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Sunday, 26 January 2014

Is sugar really the new tobacco?

An interesting story caught my eye the other day. Tony Badger, the owner of a British food shop in Canada, was ordered to stop selling Marmite, Ovaltine and Irn Bru because they contained ‘illegal’ additives. Mr Badger had been selling these items since 1997, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is now increasing its inspections of suppliers and cracking down on the sale of such goods.
I wrote almost exactly a year ago about a proposal to introduce legal limits on the sugar, salt and fat content in food in the UK.

I said then that:

"Legislation … can only be defined as ‘helpful’ if you think that it is your responsibility is to remove choices from people who are unable to act rationally and who might otherwise damage themselves. Legislation only counts as help if you believe that people are not capable of helping themselves, not capable of making informed decisions in their own interests."

The politics of food are even more depressing now. Every other week some quasi-autonomous pressure group will try to flex its muscles, which will usually be followed by a politician -out to make a name as a reformer concerned only about the public good- proposing another asinine and illiberal piece of legislation.

The pressure group Action on Sugar is currently getting lots of exposure in the UK. Their poster boy, Dr Aseem Malhotra, has been floating the idea that ‘sugar is the new tobacco’ and urging government action. One of the central planks of their argument is that sugar has ‘no nutritional value’. I must have missed the memo about abolishing eating for mere pleasure. Why do these people think that everything we eat has to have some nutritional value? Has it occurred to them that perhaps people like eating sweet things because they taste nice?

I'm a non-smoker, but from a civil liberties point of view, I think the way the smoking ban was introduced provides an interesting model for what our food future will look like.

The 'health' justification for a smoking ban had been around for decades, but it was only in the last few years that governments got around to imposing it. The first epidemiological studies showing an association between smoking and lung cancer were published as far back as 1950. If the health risks were /are that serious, why was the full ban not introduced in 1968 or 1975 or 1994? Why the long delay?

One of the reasons, I would suggest, is that the concept of a ban had to be allowed to percolate for a while in the public consciousness. People have to be primed in order to accept a law like that. Potentially ‘difficult’ ideas get introduced into the public domain via the drip method: first you suggest something fairly radical, see how that goes down, then let it simmer for a while. Once it becomes a notion that many folk find more or less acceptable, it starts to acquire a certain inevitability.

Now that the smoking ban is an accepted part of everyday life, all bets are off on where we might end up. ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) has already proposed that the ban be extended to smoking in cars; I’d wager that it is only a matter of time before smoking is completely illegal. This ‘public health’ model of government intervention is also being applied to the debate on internet regulation. The arguments have become familiar: vulnerable people have to be protected, children can't be exposed to porn and paedophiles, militant nutters can't be allowed to propagandize and proselytize, yadda yadda yadda. It's not that big a leap to envisage a gradual clamping down on internet activities 'in the public interest'.

For a certain type of person, the answer to every perceived ‘problem’ is always more government action, more legislation, more decision-making taken out of the hands of people like you and me, people who simply can’t be trusted to act in our own best interests. We needed to be told to stop smoking. We’ll need to be told to stop eating doughnuts. We’ll need to be told to stop accessing ‘inappropriate’ material on the internet. Left unchecked and unchallenged, there is simply no area of private life into which these people will not attempt to intrude. Of course, the sugar Nazis -motivated by a vague desire to do good- will argue that legislation is required because the food industry can’t be trusted to act responsibly. But the darker, less palatable truth is that they don’t trust us, the people, to act responsibly.

The more that slick opportunists like Dr Malhotra pop up on TV and radio telling us that ‘sugar is the new tobacco’, the more likely some folk are to believe it. The pressure for legislation will then start to build, because that’s how it works. They won’t be happy until they get what they want. And once they get what they want, they’ll want a little bit more. And then a little bit more. And the more we allow ourselves to be governed like this, the further that trend will develop. We will sleepwalk towards a future in which our children and our grandchildren will have fewer rights as citizens than we currently have.

Somehow, I’m reminded of that old saying:

Why does the dog lick his balls? Because he can.

Monday, 6 January 2014

What's the point in making an album?

Having spent some time trying to get re-acquainted with the idea of making and performing music (after a few years in which work and stuff had taken over), I have decided that 2014 will see me record, and then release, an album.  What is the point, you may well ask, in undertaking a project like this?  Do people even listen to albums these days?  Don’t they prefer to just pick and choose individually-downloaded tracks?  And, perhaps more to the point, what’s the point in an unknown middle-aged bloke making an album?  Who on earth is going to care about a vanity project like that?  Who on earth would want to buy it?   

I do understand that not many folk will reckon that what the world needs right now is some more middle-of-the-road pop music.  I won’t be surprised, therefore, to encounter a tsunami of indifference (with perhaps the odd showery squall of derision), but I’m going to go ahead with it anyway.  And, in a series of blog entries over the next few months, I will look to explore some of the considerations and processes involved in recording an album. 

Among the questions I’ll try to address are: If you are not making a living from music, what is the point in making an album?  Why, indeed, bother writing songs at all?  What does the process of making music do for the soul?  How will I decide which songs will go on this album?  What will these songs be about?  Who is going to play on them?  How will they be recorded?  What would I like them to sound like? What is it that makes certain sounds and musical arrangements attractive or unattractive?  How much money am I willing to flush down the toilet spend on recording the album?  Do I have even the remotest chance of recovering some of my costs?  And, if I am to do that, how will I make people aware that this album exists?

If my current selection of sketches and demos is anything to go by, what I am going to end up with will probably be a middle-aged sort of album; by that, I mean that the music will be middle-of-the-road, with an emphasis on song construction, tasteful arrangements and songs that are shackled to the ball and chain of ‘verse’ and ‘chorus’.  That’s the kind of music I’m invariably drawn to and it’s the kind of music I usually end up making.  I see no need to apologise for that, because there are really are only two kinds of music: the kind you like and the kind you don’t (or perhaps, in this case, there might be a third category: the kind that will embarrass my kids and family).  This album certainly isn’t going to be ‘cutting edge’; I’m way beyond the point of trying to surf the zeitgeist.  There was a point in my life when I knew (and cared about) what was going on in the world of contemporary music, but those days are long gone. I wouldn’t recognise the zeitgeist now if it stopped me in the street and hit me on the head with a vinyl copy of James Blake’s latest album. 

Whatever else happens, I’m planning to have some fun doing it and writing about it, but I also hope that a few folk might be interested in reading about the development of the project.  So … to kick off, there’s a link at the bottom of this post to something I’ve been working on for a while.  I think it is just about finished and it feels at the moment like it might turn out to be one of the signature tracks on the album.  It’s called ‘Far side of the moon’. The theme of the lyric is ageing and disillusionment, with the far side of the moon representing the point at which someone is completely cut off from a place (or a mindset) they used to inhabit.  In a state of existential ennui, the individual might come to terms with things that may not previously have been viewed with any degree of positivity; but on bad day, that person might be tempted to measure life in terms of the things they don’t have, as opposed to finding comfort in the things that they do.        

My starting point for songs usually involves banging out a few chords on guitar or piano (that will be a topic for another post), but in this case, it began in the studio with me just playing bass guitar along to a drum loop.  At the start of the session, I had no idea what I was going to play; all I knew was that I wanted to try a slightly different approach to constructing songs.  I recorded six bass lines to match six different drum loops, then lived with these demos for a while to see if I had anything worth developing.  Of those six loops, there are now perhaps three with a chance of becoming songs for the album.  I should point out here that I am by no means an accomplished bass player.  The truth is that I am barely even competent but, thanks to the excellent working relationship I have with Eddie MacArthur at Stealth Studios, I knew that the session would not be wasted.  His technical skills consistently allow me to get the most from my very limited musical abilities.      

As I listened to the demos (usually in my car, on the way to and from work), various melodic ideas began to form and -in the case of this particular track- I started to focus on a general feel for what the song might be about.  Once the mist had cleared, I was able to work out the chord structure and the architecture of what would become the final arrangement.  For quite a while, the breathy backing vocals sounded like they might have been the main hook, then -relatively late in the day- I managed to come up with the guitar motif.  I’ll talk some other time about how musical influences get absorbed into the process of writing and recording, but I can spot a couple of powerful influences on this recording.  It may have started with a slightly haphazard process (and one which could have potentially wasted a bit of time and money), but I find the end result quite pleasing on the ear.  And that, ultimately, is what this is all about. 

Far side of the moon

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Let's blame the nasty referee.

The New Year, alas, sees football, as represented by the ‘best league in the world’ (a.k.a. the league for selfish pampered millionaires who cry when they don’t get their own way) continue its inexorable moral decline.

After suffering what he considered to be a couple of dodgy decisions in the recent match against Manchester City, Liverpool manager Brendan Rogers claimed that because referee Lee Mason lived in greater Manchester, he was unsuitable to officiate at a game between a Manchester club and a club from Liverpool. In other words, he believed that the mere fact of Mr Mason’s postcode prevented him from being professionally objective during a game of football. Rodgers compounded his pathetic slur during a press conference a few days later by having the audacity to state that:

"In terms of geography, I certainly wasn't questioning the integrity of referees. It was more than logical in terms of having a referee from that part of the world refereeing a game in Manchester. I was only speaking honestly after the game. I think the FA knows perfectly well I am someone who engages in supporting the referees."

Ah … that makes it so much clearer. Brendan Rodgers supports referees and doesn’t question their integrity. Except, that is, when he doesn’t support them and states that they can’t be trusted because of where they live.
I wonder what Mr Rodgers would think if a pundit had said before Liverpool’s game against Chelsea that: "I don't think Liverpool will really go for it against Chelsea this week, because Brendan Rodgers used to work there and he's basically still Jose Mourinho's apprentice." That would have been a stupid and insulting statement to make, just like his was a stupid and insulting statement to make.

That incident was bad enough, but the ‘spoiled brat’ bar has just been raised by Southampton, with their egregious complaint to the football authorities about referee Mark Clattenburg. They don't want him to referee any of their matches again because he 'insulted' one of their players. And what was the nature of this disgraceful insult?

When their player -Adam Lallana- challenged the referee over his refusal to award a penalty in the game against Everton, Clattenburg is believed to have said: "You're very different now you've played for England. You never used to be like this." I’m sure that poor Adam had never before heard such shocking language on the football field; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the lad was being counselled after this truly horrifying incident.

A spokesman for Southampton claimed that it was not ‘appropriate’ for Mr Clattenburg to officiate in any of their matches until this matter had been ‘properly resolved’, because “Any official insulting any player, no matter his intentions, is clearly not acceptable behaviour”.

Anyone who watches football will know that, in the course of the average game, referees are routinely subjected to the foulest abuse, so it is depressing to realise that so many high-profile figures don't give any consideration to how their actions might impact on the culture of the sport. Those at the top have a responsibility to set a professional and respectful tone, so every time a manager or player bleats about being ‘cheated’ or ‘robbed’ or, in this case, ‘insulted’, he contributes just a little bit more to football’s moral decline.

I watch my 15-year old son playing every week and the lack of respect for officials, even at that level, looks to me like a cancer that is eating away at the heart of the game. I sometimes wish my boy had chosen another sport to pour so much of his time and energy into. I'm amazed that anyone would want to be a match official these days. Who would want to give up their free time to take abuse from belligerent idiots who don't even know the laws of the game?

So congratulations to Brendan Rodgers for his unique method of ‘supporting’ referees. And congratulations to Southampton for having joined the league for selfish pampered millionaires who cry when they don’t get their own way.

I’m sure they must feel like a proper ‘big’ club now.