Send In The Clowns.

I once had the honour of working with the British actor and satirist Peter Cook.

I was an advertising copywriter in London then and I was recording a radio spot for Network SouthEast, a part of the then still publicly owned British Rail.

Client and actor were, as it was to turn out, both coming to the end of the line.

And taking a coffee and chain smoking that morning together in Soho our conversation turned from the specifics of script and direction to a more general discussion of the many merits of radio as an advertising medium.

And from the practical to the surreal: “Do you think that it would be possible” he asked “to record a dog food advert in a frequency that only dogs could hear?”

It would be another twenty years, of course, before the expression ‘dog whistle politics’ would enter popular use but then the man who once famously described himself as ‘born to be on holiday’ was certainly nothing if not visionary.

Last night watching Guardian Live, another brave and useful step into online video content from the often derided newspaper group by the way, our conversation came back to me. The brexit campaign has been as Gary Younge put it: “like watching a dog running after a car”.

You know that even in the unlikely event of the dog ever catching the car its victory is pointless. Dogs can’t drive.

We are told, in the popular phrase of the moment, ‘we are where we are’ but in truth i’ve yet to hear anyone describe to me even vaguely where that is in reference to anywhere I know. Let alone to show me a map or an app with a pin on it.

There seems little doubt that we’re at the start of something not at the end of it. And that brexit will stand as the inciting incident of a chain of unpredictable events that will shape the rest of my life. And a significant part of the lives of my children.

We are at the moment that the bullet was fired in Sarajevo in 1914 perhaps. Or the day that the Berlin Wall came down maybe.The end of the gold standard? The Suez crisis? Who knows. All of them and none of them too most likely.

On Friday Britain woke to the cold hard truth that not only did their leaders now have no plan but that they never had one. The Vote Leave press conference that morning had all the celebratory air of a hostage video.

Boris eulogised the man he fought to succeed but never dreamed he could topple.

A Prime Minister who only an hour or so earlier, it is said, had rhetorically demanded of his aides: “Why should I have to do all the hard shit?”

David Cameron, statesman to the last.

If anything Gove looked even more terrified. ‘What’s done cannot be undone’ right enough but Lady MacBeth never mentioned this over the Bran Flakes.

Britain woke also to the dawning realisation that brexit is not the silver bullet that those who voted for it had hoped. And indeed were promised.

By Sunday the extra 350 million sterling that could now be spent every week on the country’s National Heath Service had vanished. It had been ‘a mistake’ apparently.

A mistake now also vanished from the Vote Leave website leaving only a message of thanks in its place. They might as well have posted: ‘So Long Suckers’.

Nor is it likely that immigration will fall in the immediate future. If at all.

Yesterday’s EU summit underlined once more that Britain’s future access to the European single market will be conditional on it accepting continuing freedom of movement for European citizens.

And that any possible trade deal outside of European Economic Area membership will not be negotiated until after the conclusion of the Article 50 separation.

“Hard shit” indeed. But someone will have to do it.Though even as I write news breaks that it will not be Boris. And I find that it gives me mixed feelings.

There’s a part of me that would pay hard earned euros to see the man who was fired from his job as European Correspondent of The Times for fabricating his reports on the European Commission ride into battle with the subjects of his lies.

You really couldn’t make it up.

Unless that is you’re the sort of man, and it is invariably a man, who, and pardon me for repeating this again so soon, has always assumed that his birthright of class trumps everyone else’s efforts, abilities or merits.

In a country whose social and political structures totter shakily on little else.

In the end, of course, Britain will have to learn to live with Europe and vice versa.

It’s said that the French could live with a compromise on freedom of movement, for example, in exchange for the end of ‘passports’ for the City of London’s banks.

Or that the Germans might swallow a similar sort of deal the other way around so Britain can keep the City intact but only if it accepts freedom of movement.

Whatever happens Britain will be a poorer place for it. And not just economically. As its more lumpen yeomen lose the last of their inhibitions to threaten Polish children and intimidate native Muslims. Well they’ve not got the football to enjoy.

And then there’s the Scots. At least Good Queen Nicola moved swiftly to reassure “those EU citizens who have done us the honour of making Scotland their home” that they would “continue to be welcome.” Little wonder Martin Schulz is said to be a fan.

We like migrants you see. We’re migrants ourselves. And, like Germany, we could be doing with some more people. Wherever they come from. Whatever god they worship. And whatever the colour of their skin.

And the Irelands.

And the very real possibility that history might yet record the man I’ve described before as ‘the last Prime Minister of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ as the man who both united the Irish and freed the Scots.

Chapeau David.

But we’ll come back to that another day. I promise. For now if you’re feeling the need to whistle to keep your spirits up there’s really only one tune that’ll do:

Don’t you love farce? My fault, I fear

I thought that you’d want what I want Sorry, my dear

But where are the clowns? There ought to be clowns 

Posted in brexit, british constitution, brussels, David Cameron, elections, england, europe, european commission, great britain, history, politics, scotland, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fear And Loathing (Hearts And Minds #3).

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An advertisement tweeted by on Sunday and then mysteriously deleted.


On Saturday evening two hundred heavily armed Russian thugs launched a planned and premeditated attack on English football supporters in Marseille.

Nine people were hospitalised. One of them with life threatening brain injuries.

Igor Ledebev, a member of the executive committee of the Russian football union, and also the deputy chairman of the Russian parliament by the way, was quick to offer his congratulations: “well done lads, keep it up” he tweeted.

Vladimir Markin, a Moscow law enforcement official, agreed and added by way of explanation that us effete Europeans “ … are surprised when they see a real man looking like a man should, they are only used to seeing ‘men’ at gay parades”.

Twelve hours later in Orlando an American of Afghan descent walked into the LGBT nightclub where he was a regular customer and opened fire into the crowd with an assault rifle killing fifty people and injuring fifty-three more.

It was America’s single worst mass shooting. Last year three hundred and seventy two such incidents were recorded there, sixty-four of them in schools.

In the last fifty years in fact more Americans have been killed by firearms than have died in every conflict that they have fought in since the War of Independence. And they’ve fought in a few.

In the office of Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick it inspired someone to take a leaf out of Vladimir’s book, as it were, and share a consoling verse from Galatians 6:7: “Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”

While the Republican Party’s Presidential Candidate to be, a man who considers it more practical and more popular to ban muslims from his country than assault rifles from its streets, predictably added more fuel to the pyre with his ‘appreciation’ of his countrymen’s ‘congratulations’. Nice timing there, Donald.

On Tuesday morning Britain’s’s most widely read national newspaper finally advised its thirteen and a half million readers to ‘BeLEAVE In Britain’ and to vote in favour of Brexit a week on Thursday.

The Sun’s proprietor is an American citizen of Australian descent and a man who is said to have once lamented: “In Downing St. they do what they’re told, but in Brussels they just ignore me.”

Brexit’s poster boy, and forgive me if this is all getting a bit hard to follow now, but it is important, is a New York born, Brussels educated former Major of London.

A man of Turkish, German and Russian descent who somehow manages to fuse Trump’s political demagoguery with Bill Clinton’s sexual morals while embroidering his vision of Britain’s future with references to the Bayeux Tapestry and Hitler. His trump card, if you’ll pardon the expression, is immigration.

No, really. Seriously. No word of a lie. Britain is full. And it’s Europe wot done it. Brexit is Boris’s Mexican wall and Bremain cannot escape its shadow.

Britons of my generation, you see, grew up on a slowly shrinking island. Memories of empire fading, the economy in decline, militant unions and incompetent bosses fighting in rusting factories, soldiers embroiled in Ireland’s endless sectarian war.

And people voting with their feet. Between 1964 and 1983 a net total of 993,000 people actually left the UK. Some were retirees heading for Spain. Most were young families seeking new lives in Australia, Canada and South Africa. All were Britons and few had any intention of ever coming back.

For the next fifteen years the numbers sea-sawed: net immigration of 58,000 in 1985; net emigration of 21,000 in 1988; 36,000 in in 1990; 1,000 out in 1993.

In 1998 UK immigration tripled to 140,000 and despite occasional year on year declines the trend since has been steadily upward: to 185,000 in 2003; 268,000 in 2004 and 313,000 in 2014.

Forgive me. It’s impolite to talk of such things I know. Impolite and now also a bit late in the day but necessary all the same. Because the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Numbers never do.

Immigration is not the end of the world, Boris. As well you know. In fact in many ways it’s the beginning. The problem that you seek to exploit is not immigration.

It is class. Your perennial fixation with your assumed birthright over the efforts, abilities and merits of others. It is the archaic social and political structures that totter on that shaky foundation alone. It is the deafening echo chamber of a tabloid press mired in proven corruption and criminality.

And while Brexit can talk of nothing but immigration, Bremain cannot bring themselves to even begin to mention it.

So nobody is listening any more. Not to David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn at any rate. Not to John Major or Tony Blair for sure. Not to Caroline Lucas or Nicola Sturgeon, not to the IFS or the IMF.

No, they’re not even listening to Russell Brand these days.

Because as I’ve said before and will say again: what we feel trumps (sorry) what we think and what we think trumps what we know.

And what we feel more than anything else these days in Marseille and in Moscow, in Miami and in Manchester is fear.

And little wonder really. For the same elephant sits in all our rooms.

And he’s spouting numbers too: 637 rate cuts around the world since the failure of Bear Stearns in March 2008; 489 million people living in countries with negative interest rates; $12.3 trillion of assets bought by central banks in eight years.

He’s grumbling about governments who trouser the taxes of immigrant workers with one hand while facilitating its theft by non domiciled corporations with the other. I’m told that structural reform is the polite name for it though I’m sure we can all think of others.

But nobody is listening to him either. Well, he’s an immigrant, isn’t he?

When all’s said and done fear is no more and no less than how we react to change.

When we’re afraid we get angry. We attack foreigners. We shoot lesbians and gays. And we cut off our roman noses to spite our anglo saxon faces.

But sooner or later there comes acceptance.

And finally the wisdom to embrace it and then to begin to bend it better to our common will for our common good.

I hope.

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The State We’re In.


On vacation in New York a couple of years ago I was asked to describe my adopted home country:

“Belgium is a Catholic country with a gay Prime Minister where it is possible to buy hard liquor in the middle of the night but only from a Muslim”. I said.

And though Elio Di Rupo, who spoke better Italian than Flemish it’s said, is no longer our PM the joke still plays well here.

Especially among Belgians. A people aware that their country is viewed as something of an absurdity and generally rather proud of it.

But beyond its humour is a truth worth pondering, and yes worth cherishing this week. In catholicism, homosexuality, alcohol and islam, you see, it unites and equates four things that are either of fundamental importance in your life or else have no relevance to it whatsoever.

It just depends on the thoughts in your head and the feelings in your heart.

In practice, and it must be said that there is a bit of a marked distinction between practice and law here, you are completely free to choose between them or among them as you wish.

You are perfectly free to worship whoever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want (for the record 47% of the Belgian population identify as Catholic, 5% as Muslim and 43% as non believers).

You can hold hands whenever you want. You can kiss wherever you want. And you can marry whoever you want just so long as you are are both eighteen years old.

You can drink wine in a fish shop at eight o’clock in the morning if that’s your thing. And you’re free to build your house in whatever style you like and then to paint it in whatever colour you chose.

About the only thing you’re compelled to do in fact is vote. And to do so both regularly and frequently

Belgium has six governments and Brussels is the capital of three of them. It is the seat of The European Parliament, well one of them anyway, The European Commission and The European Council.

It has nineteen mayors and, at the risk of repetition, six, yes six, police departments serving a population of 1.2 million.

Because you’re also compelled to obey the law. Whoever you are.

So let’s turn off the eye denting idents of our rolling tv news for a moment. Log off our sociopathic social media. And mute the machismo of our geopolitics and its geopoliticians.

And focus instead for now on the altogether simpler subject of criminals and criminality.

We do not know what thoughts were in the heads of Brahim and Khalid el Bakraoui when they detonated their bombs at Zaventem and Malbeek on Tuesday morning. Or what feelings were in their hearts when they stopped going. We never will.

But we do know that both were gangsters. Violent criminals with a string of convictions for armed robbery and firearms offences.

And we know too that it is among such that DAESH finds its most wiling recruits and those most happy to shelter them in communities often wary of the law.

They are not soldiers and this is not a war. To accept that narrative is to be as willing fools as they.

They represent radical Islam no more than the Cosa Nostra represent radical Catholicism or the Yardies radical Rastafarianism.

In the words of a neighbour of their associate Salah Abdeslam ” if you’re a gangster, IS is just the biggest gang in town.” If you’re a hammer, in other words, everything is, pardon the unfortunate expression, a nail.

And nor is Belgium, whilst we’re on the subject, a failed state, nor anything close to one.

It is a secular democracy whose constitution enshrines freedom of religion and the rule of law.

And ‘bonne continuation’ to that and all it demands of us today.

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Original Soundtrack Recording. David Bowie: 8th January 1947-10th January 2016.


“ Didn’t know what time it was and the lights were low. I leaned back on my radio. Some cat was layin’ down some rock ‘n’ roll… “ David Bowie: ‘Starman’ 1972.

I’m fifteen years old. And I’m passing my penultimate summer holiday before leaving home waiting tables at The Tartan Cafe in ‘Bonnie Wee Troon’ .

I’m spending my wages on String Driven Thing and Jethro Tull and Rory Gallagher. And on Exile on Main St. I’m underage drinking with Archie and Muscles and Paul and Nigel at the Craiglea Hotel and The Temple Bar.

And I’m dancing my Saturday nights away at the Loans Disco.

Watergate is on the news. Nixon will soon be gone. And Alice Cooper is at No.1: ”No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks…” Indeed. School’s Out completely in fact. And Starman is in at No. 10.

Space Oddity, I must confess, had largely passed me by the first time out. But I wasn’t alone. The song that first introduced the world to Major Tom (who would return to us in Ashes To Ashes, in Hallo Spaceboy, and finally in Blackstar) was considered “a bit of a cheap shot at Apollo 11” by Toni Visconti when he passed on the offer to produce it.

As apparently did George Martin. While The BBC declined to play it at all until at least the Apollo 11 astronauts were safely back on earth.

But I wasn’t alone either in liking what I was now beginning to hear of David Bowie on his  regular sessions for first Johnie Walker’s and then John Peel’s (it was never Jeremy Clarkson’s) Top Gear. Much of which would surface the following century as Bowie At The Beeb. Which if you have to start somewhere is as good a place as any. And a rather better one than any of the many ‘best of’.

It was on the strength of those sessions that I bought both Hunky Dory and then The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And the Spiders From Mars.

But while both were critically well received neither sold particularly well at first. Hunky Dory failed to spawn a hit. Changes charting only briefly at No. 66 in the US.

While in ‘Bonnie Wee Troon’ at least to carry either under your arm was to invite  speculation as to your adolescent sexuality. Androgyny, far less bisexuality, was then as unwelcome as it was unspoken. While homosexuality, of course, although now legal at least in England and Wales, would remain a criminal offence in Scotland for another eight years.

Starman was recorded on February 4th 1972 and released as a single in April. Added to the Ziggy album at the insistence of Dennis Katz of RCA it replaced a cover of Chuck Berry’s Around And Around and sold only modestly until Bowie’s first Top Of The Pops appearance with The Spiders on July 6th propelled it to No.10.

With a chorus largely lifted from Over The Rainbow (the octave leap on ‘starman’ is identical to that on ‘somewhere’) and nods to both T. Rex’s Telegram Sam and the Supreme’s You Keep Me Hanging On, it was Bowie’s breakthrough as a performer.

Within a couple of weeks his chops as a writer were confirmed by the Mott The Hoople’s No. 2 smash All The Young Dudes. As Mott teetered on the edge of bankruptcy Bowie, a long time fan, first offered them Suffragette City before writing Dudes for them cross legged on the floor of a Regent St. studio during a meeting with Mott singer Ian Hunter.

Far from the youth anthem it seemed at the time Bowie later described the ‘news’ it conveyed as that of the same apocalyptic warning of Ziggy’s Five Years.“It’s not a hymn to youth at all” he explained. “In fact it’s completely the opposite”.

But you couldn’t have brands on the BBC. Oh no. So on the radio edit “Wendy’s stealing clothes from Marks and Sparks” becomes “… from unmarked cars” just as The Kink’s Lola had drunk “cherry cola” and not “Coca Cola”, on the radio at least, before her.

John I’m Only Dancing and The Jean Genie followed in short order. And by the time Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side charted at No. 10 (its references to trans sexual prostitution and drug abuse not actually mentioning any brands and so escaping the BBC’s censor) David Bowie had chalked up five top ten hits as writer, performer and producer in under six months.

Most were recorded at Trident Studios in St Anne’s Court in Soho where a young Rick Wakeman was the studio piano player. And where twenty years later I would come to spend many an evening working on TV commercials and radio ads.

Yet even by the standards of the time, when Elton John’s DJM contact required a minimum of two albums and six singles a year, Bowie’s work rate, not to mention quality control and ambition, were little short of phenomenal.

By way of proof when you’re done with Bowie At The Beeb give Santa Monica 72 some time. If only for the first taste of the jazz tinged fills of then newly recruited pianist Mike Garson (Rick Wakeman having by then opted to join prog rockers Yes).

The set is heavy on Hunky Dory and Ziggy, of course, but it revisits older songs like My Death and Width Of Circle with all the newfound swagger of the Starman of the moment. And then finds a good five and a half minutes for a muscular cover of the Velvet’s Waiting For the Man.

And so, not quite twelve months on, I’m perched on what remains of seat NN 36 in Green’s Playhouse Glasgow (still then the largest cinema in Europe, ah, the days before arena shows) among five thousand of the faithful awaiting our audience with Ziggy in a state of near total hysteria.

It’s the second of two shows tonight and my seat has barely survived the first. Only he’s not Ziggy anymore, he’s Aladdin Sane. A persona, and an album, perhaps best described by Bowie himself as “Ziggy goes to America”. There’s less self doubt about it for one thing. And if ‘five years’ is ‘all we’ve got’ then he’s certainly hell bent on enjoying every single moment of them.

Though I would see him again at Milton Keynes Bowl one hot summer’s afternoon in 1983 and then once more in Berlin in 2003, and thoroughly enjoy both occasions, nothing could ever be the same as, or as simply, thrillingly, adolescently, good as tonight.

I would spend the rest of the decade studying law. And he would go on to knock out Pin Ups and Diamond Dogs (originally an ambitious retelling of 1984, by the way, compromised by failure to secure the rights) before morphing effortlessly through the plastic soul (his own description) of Young Americans, Fame, Golden Years and TVC 15 and then onwards and upwards to Brian Eno and the Berlin trilogy. Rebooting Iggy Pop’s career and staring in The Man Who Fell To Earth and Just A Gigolo along the way.

In truth I don’t really think I ever completely got the Berlin trilogy, or Low or Heroes at any rate, until some twenty-five years later when I found myself living and working in the new Europe in the new century. Certainly, if perhaps predictably, few pieces of music have ever made more complete sense to me than Warszawa on headphones with a coffee and a cigarette on the train to Poznan.

Or Heroes sung in german while driving through the Warsaw suburbs with Klaudia, a one time catwalk model of cropped blonde hair and razor sharp cheekbones, on the night of the day of the dead.

“And we kissed as though nothing could fall”.

It was in Warsaw too that I discovered the pleasures of Heathen And Reality. The Ziggy and Aladdin Sane of Bowie’s last but one productive writing spell. Everyone Says Hi, Fall Dog Bombs The Moon, Never Get Old and Reality itself for my money being up there with the best of his 70’s oeuvre. While his covers of The Pixies’ Cactus and Jonathan Richmond’s Pablo Picasso are as inspired and inspiring as he clearly once was to them.

The Berlin show on the subsequent Reality Tour, on November 3rd 2003, was at the ten thousand capacity Max-Schmeling-Halle and set up as a conventional arena rock show. Shorn of much in the way of theatrics and focussed on the band, the singer and the songs.

Mike Garson was now the last remaining spider. Earl Slick (a veteran of The Serious Moonlight tour) played lead guitar and Gail Ann Dorsey bass and backing vocals. As well as bringing the house down with her take on the Freddie Mercury part on Under Pressure.

Bowie is chatty. And the two hour plus set has something for everyone. From Never Get Old (“it’s a lie but only a little lie”) and Cactus to The Man who Sold The World, a scorching Rebel Rebel and a singalong All The Young Dudes. Where no doubt in deference to his german audience Wendy was back to the “unmarked cars”.

Marks… ? Marx… ? I guess you can see why.

The following summer, back in Germany, he suffered a blocked artery and the rest of the tour was immediately ‘curtailed’.

David Bowie would never tour again.

The rest is history. And for that reason alone I recommend finally that you spend some time with A Reality Tour Live. And then with Blackstar.

A simply astonishing record and one that I spent most of Sunday with. Little realising when I went to bed, of course, that we were listening to him saying goodbye. And that when we woke in the morning he’d be gone.

“ Seeing more and feeling less. Saying no but meaning yes. This is all I ever meant. That’s the message that I sent… “ David Bowie: ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ 2016

Posted in great britain, history, music, reviews, rock, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment


When a certain kind of person

Turns a certain kind of age

And a certain kind of lover

Turns a certain kind of page

It’s a moment fraught with danger

And a certain kind of choice

An uncertain kind of strangeness

Or a certain stranger’s voice

Call it wisdom call it knowledge

It’s a question of degree

And a certain understanding

That what will be will be

So mark your book of learning

And join me at the edge

And maybe we will speak then

Of all that’s in our heads

One will strike the flame there

And one will set the fire

In its ashes there are memories

But in its warmth there is desire

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The End Of The World.

A little levity from more innocent times.

I do not own the copyright on this recording and post it only in the interests of cheering us all up a bit today.

In celebration of the genius of its authors and performers.

And as a reminder that laughter is always the best medicine.

Enjoy. Enjoy? Oh, don’t get me started.

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Four (Brussels 22/11/15).

Tonight there are two people who want to kill me.

Yes, and you too. And anyone else who doesn’t particularly want to live in their global caliphate.

They have explosives and they have guns. And they have the support of, at most, around  0.001% of the population of my city.

So tomorrow we start our working week on level four.

Our schools are shut, our public transport is suspended. Our cafes, our bars and our restaurants are closed. Soldiers patrol our streets and armoured cars guard our institutions.

But surely only in Belgium could the very worst that could ever happen be ‘four’.

Not ‘nine’ or even ‘five’ let alone ‘condition red’ or some such anglo saxon movie convention but ‘four’. Just four.

Four. Ah, the land of compromise.

Tonight I went for a drink with my friend Archie. He suggested that he come round to mine and we drink some wine. But in the end we were agreed that we should go out.

That we should walk our streets. That we should go to our bar. That we should not be terrified or terrorised.

In the town where we grew up, after all, ‘fore’ warned of no more than a miss hit golf ball. And hey, here at least four’s the very worst that can happen.

So as we take a cigarette together (we like to live dangerously) there is an ‘incident’. A car is stopped on the Rue Leon Lepage. It’s a black car. And just like in the movies black cars are the baddies.

We wish.

The police tell us, in no uncertain terms, to go inside and to stay there.

The street is sealed. Soldiers arrive.

And inside our bar ashtrays are produced.

The landlord kickstarts the air-conditioning with a broom.

So we smoke our cigarettes. And we drink another Wesmalle Triple.

Well at least it’s not a quadruple.

But I, for one, am sad for my happy town.

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