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Goodnight and Good Lack May 30, 2010

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.

In my last missive I described the remnants of a not especially notable ‘80s pop group  as being “mighty full of themselves” in lately claiming enhanced plausibility for their ancient efforts, and I must now apply the same sentiment to myself. However the last proper band I was in was ironically (for those that know me more intimately) called The Jailbirds and whose last ignominious gig was on Deal pier in 1960something, and being full of ourselves doesn’t feature in my abiding memories of that evening.

No, I apply the expression to my efforts in the bloggosphere – like so much other techy jargon a word I hate but occasionally perforce use – which I am about to bring to an end, either permanently or for a summer break. Rather to my surprise, since I began working this digital seam I’ve managed to spew out 38 of the buggers all of which are characterised by a kind of intemperate, smug punditry whose lack of justification has been offset, at least nominally, by a degree of cheery self-deprecation. Increasingly I also find myself relying on the same themes of political duplicity, economic dismay and media myopia, with a soupcon of willful nostalgia thrown in for good measure, and this frankly must be becoming as tedious to read as it is dispiriting to pen.

Once again referring to those who know me well, over the past 40 years I have achieved (very) minor celebrity in the (very) niche markets of motorcycle, car, and rather longer ago, rock journalism with columns that applied the same stratagems to mouth off about whatever took my fancy in those areas. I actually love the form of column writing and over time became quite adept at it, but I now realise that the broader canvases of politics and media are not so well suited to this unless, of course, one has a reputation, and a well-deserved one at that, for its practice.

Uncoincidentally, having tried on and off over the past four decades to break into what I will wistfully call ‘mainstream journalism’ and – sour grapes alert – found it a shop closed to all but the families and friends of those who were already there, many of whom admittedly much better scribblers than I ever was, a blog became a means to exercise what I felt I was capable of beyond my usual comfort zone. Candour demands that I also confess a hope that my wild digital opinionating might reach an audience wider than friends and acquaintances and perhaps even a bit of paid writing on a proper paper… or even a proper website. But sincerely grateful though I am for the loyalty of the 250-300 of you who regularly read and sometimes respond with considerable fervour to these rants, audience numbers stubbornly refuse to rise much further, so essentially I preach only to the converted. And my attempts to ping the relevant links to the few folks I actually know, or know of, in the national media are met either with total disinterest or in several cases a curt “stop sending me these e-mails”. 

Which is perhaps symptomatic of the rude and incurious times we live in, times where demands for our attention have escalated wildly since the onset of the digital age. Indeed I noted with a weary resignation that as a nation we are now surviving on at least an hour’s less sleep a night as a consequence of this, and as a consequence of that are becoming more fractious, intolerant and afraid of losing out on vital if polymorphous ‘life opportunities’.

Although having benefited substantially from some of its advantages, I’m thinking Google and to a lesser extent fleaBay, this is a world I do not really enjoy so much anymore, but with further supreme irony I am currently trying to get backing for my first ever totally digital publishing venture. The need to concentrate on one last push with this is another, albeit lesser reason to stop blogging, others being a determination to read more books (while we still have books), and attend more to my sadly diminishing pool of friends (while they’re still around), many of whom have been lucky or worked hard enough to retire early whilst the rest of merely live in hope.

Moreover if I can’t get this enterprise off the ground, then I plan to forswear media in all its forms… unless of course the Telegraph Magazine commissions that 2000 word article on road movies I’ve got in me, I get offered a gig subbing for The Week, or that print publishing enjoys an unexpected renaissance and I start getting consultancy work again –which in truth is somewhat more interesting and rewarding than scribbling!

In the meantime those who’ve only recently stumbled on these witterings might care to trawl back through earlier efforts to understand why I’ve run out of ideas as well as justification for promulgating them, and if I do somehow find myself re-inspired, and/or with nowt better to do in a few months time, then rest assured I’ll be in touch and begging your attention again.

So have a nice what’s-left-of-the-summer.

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Heartbreakers and Cruel Cuts May 24, 2010

Posted by markswill in Media, Politics, Schmolitics, That's Entertainment.

Three recent t.v. documentaries and a party on Saturday night celebrating the life of a friend who succumbed to cancer some years ago inevitably casts a skein of nostalgia over this morning’s scrawl. The docs all dealt with rock bands, or rather two bands and a trio of, erm, ‘sound artists’ – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Stones and Heaven 17, the first two still robustly extant after several decades and still looking and largely behaving like bad boys of pop, the latter now fat, balding, soberly attired and mighty full of themselves.

The Petty/Heartbreakers film, directed by Peter Bogdanovitch no less (Mighty. Fallen. Oh. Etc) was a fascinating account of their ups, downs and the enduring appeal of their music and as someone who championed them in the face of the punk movement in their early days – my Melody Maker front cover feature briefly appeared on the screen – I felt proudly vindicated by footage of their recent performances which, if anything, were far more rock’n’roll than those of the Stones. The making of Exile of Main Street, a somewhat Babylonian affair at Keef’s South of France villa offered little insight as to their enduring appeal but said a lot about the excesses of the times which by the vaguest of associations, some of us aging farts remember fondly.

The same couldn’t be said of the H-17, or the portentiously known British Electric Foundation which spawned them (and Human League, whose once foppish singer Phil Oakey now looks like a bald bank clerk – most unsettling). Produced to celebrate the (almost, but not quite) 30th anniversary of their “groundbreaking” and “hit-laden” Penthouse to Pavement album and (two-thirds of) the group’s first ever live staging of the entire album earlier this year, I watched it after returning somewhat glum after Saturday night’s celebration and needing some diversion. What I got was an unrecognisable Glenn Gregory and Martin Ware poncing gratuitously around Sheffield where BEF began – and they’ve long since abandoned – and waxing daft about a record that only went to #14 in the charts and dumped just two singles into the lower end of the Top Forty.

By way of contrast, Petty & Co and most of the Stones still look, talk and perform like rockstars and give some of us hope for a future without stairlifts and Zimmer frames, which brings me to the meat of this piece. As the world eddies even further into uncharted economic disaster, I sense that we are all quietly yearning for the certainties of  the ‘70s and ‘80s as a sop to the spiritual fear and loathing that increasingly seem just around the corner.

This rash of t.v. docs, the popularity of period drama on both the small and large screen and both fiction and non-fiction books supports this contention, as does the buoyant market for classic cars and bikes and modern cars and bikes that look like them. (As a huge fan of the original, I’m rather hoping that Lockheed will start re-manufacturing their L-1049 Super Constellation airliner whose turbo-compound piston engines would be conveniently untroubled by volcanic ash).

My friend Terry Kreuger, ex-bike journo colleague and now vicious critic of Obamarama, just sent me a link to a New York Times article headlined ‘Payback Time: Europeans Fear Crisis Threatens Liberal Benefits’ which cogently summarised what drives this nostalgia and began by rather dismissively referring to the Euro-zone as the “lifestyle superpower” and noting that “The deficit crisis that threatens the euro has also undermined the sustainability of the European standard of social welfare, built by left-leaning governments since the end of World War II.”

It then adds that “With low growth, low birthrates and longer life expectancies, Europe can no longer afford its comfortable lifestyle, at least not without a period of austerity and significant changes. The countries are trying to reassure investors by cutting salaries, raising legal retirement ages, increasing work hours and reducing health benefits and pensions.”

All of which is true, if not now, then very shortly. Some months ago I predicted that the banking crises, or rather its consequences, could prompt violent social unrest and what we have already seen in Greece is exactly that. Whether or not it will migrate here, I’m not sure but unions are already flexing muscles that will bulge with fiery veins once public sector jobs cuts runs into the tens of thousands as well they might, and arguably should. (At least if you read some of the stats recorded in my last blog).

Terry, who in his e-mails contends that the Tea Party Movement that has emerged in response to what they see as some of the Obama administration’s unconstitutional manoeuvers, is “Contrary to the media bullshit, composed of middle-class people of all races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds.  An amazing groundswell of voters with no real leadership.  The media should remember they are named after the Boston Tea Party and you know what that did to the (then) existing government.”

Indeed. It will therefore be interesting if not instructive to see whether the fall-out from the budget cuts the Cleggerons are about to dole out (sic) spawns a similar grass-roots opposition because No Labour, under whichever mendacious journeyman – or woman – eventually leads them, should have the gall to oppose remedies to a plague largely of their making.

And if the consequence of that is a clawing back of the wilder excesses of welfare state and over-arching quangocracy we’ve become inured to in the last 30 years as the fiscal muzak to our escalating, uncaring affluence, maybe that’s no bad thing.  And as Micky The Jaguar crooned on Exile’s standout track, it’s probably time to Rip This Joint.

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Another Week Older and Deeper in Debt May 16, 2010

Posted by markswill in Media, Politics, Schmolitics.

To Batley this week where I am ‘project managing’ the spiffing up of my bro-in-law’s late father’s house (keep up at the back) so’s it can be let. This involves ferrying stuff down to their Brixton mansion that he and my sister are emotionally attached to, clearing out the rest, re-decorating and carpeting, and blitzing the garden. Can’t say the prospect of this filled me with joy but after my third visit I can report that the locals are friendly, the fish’n’chips – my primary diet up there – are excellent and cheap and last week I narrowly missed seeing Billy Ocean at Batley Variety Club which, trivia geeks, was the venue for Frank Sinatra’s last ever European gig. Instead and much against my indie cinema-mogul sister’s advice, I went to the massive Showcase multi-plex just up the road. This is the largest fleapit I’ve ever been to with 24 – count ‘em – 24 screens but not one of which was showing anything I yearned to see. Awash with rom-coms, CGI-driven wham-bams and child-friendly furry animal fare, the best I could find being Iron Man 2 which, as the original wasn’t bad, I hoped would be at least tolerable. It wasn’t. And the digital projection was fuzzy, the auditorium chilly and on a wet wednesday night, there were only five of us watching it. So much for the joyous shared cinema experience.

I mention this only as some kind of bland hors d’ouevre  for what follows which must of course be the results of the election which my last few digital scrawls have been fixated with, not least because all the Batley-induced driving I’ve done in recent weeks has meant locking into R4’s obsessive coverage of said shenanigans (the cassette player’s broken). But I may be partially responsible for the outcome since along with 209 other wise souls here in Brecon & Radnorshire, I voted for a Monster Raving Loony government, and that is what we’ve now got.

The endless proclamations from slippery Dave and the boy Clegg about “strong and stable government” don’t however wash with yrs. trly. As I gather half the Liberal shadow cabinet – if one can dignify it thus – had to be dragged kicking and squealing into a coalition and only after they realised that if they didn’t go for it they’d be screwed come the next election which, had they sided with No Labour, would’ve been sooner rather than later. And had they sided with neither, they’d be screwed too. Screwed whichever way they looked at it.

And so I fear are we.  Reading in the current issue of Prospect on how Britain has changed under No Labour, I learnt that whilst our GDP has increased from £995bn in 1997 to £1,264bn last year, public spending as a percentage of GDP has also more than doubled from £332bn to £671bn, with the consequence that public debt (as a percentage of GDP) is now 62% as opposed to 42.5% in 1997. Our balance of trade payments, roughly equal in 1997 soared to a £39bn deficit last year, £16bn of which readers of my last blog won’t be surprised to learn is with China. Meanwhile at £42bn, the UK’s military spending is the third highest in the world (and second only to Israel’s as a %-age of GDP!), last year our national health service cost us £110.5bn, i.e. almost three times what it did in 1997/8 due in some degree to a 1095% rise in obesity related illnesses which in turn may just be related to Tesco now controlling 31% of the retail food market – up from 15% twelve years ago.

I’m spewing out these figures because they are the telling subtext to the massive budget deficit that we as taxpayers and, yes, voters, are going to have to pay off over the course of the next government and beyond. I gather that this means roughly £6,000 per household which as a single, largely unwaged person living on my own makes me disproportionately accountable. And angry. I didn’t cause this bloody financial debacle, but I am somehow obliged to sort it out. As indeed are most of you – though hopefully in bigger households (with nice Smallbone kitchens and mirrored bedroom ceilings).

So what are you going to do about it? Harangue your local MP when the local primary school, post office, sports centre, library and GP surgery are closed down? Write a strong letter to the Guardian condemning their “Brilliant new gardening columnist” (why are they always “brilliant” and “new”, i.e. code for young and photo- if not telegenic?) for exhorting you to don your by now shagged-out Cathertine Kidston wellies and start planting the turnips that will become our staple diet by 2013 because the Cam-Clegg alliance has imposed 25% VAT on food? Or will you, like me, divest yourself of fripperies like your once beloved Yamaha trailbike and classic moneypit, sorry, classic Lancia and use the money to spend on crack cocaine, 2-litre bottles of Tesco’s vodka and endless afternoons at multiplex sheds watching vacuous 3-D Hollywood opiates? In the words of that other slippery political brinkman, Harold Wilson, you know it makes sense. Or as much sense as putting our trust in the sort of men – and they are all men –who got us into this mess in the first place.

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Chinese Whispers May 5, 2010

Posted by markswill in Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.

My last blog before the election is written as clouds of volcanic ash again threaten British airspace, an oil slick the size of Belgium (or at least Yorkshire) threatens the Gulf of Mexico and a Tory election victory threatens to return Blighty to the dark days of the Thatcher government (© G. Brown). Of these, the danger that concerns me most is the one augured by the ruptured undersea oil pipe off the coast of Louisiana, although that other slick, the one that characterises the leader of the Conservative party, comes a close second. And there are parallels between the two that might be usefully drawn.

I understand that Louisiana’s major industry, namely fishing, will be irreparably damaged, even ended for good, if the umpteen thousand barrels of oil thus far chucked up reaches the shoreline, as will many species of wildlife, many of them rare and threatened. And if the Tories get a majority, we can pretty much expect that what remaining manufacturing industries we have left in this country will be allowed to wither on the vine with little or nothing put in place to mop up the massive unemployment that will follow. And that rare but noble species, the arts administrator, will also largely disappear if predicted cuts to cultural budgets materialise, as they surely will. (Subsidies for opera will of course remain intact, because Tory grandees do like a nice bit of Cosi Fan Tutte). These two changes will, in my view, be responsible for the biggest and most destructive changes to our social and ultimately our economic landscape since the war (la Thatcher’s Falklands War, that is).

I’ve already written about the decline of UK’s manufacturing base (They Don’t Make ‘Em Anymore – Oct 6th 2009) and its consequence for our balance of payments, and since then the continuing decline of the pound, and indeed the Euro mean that this (im)balance – already the largest of any developed nation – will inexorably increase during the term of the next government. For those concerned about our slow descent into Third World Nation status, and I just know that means you, recent news from China support some of my October doom-mongering inasmuch as wages settlements in what is now clearly the manufacturing base of choice for all Western nations have risen by an average of 20% in the last year and will continue to do so. This in turn means that China is increasingly having to turn to making luxury goods, e.g. cars, to maintain profitability, luxury goods that more and more if its own citizens can now afford.

This is having a profound effect on the Yuan, the Chinese currency which its government freed from the yoke of dollar parity some years ago and is now rising fast. This not only means that Western countries who’ve abandoned their manufacturing base are having to pay more and more for the goods they once bought cheaply for the Far East, but also that China’s foreign investment programme continue to march ahead, outstripping that of most Western nations, particularly in countries which have dodgy governments and human rights records (e.g. Burma, Chile, Nigeria) but which have plentiful reserves of minerals such as lithium, copper and of course oil which it needs to fuel its increasingly consumer-oriented economy.

And call me gloomy or alarmist, which I know you will, but as seasoned yank financial commentators predict the ultimate collapse of the Euro following the Greek bailout, and the IMF being stretched beyond its original remit as more and more Western economies approach it cap-in-hand, can the day not be far off when China becomes the bank of last resort for broken economies? This isn’t crude xenophobia – indeed I can see some benefits to having China as the word’s most pre-eminent economy – but how Britain will adapt to becoming a low-wage satellite of an oriental cultural powerhouse is anybody’s guess. All I can be happily sure of is that it won’t be in my lifetime (unless that bottle of snake oil I just bought off the interweb actually works).

Which brings me back to the last day of electioneering and Gordon Brown on the Today programme mouthing off about Labour’s commitment to manufacturing and their creation (their creation?!?!) of a squillion apprenticeships to that end. It’s all horseshit of course and not that I expect any of you who read this are wavering voters, but should it possibly be the case, I’d advise you to put your ‘X’ elsewhere, preferably Monster Raving Loony.

 And on that note we must await Friday’s result with the encouraging dictum, god help us all.

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