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Sunday, 8 December 2013

The dark side of Camelot

Built to a large extent around interviews with friends, colleagues and former associates, this remarkable book by Seymour Hersh –first published in 1997- delineates a world that, to the modern eye, seems barely believable.
We are all used to reading about political scandals, but John F. Kennedy's activities went far beyond the odd indiscreet affair or dodgy business connection. His 'unofficial' CV is remarkable, containing as it does dalliances with prostitutes, connections with organised crime, a string of mistresses, bribery, election fraud and links to a number of assassination attempts on the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro.

In tracing Kennedy's inexorable rise, Hersh sets the scene with some illuminating background information on the family, particularly on his ruthless and ambitious father. With rumours constantly linking him to bootlegging, profiteering and organised crime, the bad smell around Joe Kennedy meant that he could never have been president, but he made up his mind that one of his sons would be, whatever it cost. As Hersh puts it, “Joe Kennedy spent his life making money … and then hiding it.” Once his own political career had perished on the rocks of a disastrous tenure as US ambassador to the United Kingdom, Joe used his vast fortune to get his son into the White House.
There seems little doubt, for instance, that the 1960 election was crooked, with even Kennedy's opponent -Richard Nixon- later conceding that, in the realm of street-fighting politics (yes, that's a euphemism for bribery, cheating and lying), he was out of his depth when he tangled with the Kennedys.

The iron curtain around the family can be hard to breach, but Hersh manages to secure a number of startling interviews with former associates and colleagues, revealing several jaw-dropping anecdotes about the extent of the ‘unusual’ lifestyle enjoyed by the president, his brother Bobby and their inner circle.

One of the key arguments of the book is that this very lifestyle presented a significant risk to America’s security. There is certainly evidence to suggest that the president’s complicated relationship with drugs (he was constantly on a cocktail of powerful medication for Addison’s disease and a chronic back condition) may have accounted for his unusually high sex drive and his willingness to take risks. Hersh puts the case that the Cuban missile crisis was down to a disastrously inept policy on Cuba, fuelled by what appeared to be a pathological hatred of Castro and a dangerous taste for brinkmanship. There is little doubt that Kennedy sanctioned various (rather inept) attempts to assassinate the Cuban leader, but he also gave tacit approval for the coup in South Vietnam which resulted in the murders of president Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother and chief adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu. The fall-out from that would prove to be disastrous.

It might be tempting to think that any modern politician behaving like Kennedy would be exposed and excoriated in the press and social media, but the truth is that many influential people -particularly in the world of journalism- knew about the Kennedys, but chose to put a blind eye to the telescope when it came to the behaviour of the up-and-coming senator and, later, the handsome young president. Having an ideological crush on a politician invariably impairs the critical faculties, a fact that is as true today as it has ever been.

Hersh offers no theories on the assassination, other than to state that the lack of credible evidence points to both Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby acting alone. If however, you are inclined to conspiracy theories, the book’s merciless accumulation of grubby detail might tempt you to look in one particular direction; when you add up all of the connections with (and favours owed to) various shadowy underworld figures, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to suspect that someone somewhere might have nurtured quite a grievance against the Kennedy clan.

One can’t help but wonder how a family with so many dodgy connections, so many skeletons in so many cupboards, managed to attain a status somewhere between royalty and showbiz demigods. You come away from this book with the impression that, for all the charisma, the glamour and the showboating idealism, the fact that people like this could accede to power is something of a stain on America's soul.

Monday, 18 November 2013

In defence of charlatans

There was an interesting story on the news the other day about Sylvia Mitchell, an American clairvoyant who was sentenced to fifteen years in jail for conning customers out of thousands of dollars. One woman re-mortgaged her house after Mitchell told her that, in order to “break her attachment to money” (which had been developed in a previous life as an Egyptian princess) she should hand over $27,000. Most of the clients had forked out money for the psychic to rid their lives of ‘negative energy’, but Mitchell’s defence team argued that she had not conned them, but had merely charged money for a service that they had agreed to buy.

I am not exactly a believer when it comes to the power of so-called clairvoyants, but I do think Mitchell’s defence team had a point. Let’s leave to one side the question of whether or not the statute book should protect someone stupid enough to believe that she should hand over a bucketload of cash to atone for having been an Egyptian princess in a previous life. Critics argue that psychics prey upon the gullible and vulnerable, but –beyond the purchase of food and shelter- every commercial transaction we undertake exploits our desire for happiness and, in that sense, all consumers are willing victims. Many folk who employ the services of psychics will perceive themselves to have benefited from their consultations, so whose perception is more important here: the people who don't believe or the people who -for whatever reason- choose to suspend disbelief as part of their contract with a clairvoyant?

If a music-loving, middle-aged bloke like myself buys a 're-mastered' box set of albums by an artist I love when I already have everything that artist has ever released, am I being preyed upon for my gullibility? And, even if I concede that I am somehow being exploited, what if I choose to do it anyway because, on some level, it makes me feel better to own that box set? The record company and the psychic are both selling stuff that, strictly speaking, their clients don’t really need. It can be argued that my arrangement with the record company is no different from the arrangement between a clairvoyant and a lonely old woman who hopes that she might make contact with her deceased husband. In both cases, the consumer believes that their emotional or intellectual well-being will be improved by the exchange.

I’m worried that the Mitchell case might set a precedent; if we accept that ‘exploitative’ clairvoyants should be prosecuted for their practices, who will the law go after next? How about shrinks, counsellors, chiropractors and all holistic practitioners? What if I worked in a beauty salon and persuaded an ugly woman to pay for an expensive makeover, then told her that she looked sensational once it was done? If some bad-mannered person later pointed out that she was still ugly, could I be prosecuted for fraud?

I suspect that most clairvoyants are charlatans, but we should defend their right to practice their charlatanry, because interventionist approaches are invariably based on subjective judgements and are usually illiberal and authoritarian. When we grant the state the power to outlaw ‘harmful’ stuff on behalf of those perceived to be unenlightened or likely to be exploited, it not only makes huge assumptions about those people, it leads inexorably to more things being deemed ‘harmful’ and more things being banned. Look around and you’ll see plenty of examples of how this process works.

If someone uses a psychic to 'communicate' with a dead relative and that 'communication' gives them solace, who are we to deny them that? Isn’t it better to live in a society that allows folk to get at least some comfort from mumbo-jumbo than a society in which the authorities decide, on our behalf, whether or not something is ‘good’ for us?

I suspect that many of the folk who use psychics probably know, in their heart of hearts, that it is phoney-baloney. They just choose, for reasons we have no right to disdain, to suspend their disbelief.

And if that helps them make it through the night, why should the law take an interest?

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Let's hear it for humankind

In the recent BBC 2 show ‘Don’t Panic – the truth about population’, the statistician Professor Hans Rosling provided an amusing and refreshing antidote to some of the alarmist guff regularly peddled in the mainstream media about the ‘dangers’ of human development and population growth.
I’m not sure whether the doomsday merchants drive or merely reflect public opinion, but we do seem to have something of a fascination with the day of reckoning. There are always people willing to predict that apocalypse is imminent; these dire forecasts used to be mostly about food and resources, but current concerns about the environment appear to have added some misanthropic spice to the cataclysmic mix. Indeed, some folk now place the interests of animals and vegetation above those of their fellow human beings. David Attenborough, considered by some to be a national treasure, announced on his TV show ‘The Life of Mammals’ that:

"Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it's time we controlled the population to allow the survival of the environment."

Forget racism, homophobia, sexism and any other form of prejudice you’d care to mention. It’s hard to imagine anything quite as bleakly misanthropic as that quote. Who, I wonder, does Mr Attenborough want to save the planet for?

But none of this stuff is new. In the nineteenth century, Thomas Malthus was considered to be something of a prophet because of his widely-read grim prognostications about population growth. Needless to say, his predictions didn’t work out. In the twentieth century, Paul Ehrlich was the darling of the catastrophe set when his best-selling book 'The Population Bomb' forecast -with some relish- food riots in the USA and the introduction of martial law by the mid-seventies. Needless to say, his predictions didn’t work out.

Chatter about population control is usually carried out among citizens of developed countries and the 'problem' usually refers –directly or indirectly- to people in underdeveloped countries. Some might argue that there is an unsavoury aspect to this, but whatever the motivation, you get the distinct feeling that folk who talk about 'controlling the population' invariably believe that there is just enough people like them, but rather too much of, you know ... other people.

Whenever the subject comes up, it is often useful and illuminating to cut to the chase by asking these questions:
Who are the people who should be told that they can't have any children? Who are the people who should be told that they can't have more than one child or two children, or whichever number is deemed to be 'too much'? Who gets to decide what is ‘too much'? Where do these people who will be ‘controlled’ live? How is this 'control' to be exerted over them? Who will exert it? From where will the ‘controllers’ derive their authority?

The developed world, alas, is never going to be short of people with an unhealthy appetite for apocalypse porn, but all of their horror predictions have one startling thing in common: they fail to take into account the sheer ingenuity of humankind when it comes to overcoming difficulties. Instead of seeing each new human being as a potential prize-winning scientist or wealth-creating entrepreneur or a decent, loving, responsible person who might raise and nurture a hard-working family, they see each new person as a potential problem. It is an utterly abject and anti-humanist outlook.

But don’t take my word for it. Watch Professor Rosling’s show for yourself and decide which camp you’d rather be in. As he so eloquently puts it:

“I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I’m a possibilist.”

Monday, 21 October 2013

Just don't use the M-word

The ridiculous furore over the England football manager and the ‘monkey’ joke says a lot about the sorry condition of our cultural discourse. In case you missed it, Roy Hodgson –during the half-time interval in England’s game against Poland- was reported to have told an ancient joke about the relationship between an astronaut and a monkey; he used it to illustrate the connection that he required two of his players to make during the second half of the game. Here’s the joke:

NASA sends a man and a monkey together into space. After they’ve been up in space for a while, the intercom crackles and ground control gets in touch with an instruction: 'Monkey, fire the retros.' So the monkey fires the retros. A little later, another instruction comes through: 'Monkey, check the fuel supply.' So the monkey checks the fuel supply.
Later on, another instruction comes through: ‘Monkey, check the life support systems’. So the monkey checks the life support systems.
By now, the astronaut is getting pretty hacked off with this state of affairs, so he contacts ground control and says: 'Hey, when do I get to do something up here?' The folk at NASA get back to him: 'Don’t worry. In 15 minutes, we want you to feed the monkey.'

Now, as far as this joke related to the tactics Hodgson was trying to impart to his team, Chris Smalling (who is white) was to be the astronaut, while Andros Townsend (who is black) was to be the monkey. Smalling’s job, as the manager saw it, was to supply Townsend with the ball. One of the players in the dressing room -whose identity has yet to be revealed- felt that this was racially insensitive, and later leaked the ‘story’ to the press, where, of course, it was devoured. Some elements of the chattering classes viewed the incident as ‘problematic’. Indeed, had you been listening to BBC radio the day after the match, you might have been tempted to believe that this was a major story which could conceivably have led to Hodgson losing his job (in spite of the fact that Andros Townsend had publicly stated that no offence was meant and none was taken).

For those who don’t follow the sport and may have some prejudice against football and footballers, I should point out here that Roy Hodgson is by no means a run-of-the-mill manager. He has lived and worked in several countries, is fluent in five languages and conversant in three more. He lists Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Sebastian Faulds among his favourite writers. By most reasonable standards, he would be considered to be a cultured individual and has a reputation within the game for being a thoroughly decent chap. You could argue that he chose a rather convoluted way to make his point; perhaps he would have been better advised to have said: ‘just get the fucking ball to Andros as soon as you can’. But in using the joke to make his point, he would not have considered the possibility that it might have caused offence, not because he is a closet racist but because he is a nice man. I’m willing to speculate that it would simply not have occurred to him that there was any link between black people and monkeys.

But even if it hadn’t been someone like Roy Hodgson telling that joke, the folk who over-reacted would still have been wrong to over-react. Surely the notion of any link between a black footballer and a monkey is so utterly ridiculous that only a complete moron would entertain it? It’s as ridiculous a concept as claiming that all Welsh people smell of turnips. If anyone tried to promote that particular idea, they would deservedly be laughed at or, more likely, ignored by polite society.

With that in mind, one can’t help but wonder why so many people reacted in the way they did to the monkey joke; in fact, it’s tempting to speculate that there might be more to it than meets the eye.

During the recent American presidential election campaign, there was some hostile media reaction to one of the speeches given by the Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Some mainstream commentators accused Romney of using ‘dog whistle’ politics to appeal to extreme right-wingers. According to these critics, he was talking in code in order to re-assure the lunatic fringe that he was the real deal. On the surface, it may have looked like he was speaking the language of consensus, designed to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, but he was actually giving out secret messages that only his core support would understand. These messages would re-assure them that a victorious Romney would indeed govern as a hard-line, kick-ass Republican president. This interesting theory, however, was deftly undermined by the cultural commentator Mark Steyn, who pointed out a simple and devastating truth: if you can hear the dog whistle, it usually means that you’re the dog.

By sensing something ‘offensive’ in Roy Hodgson’s joke, by making some connection between a black footballer and a monkey, the person who leaked that story and the people who took offence on behalf of Andros Townsend have perhaps revealed rather more about themselves than they might comfortably care to acknowledge.

Monday, 30 September 2013

The difference between 'mumbo' and 'jumbo'

Two head teachers from Kirktonholme Primary school in East Kilbride were recently ‘redeployed’ after distributing material from an American Christian group, the Church of Christ. The action was taken after some parents objected to their children being exposed to what they regarded as extremist material, some of which questioned the theory of evolution. South Lanarkshire Council, having removed the head teachers and put a temporary management team in charge, issued a statement in which they assured the parents that “the West Mains Church of Christ would no longer be given access to Kirktonholme or any other local schools”.

I’m not entirely sure why there was such a fuss about this. Without wishing to offend any particular religious group, you’d have thought that Scottish educationalists would have been well accustomed to teaching codswallop, superstition and pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo. Perhaps, as a friend pointed out to me, the authorities believe it is acceptable to promote codswallop, superstition and pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo so long as it is the right kind of codswallop, superstition and pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo.

One example of the ‘right’ kind of codswallop occurred a few years ago, when schools in England were instructed to show the Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth, with no expectation or demand that there was any requirement to at least try and balance the argument about anthropogenic global warming; in Scotland, all secondary schools were provided with their own copy and accompanying 'learning pack'. Mr Gore was by no means a stranger to controversy and a number of folk had already expressed concerns about the rigour of some of the ‘science’ in his film. He once famously declared, in an article in Vanity Fair, that "We are literally … altering the balance of energy between our planet and the rest of the universe".

Literally altering the what? The balance of energy? Between the Earth and the rest of the universe?

At the very least, I think one would be entitled to ask exactly how that was measured. Did Mr Gore have access to the universal 'balance of energy' figures from 1940, 1863 or 1536? And just how big is the Universe? Do its other residents know we’ve altered its ‘energy balance’? Will they report us to the ‘universe balance of energy’ neighbourhood watch committee?

Some of his musings may have been on the same intellectual level as the horoscopes page in the Daily Record, yet Mr Gore’s film was presented, without question, to thousands of pupils. Stewart Dimmock, a parent with two children attending an English secondary school, took a case to the High Court, claiming that An Inconvenient Truth represented a form of political indoctrination. Having focused on a number of significant inaccuracies in the film (including the claim that Hurricane Katrina was caused by global warming), the court found in favour of the plaintiff and ordered the educational authorities, when showing the film to children, to make it clear that it was a political work and promoted only one side of the argument. Failure to do so would find them in breach of section 406 of the Education Act 1996, laying them open to charges of political indoctrination.

I’m not trying to make a point here about climate change or climate change ‘denial’. I’m more interested in questioning how and why educators make certain judgements about what is, or is not, appropriate educational material. If we want a system in which intellectual diversity trumps intellectual conformism, those decisions about educational material have to be underpinned by a belief that young people deserve to be presented with all sides of an argument; in that sense, the more information we make available to them, the better.

So what exactly was the point of denying those pupils in South Lanarkshire the opportunity to read about ideas that run counter to the prevailing view? The Church of Christ may well be full of deluded eccentrics, but history is littered with examples of significant figures who were once considered to be eccentric, deluded or downright insane. And surely the theory of evolution is robust enough to stand up to the feeble challenge of a tiny fringe-of-the fringe religious group? Why shouldn’t kids be aware that some faith-based groups might have a different take on the origin of life on earth? The concept of transubstantiation is taught in schools every day, so what makes creationism such a sinister and taboo subject?

Friedrich Nietzsche said that: “The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.

There are many things that our education system does very well, but perhaps it needs reminding that received opinions have no right to go unchallenged; perhaps it needs reminding that sacred cows, occasionally, need to get slaughtered; perhaps it needs reminding that it is better to teach young people how to think, not what to think.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Song of the Week: 'South'

This song goes back a few years, but it felt appropriate to revisit it and give it a little tweak in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum. It was tempting to give it the epic production treatment, but the decision to exercise a little restraint was probably the right one. This version is just guitar, piano and some rudimentary percussion. An older version of the song utilised a ‘Hollywood western’-style guitar motif, but this less stylised reading avoids backing the listener’s interpretation into a corner.
The lyric expresses a certain ambivalence about the notion of a new geographical location being able to provide an answer to all (or any) of our problems. The protagonist, tired of chasing his tail for answers to life’s big questions, reflects on whether he has any real choice other than to pack up and hit the road. The all-embracing ‘young man, old man, bought man, sold man’ line of the chorus is designed to cover all bases, a statement about the ubiquitous power of delusion. At some level, most of us are occasionally tempted to believe that the grass is somehow greener on the other side.
There is an attempt at some Beach Boys-style vocals in the middle eight, wherein the theme of the lyric is neatly summarised by this simple line: “someplace somewhere else seems better … until we get there”.


Saturday, 21 September 2013

Qatar 2022 - well done, FIFA

I feel a bit sorry for the guys at FIFA. It's really unfair the way that folk are criticising them because of the slightly chaotic situation surrounding the World Cup, which may (or may not) be played in Qatar in the summer (or winter) of 2022, or maybe even the tail end of 2021. When the tournament was first awarded to Qatar, nobody knew that in June and July, when the World Cup is usually (i.e. always) played, that that small country in the Persian Gulf gets very, very hot. The information about soaring temperatures was only made available once a crack team of scientists had looked it up on the internet. Once these scientists had produced a confidential report revealing that human beings can get 'really quite uncomfortable' at temperatures of 50 degrees centigrade, the guys at FIFA sprang into action and started floating the idea of a winter World Cup.

Another trifling point of criticism raised by some folk is that Qatar has no significant football culture, no previous experience of hosting big sporting events and, with a population of less than two million, is way too small to host a World Cup. But it is by no means unusual for FIFA to award the World Cup to tiny countries with no significant football culture and no previous experience of hosting big sporting events. France, Italy, Brazil and Germany are just a few examples that spring to mind.

Some conspiracy theorists have disgracefully tried to suggest that FIFA may have had ulterior motives for taking the World Cup to Qatar, the country with the highest per-capita GDP in the world. What these cynics don’t seem to understand is that FIFA is committed to spreading the gospel of the beautiful game around the globe, because football, as we all know, is a liberating agent of change. History has provided us with numerous examples of nations with slightly unsavoury regimes being transformed by having some millionaire footballers drop in to kick a ball around their country for a couple of weeks. One has to suspect that anyone who criticises FIFA for taking this tournament to the middle east is probably a racist or an Islamophobe, or both. The more decent and optimistic among us will hope that some kind of political and cultural transformation will take place in Qatar once it hosts the 2022 tournament. Sources close to FIFA have privately expressed the view that, within a few years of hosting the World Cup, the country may well elect its first gay or female prime-minister. Well ... maybe not a gay one. Or a female. Or an an elected one. But the hope is in our hearts.

Amidst all of these nit-picking criticisms, the conspiracy theorists have overlooked perhaps the most important factor of all. What they just don’t seem to get is that, when the bidding process for the 2022 World Cup started, the competing bids from Australia, USA and Japan had already put themselves at a severe disadvantage. In their misguided enthusiasm, they had foolishly pinned their hopes on having 'tournament-ready' infrastructures, incorporating completed stadia, hotels, rail-links, roads, communication centres etc. It was arrogant of them, or at least incredibly naïve, to go against one of FIFA's core objectives: namely, to generate as many opportunities as possible to negotiate lucrative contracts for building stadia, hotels, rail-links, roads and communication centres. This is clearly the basis on which tournaments are awarded by the entirely above-board-and-in-no-way corrupt FIFA delegates. When the tournament is awarded to a country that has to invest billions in infrastructure, the beautiful game benefits through all of the lucrative contracts that have to be negotiated with the huge companies that build stadia, hotels, rail-links, roads and communication centres. Fortunately, this process is always entirely transparent and completely above board; there is absolutely no chance that any unscrupulous contractor could tempt any FIFA delegate with kick-backs, bribes or large sums of money deposited in offshore bank accounts. Ten minutes worth of research on the internet will assure you that FIFA has a squeaky-clean track record in this department.

So please, let’s give FIFA a break. It has a proud and unblemished track record of looking after the interests of the beautiful game. Anyone who suggests that any of its delegates were driven by self-interest is a deluded conspiracy theorist or (see above) a racist.
When the World Cup goes to Qatar, the country with the highest per-capita GDP in the world, it may just find its spiritual home.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Think about it

I was talking recently to an acquaintance about an aspect of the sex industry that had been in the news. A local authority in England had proposed that men who were ‘kerb crawlers’ should have their driving licences revoked as a way to deter them from chasing prostitutes. My acquaintance expressed the view that the kerb crawlers should indeed be punished by law and that the punishment should not only be strict, but highly visible. “Take their driving licence away from them” she said, “then name and shame them in the press.”
Fair enough, I thought; she is perfectly entitled to her view. But when I asked her a couple of straightforward questions about the possible consequences of these actions, particularly as they related to the income, welfare and life prospects of the women who were currently working on the street, her firmly-expressed views started to unravel.
Once she had been nudged by a few gentle ‘what ifs?’, this person started to change her opinion quite dramatically until -within a few minutes and entirely of her own volition- she had moderated her views to the point that she had started to advocate a regulatory framework supporting the rights and the safety of sex workers, allowing the women and their clients to go about their business in relative peace within ‘properly-licensed’ premises.

I’m not relating this story in order to illustrate my ability to get someone to change her mind on a tricky topic; I’m relating it to show that an intelligent person appeared to have very firm views on an issue, yet those views had clearly never been exposed to examination, had never been challenged with so much as a fleeting thought about what that issue might look like when viewed from a slightly different angle. In this case, the individual concerned had never considered the possible consequences of getting what she thought she wanted; that is, the law to support her gut reaction to kerb crawling. She considered it a distasteful activity and wanted it discouraged or even outlawed. Something, she thought, had to be done about it. But her idea of that ‘something’ changed more or less as soon as she started to think about it.

On an all-too-regular basis, I hear (or read, via social media) folk espousing views that sound like they have been formed by a process which has managed to avoid even a modicum of thought. Some of us seem content to adopt ‘off-the-shelf’ sets of opinions which take no cognisance of the possibility of ambiguity, nuance or subtle degrees of complication on any single issue. Depending on which politicians we like or dislike, depending on whether we read the Guardian or the Daily Mail, these easy-fitting, off-the-shelf opinions stop us considering the possibility of nuanced positions on the EU, the NHS, climate change, Syria, the economy, Scottish nationalism or a host of other topics.

It might be over-egging the pudding to claim that independent thought is actively discouraged, but with huge black holes of dogmatic consensus on the left and right, each exerting a massive gravitational pull towards rigidly-held orthodoxies, it would appear that prickly intolerance is now the default position for lots of folk.
But to have any hope of developing a mature cultural discourse, one in which dogma would be recognised and rejected as a feeble weapon on the battleground of ideas, we’ll need more folk to escape those gravitational pulls, more folk to resist those illiberal impulses.

In short, we’ll need more folk to start thinking about stuff.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Reality, in inverted commas.

Originally published in 1965, Dr Bloodmoney (or: how we got along after the bomb) traces the story of a group of people living on the west coast of the USA in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Dick paints a strange landscape in which the post-blast radiation has produced bizarre mutations like talking dogs, intelligent rats and ‘evolved’ humans with highly developed skills.

Meanwhile, circling the earth, the lonely astronaut Walt Dangerfield is still in orbit seven years after the conflagration, growing weaker by the day but faithfully maintaining his broadcasts to the survivors. With enough supplies to last for several years, Dangerfield, with his avuncular homespun humour, is a purveyor of hope, an orbiting disc jockey /town crier, connecting the disparate and far-flung communities as he relays messages, survival tips, recipes and advice on how to rebuild civilisation.
Down on the surface, the ‘evolved’ humans are not always (or even often) tolerated, but in the case of Hoppy Harrington, the community of Marin County is prepared to overlook his 'otherness' because of his extraordinary technical skills. Born with no arms and no legs, Harrington is embittered and scarred from the discrimination he had encountered in the pre-war world, but finds his own peculiar niche after the bombs have dropped. A humble TV repair man before the conflict, he becomes a brilliant and indispensable mechanic, developing his own personalised servomechanism technology, along with his incredible gift of telekinesis. These skills and powers make him one of the most feted, then feared, people in the country. As his influence and capriciousness grows, we start to realise that his ultimate goal is to dominate first Marin County and then the rest of what remains of the United States.

When Walt Dangerfield starts to experience symptoms of an unknown medical condition, his listeners are worried, mindful of the fact that they rely on his transmissions to maintain some sense of continuity with the old world. We assume the astronaut to be ill, or perhaps a hypochondriac, until we discover that he is actually under psychic attack from the increasingly powerful Harrington, who has not only mastered Dangerfield’s voice and idiom, but has developed the ability to run the equipment in the orbiting satellite by remote control.

In a typical Dickian twist, Harrington meets his nemesis in the unlikely form of Bill Keller, a sentient foetus living inside his seven year old sister, Edie. Bill experiences life and interprets it through dialogue not only with his sibling, but with the spirit world. He can communicate with the dead, read the thoughts and feelings of others and has the ability to envisage future events. As the story develops, so does his yearning for an independent life; he begins to perfect a technique for leaving his sister’s body in order to 'occupy' living beings. After a couple of false starts, he finally gets his wish to see, hear and feel for himself when he transfers briefly into the body of an owl and then, at the climax of the novel, into another human being.

Because his mental health was not always entirely robust, it has been claimed that Philip K Dick didn't merely write about ideas that he dreamed up; perhaps, some folk believe, he wrote about things that he actually experienced, or thought he experienced, in his everyday life. For those who subscribe to that theory, the fact that he had a twin sister who died after only a few weeks will be considered significant to the plot of this novel. However we analyse it, it is clear that when Dick is on his A-game, he can cram more ideas into one book than some writers stretch over an entire career. He is a deep thinker on a variety of themes: artificial life, parallel universes, theology, metaphysics and, above all else, the illusory nature of ‘reality’.

And by that, I don’t mean reality. Philip K Dick’s ‘realities’, you see, are always in inverted commas.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Twins of Evil

The other day, I got involved in a discussion on an internet forum about unusual, exciting or unexpected stuff that people had seen on television. Some of the contributors recounted surprising tales of nudity, profanity or sexual activity; others mentioned examples that were inspiring, terrifying or sometimes downright bizarre. The conversation brought to mind an incident from my youth.

When I was about 15, I was allowed to stay up late one night to watch an old Hammer horror film called 'Twins of Evil'. Set somewhere in middle Europe in the 19th century, it starred Peter Cushing as the uptight leader of a vigilante group called The Brotherhood, whose self-appointed role seemed to be to root out witches, vampires and other unsavoury types. The legal process must have been a lot speedier in those days, because it looked like The Brotherhood didn’t have to produce much in the way of evidence to get a conviction; I suspect that, if you owned a cat or looked a bit foreign you’d have been more or less bang to rights as far as those blokes were concerned. Once they had snared these undesirables, they’d hang them, burn them, drive a stake through their hearts or do pretty much whatever took their fancy, as long as it involved extreme pain and the grisly demise of the ‘convicted’ sinner.

As I recall, the early part of the film looked to illustrate the relish that the Peter Cushing character brought to his day job of finding, accusing, torturing and then killing weird folk. As the story unfolds, however, his cosy gig with The Brotherhood starts to get somewhat compromised when him and his missus adopt their 19-year old orphaned twin nieces (played by Mary and Madelaine Collinson). You may not be surprised, dear reader, when I tell you that by no stretch of the imagination could anyone have claimed that these girls had been beaten with the ugly stick. As a chap with a sense of familial duty that could almost be described as medieval (to say nothing of his general disposition as an all-round misery guts), Mr Cushing is naturally very keen to keep the twins out of trouble. In addition to protecting them from the ever-present threat of vampires, witches and evil spirits, he is also at pains to make sure that none of the local lads (uneducated scruff, to a man) get so much as a sniff at his buxom charges.

The director of ‘Twins of Evil’ clearly thought it was important for the development of the story to have these charming young ladies lounge around in nightdresses that were all but see-through. In fact, so revealing were these garments that, from time to time, it was obvious that the girls had been instructed to strategically 'bunch up' the material a little so that the censor would not mistake this high-concept art movie for a piece of gratuitous titillation. You may not be surprised to learn that, at various points in the film -in a certain light and viewed from certain angles- the nightdresses managed to reveal rather more flesh than would have been considered appropriate for family viewing.

Much to the chagrin of uncle Peter, one of the nieces gets into a close encounter with the decadent aristocrat Count Karnstein, a thoroughly bad egg who also happens to be a vampire. What with some of his vampire chums having previously been cruelly dispatched by The Brotherhood, it is no surprise that the evil count just can’t resist taking a bite at some forbidden fruit the first opportunity he gets. Hence, Mary (or is it Madelaine?) becomes the 'evil' twin.

So … let’s check the key elements of this story: Shapely identical twins cavorting around in revealing nightdresses. One of them is 'good' and pure, the other one is 'bad' and clearly gagging for it, with vampire teeth and everything.

And that’s about it. It sounds rather flimsy, doesn’t it?

But ladies and gentlemen, I am here to tell you that it is impossible to exaggerate the impact that a film like this would have on the imagination of a 15-year old boy.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Beautiful Game?

On the weekend that a new season kicks off in the Barclays Premier League (a.k.a. ‘the greatest league in the world’), one big question hangs over the world of football. No, it’s not the one about whether Arsenal will ever make a major signing, nor the one about whether David Moyes will be able to fill the shoes of Sir Alex Ferguson. No, this one is even more baffling, namely: Why (oh why, oh why) does the BBC continue to show faith in the punditry skills of Robbie Savage?

I have long suspected that Savage must have photos of the Director General of the BBC cavorting naked with a clutch of ladyboys. How else could he have 'earned' his various broadcasting gigs and how on earth does he hold on to them? Most football phone-ins on the radio are bad enough, but Five-Live’s is rendered unlistenable by Savage’s abrasive pub-bore style. Devoid of charm or wit, he’s about as insightful as a pantomime horse and, on a bad day (there are a lot of bad days) he barely achieves coherence. His stock answer to anyone who challenges his view is: have you ever played professional football? It seems to have escaped his notice that a big part of his job is to engage with folk who haven’t played professional football. To dismiss their views because they haven’t makes his show redundant; or at least it should. The fact that he can pick up a wage for sounding like a three-pints-to-the-good taxi-driver talking out of his arse should be enough to force a public inquiry into the validity of the licence fee.

To his credit however, Savage has just offered a revealing glimpse into the ‘spoiled millionaire-throwing-toys-out-of-the-pram’ world of top flight professional football. His article on the BBC website about ‘Tricks to engineer a transfer’ is grimly illuminating and a reminder, as if we needed one, that some of our heroes have feet of clay. Among the various ‘tricks’ listed in the article are: sulking, stirring up trouble, fighting with team mates, being a bad influence, undermining the manager and using the media to promote your personal agenda. There have been so many stories of petulant and greedy footballers that, as I read the piece, I found myself putting names against each of these ‘tricks’.
By far the most interesting remarks occur when Savage speaks about ‘not trying’. It is, perhaps, the one time that you feel that he is not being entirely honest. Here’s what he says:

'It can be hard to do, but one sure way of losing the manager's backing is by not giving 100% in a match. I say it's hard to do because you're not just letting yourself down, you are letting your team-mates, fans and family down. I only did it once and I'm not proud of my actions, but it felt like it was the only avenue left open to me. That was the point at which the manager knew he had lost me and there was nothing he could do to keep me'.

His claim that there was only occasion in his career when he didn’t try has the same kind of hollow ring as someone saying that ‘I only ate one of your chocolates’ or ‘I only visited one pornographic site’ or ‘I only exaggerated one expenses claim.’ And sadly, Robbie Savage is by no means unique. If he is owning up to this stuff, we know for certain that many other footballers will have done the same things, in spades. That’s quite a concept to grasp, that professional players, often on huge salaries, might not be trying when they cross that white line.

Anyone who forks out more than they can sensibly afford on top flight football should weigh up the investment made against the enjoyment gained, offset now by the knowledge that not everyone on the field of play will necessarily be playing the game as we, the audience, think it should be played. But when we suspect, or believe, that not all of the competitors are doing their best, a knife is driven into the heart of competitive sport.

Savage has done us a favour by shining a torchlight into football’s squalid basement. It’s a dank and dismal place full of horrible creepy crawlies, grubbing around in a frenzy of greed, grievance, megalomania, petulance and a bit more greed.

Welcome to the new season.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Song of the Week: 'Low flying kites'

This week’s song is ‘Low-flying Kites’ by Gum, the closing track from the ‘Seven Feeble Alibis’ album.  It’s one of the band’s finest moments, showcasing as it does some of the key elements in their oeuvre: wistful vocals, lush chords and creamy textures, all framed within a delicate atmospheric soundscape. Reviewers often compared Gum to the likes of Morcheeba, Zero 7 and One Dove and it’s not that difficult to spot the common denominators.  

As the unusually glorious Scottish summer starts to drizzle to a close, this seems like an appropriate song of the week, evoking, as it does, images of hilly inner-city parks on hot, windless summer afternoons. It features an optimistic lyric about hanging onto dreams and doing your own thing.  When last I checked, there was no law against doing your own thing, unless your ‘thing’ happens to be a member of the animal kingdom. This was a fine closing track for the album and, teasingly buried in the detail, there are a couple of musical and lyrical quotes for true anoraks to spot.  Membership of the tragic freemasonry of muso geeks awaits anyone who can spot these quotes.       

Gum - Low flying kites

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Keep on rocking in the free market

Enchanted by an image of itself which is decades out of date, rock and pop music continues to strike a rebellious pose, in denial of the Faustian pact its dreary narcissism has allowed it to make in order to accommodate the vagaries of advertising and fashion.  Where once it might have been informed by genuinely counter-cultural impulses, rock and pop’s sheer ubiquity makes it ludicrous to argue that it is, in any meaningful sense, ‘anti-establishment’. 
Yet in spite of enjoying the riches generated by its cosy niche within the capitalist machine, the rock aristocracy, ostensibly at least, has long held an overwhelmingly leftist-liberal ‘stick-it-to-the-man’ worldview, with very few willing to deviate from the stifling orthodoxies of the party line.  

It was easy (and profitable) for John Lennon to ‘imagine no possessions’; not only would he never have to worry about actually having no possessions, he knew that the sentiments expressed in that anodyne lyric would strike a chord with an audience primed to accept easy answers to complex problems.  The notion that all we have to do is to ‘imagine’ a better world in order to make it happen is, at best, a tad naïve; at worst, it is a fatuous piety.  But Lennon, after all, was only writing a song; it’s hardly a big deal that most rock and pop lyrics are about as profound as the kind of sentiments normally expressed on cheap greeting cards.          

The actual business of rock can be more problematic.  Take Radiohead, for example.  At the turn of the century, they announced that they would not be ‘promoting’ their new album -Kid A- in the sense that other big acts ‘promoted’ their work, but would instead be running a low-level campaign aimed to ‘dispel the hype’ about the new record.   
No advance copies of Kid A were circulated, but the album was showcased under strictly controlled conditions for critics and at special listening parties for selected fans.  Yes, it was played in full on MTV, but apart from that (and all the clips on the internet and the articles in magazines), there was hardly any promotion; in fact, I remember seeing lots of Kid A posters in town telling me that Radiohead wouldn’t be promoting the album.  In spite of their best efforts, the hype was not dispelled and the album duly shot to the top of the charts.  In the summer of 2000, the band toured Europe in a custom-built tent that was smugly declared to feature no corporate logos.  Having enjoyed the album (released through an obscure little cottage-run label called Parlophone-EMI) the fans could go along to the concerts, safe in the knowledge that they had not succumbed to any horrid multi-national business practices.  Lots of folk enjoyed those gigs, but some will have noted that capitalism failed to collapse in the face of Radiohead’s disdain.

Student angst is one thing, but perhaps a more egregious example of rock’s apparent hypocrisy was provided by U2.  Their spokesperson Bono is fond of preaching about the crippling debt of African countries and about the developed world’s abject dereliction of moral duties, yet in 2006 his band decided to move its publishing operation from Ireland to the Netherlands in order to exploit a more lenient approach to taxing sensitive artistic types.  This in spite of the fact that Ireland’s tax regime was generally perceived to be quite favourable to artists. 
With an accumulated net worth said to be well in excess of €800m, U2 had plenty of motives to avoid paying tax, but it’s not the avoidance that grates.  After all, how many people and how many businesses on the planet would volunteer to pay more tax than they have to? Their tax avoidance was merely sound business sense; what makes them deserving of opprobrium is their insouciant ability to preach one thing and practice another. U2 wanted to pay less tax into the very system that they argued should have been doing more to support poorer countries.  In other words, they wanted support for African countries to increase, but just not on their dime. 

With the music business providing the perfect illustration of capitalism ‘red in tooth and claw’, it seems rather odd that we’d struggle to find many examples of rock artists being brave enough to kick against the prevailing intellectual orthodoxy to actually make the case for free-market capitalism.  Enter stage left (or should that be stage right?) Jean-Jacques Burnel, bass player with The Stranglers.  In 1979, JJ released a solo album called ‘Euroman Cometh’.  It appeared to present an argument -in as much as a rock album can present an argument for anything- for a federal United States of Europe.  JJ was all kinds of wrong about that, but the single from the album did strike an unusually libertarian, pro-market note.   

Freddie Laker – Concorde and Eurobus’  managed to get a dig at the protectionist policies of the United States (who fought long and hard to stop the Concorde landing on their shores), but was also a celebration of the work of Freddie Laker, one of the first airline owners to adopt the ‘no-frills’ business model.  Up until the mid-seventies, transatlantic air travel had been mainly the preserve of folk with a higher-than-average disposable income.  The airline industry -heavily unionised and shackled by outdated protective practices- would have kept its iron grip on transatlantic travel for decades without Laker’s determination to challenge the vested interests of the established companies.  After years of legal battles (which included having his licence revoked by the Labour government in 1975) Laker finally saw his Skytrain take to the air for the first time in September 1977.  It flew from London to New York, charging a fare that was about one third of the price at that time charged for a transatlantic flight by the established airlines. 

Freddie Laker - Concorde and Eurobus’ was released in April 1979.  Sadly, it created barely a ripple in the nether regions of the pop charts, but remains, nonetheless, a bracing little slice of abrasive pop.  JJ wasn’t much of a singer and you had the feeling that he was only getting to do a solo album because the record company wanted to appease the bassist in The Stranglers, who were –at that time- a very successful new wave act. 

This video captured something of the anarchic joie de vivre of the song.  The use of the vocoder brought a certain ominous energy, a hint of dystopian menace.  In 1979, a vocal like that sounded like it came from the future, from a strange and exciting world in which some of our key assumptions (about nationhood, about business, about art) might have been broken down.  We may even have imagined that the act of singing in a band might one day be the preserve of industrially-manufactured art robots. 

So hats off to Jean-Jacques.  He set his sail against the prevailing wind and made his personal statement, cocking a snook at the received orthodoxies of his peers.  
Now doesn’t that represent the authentic spirit of rock and roll?

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Song of the Week - 'Another kind of Happiness'

A version of this song first appeared on Gum’s 2003 album, ‘Low-flying Kites’, but it has now been lovingly restored and renovated by a team of experts and is presented in glorious acousti-colour with a key change, a new middle 8 and everything.  It’s an 'end-of-the-affair' type song. The narrator is feeling a bit devastated but is trying to face up to an uncertain future, swinging in mood between pessimism, optimism and realism.
The track features some nice work from Ross Morgan on drums and Fraser Sneddon on bass. It sounds a bit like Travis on prozac, so it might appeal to those who enjoy a bit of melancholy.

Another kind of Happiness

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Still fighting an old war

Last week the Sunday Herald published an article in which the Scottish Catholic Church’s Director of Communications Peter Kearney claimed that Scotland is “a hostile environment” for Catholics. Reading it, one might easily have deduced that the piece had just been dug up, having been written and then sealed in a time capsule sometime around 1954.

Starting with his conclusion and then knocking the ‘evidence’ into a shape that conveniently suited his theory, he asserted that Scotland “has an issue with anti-Catholicism”. On one level, this can be viewed merely as an amusing snapshot of an anachronistic mindset. Rather like one of those old Japanese soldiers stranded in the jungle and still believing that World War 2 was in full swing, Mr Kearney seems to have been frozen in time. In that sense, we might be tempted to have some sympathy for the old warrior, still fighting ancient battles, his besieged psyche still sensing persecution at every turn. There is, however, an altogether less palatable aspect to his outrageous assertions and his egregious talk of ‘apologists’ and ‘deniers’.

In a country where asylum seekers face actual discrimination and where only two out of 129 MSPs are from ethnic minority backgrounds, Mr Kearney’s risible claims to victimhood on behalf of Scotland’s Catholics is in extremely poor taste.
One simply can’t have the power and influence that Scotland’s Catholics have earned over the last fifty years and yet continue to claim ‘underdog’ status. We can laugh at the absurdity of Mr Kearney’s position, but it represents an affront to those in our country who genuinely are without power, status or influence, those who truly are disenfranchised. He really ought to be ashamed.