Monthly Archives: December 2010

Keeping score…..

It shocks me to admit it, but I actually quite enjoyed Christmas this year.  I think that the principal reason was the fact that we had a simple few days in this house with just my Dad joining the three of us.  Basically, we got up when we felt like it, ate when we felt like it and watched TV, read, dozed and chatted when we felt like it.  Seems simple enough, but it’s the first time we’ve done this for at least 10 years and you forget the simple virtues of a Christmas at home.  In the preceding few years we’ve always been rushing off to other venues and whilst I always appreciated the hospitality we were offered, it all seemed a lot more stressful, somehow.

The New Year lies ahead and that will bring up a significant anniversary, because next month it will be 20 years since we moved into this house.  At numerous points during that time, I would have given you no odds at all on me surviving 20 years here, but it has (somehow) happened.  Recently, we had some old VHS tapes from our early years here transferred to DVD and it was shocking to see the house as it was and remember that wallpaper or those light fittings.  In fact, the whole back end of the house has been revamped – the original kitchen was the size of a modest wardrobe and it’s amazing to reflect on how we coped with it the way it was.

I sort of doubt that I’ll be here (or anywhere) for another 20 years, but I have to say that whilst the house has its limitations, I am still fundamentally very fond of it, no matter my reservations about Birmingham in general and this area in particular.  As a kid, I lived in the same house in Northampton from the age of 5 to the age of 18 and missed it when my parents moved whilst I was living in Copenhagen.  Similarly, the Princess has lived here from the age of 4 months until now and I’m happy that she’s had the continuity that comes from living under the same roof in the same area for so long.  She’s now embarked upon a period of her life where, if my experiences in my 20’s are anything to go by, she will move often – both between and within different cities.  Hopefully, this house will offer her some continuity for a while yet.

British Weather – A primer for overseas readers

We don’t really do ‘big weather’ here in Britain.  Our climate, dominated by fast-shifting Atlantic weather systems, tends to change too frequently to permit lengthy spells of hot or cold weather.  We largely escape the carousel of rotating continental anti-cyclones that can make parts of central Europe a parched savannah in the summer and a frozen tundra in the winter.

What we do get, of course, is rain,  and if there’s a dominant feature to the weather of the British Isles, that would be it.  It’s probably the thing that makes this ‘green and pleasant land’…….well, green, anyway.  A friend of mine spent a couple of years teaching out in Qatar and he said that you knew exactly what the weather in the Gulf was going to be like 99% of the time and that what he missed most about England was the shifts in the weather and the changing seasons.

The English have a morbid fascination with the weather and complain about it whatever it’s doing – it’s always too cold/too hot/too wet/too dry/too foggy etc.  Also, as mentioned recently, it forms a nice safe topic that you can use when talking to anyone you don’t really have much desire to converse with about any ‘genuine’ topic.  It also fulfils a basic need of the English suburbanite – the desire to appear affable and sociable whilst actually saying as little of consequence as possible and keeping your ‘pink half of the drainpipe’ (as Vivian Stanshall depicted it) distinct from your neighbours.

People in this country like the idea of ‘big weather’ as long as it’s someone else that’s having to endure it.  Thus, documentaries about  tornadoes, tsunamis and hurricanes are consumed with great enthusiasm, but people respond less well when it’s them in the firing line.

So,  in the current extended cold spell, airports and stations have become like refugee camps, tempers are frayed as people try to get to wherever it is that they’re proposing to spend Christmas, re-arrange flights or find someone to vent their spleen on and everyone scales back their ambitions in terms of getting out and about. 

Snow on the M5 in Worcestershire

Of my own friends, one couple went to Worcester – normally a half-hour run down the M5 from here – to pick up their son from University.  They left their house at 1000 on Saturday morning, were at the Uni before 1100, but due to snowstorms and a series of freak accidents on the motorway didn’t get back home until 2200 that night.  At one point, it took them 4 hours to crawl between 2 junctions.

Another friend has been doubly cursed; on Friday he got a suburban train from Birmingham New Street to travel the two stops to University Station, but the train didn’t stop there – in fact it didn’t stop until Droitwich.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, he was travelling back from London last night and,  having left in the early evening, was stranded at Tamworth Station at 2300 with no sign of a train to take him into central Birmingham.  I’m assuming he got home OK in the end.

Of course, apart from the chaos and inconvenience all these things cause, people’s bonhomie and Christmas spirit is severely eroded and the world tends to shrink.  The other day I went out on to the High Street to do some food shopping in the local Asda and was informed by one of the checkout folks that all local buses were on hold for the forseeable future.  To paraphrase the famous Victorian newspaper headline,  ‘The City Centre cut off from Kings Heath’! The mind boggles.

Snow in Birmingham

Much has been said about our ineptitude in coping with snow and ice and suchlike.  Today, the BBC website is carrying a feature on how Helsinki Airport copes with winter weather – three runways, deployed in rotation, of which two are kept running whilst the third is being de-iced.  This is manna from heaven to the moaners and groaners who carp about the chaos at Heathrow and the closure of several other provincial airports, whilst ignoring the fact that Helsinki  gets guaranteed snow and ice every year and also probably sees only about 10% of Heathrow’s traffic levels.   Still, why let logic or facts get in the way of a good grouse? As for the railways, over 100 people were apparently stranded on a train in the middle of Kent because the tracks froze.  Either that or it’s the proverbial ‘wrong kind of snow’.

Everyone will have their share of horror stories about this frozen interlude, but the fact is that for years now, we haven’t had a winter worth the mention.  The Danes have an aphorism that deplores their summer weather – ‘In Denmark, we have two winters – a green one and a white one’   Until the last two years, we could have adapted this to ‘In Britain, we have two green winters’.  One side-effect of this situation is that we have become pretty inept at dealing with cold weather and its manifestations, another is that we have become used to going where we want when we want without undue hassle.  Not this year.

FC Brugge v Anderlecht – it’s my ball and I’m going home!

On the basis that we can find humour in all things, it’s heartening to be able to report that the recent Belgian League football match between FC Brugge and Anderlecht was held up because the Brugge fans were pelting the Anderlecht players with snowballs every time they got anywhere near them.  Anderlecht had the last laugh, however, winning the match 2-0.  Apparently, one of their players nonetheless got into trouble with local police after the game – for throwing snowballs back at his own Anderlecht fans ‘to celebrate the win’.  This is obviously another manifestation of ‘Tevez Syndrome’, where footballers bite the hands that are feeding them.

Listening to Susanna Wallumrød

Susanna Wallumrød is a 31-year old Norwegian singer who first came to prominence in 2004 as one half of a duo called Susanna & the Magical Orchestra.  The other half of the equation (give or take the odd guest contribution in the studio) is Morten Qvenild, who plays a wide variety of keyboards behind Susanna’s ethereal vocals.

‘Ethereal’ is a word that seems to feature quite heavily in descriptions of Susanna’s music.  Also popular are ‘glacial’  and ‘icy’, signifying the fact that because Susanna comes from somewhere in the wastelands to the north of Newport Pagnell Services, she’s ‘Nordic’ and these adjectives are therefore apt ways of describing her music. If there was map of this area, it should read ‘Here there be clichés’ , not to mention ‘a great deal of unimaginative journalism’.  Bands from Scandinavia must get heartily sick of all the ‘glacial’ ‘icy’ stuff that’s used to describe their music, but that’s a topic for another day and another rant.

Susanna Wallumrød

What Susanna’s singing style does project is fragility.  Her high soprano breathes and whispers its way through a repertoire that takes in sources as diverse as Leonard Cohen, Joy Division, Dolly Parton and Kiss.  At times it seems as though her voice must crack, but she’s made of sterner stuff.  Increasingly, there are larger numbers of self-penned songs appearing in her repertoire, but she continues to plunder the rock & roll archives in a diligent quest to unearth songs that you might expect her to sing, like Nico’s ‘Janitor of Lunacy’  or Roy Harper’s ‘Another Day’ and songs that come as a total surprise, like Rush’s ‘Subdivisions’.

My first exposure to Susanna & the Magical Orchestra came at 2005’s Wychwood Festival, where she & Qvenild played a 45-minute set in front of myself, the members of Jaga Jazzist (Qvenild is a former member and JJ had come off stage about an hour beforehand, having played a tremendous set) and about 150 or so bemused punters who thought they were at a Folk Festival.  The pace of the presentation was so low-key as to be virtually non-existent and the songs all proceeded at a slow and stately tempo.  Notable among them were the usual mixture of the predictable and the odd – Joy Division’s ‘Love will tear us apart’  and Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene‘ have surely never featured on the same setlist before.  To begin with, it all sounded a little too minimalist for its own good; you somehow felt that if some beer-sodden wag were to lurch to his feet and start calling out for ‘Smoke on the Water’ or ‘Freebird‘ the duo on stage might just have disappeared in a puff of glacial, icy smoke.  The thing is, nobody did, and after a while you began to focus on the voice, on the way they had deconstructed/reconstructed their chosen songs and on the mood being woven by the two of them.  Even a hackneyed piece of Nashville ham like ‘Jolene’ somehow sounded fresher and newer for being put through the Magical Orchestral filter.  They concluded their set to warm applause and though it wasn’t the best set at the festival, it was up amongst them.

Susanna & the Magical Orchestra – Punkt 09, Kristiansand

S&TMO have produced three albums on Rune Grammofon to date – the latest unimaginatively entitled ‘3’ – and they seem to be moving towards a larger complement of self-penned material. ‘3’ is really a terrific album, with telling contributions from guest musicians like Andreas Mjøs (from Jaga Jazzist)  & Erland Dahlen.  They really seem to be hitting their stride.

However, Susanna Wallumrød has another string to her bow, going out and producing albums in her own name.  I’ve been listening to a recording of her made at Bergen’s ‘NattJazz’ festival back in May.  Here she  is partnered with her husband Helge Sten (guiding light of Supersilent, otherwise known as ‘Deathprod’ and the eminence grise behind many Rune Grammofon projects) who plays guitar and helps out with the singing and Pål Hausken on drums.

Susanna and Helge Sten on stage

This is a set of cover versions with sources as diverse as Bonnie Prince Billy and Agnetha Falskog, but whilst Susanna’s voice is the common factor, the dynamics of her ‘solo’ band are rather different.  She plays grand piano throughout in contrast to Qvenild’s electronic keyboards, Sten interjects with occasional bursts of Eivind Aarset-style guitar and Hausken provides a gentle percussive counterpoint.

The performance also encompasses an amusing interlude where Susanna and Helge Sten launch into an impassioned duet version of Prince’s ‘For you’, but then make a complete dog’s breakfast of the lyrics and have to be reminded of them by a member of the audience. 

Taken together, Susanna’s work with her own trio and with the Magical Orchestra is stacking up into a growing and impressive body of work.  The music remains a ‘mood’ thing but just as there are times when only Thelonious Monk or Traffic or Marvin Gaye will do, so there are times when Susanna’s voice can spin a quiet web that is both haunting and satisfying.  But glacial or icy?  I don’t think so.

Currently, the NattJazz website is hosting a video stream of this concert.  Here’s the address:  http://www.nattjazz.no/index.php?Stream=Ja&counter=7

Christmas que nada…

The English are always discussing the weather, allegedly because it stops them having to engage in conversation about anything more profound.  So it’s said, anyway and like most clichés, there’s probably a grain of truth in there somewhere.  With that in mind, this seems an apt juncture at which to pause and take stock before the Christmas tsunami engulfs us all.

This is the second tough winter in a row for this country after years of inconsequential grey winters where we hardly saw any snow at all.  Some people have had it far worse than we have here in Birmingham; the West Midlands sub-tropical microclimate has ensured that we could still sit out by the pool sipping our piña coladas  and listening to Jimmy Buffett CD’s until pretty recently with only an army greatcoat and an industrial patio heater to keep us warm and toasty.  Right now, however, the snow flutters down from slaty skies, carpeting and muffling everything – looks like Christmas will be white this year.

Describing Christmases Past as ‘pleasant’ is about as effusive as I get; we all know the clichés about being forced to spend time in the company of those you spend the rest of the year avoiding, we all know about the rampant consumerism and the tyranny of present-buying.  However, as someone for whom religion is just a non-factor, the increasing secularisation of a Christian festival is something I viewed with minimal interest; usually some news item with a dotty old Bishop ranting on about how godless we all were all becoming……as though this was something about which we should feel ashamed rather than a matter of personal choice.  Yes, thanks for that Bishop; Merry Christmas and my best to you & the kids….

The Church is unhappy……

So, a few weeks back now, I was tasked with buying a range of Christmas cards sufficient for the needs of the household.  This is an easy task round here as the High Street is virtually awash, not only with outlets like Birthdays and W.H. Smith’s but also with several independent shops who sell very little other than cards.  However the partner had told me specifically that in amongst all the perky robins and tinselled snowmen, I needed to get her a small selection of cards with a religious theme.  She has a number of Irish and American relatives who haven’t drifted as far from Mother Church as she has and they still expect the niceties of the season to be observed to a superficial degree.

It was, therefore, with an increasing sense of desperation that I roamed the aisles of the local card shops, searching in vain for anything with a religious theme.  I wasn’t being picky; the odd halo or manger would have done just fine.  Nothing. Nada. Do not pass ‘Go’, do not collect your key to the Pearly Gates.

In the end, in a glittering warehouse full of tinselled Santas and improbable Dickensian scenes ( idealised snowy villages,  jolly, rotund carol-singers, no black people or fast food outlets)  I finally found one box of cards that would just about do, but I would hardly have described these as religious…

The ‘salutation’ was the giveaway; ‘Christmas Blessings’ it said in a discreet and vaguely gothic script.  The illustration, though, was equivocal;   three blokes on camels crest a stereotypical sand-dune, catching sight of a walled Middle Eastern city with minarets away in the distance. 

Of course, if the designers of this bijou item had thought about it at all, which I somehow doubt, they were relying on the ability of human beings to make connections from tenuous bits of information.  Three blokes on camels?  Obviously ‘wise men’ from the east, rather than three scruffy Bedouin on their way into town for a night of kif and hanky-panky, followed by a good Dhansak and a thick head in the morning.

Frankly, the salutation could just have easily read ‘ Greetings from Ouarzazate, gateway to the Sahara’ or ‘OPEC Ministers Hog-Roast, Tunis 2011’ – the illustration would have been just as relevant.  Of course, we’ve become adept at lampooning this kind of thing (as below – thanks to, I think – The Daily Mash), which is probably another reason why it’s so hard to come by these days.

Au revoir, Ole Gunnar…..we’ll miss you!

 When last here I was blogging about Carlos Tevez and his ongoing squabbles with Manchester City;  a gruesome affair which will undoubtedly have alienated a lot of City fans – understandably so in these penny-pinching days.

Were Carlos interested in cultivating the affections of the long-suffering City fanbase -and clearly he isn’t – then he need only glance across town to his former club for a role model.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær is about to leave Old Trafford after nearly 15 years of loyal service.  Having retired from playing in August 2007,  Solskjær has spent the last three years working as an ambassador and coach at Old Trafford, most recently co-managing the Reserves (with Warren Joyce) and achieving great success in that role.

From January, he will take up the manager’s job at his former club, Molde FK in the Norwegian Premier League.  Many people feel that Old Trafford has not seen the last of Ole Gunnar and that he might eventually return to manage the club.

Ole Gunnar  – looking about 12 – in his playing days at Molde

That’s as may be; it’s easy enough to think of former Red heroes who never really cut it as managers – Bryan Robson and Bobby Charlton, to name but two.  For now, it’s merely a pleasant daydream to envisage a battle-hardened OGS returning to United as manager a few years down the line.  Time will tell.

Talk of Solskjær and the over-used word ‘legend’ is often not far from the conversation.  He has, of course, entered the folklore of Manchester United principally because of the instinctive injury-time strike against Bayern Munich which won  the 1999 Champions League Final in what has to be the most extraordinary finale to any major football match ever.

Solskjær scores the winner against Bayern, Camp Nou, Barcelona, 26 May 1999

Even before that, however, United fans loved him.  Earlier that season, he had scored another dramatic injury-time winner in front of the Stretford End in an FA Cup tie against Liverpool, he had scored 4 goals in less than 15 minutes in a League game against Nottingham Forest and in general seemed to have a knack of scoring late, vital goals – often after coming on as a substitute.

Legendary?  Maybe, but the thing that probably cemented Ole Gunnar’s status was the way in which he handled his ‘stardom’.  Unfailingly courteous and modest, dedicated to his craft and the club – he could have left in a big-bucks move to Tottenham in 1998, but stayed to fight his corner and was rewarded with the undying affection of United fans everywhere.

Fans of all clubs prize loyalty in those they venerate, but that’s a coin with two faces. Mancunians in particular reserve a particular level of scorn for ‘badge-kissers’ and those that get too big for their expensive boots.  United fans know that the club is bigger than any player or manager and have little tolerance for  players who get above themselves, something Wayne Rooney would do well to remember.

Doing what he did best……

If the goal against Bayern in the Camp Nou was one defining moment for Solskjær, another – and one that said everything about his commitment to the cause – came towards the end of the previous season. 

Near the end of the 1997/1998 season, United were trying (unsuccessfully as it transpired) to chase down leaders Arsenal, but in a vital league game against Newcastle at Old Trafford, they had been thwarted by their own shortcomings and determined Newcastle resistance.  With the game deadlocked at 1-1 and moving into injury time, United won a corner at the Stretford End and everyone, including goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, packed into the Newcastle area in an attempt to get a winning goal.

However, the ball was cleared and picked up by Newcastle midfielder Rob Lee, who motored away down the right flank with only the wide-open spaces of Old Trafford between him and an unguarded United net.  Then, as if from nowhere, Ole Gunnar Solskjær came sprinting back – the last defender – and took Lee out with a trip that sent him sprawling and brought OGS an instant red card – probably the only one of his career at a guess.

Deplorable, unsportsmanlike, uncharacteristic of the man,  yes, of course, but Old Trafford rose to its feet and gave Solskjær  a huge ovation as he walked down the touchline to the tunnel.  It wasn’t his actions that they were applauding, but his commitment and his dedication to duty.  They knew instinctively that he was one of them.

Solskjær the coach

So, it’s au revoir Ole Gunnar, lykke til until our paths cross again.  As for Molde in their attractive fjordside stadium, they have just acquired several hundred thousand new fans.  Hopefully, it’ll only be a loan deal and Solskjær will return to Old Trafford one day.

Carlos Kickaball and schadenfreude; # 3 of an occasional series

United fans will have been watching the unfolding soap opera of Carlos Tevez and his travails with Manchester City with grim amusement.  Now it would seem that not even being the highest paid footballer in the UK (£230, 000 per week, allegedly) is enough for the poor wee thing.  Poor Carlos is homesick, apparently,  and his obscene levels of remuneration (when most of us are having to scrimp and scrape) are just not enough.

So, City fans now know what it’s like to be duped by this mercenary troll; surely a real-life manifestation of Alan Sugar’s ‘Carlos Kickaball’.

One shirt that does matter to Tevez; playing for his country

The fact is that this is nothing new.  When he was playing for the Brazilian club, Corinthians, events followed a similar pattern:  signed for a huge fee, won over the fans (no mean feat for an Argentine playing in Brazil) as Corinthians won the Campeonato, won the Brazilian Player of the Year award (both in 2005) then started agitating behind the scenes as he and his Svengali-ish agent,  Kia Joorabchian, had obviously decided it was time for Carlos to come to Europe.

City had better keep close tabs on him because it wouldn’t surprise me if Carlos’ next trick is to simply go missing.  This happened when he was at Corinthians in 2006 and drew the following quote from their coach Emerson Leao:

“Tevez has missed other training sessions so this is nothing new….. Does anyone understand what Tevez says when he speaks, because I don’t.   He is a citizen who has to answer for his own actions and he has no reason for his absence. Corinthians received no official notice….. .”

This was all pissing into the wind, basically, because Carlos got his wish and a move to West Ham.  Of course, he was never going to stay there, but playing in the Premier League put him in the shop window and, of course, one of the ‘big fish’  – United in this case – came along and snapped him up on another of Joorabchian’s dodgy loan deals.

More success ensued for Carlos, though in his time at Old Trafford, he was overshadowed by the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.  He was popular, but  his position at the club only became a real issue with the fans once they realised that his two-year deal was coming to an end and there was no deal on the table to sign him permanently that both parties could accept.  In reality, the fans were probably keen for him to stay because they were worried about where he might end up – with good cause, as things turned out.

Anyway, we got more sulky rhetoric from the Tevez camp in  the spring of 2009;

‘Tevez had gone public with his grievances at the weekend in a carefully orchestrated interview with the News of the World in which he accused United of not treating him like “one of the family” and said he had no option but to leave. 

He pretty much feels that there is a very big chance that his time [at United] has come to an end,” said Joorabchian. “He has loved his time there. The glory and the time he has had at Manchester United have been special to him but he also ­realises they have not offered him a contract or wanted to sign him up and that means he has to move on.” ‘  ( ©’ The Guardian, 12/5/09)

And so to moneybags City and more success, though, as the song United fans now sing about him makes abundantly clear, no more trophies.  

The other shirt that matters; playing for Boca Juniors

The story of  Tevez’ meteoric rise from one of the poorer areas of Buenos Aires is the stuff of romantic folklore.  ‘Home’ clearly is important to him and he has never hidden his love for his first club, Boca Juniors.   As he approaches his 27th birthday, he has clearly decided that it’s time for him to return to Argentina, though no doubt he might be persuaded to do a year or so in Madrid or Barcelona if the wage packet is big enough.  This is hardly big news; in 2007,  he was asked about a return to Boca…

“it’s something that could happen in four or five years. I want to make sure that when I do go back I am still in good shape. I don’t want to leave it until I am fat and unable to move.”

Note the ‘when I do go back’ in that sentence….

The course of a footballer’s career cannot always be predicted, even if they are a top player.  A serious injury would have probably derailed the Tevez/Joorabchian Masterplan  to fleece one of Brazil’s and two of England’s leading clubs, but Carlos has been lucky in that respect and, at times, let’s be truthful, he has played to a very high standard indeed. 

Despite that, any grudging respect I had for the man’s  drive to succeed and his natural talents has been more than offset by this latest shenanigan.  He will return to Argentina (maybe via Spain) a very rich man, but as a human being he’s pretty much beneath contempt. 

Mural in Fuerte Apache, Buenos Aires; homeland for Tevez 

I saw a piece on the BBC recently about former Spurs and Argentina player Ricardo Villa returning to Tottenham.  As the man who scored that goal in the 1981 FA Cup Final against, against…..(could it have been) Manchester City, Villa is always accorded the warmest of welcomes when he occasionally rolls up at White Hart Lane – and it’s a warmth that he obviously appreciates and reciprocates.  It’s hard to see Tevez getting the same welcome at Old Trafford or Eastlands when his playing days are over.

The best comment about the current situation came from someone on the BBC text chat for United’s home game against Arsenal.  The club was hosting most of the Chilean miners who survived the cave-in at the San José Copper Mine earlier this year and some wag suggested that they might be persuaded to pop over to Eastlands to advise their South American compadré on tactics for survival when you’re trapped in an apparently hopeless situation.

Listening to Black Uhuru

I’d really love to be able to sit down with Chris Blackwell and ask him what he thinks happened to reggae music from the mid-1980’s onwards.  From the mid-70’s onwards, labels like Blackwell’s Island had worked assiduously to cultivate a white audience for Jamaican music, the UK had unearthed a number of hugely promising ‘local’ bands like Aswad, Misty in Roots and Steel Pulse,  top Jamaican acts were touring the world, the US market was starting to open up and reggae seemed to be integrating itself into the mainstream.

And then, in the space of about five years, the tide receded and – in international terms at least – reggae resumed its status as  a ‘local’ phenomenon that only occasionally made waves in the wider world.  Toasters and DJ’s and  seemingly a million songs about ‘Water Pumpee’,  Sting’s cod-reggae songbook, ‘Lovers Rock’ and European post-punk bands  like The Slits, Psychedelic Furs and The Ruts/Ruts D.C producing dub versions of their stuff……all very weird.

Of course, the untimely death of Bob Marley was a major factor in all of this.  Marley was the one true international superstar Jamaica had produced and  reggae’s poster boy.  For all that the critics waxed lyrical about Dennis Brown, Ijahman Levi, Culture and The Wailing Souls etc, Marley’s tragic demise was a hammer blow to Jamaican music in the international markets.

The question was, who was going to step up to the plate?  To some extent, it depended on how and via whom your records got out to the wider world.  For example, The Wailing Souls were making a succession of brilliant records throughout the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, but none of them except 1979’s  ‘Wild Suspense’ appeared on a ‘crossover’ label like Island or Virgin.  In the UK, their albums seemed to emerge via Greensleeves for a while, but although Greensleeves had a distribution deal with EMI, they seemed, frankly,  much more interested in servicing the tastes & needs of the black community than they were in crossing over to a wider (and whiter) audience.

In the early ’80’s, the one band that everyone perceived as being ‘the next big thing’ were Black Uhuru. The band had been running in one form or another since 1972, with Don Carlos an early member.  The band’s leading light, however was Duckie Simpson, who recruited Errol Nelson and lead singer Michael Rose to the band.  Their first album, ‘Love Crisis’ was released in 1977 but  Nelson left the following year and was replaced by ‘Puma’ Simpson, a native of South Carolina.  This ‘classic’ line-up of Rose, Simpson & Jones began working with Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare and  were quickly signed to the duo’s new Taxi label, providing Taxi’s first ever release  with their ‘Observe Life’ single.  This was the first of a whole string of successful singles including ‘General Penitentiary’  and ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner?‘    Many of these were collected as the band’s second album, ‘Showcase’.   The success of the Sly & Robbie sessions led to the band being signed by Island Records in 1980 and, beginning with their first Island album ‘Sinsemilla’, the band quickly acquired the approval of European and American critics, allied to increasing record sales.

Next came ‘Red’ (1981) an album that virtually defined Uhuru’s sound, with Rose’s increasingly assured delivery rising out of the unison and harmony vocal passages and Sly & Robbie’s underpinning thunder forming a rock solid foundation.  This, allied with the social awareness manifest in their anthemic songs propelled them to even greater heights and they toured in Europe and the USA with considerable success.  Ironically, though, whilst still perhaps thought of in Jamaica as a ‘singles’ act, Black Uhuru’s reputation elsewhere was based on their albums.  They projected a militant stance and their recorded output – unlike Bob Marley’s – was never  really ‘softened’ by the inclusion of  any love songs.

Serious t’ing – the classic Black Uhuru line-up; (L-R) Duckie, Puma, Michael

The band toured ‘Red‘ on both sides of the Atlantic and I first caught up with them at Birmingham’s long-demolished Bingley Hall, where most of Handsworth seemed to be in attendance.  One guy was actually hanging from a cross-beam that overhung the stage and the band refused to come on until he removed himself. ‘Come down off the beam, Rasta!‘ bellowed the m/c and in the end he did, to general applause.  Once the show got going (about 2 hours later than scheduled, as I recall), Black Uhuru were formidable but, to be honest, a trifle humourless. 

1982 saw two Uhuru releases – a live album/video; ‘Tear it up’ and a new studio collection, ‘Chill Out’.  Following Bob Marley’s death the previous year, many were expecting Black Uhuru’s blend of militant Rastafarian politics, top-line studio production and compelling live shows to propel them into the role of reggae’s leading practitioners.  Island released multiple versions of ‘Darkness’ from ‘Chill Out’ as a single, but the expected breakthrough never came, despite extensive touring. 

Caught the band for a second time  at Leeds University Students Union, where future broadcaster and son of Rochdale, Andy Kershaw,  was at that time  Entertainments Officer.  It would probably be fair to say that the black communities in Chapeltown and elsewhere in Leeds didn’t take kindly to the idea of Black Uhuru being in town and them being denied entry, so they came out to Headingley anyway and found their way in any which way they could – usually illegally.   In the end, the packed house was probably only about 75% ticket holders, but the band put on a tremendous show so nobody really cared.  Condensation ran down the walls in rivers whilst clouds of ganja smoke rose to the ceiling.  I couldn’t really hear Robbie Shakespeare’s bass so much as feel it through the soles of my feet.   Memorable.

Black Uhuru in action, Rockpalast, 1981

In 1984, Black Uhuru released ‘Anthem’ , probably their strongest album since ‘Red’ and again toured widely, but the perception was growing that they hadn’t really grasped the torch abandoned by Bob Marley and weren’t really crossing over to wider audiences.  Island really gave them a huge push in both America and in Europe, but their sales and their reputation remained resolutely mid-table.  Whatever they were planning next came to nothing as Michael Rose fell out with Duckie Simpson and left the band to resume his solo career and  (so I was told) run a coffee farm  in the Blue Mountains north of Kingston.  Cups of java aside, this turned out to be  a case of diminishing returns for both parties.   Rose’s solo career was thereafter restricted to intermittent and purely local success in Jamaica whilst Uhuru replaced him with Junior Reid, but were then dropped by Island and pretty much fell off the international touring bandwagon

And that was pretty much that, although the band has stuttered on in one form another to the present day, whilst never coming close to regaining their former reputation.  Sadly, Puma Jones was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989 and died the following year.

Taxi Records have now released an audio record of Black Uhuru from their final ‘big’ tour.  Recorded at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom in 1984, it shows the trio + Taxi House Band (including Sly & Robbie) in stellar form.  Entitled simply ‘Chicago 1984’, it’s a great live document of a band who, ever so briefly, seemed to have a glittering future ahead of them but somehow contrived to blow it.  They left behind a considerable recorded legacy and this new release is a welcome addition to that.

After Black Uhuru (during their Island/Taxi years), there was never to be another Jamaican band who would come close to emulating Bob Marley’s crossover success.  International audiences eventually embraced Roots Reggae, Rockers & Dub thanks to Marley’s pioneering, but no other Jamaican trend –  Dancehall, Lovers Rock, Reggaeton  or any other such variation – has ever come close to the international impact created by Bob Marley and those who came in his wake – Black Uhuru, Peter Tosh, Third World, Inner Circle, Culture et al.  Reggae has resumed its role as the defining popular music of Jamaica but as the Roots & Rockers performers grow old and pass on, it is hard to envisage how reggae will ever regain the centrality it once enjoyed in the lives of non-Jamaican rock fans around the world.

Watching ‘The New World’ (2005)

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Terrence Malick is that in a directorial career stretching back to 1973’s ‘Badlands’, he has directed only 4 features.  ‘The New World’ is the most recent of these (2005) and is based on the supposed love affair between the English explorer & soldier John Smith and the Powhatan ‘princess’, Pocahontas.  The film is otherwise largely concerned with the attempts of the English to establish a settlement at Jamestown in modern-day Virginia during the early years of the 17th century.  This was to be the first permanent  English settlement in what was to become the U.S.A.

Malick is a notorious perfectionist when it comes to the technical side of movie-making – especially lighting & cinematography –  but he has thus far managed to avoid a ‘Heaven’s Gate’-type debacle in his career.   In  movies like ‘Days of Heaven’ (1978)  he displayed an appetite for auteurist self-indulgence that was potentially as fatal to his career as Michael Cimino’s proved to be with ‘Heaven’s Gate’, but unlike Cimino, he got away with it. 

Terrence Malick in 1999

Typically, location shoots for ‘Days of Heaven’, set in the Texas Panhandle, but filmed on the Canadian prairie, were compressed into what is usually referred to as ‘Magic Hour’; not an ‘hour’ at all, but actually about 25 minutes after the sun has set but before it actually gets dark.  Malick and his cinematographer, the late Nestor  Almendros, loved the quality of the light at this time of day and would keep cast & crew sitting around all day waiting for dusk.

‘Magic Hour’ in ‘Days of Heaven’

Actors queue up to work with Malick – when he returned to directing with ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998) after a 20-year sabbatical, the cast list read like a who’s-who of male Hollywood stars.  As well as Nick Nolte, John Travolta, Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, John Cusack and George Clooney, who feature in the released version, the performances of Mickey Rourke, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Viggo Mortensen, Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman and others were abandoned on the floor of the cutting room.  Malick is sometimes seen as an American who directs like a European, but whilst his movies have often had the critics in raptures, they have never performed particularly well at the box office.

In the long grass – ‘The Thin Red Line’

Environment is another key issue in Malick films; Richard Gere & Sam Shephard confront one another against massive prairie backdrops in ‘Days of Heaven’, the ensemble cast of ‘The Thin Red Line’ edge nervously through a forest of tall, waving grass as they seek out their Japanese foe and in ‘The New World’, Colin Farrell and Q’Orianka Kilcher play out their ill-fated affair in the woods and meadows of Virginia.  These are small figures in large landscapes, a strategy otherwise seen in the work of David Lean – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and ‘Ryan’s Daughter’.  Malick loves fields of waving grass and both Farrell and Kilcher wander forlornly through them to symbolise their love for one another.

Soulful introspection and more long grass – Colin Farrell in ‘The New World’

It’s this, if anything, that makes ‘The New World’ a pretty arduous watch.  It’s essentially a love story, with the travails of the Powhatan Indians and the English settlers just a backdrop to the main narrative.  Malick placed considerable emphasis on authenticity, with particular regard to the Algonquin dialect spoken by the Powhatan Indians and the trappings and features of the English settlement at Jamestown.  Whilst Smith’s account of how Pocahontas saved him from death when he was initially captured by the Powhatans has never been corroborated, what is beyond dispute is the fact that once Smith was recalled to England in 1614 to lead another expedition to Maine and northern New England, Pocahontas married the English tobacco farmer John Rolfe and bore him a son.   She was baptised into the Christian faith as ‘Rebecca Rolfe’ after her marriage and became a celebrity when the Rolfes returned to England in 1616. She was received by King James and had a final encounter with Smith, though not as Malick depicts it in the film’s coda.  There is little genuine evidence to support the notion of a romance between Pocahontas & Smith, but it is something which has nonetheless entered folklore.  The Rolfes left London in 1617 to return to Virginia, but Pocahontas was taken ill  – possibly with pneumonia – shortly after  departure and their ship put in at Gravesend, where she died and was buried.  She was probably about 22 years old. Bizarrely, there is a statue of her in the churchyard of St George’s Church, though the exact location of her grave is unknown

The statue of Pocahontas in Gravesend

The scarcity of Malick’s filmed output means that each of his movies is received with a certain degree of reverence and this is not without merit.  Certainly, ‘The Thin Red Line’ is as good a movie about the harsh realities of modern warfare as you could ever hope to see and infinitely superior to Clint Eastwood’s ‘Flags of our Fathers’ which is a near-contemporary (2006) and covers a similar period of World War 2.  However, whilst ‘The New World’ is a beautifully-dressed movie, the centrality of the affair between Smith & Pocahontas and the way this is presented was always going to be key.  Farrell broods effectively enough and Q’Orianka Kilcher’s elfin charm is always compelling, but the language barrier at the outset of their relationship and a degree of reserve thereafter  means that Malick must portray their affair in largely non-verbal terms.  In that respect, there is rather too much wandering through the woods and meadows and gazing soulfully into one another’s eyes.  By the end of the movie, this has, frankly, become rather hackneyed.

There are various ‘cuts’ of ‘The New World’ in existence including one lasting a few minutes shy of three hours.  I’ve only seen the standard 135-minute version and –  to be honest – that’s probably more than enough.  For me, there probably isn’t enough substance to the narrative to sustain the film for more than two hours and a tighter cut might have helped its overall impact.  Despite such carping, there is nonetheless something about this movie that has brought me back to it for a second viewing and who’s to say that I won’t return to it in a few years time?

Qatar 1, the “Cradle of Football©” 0

So, the 2018 FIFA World Cup will be played in Russia and it’s a topic that has dominated the sports media all week.

Am I alone in being fairly indifferent to this decision ?  If the English media are anything to go by, this is an international betrayal of Cuban Missile Crisis proportions.  All kinds of insinuations and accusations fill today’s red-tops about dodgy deals and fixes.  Sounds like a severe case of sour grapes to me.

Let’s face it, Russia has never hosted a major international football tournament.  It’s a huge country with a great footballing tradition and they probably deserve their chance.  All the stuff about Putin and the Russian Mafia, about bungs and fixes and behind-the-scenes shenanigans is just the moral panic of a sore loser.  Even if some of these stories are true, do people honestly believe that this is the first time that corruption has reared its ugly head in the placement of major sporting events like this?  How many palms did London grease in order to secure the 2012 Olympic Games?  But, of course, being English, we wouldn’t do that would we?

The real culprit here is FIFA, who like their counterparts at UEFA, have turned what should be a behind-closed-doors internal administrative decision into a three-ring circus.  Celebrities and politicians are enlisted to support the bid from their native countries and the whole thing has developed into an event that combines the worst features of the Eurovision Song Contest and the Oscars. 

And, of course, it affords that loathsome apparatchik Sepp Blatter a chance to strut his stuff in front of the world’s media, an opportunity he can never resist.

Terry Lineker – “England has nil points – send a gunboat!”

The people who seem most affected by England’s failure here seem to be media darlings like Beckham, Lineker et al.  No-one that I know has even mentioned the topic to me in the weeks of hype and hysteria that have just come to a shuddering, ill-tempered halt.  The likelihood is that people will accuse the media – and in particular The Sunday Times & the BBC of torpedoing the English bid.  I’d love to be able to suggest that it’s probably more important that the media are actively trying to root out corruption in the world’s leading football authority, but how altruistic are they in doing so?  In any case, FIFA is too opaque an organisation for anyone to truly unravel  its labyrinthine workings and the wheelers and dealers will just lie low until the journalists turn their attention elsewhere.

In the long run, the decision to award the 2022 tournament to the small Gulf state of Qatar should provoke the greater astonishment.  Here is a country with no footballing tradition and a climate that is hostile to any sporting activity more energetic than snooker.  Whilst England’s toy soldiers lick their wounds and curse journalists, the rest of the world will probably be talking about Qatar.  FIFA will no doubt come out with a load of pompous guff about opening up football in the Middle East and stressing how the stadia are going to be dismantled and shipped off to Malawi or Milton Keynes afterwards, but the tale of how this deal was done is surely the real story here.  Journalists from the BBC are no doubt booking flights to Doha even as I write.

Ultimately, the real victims of the 2018 vote are probably the Ing-er-land team, who know that they will now have to qualify for Russia – failure to do so and the already tainted reputation of the FA and the national team could be damaged beyond repair.  The question is, by that point will anyone except the media hacks give a damn?

Fergiewatch # 4: Two hammerings

The wonders of football, eh?  On two consecutive nights this week, I have been able to watch two of Europe’s footballing elite subjected to what I think is sometimes referred to as a ‘right doing’.

Tuesday night it was ‘El Clásico’ between Barcelona & Real Madrid, which for all the hype about United v The Dippers and Glasgow ‘Old Firm’ derbies, is quite clearly the world’s leading domestic club match – 11 World Cup winners on the pitch; nuff said. 

However it didn’t really live up to its ‘classic’ billing, mainly because Barcelona were so dominant that it was never a genuine contest.  José Mourinho could only sit and watch as the Barça midfield ran rings round his team.  What a unit they are! Everyone talks about Messi, but he is just one-quarter of what must surely be the most effective midfield of all time.  The fact that Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta are almost equally dangerous in possession means that any team that tries to target Messi runs the risk of handing the game over to the other three.

Barcelona have added the lethal David Villa to their options this season and he must be revelling in the service he’s getting.  After Xavi and Pedro had given Barça the early advantage, Villa stuck twice inside a few second-half minutes thanks to two fabulous passes from Messi and any lingering optimism among the Madridistas was duly squashed.  By the time substitute Jeffren toe-poked home a fifth, Sergio Ramos had been sent off for what’s best described as an assault on Messi and the Catalunyans were starting a fiesta in the stands.  As for Madrid, there was no Kaka, no Higuain and Benzema, Özil and Khedira were nullified by their counterparts. As for Cristiano Ronaldo, he simply looked frustrated.  Should have stayed in Manchester, Ronnie…

Talking of Mancunia, the second ‘doing’ of the week came for United at Upton Park last night as we crashed out of the League Cup to a West Ham side that combined desire with aggression and took our second string to the cleaners by a 4-0 scoreline.

United swaggered into this game off the back of another ‘doing’ – this one dished out to Blackburn by a 7-1 scoreline at Old Trafford on Saturday.  Berba the Sulky Bulgar, having failed to score since his hat-trick against The Dippers back in September, had one of his ‘on’ days and was the game’s outstanding player in a game where everyone in red played well for the first time this season.  Berbatov  scored five goals of which the pick was the third, started by him in our left-back position and involving a cute backheel to Evra, followed by a superbly weighted crossfield ball to Nani on the right and a calm side-footed finish high into the net when Nani toed the ball back into his path.  One of the goals of the season, for sure.

Of that team, only Anderson, who looked a player reborn against Blackburn, survived to run out at snowy Upton Park last night.  West Ham, coached by the ever-lugubrious Avram Grant, played former United youngster Jonathan Spector in midfield and after Obertan had seen a low drive deflected on to the post by Green, Spector scored twice – his first goals in English football – and had another one disallowed as United’s makeshift team struggled to cope. 

The simple truth was that Hernandez was ineffectual as the lone striker – he’s not big enough – and he got no help from Macheda when he came on.  In midfield, Anderson did his best but Fletcher was poor alongside him and Giggs understandably looked as though he’d rather be tucked up in front of a roaring log fire at home.  All of this just put more pressure on a ramshackle defence in which O’Shea and Evans conspired to turn in two of the worst performances I have seen from United defenders since about 1541.  Evans, in particular, got a mauling from Carlton Cole in the second half…..yes, that’s right, Carlton Cole, the Emile Heskey manqué of our times. 

Cole scored twice, thereby merely reinforcing  the view that long-term, Jonny Evans just isn’t good enough as anything other than a squad player.  As for O’Shea, his performances this season confirm that whatever talent he once had, it has long since headed south.  Reputedly, he will pick up £80,000 this week (and every other week for the next 4 years); if ever we needed confirmation that the game has gone crazy, this must be it.  If O’Shea or Evans had any conscience or dignity, they would offer to pay the club back for their shoddy, sub-standard work last night. 

“Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence. ”

Fergie sat swathed Buddha-like and impassive  in coats, scarves and a red United hat that matched his complexion as the snowflakes swirled down.  He must have been reflecting upon the fact that United have done pretty well playing the fringe players in this tournament, but how many of those ‘given a chance’ at this level have gone on to cement a first-team place?  Not many…

Grant, meanwhile, prowled the touchline looking like a cross between Jar Jar Binks and a particularly grumpy bullfrog.  His position is probably under threat and it would still be a surprise if he survives the season at West Ham, but his players did him proud last night.  Simply put, they just wanted it more than United did and they got their reward.

” Ribbit……”