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

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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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In Extremis.


Vilvoorde is a city in Flanders.

It’s not a big place. In fact with 40,000 residents it’s barely a city at all. Most foreigners, passing on the train into Brussels from the airport, would if they noticed it at all presume it a suburb of the Belgian capital. Much as I did myself before I actually got to know people who lived there and before they actually invited me to dinner there.

And before I became aware of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) question: the then seemingly intractable linguistic, political and constitutional impasse at the heart of the crisis of identity that all but paralysed the Government of Belgium following the elections of 2007.

All the more surprising then that it’s where this story starts.

The mayor of Vilvoorde today is Hans Bonte. A thoughtful, engaging, articulate and persuasive politician and a man whose patient understanding of individuals and institutions has been put to good use in recent years dissuading his more impressionable young citizens from travelling to Syria to join Daesh. While helping those who have returned and wish to reintegrate to do so.

And ensuring that those who don’t bring us no harm.

Across the Atlantic, Abdi Wasarmi has been busy doing much the same. Abdi is a Somalian born city councillor in Minneapolis and a politician cut from very similar cloth to Hans. Good men both. Dedicated to securing the peace, security and wellbeing of their citizens. Politics is nothing if it is not local after all and working politicians are always so much more useful that the career variety.

Last night they shared a platform at an event called appropriately ‘What Works’.

They were joined by Jan Jambon, Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister Of The Interior and by Tibor Navracsics, European Commissioner For Education, Culture, Youth and Sport.

The Minister Of the Interior was reassuringly impressive on the detail and disarmingly frank about the problem and its causes and remedies.

For a time Belgium had the largest number of foreign Daesh recruits per capita. Though of the four hundred Belgians who traveled to Syria only two hundred now remain (one hundred have since returned and the other hundred are dead).

Recruitment has fallen from fifteen a month to just five and better intelligence on those returning led to the thwarting of the Verviers plot although sadly not of the murders at Brussels’ Jewish Museum or the Thalys attack.

Interestingly when questioned on potential Dash sympathies among Syrian refugees now being settled here The Minister cited powerful evidence to the contrary. Refugees unsurprisingly are keen to escape terrorism not to embrace it.

No-one has left Vilvoorde for Syria in over a year now. Though a problem remains in Brussels. Where six police departments and nineteen mayors serving a population of just 1.2 million (New York seems to manage well with just one of each for 8.4 million people) poses what might at best be described as a challenge to effective intelligence.

While at the same time illustrating that there’s local and then there’s absurd.

The European Commissioner arrived late. European Commissioners always arrive late. They are busy people. Whose jobs require them to leave behind the local and often instead to embrace the absurd.

Perhaps it would be too easy a laugh to wonder what a European Commissioner was doing at an event called ‘What Works’ in the first place. Or to suggest that perhaps his assistant had misread the invitation by adding a question mark. But in truth Mr.Navracsics had nothing much to say.

He made his entrance. He offered a few truisms about sport and community cohesion. He promised ‘more EU funds’ from the magic money tree. And he nodded sagely and stroked his chin while Jan and Hans and Abdi talked about WhatsApp and how difficult PS4 is to decrypt.

And about how best to form and to express a counter offer to extremism.

And that’s where the evening became really interesting. And when I began to ponder the issues it raised.

The most effective counter offer to extremist religion and extremist politics it seems is often one of individual opportunity. The Mayor of Vilvoorde candidly admitted that in his work with their families, friends and contemporaries no aspect of an individual’s life is off limits. Better education is likely to be part of it but better relationships and better sex may well be too.

And while individual wellbeing must anchor the offer, it must also carry with it some reasonable chance of a meaningful stake in the collective future of society.

Vilvoorde, for example, has actively lobbied for and established a resettlement centre for Syrian refugees in the city in order to better engage all of its citizens in making a positive, constructive and peaceful contribution to the wellbeing of others.

All of which begs the question that when we talk of extremism in religion and politics why do we not also recognise the forces of extremist finance, or extremist tech? Extremist climate change or extremist resource depletion?

And before i’m accused of disappearing up some Marxist blind alley (the evening was organised by Politico and sponsored by J. P. Morgan Chase by the way and yes, I was perfectly happy to sip their champagne and nibble their canapés) surely I can’t be alone in already working with industries for whom the decoupling of growth from increased material consumption is no longer ‘sustainability greenwash’ but an essential prerequisite for their, and our, very survival?

In the UK meanwhile, as well as in Greece and in Spain, suicide rates, and male suicide rates especially, continue to increase either steadily or dramatically depending on how you interpret the statistics.

And though I would hesitate to make any connection between the desire of a young man in Birmingham to take his own life and a young man in Vilvoorde to take the lives of others, or vice versa, the tragedy of both clearly occurs in the vacuum left by the absence of any attractive counter offer.

So let me also add extremist illl heath, both mental and physical, to the list. And in doing so maybe also look to extreme tech enabled extreme social media to perhaps leaven its diet of ever more mindfulness with a little less thoughtlessness.

And add also to that reasonable chance of a meaningful stake in the collective future of our society the need for an equal voice in how that society is shaped and what it might look like.

Some hours before this in the same room I had, by chance, listened to David Cameron describe what the future of Europe might look like. And what that might mean for its individuals and its institutions.

It was no great surprise to me that, like Hans and Abdi, he chose to frame his counter offer to extreme europe in terms of the peace and security, and by implication the wellbeing, of his citizens.

He is not a man I generally find myself in agreement with about much but listening to him articulate its four elements I was pleasantly surprised to find little to question and a lot to hope for.

That the single market and the singe currency are complimentary and not coincident is simply a statement of fact. An inconvenient fact perhaps for Europe’s last remaining federalists but a fact nonetheless. Someone somewhere just needs to write it down on a piece of paper and sign it.

That the single market needs to be more competitive and less regulated is Wagner played fortissimo to Mr.Junker’s ears. And exactly and specifically what Frans Timmermans, his impressive, energetic and able First Vice President, has been told to get on with. And pronto.

‘It is the bureaucrats and the lobbyists who will be the losers, the environment and the transparency of government will gain’. I’ve even heard him say it myself. Albeit in a voice that sounds uncomfortably like Sean Connery in ‘The Hunt For Red October’.

So no more sealed olive oil containers and definitions of chocolate then. And fewer dodgy diesel engines too please. Yes I know that’s a bit more complicated but in principle at least let today’s toddlers trump tomorrow’s polar bears. Please.

Oh, and just to finally nail the Marxist blind alley thing once and for all, yes we do live in a market. And not only because people who trade with each other do generally tend think twice before killing each other.

All of which brings us at last to ‘ever closer union’ and freedom of movement.

Freedom of movement does not and never has implied or guaranteed freedom of residency. From the recent experience of a Romanian neighbour I know for a fact that Brussels’ nineteen communes (headed by their nineteen mayors) can, and regularly do, refuse residency to EU citizens without proof of both work and accommodation in their commune.

Britain’s particular problem here is entirely of its own making. Without compulsory identity cards, which the British are culturally opposed to and have repeatedly rejected, in practice it is impossible to deny anybody who makes it to Dover residency pretty much anywhere in the UK.

That the comparative resilience of its economy in recent years is due at least in part to low wages being supplemented by in-work benefits compounds the problem.

So while the ability of a Lithuanian agricultural worker in Peterborough, for example, to repatriate their child tax credits back to their children in Panevezys may have always been completely legal it may not now seem, to Cameron’s citizens at least, entirely reasonable.

Time perhaps for a counter offer. Although not necessarily one that need threaten ‘ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’ if I may quote the preamble to the 1957 Treaty Of Rome in full.

Note here please that it is ‘the peoples’ and not ‘the countries’ or ‘the economies’ or even ‘the currencies’ of Europe. And note too that these words were retained in the preamble of the Maastricht treaty in 1992 at the insistence of John Major (then, like Cameron now, Britain’s Conservative PM) in preference to a much more overtly federalist form of words then tabled as their replacement.

In other words ‘ever closer union’ means only what you want it to mean. Move along now. Nothing to see.

But rather than, pardon the pun, take my word for it why not read instead the opinion of the European Council in June 2014: ‘the concept embraces different paths of integration for different countries, allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further’.

It’s no coincidence I think that John Major first cut his teeth in politics as a local mayor in London. Like Hans Bonte and Abdi Wasarmi in fact he still has something of that patient understanding of individuals and institutions about him. So let’s just hope he still also has Cameron’s ear.

Because having absorbed an awful lot of politics these last few days I have a growing feeling that more than ever now our peace, our security and our wellbeing lies not to the right or to the left (though perhaps that’s best left for another post) but instead in following the sign marked ‘Autres Directions’

In politics as in life, after all, what works is nothing if not local.

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Jock Tamson’s Bairns.

‘Jock Tamson’s Bairns is Lowland Scots dialect version of Jack Thomson’s children. The phrase more often occurs in an extended form: We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns. This is interpreted in a metaphorical sense as a statement of egalitarian sentiments equivalent to “we’re all the same under the skin” or “we are all God’s children”…’ : Wikipedia.

We’re all the same under the skin. Unless perhaps that skin is our BMW or our Lexus or our Ford or our Toyota.  And unless also perhaps we all live together in a city that we must all learn to share.


In a small city in a small country that is well served by reliable and affordable public transport there are very few people who have, of necessity, to regularly travel to their place of work by car.

Travelling salesmen perhaps, and taxi drivers, but their place of work is their car. Policemen, firemen, paramedics and the owners of ice cream vans maybe, though the same can be said of all of them.  No, in truth I’m scratching my head already to add to the list. But no doubt at least one of you will help me.

The fact that many others choose to do so though is another matter.

And when their choice is exercised to the detriment of the safety, the health and the wellbeing  of others, whether consciously or not, then surely it is right and proper that it can be regulated and limited?

No sane person would argue that motorists should be permitted to drive in any type of vehicle that they chose at any speed that they choose.

So why then should they be free to drive in any place that they choose?

A large part of Brussels city centre was permanently closed to traffic on July 1st and an extensive programme of pedestrianisation is now under way. Lawns and trees are to be planted. Ponds and fountains will be built. For now much of it has a makeshift air. Though it’s certainly a fresh air.

There are issues, of course. Taxi drivers and hoteliers are understandably unhappy. Litter and public order are also of concern but the City seems aware and responsive. Street cleaning has been stepped up and to my eye the newly pedestrianised streets are at least no worse than any of the others.

If I can offer one piece of advice though I don’t think putting the Brussels police on Segways really does very much to add to what is already at best their rather limited air of authority.

But to say that the scheme has divided my circle of friends would be an understatement. I live in the city centre and I don’t own a car. That said it has been hard to even share a beer with friends or neighbours this last month without conversation quickly descending into bitter and often ill-tempered argument.

But here’s the thing: the bitterest words and the worst fallings out have not generally been among car owners and non car owners. Nor between those of us who live in the city centre and suburban dwelling commuters.

No, the most vociferous arguments that I have had and I have heard have not been for or against the exclusion of cars but rather for or against the inclusion of people.

Or to put it more accurately, and more disturbingly, against (more often than for I’m ashamed to say) the inclusion of the wrong type of people:  the young people, the poor people, the immigrant people, and yes, whisper it, the black people who, amongst the rest of us, and I use the word ‘amongst’ advisedly, have quickly taken to strolling, picnicking, playing and, yes, partying in summer sun in their newly car free city.

With obvious enthusiasm and in steadily growing numbers. And why ever not?

Remove cars from a city’s principal commercial centre and replace the space previously devoted to them with pingpong tables, petanque courts, badminton nets and picnic tables and obviously people without access to cars no longer feel excluded.

While people without money have a reason to go there and to spend time there without the need to spend money they don’t have.

In Brussels I’m happy to say that both of these things have happened. And they have happened overnight. And there’s the rub. Because people without cars and people without money just so happen to be disproportionately young people, poor people (obviously), immigrant people and black people.

The legacy of Belgium’s colonial history, the post-war arrival of Italians to work in the country’s mines, the migration of French speaking Arabs from North Africa and more recently the influx of workers from all of the various member states of the EU to work in its institutions and their satellites have given Brussels a vibrant and a deep rooted multiculturalism.

In European terms, at least, Belgium is also a comparatively low wage economy. And Brussels still enjoys, for a European capital city at any rate, a comparatively reasonable cost of living.

But what is perhaps most revealing about the current ‘there goes the neighbourhood’ spat among friends and neighbours is that I have not once heard it advanced by any Belgian. A people who, in my experience, tend for the most part to be both more tolerant and more inclusive than many.

I have heard it loudest and most often from people who have come here to make lives, and livings, from beyond these shores. Not as immigrants, of course, but as expats. And doesn’t that little trick of the tongue speak volumes?

Some have told me that many of the children playing ping pong are ‘not Belgian’ which may or may not be true. Without sight of their passports I’m afraid I’d find it impossible to say. Besides, for those Belgians whose ancestors came from The Congo, for example, it’s  tempting to point out that they never really had that much of a say in their citizenship in the first place.

Others have denounced it all as the dictat of unaccountable bureaucrats (always popular bogeymen in this town) when in fact it is no more and no less than the implementation of the long declared policy of the city council.

For, or indeed against, whom even expats have the right to vote.

And tempted as I am to conclude by identifying them and their origins I’m not going to. Partly out of respect for the confidentiality of what are, after all, private conversations among friends. And partly in the hope that those friendships continue to strengthen and endure.

But above all else, of course, in the very firm belief that we are indeed ‘ a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns’.

Happy holidays.

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A Tale Of Three Cities.


There’s a joke told about the British in Brussels. Actually there’s a few but this one’s my favourite: ‘How can you tell when the Eurostar from London has arrived… ? They turn the engines off and it still keeps whining.”

In truth I’d already heard it some years before I came here. In Sydney, only then, of course, it was “ How can you tell when a BA jumbo has landed?”

The world over it seems the British have a reputation as whiners. And while, as these things often do, it’s grown somewhat in the telling there’s certainly more than an element of truth to it.

I actually know a man from Newcastle who complains about Belgian food.

They have a reputation as eccentrics too so having this morning watched an English woman in a million pound hat make a speech about austerity I guess it’s as good a time as any to have a think about both.

And then perhaps to ponder on what she had to say about the British in Brussels and why.

The Queen’s Speech is one of those eccentricities which the British (actually more and more these days just the English, but we’ll come back to that) cling to in a world that many of them struggle to engage with and few fully comprehend.

The Monarch is the only person able to call the Lords and the Commons together to form, with her, the Parliament. So the Commons are summoned to the Lords by The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, Lt. Gen. David Leakey CMG CBE.

British readers already know all that. It’s the sort of stuff we’re taught at school. But did you know that there are also Gentlemen Ushers of The Green, Scarlet, Blue and Purple Rods too? A sort of a rainbow coalition of the rods.

The Scots even have one of their own apparently. Though disappointingly that turns out not to be the tartan rod, Rod Stewart, but the white rod, Dr. John Armes, Lord Bishop of Edinburgh.

But I digress. The Queens Speech is delivered from her throne in The Lords. And although it’s her lips that are moving the words are written by her government to outline their policies and their legislative programme for the new session of parliament.

This one was the first entirely Conservative Queen’s Speech since the start of John Major’s last government in October 1996. It was also, for the record, one of the shortest, with the Queen on her feet, as it were, for just eight minutes and twenty-six seconds.

Surprising then that was so much in it and still so little that was traditionally rabidly blue. Save for some fairly modest stuff on home ownership, tax cuts, strike ballots, legal highs and illegal immigrants. Oh, and fox hunting, of course.

No, its substance aimed higher and looked further: getting rid of human rights, getting shot of the Scots, and then the Romanians, the Bulgarians, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, the Estonians and the Poles in pretty much that order. No surprises so far.

Big asks all of them. The abolition of the Human Rights Act is folly and spiteful folly at that. An act so clearly conceived with the intention of deliberately pissing people off to no conceivable gain whatsoever that it might almost be worthy of a previous incarnation of Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary.

Widely trailed in the last few days it did rather sound today as if the brakes are being applied to it now though. Which given that it will in all probability prove the graveyard of Theresa May’s  political ambitions as she sinks beneath its legislative and constitutional quicksand, while simultaneously gifting the SNP an early opportunity to stand their ground, that’s actually given me rather mixed feelings.

For the SNP the Scotland Bill at first sight looks likely to be another gift that will go on giving. Even if the Smith Commission’s proposals are delivered in full the powers devolved to Edinburgh will be nowhere near those contained in the SNP manifesto that delivered them their electoral tsunami.

And in any case that’s a big if. While the Conservatives campaigned in Scotland to create “the most devolved government anywhere in the world” (and much good it did them). The Queen spoke today only of “one of the most powerful devolved parliaments.”

And that’s not Her Majesty fluffing her lines.

Leaving aside whether it’s to be ‘the most’ or just ‘one of the most’ any Monarch worth her or her subjects’ salt will tell you there’s a bit of a difference between a government and a parliament. As much difference in fact as between a union and a community.

Which finally brings us back to Brussels. And to Berlin and to Paris and to Warsaw and to Riga and to Athens and to Madrid. Because the Scotland Bill and the European Referendum Bill, both published tomorrow, are nothing if not two sides of the same coin. Be it a groat or a pound or a euro.

In reality home rule for England within the EU could look not unlike home rule for Scotland within the UK. It just takes a bit of imagination to see it. Which, of course, is precisely the reason that it remains completely invisible to politicians.

I’ve argued for years with anyone who’d listen, and you’re right, there were never that many of them, that England is utterly incapable of engaging as an equal in a union in Europe while it remains in charge of a union all of its own in Britain.

One is a union of bureaucrats and the other a union of monarchs. That’s called history so there’s really no point in either case of whining about democracy now.

Merkel will help Cameron out with a few cosmetic concessions just as Kohl did for Major. A few more opt outs for Britain perhaps while Germany and France get on with creating the stronger fiscal and political union that the eurozone at least so desperately needs.

Cameron will spin whatever he gets skilfully. At least he’s good at that. The mainstream media in Britain will find their own reverse ferret trickier to execute but they’ll manage. Their paymasters will insist on it. And in the end they’ll do as usual and do as they’re told. Interestingly The Daily Telegraph seems to have started already.

Beyond the MSM’s largely irrelevant comment threads I can’t see social media having anything like the same impact this time around as it did for ‘Yes’ in last years Scottish referendum. Thankfully UKIP have so far at least proved rather inept at it. And there’s markedly less grass roots organisation or enthusiasm this time on either side of the argument.

And so Britain will vote to remain in the EU. But it will be close. Very close. And the campaign and how it is conducted, and crucially by whom, will be vitally important.

Because like it or not it’s the Conservatives and the YESNP (any campaign that ignores Nicola Sturgeon’s considerable skills does so at its peril) who must now between them make Europe’s case to Britain’s voters.

If you’ll pardon the pun there’s no-one else left.

But improbable as that may sound I think already there are some encouraging signs. And at a breakfast briefing here the other day I think maybe I might just have seen one of the first of them.

It came in the slightly Thatcheresque form of Vicky Ford, a Conservative MEP and the party’s spokeswoman on the internal market and consumer affairs.

Her calm, rational, intelligent, persuasive and at times even rather human case for Europe and for Britain in Europe was as welcome as it was surprising.

I even rather liked her voice. There wasn’t a hint of a whine in it anywhere.

Posted in british constitution, civil liberties, David Cameron, elections, england, eu, europe, great britain, history, independence | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mayday Mayday Mayday.

‘What are you sinking about… ?’

When he first suggested Mayday as the internationally recognised signal for a life threatening emergency Frederick Stanley Mockford was thinking about the French.

He was an air traffic controller at Croydon Aerodrome. It was 1923. And since most of the air traffic he controlled was flying between Croydon and Le Bourget it seemed obvious to simply corrupt the french ‘m’aidez’ into a universally acknowledged call for help.

And then to repeat it twice to make absolutely sure you’d been heard and understood.

If the threat to your plane or your ship is not immediately life threatening, by the way, you’re best advised to transmit ‘Pan-pan’ (from panne, a breakdown).  And if you’re reporting a hazard or just a change in the weather then you needn’t bother either corrupting or repeating the french. A simple ‘securite’ will do.

But if I were to, pardon the expression, ‘say zis only once’ then, of course, I wouldn’t be signalling a life threatening emergency at all but most likely just talking, or thinking, about yesterday.

It’s a day well worth talking about and thinking about too. In fact it’s one of the most widely celebrated days of the year and a public holiday in some sixty-six countries around the world.

It’s the day to dance round the Maypole in England and the Rhineland. The day to drink sima and eat doughnuts in Finland. The day to give lily of the valley to your lover in Belgium and France. And the day to give your oxen the day off in Romania or to light fires to ward off the snakes in Bulgaria.

In Saint Andrews students run naked into the sea at midnight and in Edinburgh young women climb Arthur’s Seat to bathe their faces in the morning dew and guarantee lifelong beauty. Though it has to be said that I was born in Edinburgh and I’ve yet to meet one who ever appears to have done so.

But which May 1st are we celebrating? And whose? The Gaelic Baltaine or the Floralia of Ancient Rome? Walpurgisnacht or The Feast of St. Joseph The Worker?

Since the beginning of time, or, more accurately, the beginning of its measurement against the Gregorian calendar, May1st has marked a third of the way through the year. And up here in the northern hemisphere, at any rate, the beginning of summer. A day not just of ancient religious and cultural importance but one of more recent, and dare I say it, current, political significance too.

For the student of history or politics the origins of International Workers Day are not easy to untangle but they’re certainly interesting to think about.

At the second congress of the Second international in Paris in 1891 May Day was first formally recognised as an annual day of international demonstrations to commemorate the anniversary of the Haymarket Demonstration in Chicago five years earlier when police fired on demonstrators, killing four of them, after a bomb was thrown into police ranks.

The Haymarket Demonstration had marked the culmination of a widespread campaign for workers’ rights in the US in the1890s. Specifically the eight hour day movement which sought eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation and eight hours for rest.

Fearful that May 1st was now as likely to be used to commemorate the violent events of Haymarket as much as the achievements of American workers, Labor Day as promoted by the US Central Labor Union and the rather Pythonesque sounding Knights of Labor was quickly moved to the first Monday in September by President Grover Cleveland in 1887.

But whilst the Americans now celebrated their workers on their own, or with the Canadians at least, in early September, many Russian workers risked arrest by joining illegal demonstrations on May Day for some twenty-five years before the first officially sanctioned event in 1917.

In 1955 with the cold war at its height, and the May Day parades in Moscow now as much a display of the formidable military might of the USSR as its non existent workers’ rights, Pope Pius XII took a leaf out of President Cleveland’s book and quietly moved the Feast of St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers and craftsmen, from March 19th to May 1st.

Allowing the world’s faithful, and its Italian faithful in particular, not just a legitimate excuse to carry on parting but a divine right to do so without being seen to be entertaining any potentially dangerous sympathies.

In the UK too the significance of May Day requires, as do so many things on those islands, some care whilst reading between the party lines. Britain’s May Bank Holliday falls on the Monday following May Day and was introduced in the dying days of James Callaghan’s Labour Government in 1978, or not quite a hundred years after its adoption by the Second International.

Intending it to ‘reward the workers for a long winter of toil’  though was, at best, an unfortunate irony given the ‘winter of discontent’ that immediately followed and ushered Margret Thatcher into power. And that perhaps goes a little way to explaining its rather confused significance in British culture. Mostly celebrated as it is by buying home improvement materials in out of town superstores. Or sheltering from the rain while trying to light a barbecue.

Surprisingly it survived Thatcher’s attempt to abolish it in 1982 although the now dissolved Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition have recently proposed that it be moved to October ‘in order to prolong the tourist season’.

Oh, and renamed ‘UK Day’ to celebrate ‘the best of British’ at the same time. England’s Morris Dancers aren’t happy. Though oddly I suspect the Scots might be.

May 1st you see is also the anniversary of the coming into effect of The Act of Union which joined the two countries together in 1707. And if, as seems increasingly likely, a majority of them vote for their leftist National Party rather than any of the increasingly centre right unionist alternatives on offer next week then an October ‘UK Day’ or rather ‘rUK Day’ south of the border would leave May 1st free for the Scots to celebrate International Workers Day with everyone else.

But whether May 7th 2015 proves the life threatening emergency to the UK that the shriller voices of the British media predict or just a change in the weather is a subject we’ll come back to very soon. I promise.

For now, I guess, which May 1st you celebrated and why has as much to do with your attitude to organised labour, and by extension your attitude to international capital, as anything else. Twas ever thus.


So yesterday I celebrated mine appropriately au Laboureur before joining the parade to Place Ste. Catherine. And there we ate frites and we drank beer and we sat in the sunshine beneath banners proclaiming: ‘U Verdant Beter. Vous Meritez Mieux. You Deserve Better’.

Mayday. Mayday. Mayday.

Sink about it.

Posted in civil liberties, elections, england, eu, europe, great britain, history, independence, labour | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Twenty-Eight Weeks Later.

I first posted this ‘homage’ to The Night Mail from Princes Street Gardens on September 20th 2014. Today I am happy to post it again. Surprised only by the speed at which it has come to pass. And the circumstances in which it has done so…

This is the night mail crossing the border,

Sowing the seeds of a different order,

Stirring passions on left and right,

To their hopes and fears Godspeed tonight.

Dreams of justice stir their cause,

Or of English votes for English laws.

Pundits weeping as she passes,

Crocodile tears for the huddled masses.

Politicians stirring as she approaches,

What horrors lurk within her coaches?

Leaden now their golden calf,

But still they cannot turn her path,

They play for time but time’s a thief,

Blank faced in utter disbelief.

Dawn freshens, Her climb is done.

Down towards London she descends,

No steam tugs here or yelping glade of cranes,

No field of furnace apparatus, but watchful algorithm,

Maniac, insomniac.

All England waits for her:

In betting shops and pay day lenders

Dog eats dog.

Heads of disagreement, accusations of appeasement,

Hurried Bills and Acts,

Economic facts.

Nobel laureates’ opinions, heartfelt pleas from The Dominions,

Applications and explanations,

And ever and always calculations,

Summit meetings held in Brussels,

Over Chablis, frites and mussels,

Letters denoting dignitaries,

Senior Tories, signatories,

Letters to The Times and The Telegraph,

Letters that elicit the sneer and the laugh,

Letters on the covers of draft White Papers,

Letters written in every hue,

The soothing, the violent, in red, green and blue,

The romantic, the pompous, the fresh and the boring,

Those worth taking note of and those worth ignoring,

The smart and the stupid, those shrill with hysteria,

Tweeted or shared on social media

Thousands are still asleep,

Dreaming of terrifying markets

Or of friendly solidarity with neighbours,


Asleep in working where?

Asleep in Kensington and Mayfair,

Asleep in hedge funds,

They continue their dreams,

But shall wake soon.

And none will hear the knock

Without a quickening of the heart,

For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

Posted in british constitution, elections, england, great britain, history, independence, Poetry, politics, scotland, uk | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

And Then They Came For Me.

Much has already been said and written about the events of the last week. I have nothing to add save to repost this piece of work made for ALDE in 2009. It was directed by Florian Malak and the DOP was Wojtek Zielinski .

Our client at ALDE whose name I am afraid to say I cannot now recall simply approved my rewrite of pastor Martin Niemöller’s text and told us to go away and make whatever we thought would best bring it to life for a European audience.

In walking the walk on our own civil liberty she did not change one single frame of what we returned with. So teaching us all in invaluable lesson.

And one that it seems forever bears repeating:

‘It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from or what you believe in or what you do. Freedom of speech is a civil liberty.’

Posted in civil liberties, eu, europe, film, freedom of speech, history, philosophy, Poetry, politics | Leave a comment