered, and nor are co-stars Hammond and James May who have been anchored around him. Even though Clarkson and Willman sold the rights to Top Gear back to the BBC, lawyers will no doubt find a way to move it to Sky, who would kill to have such a property. ITV, too, could do with something to replace the Champions League for advertisers seeking to reach the sort of demographics Top Gear connects with on BBC2.

All this, though, does dangerously detract from the core of the issue. It doesn't matter who you are, or what you do for your employer, you can't go around punching colleagues. The 'don't fire Clarkson' campaign seems to be worryingly overlooking this fact. It might have held true for some of the near-knuckle things he's said in the past, but if his fist did connect with Tymon, there is no justification - Top Gear's commercial importance, a tired and famished presenter, even incompetence - that can stand in the way of punitive action against Clarkson, who might also face a chat with Inspector Plod, too.