Saturday, 18 December 2010

Ten years without Kirsty

In early December of 2000 I came home to my parents' house from a not entirely unsuccessful first term reading social anthropology at Sussex.

At the time I was writing a lot; I had recently started writing online for pleasure with a group of friends, and those two weeks would see me spend a lot of time sitting on the sofa by the Christmas tree tapping away on my laptop.

On Monday December 18th I was sitting in the front room with the radio on, and about mid-afternoon, as it was beginning to get dark, the news came on and told me that the singer Kirsty MacColl had died in Mexico.

The story bears repeating; Kirsty had been on holiday with her children, scuba diving at a place called Cozumel. Whilst diving in a restricted zone, a powerboat entered the area illegally and, in attempting to move her sons from danger, she was struck and killed.

It is thought that the owner of the powerboat, a Mexican supermarket magnate, paid off a deckhand to take the blame, and the corruption at the heart of Mexican government means he has never been held accountable for his actions. The family's campaign for justice continues a decade later...

Kirsty was not a particularly well-recognised singer, or even especially famous, but even if you think yourself unfamiliar with her work then trust me, you are not; for example, 'In These Shoes', a track from her last and possibly best album, the Latino and jazz-influenced Tropical Brainstorm, was later used as the theme tune to the Catherine Tate Show.

These days, she is probably best remembered for her collaboration with The Pogues on 'Fairytale of New York', probably my favourite Christmas song and one that I always keep on rotation on iTunes during December.

I prefer to remember her other work. There's not a lot of it; Kirsty did not record extensively, took long breaks between albums, and suffered from terrible stage fright.

All the same she recorded some wonderful, life-affirming and often hilariously funny tracks, from the powerful cry for independence of 'My Affair' to the beautifully observed vignette that is 'England 2, Columbia 0', and more besides, each song delivered in that unmistakable Croydon accent.

I'd love to know what albums she would have gone on to do, what tricks she still had up her sleeve. We'll never know.

Today marks 10 years since Kirsty's tragic death, and like I do every year, I will be playing her music as loud as I can.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

The Borisycle cometh...

On Friday, London witnessed the not wholly unsuccessful launch of the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme, our very own version of Paris' Velib programme and the apparent culmination of Mayor Boris Johnson's avowed desire to get us all on two wheels.

Now, I'm no fan of the big-haired blond bombshell - pictured here by yours truly in Sutton last April, campaigning with the loathsome bigot Philippa Stroud - but I have to say I am, in theory, fully on-board with his big plans for cycling, and I believe it to be a genuine enthusiasm.

However, having thought through the London scheme, I'm not at all convinced it's a good thing. Here's why.

1) The bike docking stations are peppered across a comparatively small area of central London, but Boris has said they are meant to get people out of their cars and onto bikes.

The thing is people do not drive into central London in that way; I believe that without extensive, station-based docking points in the suburbs, the scheme is basically a lame duck. It will achieve nothing more than getting people off the Tube and the bus system and reducing fare revenues.

2) As a corollary to 1), it will find favour among tourists, who are unfamiliar with British traffic law - let's not even get started on driving on the left - and are liable to be a danger to themselves and others.

3) It is indubitably dangerous. The bikes are heavy and hard to move. In thick traffic it will be hard to get out of a sticky situation or manoeuvre around fast-moving vehicles (especially moody cabbies). Frankly I am waiting with resignation for news of the first Borisycle death. Also, no helmets or locks. And a £300 fine if the bike is nicked on your watch? F**k that.

4) The scheme conforms to a Tory ideal of cycling, besuited executives with bicycle clips on their pinstripe suits, pretty girls in summer dresses flying through Notting Hill with organic veg in the basket. It has nothing to do with the gritty, often wet and frequently dangerous reality of cycling in London. It is an upper-middle-class perk that I doubt - although I'd love it to be otherwise - will appeal beyond that group, and a reflection of Conservative ideals.

In my view, there are so many other things that need to be done to make cycling in London a safer, viable option for all before spending cash on a flagship scheme.

For instance.... Why did Boris not consider mandating cycle training among taxi and bus drivers? Why no mirrors at junctions to help lorry drivers see us? Why not enforce advanced cycle waiting areas at lights? Why not investigate the possibility of allowing bikes to left-turn on red, a move that could save lives? Why not refresh the substandard, dangerous, counter-intuitive cycle lane infrastructure that we do have?

A coherent cycle-centric transport policy, combined with effective education of both bike users (stay off the f**king pavement, stop at the lights) and car drivers (at least three feet when passing, keep out of the damn ASZ) could get thousands of Londoners out of their cars and create a virtuous cycle - pun intended - of biking.

I believe - and the example of the Netherlands and Copenhagen is pretty compelling evidence - that when more people take to the road on two wheels, creating a critical mass of bike riders, the net result is that usage of dirty, dangerous cars decreases, and the remaining drivers become used to bikes and drive around them safely.

But the London cycle hire scheme is not going to accomplish that. It wrongly assumes that we have reached that point of critical mass, and that those menaces of London roads, the taxi and van drivers, are going to accept a bike-centric status quo right off the bat.

It's a case of cart before horse if I ever saw one. If anything, inexperienced people wobbling around the city on heavy bikes is going to increase frictions.

Now, this said, I could see myself taking advantage of the scheme. For short trips of under 30 minutes it is free; I am a proficient rider and could probably get across Zone 1 in that timeframe. In nice weather, for a short hop from, say, Chinatown to Oxford Street, or along the South Bank, it makes sense. I could even use it for work; I'm often in town for interviews and briefings and the idea of being able to ride to them is appealing.

Yes, I will probably use the scheme eventually, but at the same time I am really not comfortable with it.

At any rate, I've not signed up for the full £45 p/a membership, I'm going to bide my time and wait for it to be made available to casual users and then, if I get any value out of it, I may consider joining.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Thoughts on Election Eve

Five years ago I wrote a blog on why I intended to vote Liberal Democrat. Well, I wish I could tell you to vote Liberal Democrat again. I was thoroughly impressed with their performance in this campaign and the debates. Many of their policies make sense to me, and it I believe is high time we addressed the thorny question of electoral reform. Nick Clegg has promised this and I wish him luck.

But here’s the Independent’s exceptional Johann Hari on the changes wrought by a Conservative council in West London. This is a story of a council that turfed an eight-month pregnant domestic abuse victim onto the streets, advising her to seek accommodation in the private sector after closing down vital homeless shelters that Labour set up. This is a story of a council that closed a century-old youth club facility that, under a Labour council dispensed CV advice and UCAS forms. Now the kids that used it are on the streets and, oh, here’s a thing, ASBOs are up! Crime is already up under the Tories and if they win the parliamentary election it will rise across the board.

Perhaps most tellingly, this is a story of a council that sold one of London’s most beautiful parks, where local kids played football, to a polo consortium that tore out local facilities and now shuts the park down every so often so that rich Tory yahoos from Eton and Harrow can come in and play a sport that nobody gives a toss about, and then piss off and drive their coupes around west London and get smashed on £200 cocktails in Mahiki!

Who needs a polo pitch in Hammersmith? Get in your bloody four-by-fours and drive to Windsor!

The Conservatives don’t want London to be a city where the rich and poor and local and immigrant live cheek by glorious, messy jowl. They want to force the rest of us out and hand our city over to toffs.

This nightmare vision – which is happening, today, in Hammersmith and Fulham, and Wandsworth, where I live, and other Tory-controlled councils – is what Dave ‘Botox’ Cameron has in store for us all.

The Conservatives have come at us claiming to have changed, claiming to have become the party of tolerance, but that mask of tolerance has not just slipped, it is on the ground in pieces and behind it is the same old, twisted, evil face that stomped on the miners, brought in Section 28 and the Poll Tax and privatised an improving railway system for a quick buck.

That face has taken in many. It’s taken in progressives; it’s taken in people who want to get back at Gordon Brown for being a tad socially awkward at times, or people who are still smarting over Iraq. It’s taken in people who have forgotten the amazing work Labour has done in the past 13 years to make this country brilliant.

That face speaks to a more sinister spectre than closed youth clubs or help for single mums. The Christian right is lurking behind Botox Dave; its candidates, one of whom was linked at the weekend to prayer centres purporting to ‘cure’ gay people, are standing in this election and taking out injunctions to stop our media asking them tough questions.

I can't stand to see the Christian right gain leverage over British politics; even with Barack Obama in the White House their influence still looms large over American politics.

If Cameron gets in, better not be young or gay or disabled, better not be a low-earner, better not get pregnant, or be a victim of domestic abuse. Better not drive while Muslim, or walk down the street while black. You’ll get nothing from them.

If Cameron gets in, kiss bye-bye to the progressive agenda for the next five years, and maybe more for, as Jonathan Friedland wrote in this morning’s Guardian, they will get to work on gerrymandering the country to reduce the number of MPs at Westminster – a stated policy and one you can bet they will follow up – and shore-up a Conservative majority for the next election.

This naked political cynicism scares me silly. In the last few weeks, the Conservatives have laid into people like me and other left-leaning progressives for trying to scare people off them with negative campaigning. But with their attack ads plastered over London they sure can teach us a thing or two about negative campaigning. Talk to the hand, Tory boys. I’m done listening to your apologists.

So here’s my negative campaign. Unless you are rich, white and straight you should be damn scared of a Conservative majority. You should be scared out of your mind.

This is why the only possible choice for me tomorrow is Labour, and if you value what this country has become, fairer, safer and more tolerant, then I believe the only choice for you is Labour.

If, like me, and the majority of Britons who supported a centre-left, progressive agenda in the 2005 election, you’re proud to live in a country that is politically correct, then the only choice is Labour.

If, like me, you have the guts to forgive boobs like Iraq, identity cards and the risible Digital Economy Act, then the only choice is Labour.

Yes, we’ve got problems, but I would prefer 10 more years of Gordon Brown than 10 minutes of David Cameron.

Please vote tomorrow and keep this country on the right track.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Reading List 2010

Hello again.

As vaguely promised before, I'm trying to get myself into the writing mood by sharing some thoughts on the books I'm reading this year. I've been plugging away at Defence of the Realm, a twenty tonne diplodocus of a book that is hard to hold upright, yet alone wave around on the upper deck of a crowded bus, so I'm saving that for home reading and have embarked on some other, more flexible, titles.

At the end of last week I finished Geisha of Gion. This is Mineko Iwasaki's riposte to Memoirs of a Geisha. Iwasaki was formerly one of Japan's most successful 20th century geishas, or geiko, in the 60s and 70s and anonymous interviews with her formed much of the basis of Arthur Golden's Memoirs. Unfortunately Golden is apparently a bit of an arse, and subsequently made it clear that Iwasaki had broken the unofficial geisha code of silence, as well as substantially re-writing her experiences to imply that geishas are nothing more than prostitutes and that Iwasaki had herself been forcibly deflowered at a coming of age ceremony - something that simply does not happen in modern-day Japan.

Having not read Memoirs I'm barely qualified to critique it in any way, but the response paints a far more intriguing, almost feminist, picture of a secretive - and threatened - ritualised lifestyle that blows apart notions of prostitution and shows geisha as empowered, intelligent and successful businesswomen. If you read Memoirs, this should be picked up for an alternative viewpoint.

Yesterday I started The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, which I picked up on a 3 for 2 in Waterstones some months ago and never got around to reading. This is Booker nominated and so far it's very good, pitched as a conversation between a bearded Muslim and an unnamed American in a Lahore cafe, the story is told entirely as a monologue from the Pakistani. In the opening pages of the book, he takes his guest through his experiences as a Princeton scholar and his time as a graduate trainee at a New York finance company up to 9/11.

Hamid has crafted a very well-rounded, sympathetic central character whose speech you can almost hear in your head, which as a reader, is keeping me turning the pages - your experience may vary. As to the identity of his American friend, we are left guessing, but the early implication is that he is an off-duty army officer or intelligence operative. I'm hoping the second half of the book is going to develop in an interesting direction.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Happy New year

Hello, all two of you.

There's lots to get through and lots to plan this year, not least an impending wedding, so at the minute, feeling vaguely energised - which might have something to do with all the coffee I just drank - and basking in the winter sunshine, I'm trying to take the changes that are going to happen during 2010 as a cue to start writing here, and in other places, again. I've been blogging on various platforms since December 2001 and have a pretty thorough record of most of what I got up to between that time and the middle of 2005. It would be nice to keep it going.

I also got given a rather lovely Moleskine notebook by my brother for Christmas - I'm not sure why, he usually gets me a boxset of some kind, but apparently did all his Christmas shopping on a layover at Singapore airport, so that's okay and it really is a lovely gift. I'm going to use it to start writing for my own gratification again.

All this said it looks like it's going to be a pretty momentous year for both of us; we're heading inexorably towards civil partnership and everything that entails. The Boy will start his accountancy training. We'll move to a better flat. It's like the plot of that Tracy Chapman song, in a slightly-but-not-really kind of way.

But what else do people do to keep themselves inspired to continue with this sort of thing. I know a lot of people like to keep their readers updated on their own reading, so ... a reading list? What do I really read that's worth writing about these days? I mostly read non-fiction, but I suppose it might do to keep a tally of the stuff I pick up and - hopefully - make it through this year. Let's give that a go as well.

This year my big Christmas book was Defence of the Realm, Christopher Andrew's authorised biog of MI5. This is a real Billy-bender of a tome and I've not got very far into it yet. I'm still working my way through the early, pre-World War 1 history of the service, which seems to consist of a couple of blokes behind a desk cooking up conspiracy theories about the Kaiser, based mostly on pulp fiction spy novels and with the help of the paranoid Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere, who later claimed in a series of wills and testaments that the German government was trying to kill him by poisoning his ice cream.

The mistaken belief that Britain had a viable and all-knowing intelligence service was apparently widely-held on the Continent during the Edwardian age, something that prompted the Germans into setting up services of their own to counter it, an interesting nugget of information, I thought.

Nevertheless, this one looks to be a worthy read and I'm looking forward to it. More thoughts, maybe, as they come.

I've also been reading Steve Roud's excellent reference London Lore which I got last Christmas (meaning, at this point, 2008). It's good for dipping into and out of at leisure. Roud, a folklore researcher and apparently former Local Studies Librarian in Croydon, puts a great deal of work into examining not just the telling of obscure London ghost stories or the histories of fairs and traditions long-forgotten, but also their origins and the layers of telling and re-telling and hearsay that surround local myth and legend.

With these layers stripped away, it becomes quite easy to see how an unconnected series of events could lead to sightings of cowled monks in City churchyards or the belief that x and y could prevent z. Now, the foundations of myth and belief were things we touched upon during my disastrously ill-advised stint as a social anthropologist at university, so they still pique my interest today, even though I think I probably should have done English or something.