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Wednesday, 16 November 2016

It's the end of the world (again).

Originally founded in the nineteenth century as the Bible Study Movement, the Jehova’s Witnesses have about 8 million members spread across more than 200 countries. Followers refer to their beliefs as ‘the truth’ and some limit their social interaction with outsiders, because they consider secular society to be under the influence of Satan. In the early part of the twentieth century, they gained some notoriety through making predictions about the end of the world, a habit they appear to have kicked in recent years. At some point, someone within the organisation must have realised that, once people have been marched up the hill a few times to prepare for the rapture, they might start to get a bit sceptical when that rapture doesn’t arrive. Maybe the head of Armegeddon Projection at Jehova House had a quiet word with the resident soothsayers: 

"Look ... perhaps we need to start reigning in this whole ‘end-of-the-world-is-nigh’ stuff because … well … how can I put it … we’re starting to look a bit … you know … stupid.”

Some of the folk who are not just upset but absolutely distraught about the American election result could perhaps take a leaf out of that book. It’s difficult to make a case for any election result being a 'disaster' when elections are designed to reflect the will of the people who have voted. That is not to suggest that losing sides should just shut up and take their medicine, because anger and protest is entirely legitimate. I’m all in favour of arguing, but it looks like ‘arguing’ is not what some people on the losing side really want to do; it seems like they think peddling lurid doomsday fantasies to the impressionable is much more fun.  

I'm old enough to remember Ronald Reagan being elected President of the United States. In the run-up to that election in 1980, I was a frightened young person because people I admired and respected – musicians, writers, commentators- were saying that he was going to be a disaster, not just for America, but for the world. How could an actor possibly be running for president? According to those in the know, this sinister idiot was likely to start World War III. One of my favourite authors -JG Ballard- even wrote a pseudo-psychological exploration (in short story form) of Reagan’s subliminal appeal in order to illustrate that he wasn’t an ordinary human; he was one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, sent to earth to bring about the end of days. In his preface to the 1990 edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard wrote: 

"Reagan used the smooth, teleprompter-perfect tones of the TV auto-salesman to project a political message that was absolutely the reverse of bland and reassuring. A complete discontinuity existed between Reagan's manner and body language, on the one hand, and his scarily simplistic far-right message on the other … he was the first politician to exploit the fact that his TV audience would not be listening too closely, if at all, to what he was saying, and indeed might well assume from his manner and presentation that he was saying the exact opposite of the words actually emerging from his mouth.”

Much as I love Ballard’s work, I can see now that there are many things wrong with that analysis. But back when Reagan was running for office, this kind of guff worked a treat on people like me. We were genuinely frightened and really, really believed that this ‘right-wing extremist’ was determined to wage a holy war against the Soviet Union. He was clearly the Antichrist and, on the night he was elected, it felt like we were all doomed. Of course, we were wrong. Not only is Reagan now regarded as a significant and popular two-term president, but it is clear that his political abilities made World War III far less likely to happen than it had been at any time since 1945. If you don’t believe me, just read some of the stuff that dissidents in the former Soviet Union have written about his presidency, about how his willingness to lead and his clarity of vision impacted upon the corrupt regime in Moscow. Of course, when he described the Soviet Union as ‘an evil empire’, he appalled all respectable commentators in the west; the cognoscenti railed against his hawkish vulgarity, believing him to be an irresponsible buffoon pushing the planet towards a global conflagration. But his crime was merely to articulate what some folk already knew, but were unable -or unwilling- to admit.  

During the recent American election campaign, the mainstream media had some special stuff saved up for Mr Trump (some of it foolishly provided by the man himself), but then again, they’ve always got special stuff saved up for Republican candidates. Over the years, we’ve been warned that various candidates were ‘hard right extremists’ and determined to start wars, destroy the lives of poor folk and roll back civil rights. You may recall the treatment meted out in 2008 to Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin for daring to be the ‘wrong’ sort of woman in politics. The c-word was ‘reclaimed’ by groups of feminists protesting against her candidature; these protests included circulating pictures of themselves holding up placards saying ‘SARAH PALIN IS A CUNT’; so much for progressive feminism. During this latest campaign, we were told that Donald Trump’s misogyny was a major issue. His pathetic frat-boy ‘pussy grabbing’ comments made him unfit for office and yet, somehow, John F. Kennedy remains a poster boy for the liberal left, a man whose misdemeanours took place on an industrial scale. If Trump’s sexual behaviour is akin to a low-budget, shot-on-video daytime soap opera on cable TV, Kennedy’s was a multi-million dollar 3-D Hollywood blockbuster with a cast of thousands. And let’s not forget the sequel they made in the 1990s with Bill Clinton, another serial philander who got a free pass from the left.

One of the difficulties with British media coverage of American elections is that it is generally so skewed that it takes some generosity to even acknowledge it as journalism. On the morning after ‘the night of the Donald’, the tone of BBC radio’s coverage was appropriate to what we have come to expect from news reports about natural disasters or terrorist atrocities. A politics lecturer from a northern university was asked to comment on the scale of the ‘tragedy’. The woman could hardly speak; you’d have thought that her entire family had just been beheaded by ISIS. She was, of course, entitled to be upset, entitled to her views; but she was on national radio, selected by supposedly impartial hosts as a voice of authority. From this position, she had chosen to signal her ‘overwhelming grief’ about an election result. How good a lecturer must she be? I’ll bet her students get a really balanced perspective on the political issues of the day. 

This, in a nutshell, is the biggest problem on what might be called the ‘closed’ liberal left. Its worldview has become so myopically self-absorbed, so utterly complacent, that many of its self-righteous adherents can no longer conceive that other people might look at the available evidence and come to conclusions which don’t coincide with theirs. They are unable to accept that the person across the street (or across the pond) has other thoughts, other life experiences and values, other influences, other ways of looking at the world. Like those Jehova’s Witnesses who limit social interaction with non-believers, members of the closed left believe that they own the moral high ground; they see racists, Nazis, homophobes and monsters at every turn and they use those terms, not to debate with the opposition, but to shame that opposition into silence. A charitable interpretation of this behaviour might attribute it to political bias, passion or wilful ignorance; a less charitable interpretation might note the disturbing absence of empathy. The most closed and dangerous minds are those which consider themselves virtuous and, when we deny the right to intellectual diversity, we are ignoring the piled-up corpses of history. Intellectual diversity (the most important diversity of all) doesn’t involve calling people monsters or trivialising the concept of what a ‘monster’ really is; it doesn’t involve co-opting victims of genuine oppression and political terror to bolster your currently fashionable prejudices. If Reagan, Palin or Trump are monsters, what words do we have left to describe Stalin, Mao or Hitler?

From what I've seen, the President elect doesn’t appear to have anything like the wit, charm or political nous of Ronald Reagan, but maybe he’ll grow into the job. The more I read about him, the more I think that my initial impressions were probably superficial, based largely upon scraps gathered from invariably hostile sources. I’m open to the possibility that, for all of his character faults (and he may have quite a collection of those), he might yet turn out to be a president of substance; we have no choice but to wait and see. I doubt I’d have voted for him, but I can accept that the American electorate had very good reasons for rejecting the ‘business as usual’ option. 

Their country will get on with it, because most people have no desire, or inclination, to march up that hill again, like those zealous Witnesses praying for Armageddon.  

We've been there. Seen it. Done that.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

'Complicated Game' – Inside the songs of XTC

This book is comprised of a series of interviews -conducted over several months- in which Todd Bernhardt gets Andy Partridge to talk (and talk) about thirty songs in the XTC catalogue. Every album is represented by at least a couple of tracks, with Andy explaining (in that scattergun, wisecracking style we’ve come to expect) exactly what he was trying to achieve
XTC fans will be familiar with some of his gripes; the fact that the band signed an extraordinarily bad record deal still rankles and he feels that they should have achieved (and earned) a lot more than they did. At one point, he ruminates on the astonishment and frustration he felt at finding out how much his contemporary Elvis Costello was (allegedly) worth. 

It is interesting to read about the development of each track from conception to completion, although towards the end of the book you get the impression that there is a degree of repetition; if I have one criticism, it is that perhaps thirty songs was a tad too much. But even if you're not familiar with the recordings being analysed here, you may still get something from the technical chat about chord structures and recording techniques. I knew all of these songs bar one (a track from his ‘Fuzzy Warbles’ collection of home demos) so it was a delight to wallow in the truly forensic level of analysis; this really is hard-core porn for those interested in the recording process. Todd does a great job with the questions; the guy knows his stuff and is able to quiz Andy about, for example, a scratchy rhythm guitar part in the left channel of this track, or some doubled-up bass notes in the chorus of another. He is the anorak’s anorak, but with a healthy dose of humour thrown into the mix.  

Andy acknowledges that the ‘punk wars’ (a phrase for which he claims credit) delayed his acknowledgment that tuneful 1960s pop was a huge influence on his work. It was relatively late in the day (during the recording of the ‘Mummer’ album in 1982) that Steve Nye told him to lighten up, because no-one gave a toss anymore about whether or not something sounded a bit like The Beatles.

It was news to me that Andy’s commitment to achieving the lush sound on the ‘Apple Venus’ album cost him a band member. Dave Gregory left because he didn’t want to blow the recording budget by spending an eye-watering sum on hiring an orchestra for a day. But, listening to the album, you’d have to conclude that the boss was right.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

The Scottish Cup, Round 2: What we think about when we’re not thinking about football

For the second round of the Scottish Cup, I decided to head to Annan to watch the home side take on East Stirlingshire. My extensive pre-match research revealed that these clubs had something remarkable in common, in that each have endured a single ‘ghost’ season when they disappeared off the football map.

Annan Athletic competed in the Dumfries and District Junior Football Association until it was disbanded in 1951, at which point the club went into hibernation for a year because of administrative difficulties with the local football authorities. Depending on who you believe, this was either down to mere incompetence or to a massive bureaucratic conspiracy which led from petty football politics in Dumfries all the way up to the assassination of JFK.
After that enforced ‘gap’ year, they joined the Carlisle and District League. Given that the town of Annan is located very firmly in Scotland, it is perhaps surprising that it was only as recently as 1976 that the club decided to return to the fold and re-join Scottish football. Since then, they have played in both the East of Scotland League and the South of Scotland League (no … me neither) before, in 2008, they were voted into the 3rd Division of the Scottish Football League.

East Stirlingshire’s ‘ghost’ season came in the mid-60s. After relegation from Scotland's top division, they controversially merged with Clydebank Juniors to form the only professional club (as far as I can be bothered checking) to have existed for one year only. The merger was controversial because of one awkward little detail: the fans didn’t want it. While the imaginatively-named ‘East Stirlingshire Clydebank’ played the 1964-65 season in Clydebank, Firs Park (home of the ‘Shire) lay empty as the fans and shareholders dragged a complicated legal case through the courts. In the end, the law decreed that the two clubs should ‘unmerge’ and Clydebank were obliged to return to non-league football; a year later, they were admitted to the Scottish League in their own right. During that bizarre single season, the novelty club set a record attendance at Kilbowie Park when nearly 15,000 spectators attended a Scottish Cup tie against Hibernian. These days, the only way East Stirlingshire could pull a crowd of 15,000 would be if they were to provide the support act at a Take That gig. 

But this little club has a place in football history for at least one other reason I can think of. In 1974, they appointed an ambitious young manager, fresh from having spent the previous few seasons as a feisty (yes, that’s a euphemism) centre-forward at Falkirk and Ayr United. During his short spell in charge (it lasted for roughly twice the amount of time that Sam Allardyce was manager of England), this abrasive young man took the team to third place in the table and, in the process, secured a first league victory in 70 years over fierce local rivals Falkirk. He then moved on to manage St. Mirren, but I don’t know what happened to Alex Ferguson after that. 
Last season, the ‘Shire became the first club to be relegated -as opposed to voted out- of the national league system. This year, playing in the Lowlands League, their away results have included an 8-3 win and a 7-4 defeat, so I journeyed to Annan with reasonable hopes of entertainment. After a frisky opening spell by the away team, during which they created several scoring opportunities, the game settled down into what might politely be described as a ‘stalemate’. When I say ‘settled down’, I mean that things stopped happening; or at least the things that were happening were not interesting enough to write about. Twenty five minutes or so into the game, I started to reminisce about the glory days of the opening fifteen minutes; the excitement levels had dipped, to the extent that a deeper perusal of the match programme seemed like an attractive proposition. In his programme notes, the Annan chairman made the unusual point that “winning Scottish Cup ties is no longer a foregone conclusion”, which made me wonder if there was ever a time when winning Scottish Cup ties had been a foregone conclusion for Annan Athletic? I had checked the list of honours on their website and couldn’t remember any mention of them previously winning the Cup.
Looking at the respective squads, it struck me that, with a minor adjustment or two, a decent menu could be concocted from the Annan team. If I was in a posh restaurant, I would have no hesitation in ordering some Black Sinnamon Shark Fin Currie. I’d fancy a bit of that any day of the week. Apart from the players concerned being called Finnie and Sharkey, that is exactly how the names appeared in the programme. If, I thought, the player known as ‘Ryan Sinnamon’ pronounces his surname name Sinnamon, should we then pronounce the spice known as Cinnamon as ‘Chin-amon’, or maybe even ‘Kinnamon’?
It was still 0-0.
The Annan cognoscenti behind the town end goal were not entirely enamoured of manager Jim Chapman’s methods, believing him to be responsible for the lack of football being played. ‘Too much high stuff’ was the consensus view. Jim’s first win as manager of Annan came in March 2013, when his team beat the not-so-mighty-anymore Rangers 2-1. Upon reflection, maybe that set the bar a wee bit high. By half-time in this game, Annan had the look of a side that would struggle to get a goal within 90 minutes; in fact, I wouldn’t have bet on them scoring this side of Christmas.
But on the credit side, they definitely had the edge when it came to interesting names. The best that East Stirlingshire had to offer was David Grant (who looked good for his age, but very different from his time fronting 80s pop combo Linx) and Derek Ure, who may, or may not, have been the nephew of Midge Ure. Uncle Midge, the diminutive ‘this means nothing to me, Vienna’ hit-maker, once recorded a song with Dumbarton FC. It was called ‘The Sons … we’re the ones’. Dumbarton’s nickname is The Sons, as in ‘Sons of the Rock’, the rock in question being Dumbarton Rock, the plug of volcanic basalt which overlooks the town. If you do a bit of digging on the internets, you’ll be able to find this splendid ditty. I wondered if there were any other examples of 80s pop stars trying to help lower-league football teams break into the charts. Apart from Midge Ure with Dumbarton and the one that Boy George recorded with Queen of the South, I can’t think of any. Elsewhere in the East Stirlingshire squad, they would also have had defenders named Barclay, James and Harvest, but only if they had signed someone whose surname was James. And then signed another one whose surname was Harvest.   
Half-time arrived and it was still 0-0.
Annan’s average attendance at home games last season was 399. The crowd at this cup tie was 302. As I queued for some half time refreshment, I wondered how many pies the caterers had decided to put in the oven. As you wait to be served, there is always the dread that the fat guy in front of you might order the last two pies. There can be no greater disappointment in football than having to settle for an out-of-date Twix or, horror of horrors, a hot dog. Would the vendors have gambled on a big turnout from the ‘Shire support, reckoning that their marauding Ultras, marching on their stomach, would raid the pie stall? Would they have taken weather conditions into account? It was certainly cold enough for me to enjoy the life-affirming qualities of a hot pie and Bovril. My Bovril joy, incidentally, lasted for about 20 minutes, mainly because it had been heated to twice the temperature of freshly-spewed lava. In context, that made perfect sense, providing something to keep the bored and cold spectator alive until the rescue services arrived or until someone had a decent shot at goal. A few years ago, on a whim, I bought a jar of Bovril in a supermarket with a view to trying it at home. Imagine my disappointment when it tasted a bit rubbish; I guess you need to be bored and cold in order for the thing to work. Perhaps the product should carry a consumer warning: Only really works in situ.     
There were still some unanswered questions about the pies. What, for instance, happens to unsold pies after a game? Surely, I thought, they couldn’t be kept for a week (or a fortnight) until the next home game? Can you freeze a pie? Would it be wise to freeze a pie? If there was some kind of ‘Walking Dead’-style zombie apocalypse, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a haul of frozen pies (you could either eat them or use them as weapons), but I’m not sure that I would, under normal circumstances, readily accept a frozen pie. If, however, football in Scotland became a summer sport (and the summer was as hot as, say, Greece) vendors could perhaps offer frozen pies on a stick. This, to my mind, would be one of the possible upsides of global warming.    
It was still 0-0. 
East Stirlingshire coach John Sludden had East Stirlingshire coach John Sludden had observed in his programme notes that their away support this season had been “fantastic” and I counted around 20 travelling Ultras who made themselves heard about halfway through the second half. Given that their side had dominated the opening exchanges, it was perhaps surprising that they saved their singing until relatively late in the game; I am not in a position to speculate as to whether or not drink had been smuggled into the ground and subsequently imbibed.
I noted that the programme devoted a whole page to the SPFL’s regulations on ‘Unacceptable Conduct’. One bullet point in particular caught my eye. On no account were fans to be permitted to indulge in:  
“Conduct which stirs up or sustains, or is likely or is designed to stir up or sustain, hatred or ill will against or towards individuals or groups of people because of Transgender Identity”.
I was glad that, once again, the authorities had bravely tackled one of the key problems in the game; I’ve lost count over the years of the number of transgender footballers and officials who have been embarrassed, ridiculed or upset by cisgendered chanting. When I was at school (it was, in West of Scotland terminology, ‘Celtic-minded’), we had a song about the Rangers striker Colin Stein, which was sung to the tune of Jesus Christ Superstar:
‘Colin Stein, superstar,
He walks like a wummin and he wears a bra.’      
Under today’s comprehensive guidelines for social intercourse, that would be classified as a hate crime and the public singing of it and /or electronic representation of same would probably lead to the parents being reported to social services and the miscreants being sent to some kind of correction camp. I reproduce the offending lyric here merely as an anecdotal detail; if Colin Stein did indeed walk like a woman and wear a bra, then I would have fully supported his right to do so.   
Further perusal of that regulations page revealed, surprisingly, that the person responsible for compiling the programme had simply scanned the whole thing from Motherwell’s policy documents. Talk about economy of effort! With this in mind, I reckon that any half-decent lawyer would have got an abusive fan off on a simple technicality.
“Your honour, if I may … my client, having read the match programme, believed that this policy on cisgendered abuse applied only to supporters of Motherwell Football Club. In that sense, his description of the assistant referee as a ‘fucking tranny wanker’ was made in the belief that the guidelines did not apply to his club.”
Glancing up from the programme with about fifteen minutes to go I noticed that Annan had finally decided that their best chance of scoring was to play the ball in the direction of the opponent’s goal, but the score remained 0-0. One or two of the home supporters around me were getting a bit more animated; advice was being offered to the players, the manager and his coaching staff. The authority and certainty with which this advice was delivered left me in little doubt that these guys were fully-qualified coaches with years of relevant experience of managing players.      
At all of the games I’ve attended so far in this campaign, there has been at least one other middle-aged man, scanning the surroundings, scouring the programme and snapping pictures of the action (and inaction). In the interests of science, I’d like to suggest an appropriate classification for this cultural phenomenon: The Tragic Football Tourist (or TFT) is invariably male and middle–aged, an obsessive who is more likely to remember the result of a UEFA Cup tie from 1979 than the birth dates of family members. Each time the TFT visits a new stadium, he will mentally tick a little box and nurture a brief sense of accomplishment before fixing his sights on his next target. As he anoints each venue, accumulating his own tragic kudos, he will ignore the weight of evidence provided by decades of spectating and will hope for some kind of ‘meaningful’ football-watching experience. He will not be inclined to think too deeply about how much time he has spent enduring turgid encounters which will have provided only a few meagre scraps of entertainment.

How many times, I wondered, does the watching of football (as opposed to the anticipation of watching) deliver a truly satisfying experience?  And what will my own football memories add up to? Perhaps, one day, when I’m deep into my demented dotage, they will provide a way for some care home assistant to ‘connect’ with me as I’m wheeled into a football reminiscence class. Perhaps the distant echoes of ancient cup ties will, for a short time, spark some brain cells to life and animate my bewildered, enfeebled husk.  
"Mais où sont les jeux ennuyeux d’antan? as Marcel Proust might have put it in his programme notes ... "But where are the boring games of yesteryear?"
It was still 0-0.
Not that it mattered.