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No Longer Making It July 27, 2009

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics.

It’s been well over a fortnight since I scribbled a blog and despite several (apparently genuine) queries from friends about the denouement of the Sheep Music saga which had dominated some previous bulletins, I’m not quite ready for that yet. Instead an item on this morning’s R4 Today programme so incensed me that my return to the fray must put that rain-lashed, sleep-free frenzy in abeyance for a few days. Or possibly weeks.

Using a bankrupt circuit board company in the Mid-West as a sorry springboard, the offending interview examined the rapid decline of American manufacturing, tantalisingly referring to alleged currency manipulation by the Chinese government as the main reason why the market for its products had collapsed. What annoyed me that there was no follow-up to either this accusation by the company’s articulate if  mournful owner, nor any wider discussion about what would happen to already economically knackered nations if, or more likely when, all manufacturing in the West was finally consigned to Asia and the Far East.

It’s a question that’s been rattling around in my head for months now as one big manufacturer after another has gone to the wall or drastically down-sized, e.g. LDV, Corus, Vauxhall and most ironically of all given Madman Milliband’s tub-thumbing about the employment-creating opportunities offered by green technology, the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight. I should explain that although I allegedly earn my living from what’s essentially a desk-bound, clean finger-nailed enterprise, I’ve always been a huge fan of manufacturing. (I surprised myself how serious this was when, back in the ‘70s on a Japanese motorcycle launch junket, I found myself berating a fellow hack who’d complained that we’d been forced to tour round what he referred to as “a noisy, smelly factory floor” Pretty damn rich coming from someone who earned his living writing about what was made there).

There’s always been something I’ve envied about those who can make a functional metal thing out of, well, solid metal, using machine tools, judgement and craft. Two friends who are trained, if tellingly retired engineers and have lathes, platform drills and other such arcane items in their agreeably oil-stained workshops hold my thrall whenever I visit them, which is usually to expertly fettle a bit of  car or motorcycle that’s flummoxed my own pathetic attempts with a Haynes manual and a Halfords toolkit. And thus I have some sympathy whenever I hear a gruff union official – usually also on the Today Show – warning that if the government lets this or that metal-basher go to the wall, then the skills they employ may be lost to the country forever.

My ex-journalist friend might well shrug in resignation if not rejoice that this should be so, but quite apart from my fascination with the whole business of manufacturing per se, what on earth is the country going to do if can’t make anything except beer cans and polystyrene cups… neither of which will earn us export income?

Until the banks and the city spivs who augured their excess went down the crapper, the usually unspoken wisdom was that it mattered not if we didn’t make things any more because financial and other service industries would sustain our balance of payments to the cheap-labour  (and by the way, heavily polluting) economies that increasingly supplied our cars, white goods, furniture, clothing and all the rest of the stuff that we once made for ourselves. But that’s patently no longer the case and as in America, the government here seems to be capitulating to what seems to be manufacturing’s total melt-down.

Maybe I’m a simple soul, maybe I’m blinded by my passion for what men in beige workshop coats and blue overalls get up to with their compressed air tools and welding jigs. But next time Messrs. Humphrys, Sturton or Naughtie take Mandleson to task over his role as saviour of Britain’s economy and/or the Crazy World of Gordon Brown, they’ll have the gumption to ask him what the hell will happen when the last machine shop finally closes its door, Chinese vehicles exclusively populate our car showrooms and Tesco decides to outsource its entire ready-meal production to Romania?

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WILDE AT HEART? July 12, 2009

Posted by markswill in Media.

I went to see the Swinging Blues Jeans, Marty Wilde and the Alan Price Set last week. There, that’s attracted your attention – and probably your derision – but for the moment, consider this.

In early June I mentioned, with barely contained trepidation, my involvement in “Wales’ longest running world’n’roots music festival”, a phrase I parrot whenever a local newspaper hack or radio ‘personality’ hoves into view. And even as I scrawl this, the wittily-named Sheep Music wing-ding (www.sheepmusic.info) is but a few days away and I find myself frantically juggling a rota of 40-odd Gate Stewards (all of whom understandably want to spend some time watching particular bands), sucking up to the local media (all of whom want free tickets) and, most crucially of all, drumming up punters with posters and flyers (most of whom are waiting ‘til the last moment to see if the weather is good and their recession-hit pockets are deep enough).

The stress levels of the what are euphemistically known as the ‘department heads’ are, as you might imagine, soaring because as a team we are doing this for the first time and we are also unpaid volunteers (Sheep Music is a charity with any profits ploughed into local community arts) who somehow have to earn a living at the same time as preparing for several thousand people to descend on a small Welsh town for the weekend expecting to be entertained, fed, watered and housed. And I managed to build an especially robust rod to beat my own back with by agreeing last year to give a friend’s 15 year-old daughter some editorial ‘work experience’ in the final, frenzied week prior to the Festival.

I mention this not to curry your sympathy or admiration – fat chance – but to illustrate a new post-industrial, socio-economic culture that’s quietly, even insidiously developed round these parts over the past decade or so. I call it festival-ism, and it’s essentially the morphing of that particular British capacity to rally round and support local causes into something that replaces proper jobs and their incomes with the feelgood factor. Hereabouts in the Welsh Marches we have oodles of music, art and even month-long film festivals, most of them embarked on for love rather than money but which nonetheless rely on the same loose networks of volunteers. And these are not just or even mainly the doughty ladies of the W.I. who traditionally ran things in the sticks, but individuals of all ages and origins many of whom bring professional skills from previous and sometimes current careers to a party that wouldn’t otherwise happen.

But because few of these enterprises are intended to make money, they also don’t make a living out of it, but they do get expenses and if particularly vital and the project is well funded (usually by increasingly scarce grants or sponsorship), then they might make a few bob here and there. Rather unexpectedly, this applied to me during June when I found myself collecting the circular, de-mountable staging for Sweetwater, a musical play about the sometimes bitter turf wars between the Welsh and the English. Performed in a large domed contraption in the grounds of three different country piles, Sweetwater involved a writer, director and a few professional actors who were paid, and lots of amateur thesps, muscians and a 60-piece choir who weren’t. And having collected the cleverly designed, if bloody heavy, sectionalised stage from its (professional) maker in Wednesbury, I was suddenly co-opted into erecting and then dismantling it – three times – as well as using my legendary marketing skills to put bums on the 230-odd seats that would surround it – six times. For which I was, happily if modestly, paid… mainly to blitz the Marches with posters and flyers under every car windscreen that wasn’t at the time moving.

And this sort of odd, even awkward symbiosis of the amateur and professional goes on all the time, although not at Sheep Music where the only people who get paid are the fifty odd bands and the contractors who supply the monster marquees, sound and lighting… although if it works it will of course put a huge smile on our faces, not least of relief. Which brings me to watching Marty Wilde et al playing in the grounds of Ludlow Castle at the end of that town’s annual festival. In the rain. I don’t doubt that many of those working that site, handing out bin liners for the leftovers from the boozy picnics we’d brought along and directing us to the bogs were volunteers, but at £27 a ticket, Marty and Co. certainly weren’t doing it for love.

Having foolishly failed to establish who was on the bill, I’d come to this musical travesty at the behest of a friend with a spare ticket but as you might expect the performances were cabaret-stylee of the most excruciating kind, introduced by a sub-Jim Davidson compere.  The saddest thing was Alan Price, a genuinely impressive performer at the early Animals gigs I saw at Newcastle’s Club A’Go-Go, now mainly reduced to sleepwalking through the Georgie Fame songbook. (Even worse was the sorry revelation that his co-keyboardist was Zoot Money, who I reckon has yet to top his 1967 Reading Festival performance fronting Dantalian’s Chariot  (guitarist: a callow Andy Summers) draped in a white sheet and out of his head on LSD. And yet, and yet… there were at least 2500 people, mainly middle-aged, tubby, beery and swaddled in Primark who lapped up, indeed got up and jiggled around to the ancient hits (often, in the case of the Jeanies and the blatantly be-wigged Wilde, other people’s hits) and roared appreciatively at the potty humour. And who am I to deny them their pleasure? Indeed my first thought as I trudged cold, wet and depressed back to the Lancia was that given the worringly slow sale of Sheep Music tickets, is it too late to book Marty and his syrup?

Come to Presteigne next weekend and find out.

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