Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Tracey Thorn's Another Planet - we were all young once and not very nice

It took me far too long to read this delightful and insightful memoir of a suburban childhood, bought for me by my dear friend John Dixon who has over the years opened my eyes and ears to routinely enriching books and music. 

Maybe lockdown has made us all more reflective. I've certainly found nostalgia very appealing, even more so than usual. 

The structure veers between the 1970s and 2016 and a nostalgic return to Brookman's Park in Hertfordshire where she grew up. The fact that you know the happy ending - Tracey's career as a singer songwriter and her own family life (I'm an avid reader of her fortnightly Off The Record column in the New Statesman, by the way) doesn't change anything; there's no revelation or a gotcha moment. 

It brought back all kinds of memories of discos, experimenting with alcohol and girls, getting into scrapes and the emerging music of the time. But the strongest reminder I got was that teenagers aren't terribly nice, and regard their long suffering parents either with disdain, or not at all. Whenever I've tried to place myself in the world of my own sons and reverted to how my magnificent parents behaved, my memories are almost entirely bereft of them. And yet who picked me up from the Hornby village disco at 10pm before starting work the next day at 5 am? And that I habitually lied to them about where I was, who I was with and what I was doing. I'm just relieved I didn't have a diary to cross reference as Tracey has, I wince at the thought.

More than anything though, it is a tenderly written book, tinged with appreciation and sharp social and cultural observations. As John reminded me of Paddy McAloon's thoughts on the matter: "the sweet sweet songs that cloud your eyes (pause) nostalgia supplies."

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The terror legends of the Australian outback


I've never been anywhere quite like the Australian outback. Even going back 30 years ago, before the phrase 'backpacker murders' was ever uttered, there was a fear, a mythology, a set of folk horror tales that tainted any trip through the great expanse. 

Over the last couple of weeks I've watched the Channel 4 True Crime documentary Murder in the Outback, the Peter Falconio mystery, and the questions over the guilt of Bradley Murdoch, the man who two trials have concluded was the murderer, of which more will follow. I've also watched two series of gory horror fest Wolf Creek, which claims to be based on the real story of Ivan Milat, and dangles the fact that 38,000 people go missing in Australia every year. They do, but all but a couple of hundred are found almost immediately, and of those missing, most are in cites. 

But first I wanted to capture something of the atmosphere and the relationship with the vast unknown expanse and what it does to you. 

Basically, you have this overwhelming feeling that you are in terrain so very different to anything you are familiar with. On each and every occasion, good or ill, I was always at the mercy of strangers to navigate me through even the relatively minor challenges that can befall you. And if that was to go wrong? You're stuffed basically.

In 1984 I spent time on a cattle ranch and settlement in central Queensland, where the address was "Old Gordon, via Dingo" and despite the basic amenities, the fact it was in the middle of nowhere, it was still 150 kilometres by road from the coastal town of Rockhampton, on the Tropic of Capricorn. Compared to what I later experienced in the red centre, it was practically a seaside town. Even the nearest actual town, Biloela (population 5000), had a bank, even if they lost my money for a few days. Life was so different and pretty sparse, because the houses were so isolated, runs for supplies were infrequent and you relied on tins and frozen food. More than anything though, the work was hard and it was always very hot. 

When I lived in Perth a few years later, some of the fondest memories are of weekend jaunts 'down south' to some glorious countryside, complete with gorgeous isolated beaches and stylish old hotels. It didn't take long before you were out of Perth on the road to Bunbury or Busselton and the sky stretched out in front of you, there was desert and scrub as far as the eye can see, and you had to keep a careful eye out for two hazards, kangaroos and road trains. Oh, and running out of petrol, which we'll come to later.

But if down south held an allure, up north was a different kettle of fish, or shark. Me and Samantha, an old girlfriend from Manchester who was passing through, rented a car and headed up towards a legendary spot called Monkey Mia. It's now a UN World Heritage Site, and the attraction is that dolphins come right up to the shallow shore and rub up to you. Being there was awesome, but getting there wasn't without it's trials. The first overnight spot was in possibly the grimmest town I've ever stayed in, Geraldton. It literally had nothing to commend it, except possibly that it wasn't as grim as Northampton, 80 miles north, where we stopped for fuel, and was the birthplace of murderer Bradley Murdoch. I'm sure now they've developed a heritage museum to follow the trail of Gerald, a pioneer of the outback, or they've discovered gold and cobalt somewhere. Anyway, we were 22 and didn't care to look back. We did however stop to look at Shell Beach, the world's only beach made of, well, shells. There wasn't a sign saying don't take your car on it, but there wasn't one marking a road either. We made it off the beach, but not much further. It wasn't long before a passing car pulled over and offered to give us a lift to the next town so we could complain to the hire company about our faulty car (*innocent face*). All I remember about the mechanics of the rescue was the overwhelming kindness from the local people, how we got a tow out to our ceased up rental, and that the hire firm brought us a new rental car up from Perth, and gave us a lift to our basic quarters near to the dolphins. And looking at the distances now, that's quite some service, to be fair. No, what I remember so vividly were the people who gave us a lift. Within five minutes of picking up two poms at the side of a deserted desolate road, these 1970s migrants from Essex wanted to know if Britain was "still really bad, you know, with the blacks and everything". I was shocked, even then racism was more of a polite thing amongst English people, but I was also a cowardly pragmatist and keen to get out of the midday sun. God love her though, Sam wasn't having it, turning the conversation towards the problem being racists who can't handle change. On telling the story back in Perth a few days later, you'd get a handle on a cultural divide and a social pecking order where "£10 poms" were mocked and sneered at for their lack of graces and general ignorance. 

In retrospect it was a lucky escape that we only had Essex man and his racist missus. The bloke at the garage was keen to tell us how fortunate we were to have been rescued by such nice people, and that a much worse fate could have befallen us. The peril of meeting a real outback folk devil was genuinely rooted in supposed friend-of-a-friend tales of robbery, rape and violence. 

That fear probably motivated me to pick a relatively deluxe backpacker option to explore the wilds of the Northern Territory, some months later. I paid up front for a bargain $33 for three nights for a single room (not a dorm) in the Backpackers hostel next to Darwin coach station for the week and decided to embrace all that the capital of the rural north had to offer. I took a bi-plane to Bathurst Island, a raw and fascinating jungle island off the coast, and a pretty harsh place to live if you were a native Australian. I was determined to learn more about their lives, to spend time seeing their country as much as the one that was pretty familiar to me. That said, I checked out of my breeze block cell after just a night, as Jarvis Cocker later said - "watching roaches climb the walls" - wasn't much fun. In so doing I nearly missed my coach tour to Kakadu National Park the next day, because they literally round up the bus passengers from where you said you were when we booked and needed to set off early because of a rain forecast. This is when I encountered, for the second time, the ludicrously generous extent to which rural Australians would go out of their way to make sure you have a good experience (the first was the mechanic in Shark Bay). A bloke from the tour company radioed the coach and chased after it in his Ute. Magic. Another evening I went to the cinema to see the "Territory Premiere" of Mississippi Burning, and chatting to locals (white, obviously) drew plenty of historical parallels with life in the Territory.


I had a published travel piece in a magazine about my enjoyable climb up Uluru (Ayers Rock, as it was then), something in retrospect I really shouldn't have done and would have been better placed understanding its cultural significance from afar. But they were different times. Alice Springs, deep in the red centre, was a sleepy, hot old town, with not much going on. But I was firmly inside a backpacker bubble, which almost as a mark of being in my own bubble within that bubble, I railed against it. I met nice people, including a character actor who had a small role in Silence of the Lambs, but the guided tour made me feel pampered and inadequate, defeated by the fear of the land, which of course I was. Maybe I'd been spoiled by more authentic encounters and felt distant from the real Australia, but I still absorbed the vast, glorious red centre, the endless landscapes and the sense of magic in the air. 

It was such a sharp contrast to city life, even in an isolated and relatively comfortable city like Perth, which I never experienced as an edgy and urban environment at all. I worked at weekends, as my jobs were either in journalism or club promotion, and I was into the club scene, so these were a treat, a contrast and a release. They were also an unfamiliar challenge. One weekend three of us jumped into our mate Bruce's old car and headed out on a whim to Nick's parents weekend bolt hole somewhere near Margaret River, a beautiful town surrounded by vineyards, I'm pretty sure our directions were no more precise than that. It wasn't until we were a couple of hours down the Kwinana Freeway towards the Forrest Freeway and Busselton when we realised we'd need petrol for the next leg of the journey. It was a quirk of licensing and regulation that we couldn't find a petrol station that was open on a Friday night, so we had to stay overnight in a truckers motel (an A frame) with fold down beds and not really designed for three. We certainly didn't risk going in the pubs and trucker bars of the south west, not quite fitting in with our fancy city ways, and feeling slightly out of place, even with our checked shirts. It was the first time I experienced the raw hostility of country folk to city types, as opposed to just flat out dislike of poms (my pals were proper Aussies). By the time we got to our destination the next day we also realised we didn't really have much in the way of food, drink or any means to find any. In the house all I found to pass the time was a Jeffrey Archer novel, but we scavenged for wood and lit up a stove, another use for Archer. It was the closest I've had to Withnail's immortal lamentation that we had 'gone on holiday by mistake'. Somehow though, that weekend gave me some fond memories and great photos.


The experiences of going south and north in WA convinced me I'd seen enough without a pressing need to head east across the Nullaboor plain along the Eyre Highway. There's nothing much there except a vastness, between mining towns like Coolgardie, which didn't get the best PR from a recent documentary, Coolgardie Hotel, about the tough time two Finnish girls had there. None of my friends recommended it, and it existed like a barrier to fly over, rather than a land to explore.

So, to the Peter Falconio mystery. I thought the Channel 4 documentary, frankly, was a pretty crude hatchet job on Joanne Lees. For me, the basic premise was that she became a media property, precisely because she didn't react the way the media, especially the British media, expect people to react. It reminded me of another desperately tragic murder, that of Meredith Kercher, and how the eccentric behaviour of her flatmate, Amanda Knox, led to her wrongful conviction and trial by media. In his new book, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the way we fail to compute people and I thought that in the sequences where she faced the public, or made a reconstruction video, Joanne Lees behaved as she thought she should, faking tears. All their decisions were scrutinised, why were they on that road at that time? why did they leave Alice Springs in the late afternoon? It doesn't matter. You don't think logically, or like a country person out there, you put yourself at the mercy of the land.

Then there's Bradley Murdoch. It is the job of any defence lawyer to pick a hole in a prosecution, but I found the case mounted by his lawyer, a rum character called Andrew Fraser, unconvincing. Having now spent far too long reading all of the court documents from the dismissal of Murdoch's appeal, the TV show (steered by Fraser) was selective in how the flaws of the prosecution were presented. The other witnesses made claims wholly without substance. The wider mystery is why poor Peter's body was never found, or details of what he was doing in Sydney, prior to them travelling north in a VW camper van along a 3000 mile highway. But it got me thinking, the very character we had come to fear in the wilds of Australia fitted the type that Murdoch matched so well. Aside from the DNA, the CCTV, and some circumstantial evidence, he ticked all the archetypes too. And from that you have the fictional persona of, ahem, Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek, the most terrifying horror film character since Hannibal Lecter and himself based on Ivan Milat, the serial murderer who preyed on backpackers until he was convicted in 1996.

These encounters are remarkably tame in the greater scheme of things. There is nothing heroic or courageous about breaking down in the middle of nowhere and dying of thirst, but the added threat of a predatory killer provides the lurking alibi for that soft core fear. 

Would I go back? Yes, I'd love to travel the long distances, in something sturdier than a compact rental, and staying in the kind of places that I can now afford. I can't quite imagine getting on a plane again in current circumstances, but there is a lure of the wilds of deepest Australia, and of the glorious south west of WA and The Triffids' Wide Open Road playing loudly. You just have to prepare yourself and trust that most people are there to help you.

LiveBetterVirtual - Stress, Health and Performance




Hosted a webinar on stress, health and performance with Professor Marc Jones from Manchester Metropolitan. We covered a lot, hope you enjoy it.

Marc's also doing a survey, so if you have time, we would greatly appreciate your contribution to this research, by completing the survey, which will take approximately 20 minutes. You can find a link to the survey hereAll responses will be strictly anonymous.



Thursday, June 04, 2020

'Proper Tea' with OBI featuring David Dunn

This was a bit special - having a lockdown chat with my pal Will Lewis and one of my all time favourite Blackburn Rovers players, David Dunn. Such a nice bloke, and hopefully something for everyone.



Friday, May 29, 2020

Gangs of London - over the top and magnificent


So I see the poster first: Gangs of London on Sky Atlantic. Here we go, I thought: Yardies, East End villains, football hooligans, footsoldiers and a few Russians for good measure. I think that's because I've probably watched too many dreadful British gangster films than are good for me. 

I was wrong though. Judged alongside the dross of St George's Day, anything touching on the Essex Range Rover Murders series, Footsoldier, anything with Danny Dyer in it, then Gangs of London was (is) a masterpiece. And so as much as it plays in a higher league than that, it actually stands fairly well in a tradition of British gangster films that depict the shifting ethnic, economic and cultural tectonic plates in organised crime. It starts with Harold Shand ragging off the New York Mafia in Long Good Friday, before stepping into the cross hairs of the IRA.  In a similar way Gangs of London introduces all manner of feuding bad guys, briefly at peace as the increasingly globalised nature of crime interlocks and sustains everyone. None of them behave well enough for you to pause and spare a moment of sympathy on any of them, though to be fair, the Nigerians don't even try. In short order we have Albanians, Pakistanis, Irish, Chinese, Kurds and Welsh Travellers. They all love their families and will do anything for them, but don't particularly care much for anyone else's family. 



Though these epics aren't meant to be documentaries, their background noise has to have a foothold in current events and a form of reality. Two of the best and most terrifying books I've read in recent years have been Misha Glenny's McMafia and Peter Walsh's Drug Wars. The former was used as the source material for a dreary BBC series which was big on locations and short on any actual action. 

Gangs of London is sprawling in every way. All eight part box sets are. This had nine. None were wasted. All were stunning visually, horribly violent and of course had some utterly ridiculous plot twists and character behaviours. Stylistically it was epic and cinematic. Big scenes, expansive, musical scores to lift the sometimes wooden acting. I loved the influences all the way through, not least from director Gareth Evans' dalliances in Asian martial action films, notably the pumping Indonesian powerhouse The Raid. Described variously as Peaky Blinders for the 21st century, Game of Thrones dressed by GQ, or Succession with aggression, every frame. 

I've watched them all now - I won't drop any spoilers - but episode 5 was the best. A squad of mercenaries against the Welsh gypsies. For once I picked a side. I've said before about the presence of Mark Lewis-Jones, a great actor who brought remarkable earthy verve to contrast with the relentless march of murderous slick precision. It was a brutal, overwhelming, ear splitting movie style set piece battle. Louder than War, indeed. The whole enterprise is hardly a love letter to London - a sink of depravity, money laundering and blistering double standards in a city that festers with corruption and cruelty - but there's something about the away match in Wales where Gareth Evans is in his prime, using the location beautifully, despite the leap in faith required to work out how they all got there.

 

You don't watch gangster movies or box sets for the tug of the heart strings or to snug up sympathetically and share a character's tears. And if you do to Gangs of London then someone will very quickly laugh in your face and remind you why that's a terrible idea. The acting too is at times ridiculously understated and the carnage simply unimaginable. But for so many reasons this lockdown has given us plenty of reasons to totally suspend what we could imagine. 


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Bang for your buck, best Welsh noir series yet


My fascination with Welsh Noir started with Hinterland, but has just gone to a new level with Bang.

Yes, I was drawn into the darkness of Hidden. Keeping Faith teetered just to the right side of preposterous, with overuse of pop video style lingering to music over the attractive female lead. Requiem was super creepy, folk horror. 35 Diwrnod is OK, but limited by its small budget and cast. Bang seemed to reconcile all of these shortcomings and make a powerful virtue of each one, with much use of a popular technique of location centred drama - long location shots, and very smart use of music.

Like I said when Hinterland broke through with its take on the Scandi noir set up - cop outsider with demons - the strongest cast member in a heck of a strong field was the landscape of Ceredigion, and the dark secrets of Aberystwyth. They also ended up smothering the plot and compensating for a drift into borderline cod. But like in Hidden, the stark survival of the Welsh working class was an ever present, if a little on the hopeless side.

Bang had all of this and more. The backdrop being Port Talbot, warts, beaches, steelworks, motorways and all. It didn’t pull a single punch in the portrayal of the daily stuff of a police beat, following a spree of gun crimes in Series One and a savage killer on the loose in Series Two. But though life at times for a whole load of characters was unremittingly tough, it didn’t seem as universally grim and hopeless as Hidden, or have the stolen idyll of Keeping Faith. Life is hard in this world of loan sharks, low wages, drugs, domestic violence, crappy crime and decay. Yet for all that, there are characters who still bring warmth and joy, office banter and small tender moments of friendship and family life. Even poor old Sam Jenkins, bullied, friendless and prosecuted manages to have happiness and a sense of humour in his grasp. I say this having just wrapped up a stunning conclusion to the six part second run, which certainly didn’t cue things up for happy ever afters.

There lingers too the possibility of justice not being served. It's possible that bullies, murderers and rapists might break an unwritten rule of TV drama and get away with it. Bang also has an earthier menace to it, man-made malignancy, rather than an ethereal lingering evil of the kind we saw so profoundly in Requiem, and hinted at from time to time in both Hidden and Hinterland, where there's always a hint of the weird and the eerie. Hopefully there are no spoilers here, and this is enough of a recommendation. Just watch it, absorb yourself in it and try not to have nightmares. The cast are (mostly) tight and the creator Roger Williams' script sparkles with bilingual delights. But in Catrin Stewart as Gina, and Jacob Ifan as Sam, you have two performances that would earn a BAFTA, or equivalent, in any language.

A final thought though, did nobody care what happened to creepy Russell?

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Souness revisited


A couple of weeks ago a couple of Rangers fans invited me on to their football starved podcast to do a bit of nostalgic reflection on one of their heroes of old, Graeme Souness. I enjoyed our chat and have dug up the original piece I wrote about the Souness years at Ewood.

And I also found a picture of him from the summer of 2000 with my nephew Jamie Ritchie one of the "Time Team" who launched the new kit.

On Sky’s Monday night Football recently Graeme Souness was the focus of attention and retrospective scrutiny. As well as being an engaging studio summariser and the scourge of Paul Pogba, they made him the subject of a fans question and answer session.

He mainly talked about his time playing at Liverpool and his record as a manager, notably with Rangers and Liverpool. At times it was emotional. He didn’t explicitly say so, but he regretted doing an exclusive with The Sun newspaper just a few years after that paper so viciously slandered Liverpool’s supporters in the aftermath of Hillsborough. He wished he could turn back the clock, he said, quite visibly upset at the memory.

I remain fascinated by Souness as a character. He was truly one of the great players of my lifetime, the captain of one of the greatest club sides of them all. His character, his grit, his drive were forged then. They gave him his reference points for his later career in management. And I would argue, they were to be his downfall in management.

There was only one reference to his time at Ewood Park. He was our manager from 2000 to 2004, where he had some truly great times. And he referenced one of the best players he coached – our very own Turkish delight, Tugay.

Had he been asked about his time at little old Blackburn Rovers, I think I know what he will have said.

In fact, this is what he said in his second published biography in 2013:
“To finish sixth in the league, I think the club would certainly take that now”,
“To get promoted at the first asking, to win a major trophy, to finish sixth, to qualify for Europe twice, I consider that a successful time.
“I definitely regret leaving.”
“I had four of my happiest years in management at Blackburn and I do think now it was a mistake to leave.
“But if I hadn’t left Blackburn then, I would probably still be in management now.”

Really?

There’s an alternative history of his later years at Rovers that needs airing.

I’m grateful for all of that success. I appreciate too that there were good players in the team he bequeathed to Mark Hughes. But I had it on pretty good authority that he was a game away from the sack when Newcastle came calling.

Of all his jobs in management Blackburn Rovers was the only job where he exceeded the expectations of the supporters. He revolutionised Rangers in his 5 years there, and deserves credit for that, but that was what is expected of a club of that size in that city.

Torino, Benfica, Southampton, Galatasary and of course Liverpool, weren’t tenures of a glittering career.

He needed the Blackburn Rovers job as much as we needed a manager to get us back on the path Jack Walker intended.

Let’s have a look for a moment at the backbone of the squad that won promotion and lifted the Worthington Cup. Picking five players at random – Henning Berg, David Dunn, Martin Taylor, Keith Gillespie, Andy Cole.

He fell out with Berg and sold him to Rangers.

He sold Dunny to Birmingham, a relationship that had broken down.

I frequently remember his withering assessments of Martin Tiny Taylor that he was ‘son-in-law’ material, too nice to be decent centre half.

Keith Gillespie left for Leicester in 2003 with a parting shot at the manager that he didn’t speak to him. In his book, he paints a picture of a manager parading around in a towel and brogues. The respect had clearly gone as quickly as one of Gillespie’s bets on the horses.

He got plenty of goals out of Andy Cole, even signing his pal Dwight Yorke, hoping it would ignite his dynamic partnership from the Manchester United treble winning side of 1999. Despite flashes of magic, like in a final day 4-0 demolition of Spurs at White Hart Lane, it didn’t work.

Cole reported him to the PFA after a series of training ground bust ups. Souness admitted he physically attacked Yorke in a 5-a-side game.

“I regret that. I don’t want to say too much about what happened but certainly it was my fault. I shouldn’t have been trying to play five-a-side at 50 years of age.

“Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke were good players but we fell out in the end because I thought they could be giving so much more. I felt they were taking their foot off the pedal.”

And despite the success of the previous seasons, 2003-2004 was a disaster.

The Rovers squad started to change in the summer of 2003. Damien Duff joined Chelsea for £17m and David Dunn was sold to Birmingham for £5.5m.

And those who left were replaced inadequately.

Out of the cups early. Out of Europe straight away. Only a late burst of form in April fought off relegation.

It’s the heartbreaking paradox of his time at Ewood. In the space of a summer he made the best and the worst signings in the history of the club.

Tugay was a revelation. I remember thinking at the time, he had better be some player to improve on Eyal Berkovic, who I liked.

All managers sign players that just don’t work out. But the £7.5 million signing of Corrado Grabbi in 2001 took some beating. And the bigger the fee, the bigger the flop.

The trouble with Souness seemed to be that this wasn’t just a temporary lapse in judgement.

Many of his signings after that were poor.

None of Lorenzo Amoruso, Barry Ferguson, Dwight Yorke, Dino Baggio, Vratislav Gresko could be judged a success.

Even Lucas Neill, Steven Reid and Brett Emerton failed to make an immediate positive impact, arguably turning in their better performances after Souness left in September 2004.

Imagine for a moment that this frittering away of wages and big fees had been half of what it was. And he left for something else. What would his successor have achieved?

But that’s not it. I think the game outgrew him.

As a player Souness was a winner. He won by ruthless commitment to his craft. He took on responsibility. He also had a clear idea of what his goals were and how to achieve them.

On the Sky programme Souness spoke of his early days as a player at Liverpool. Asking Bob Paisley and Ronnie Moran what he was expected to do. They castigated him. He had to take responsibility himself to fit into a team alongside Tommy Smith and Alan Hansen. 

If you think about the players he actually got on with, who he didn’t fall out with, they were cast in that mould. Tugay. Damien Duff. Garry Flitcroft. Stig Inge Byonebye.

I think he resented players who hadn’t had to fight as he had.

But time and expectations caught up with him.

He proved at Rangers that he wasn’t a terrible manager. But they had a clear defined goal. Be better than Celtic.

At Liverpool, it was to get back on that perch. He failed.

When he took over at Ewood in 2000 there was a clear aim. Get Promoted.

Then it was survival.

As a squad that group really kicked on and achieved. But what was the goal after that? Champions League?

I’m not entirely sure any of us knew.

And I’m pleased he has an affection for us as a group of supporters.

“My last game before I left was at home to Manchester United, we were winning 1-0 but then Louis Saha took the ball down with his hand in the 92nd or 93rd minute and they scored. After that game I was asked if I was interested in the Newcastle job. I think at the time John Williams was fairly happy about the deal, because they were getting good compensation for me. But Mark Hughes inherited a very good side with good players. The fans at Blackburn were good to me, they weren’t on your back straight away, they gave you time and got behind you. I can only say I really enjoyed my time at Blackburn.”

The board couldn’t believe their luck.

The idea his career took a dive after his time at Rovers is remarkable. I hope I’ve demonstrated that the decline was already well underway. Maybe there’s a reason he hasn’t worked since.

But for all of that I still like him. Managing these millionaires is a thankless task. Trying to fine them a week’s wages for misconduct is like dropping ten pence for the rest of us.

For all of the memories of that rotten last season and the millions that were wasted. I retain an affection for those early years.

Thanks Graeme. 

Monday, May 11, 2020

Two very good books about London


Reading Robert Elms' memoir of his life and of London, I was struck by the passing of both the London I knew and left, and the London I visit and still love.

There's a significance to the timing here. My first born son, Joseph John Taylor, was born in the Homerton Hospital in Hackney on this day 21 years ago. We go back every year or so for a mooch about, but it's much more my city than his. But it's not really mine at all now.

First off, I like Robert "Dutch" Elms and his chirpy BBC Radio London show that I still listen to occasionally on the weekly podcast. Although he's a good few years older than me, his hinterland and curiosities match many of my own, including my favourite street in London - Lamb's Conduit Street - long lost oddities like the Albanian Shop in Betterton Street, Pollo and Stockpot, but also national treasures and Soho staples of my 20s like Bar Italia and the Groucho (wasn't a member, loved going), and the glorious Mangal Ocakbasi in Dalston.

He's got a real grasp of London people and their stories, the places that don't have a blue plaque but were significant for what went on there. Three jumped out at me, a scummy hotel in King's Cross that was a base for the violent nuisance of the far right; the old drinking den in St Giles that was burnt down in Britain's biggest mass murder in 1980; and the flat in Stoke Newington - bang opposite where Joe was first taken home 20 years later - where the Angry Brigade had a bomb factory.

It's full of observational delight, as well as his own life story; but it's his family stories that were intentionally touching, particularly his love for his late mum who sounded wonderful and proud, and the Dad who died at 40 when he was such a young lad of whom he yearns for more knowledge. It comes later when he meets veterans from the Spanish Civil War who knew him as a trade unionist and a good comrade.

He keeps layering on the love, and the laments, but then towards the end, he gets angry as he confronts London's unsustainable housing situation - the unaffordable and soaring prices. He makes the point that anyone who has bought a London property in the last 30 years has won a version of the lottery, but once you've left you can never go back. That was my thought as our removal van chugged up the A10 from Stoke Newington before Joe even reached his first birthday. His kids have grown up in Camden Town, but won't be able to live there unless he leaves the house to one of them and move to his place in the country. And after reading the love letter to his London, that won't be likely.

It also made me recall another book I read in the last couple of years that left me quite depressed and unable to articulate with any enthusiasm why that was. Ben Judah's This is London was powerful, hard hitting and packed full of stories of London life. It painted a picture of a cruel and unforgiving city of broken dreams and exploitation of the disparate desperate like the African office cleaners of Barking and piled high Romanians sharing cramped rooms in Neasden.

Ben Judah is a young journalist, he was 27 when this was published, so the force of these stories comes from the stoic pursuit of the testimonies he skillfully extracts from the lives he seeks to chronicle. For Robert Elms this is his life's work, which I speculated he might write after I enjoyed his previous tome, The Way We Wore. 

Quite where a teeming and sprawling city like London goes after the Covid-19 pandemic is anyone's guess. There's no alternate reality that the London of Robert Elms contradicts the city of Ben Judah. I just know I was lucky enough to have experienced the delights of the former, without suffering anything of the dystopia of the latter. This is a day to count our blessings, certainly for me.