W – is undoubtedly for The Who

Friday 21st March

Those first power chords in their first single ‘I Can’t Explain’ singled them out from the hordes of aspiring pop groups in the mid-sixties.  And they were always different, always pushing the boundaries, sometimes in unusual directions as with Tommy – their double album rock opera, or smashing guitars at the end of their concerts.  Almost punk in their attitude they bestrode the charts for the remainder of the sixties.  As a kid growing up they were everything I wanted; instant excitement, experimentation, a fearlessness, almost a rejection of fame, and a different sound to every single they released.  They were almost an antidote to the Beatles and the Stones.  And then the Seventies came along and sixties pop groups fell by the wayside as prog-rock and heavy metal bands emerged.  But The Who just carried on evolving.

The undisputed leader of the band has always been Pete Townshend, who wrote most of their songs and played guitar, and though he has over the years fought his own demons, especially alcohol, he has continued to write great music.   Out of the blue, and like nothing in their repertoire before they came up with ‘Who’s Next’ with the most amazing use of synthesizers in songs like ‘Baba O’ Riley’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’   This was cosmic music, rising way above pop or rock, almost majestic in its feel.

A few years later they released the epic ‘Who Are You’, which was almost as good.

And they have continued, mostly as a live band, despite losing Keith and John along the way.  I have seen them live a few times, and they really blast you off the stage.  Pete’s great guitar riffs and Roger Daltrey’s vocals just carry you away.  And you never know what may still be to come; they are always capable of surprises, whereas one feels the Stones, the only other survivor of the sixties, have been coasting for years.  So Long Live Rock, Long Live The Who.

A Budget for those with Money

Thursday 20th March

George Osborne has delivered his fifth budget.  On the surface it sounds quite generous, but dig a little deeper and this is a budget for people who have some money, or assets.  For the unemployed, for those on benefits it is poor wages.  Not that pensioners and those coming up for retirement or those with a few thousand pounds of savings do not need some help, I am sure it will be most welcome.

But we are in a strange never land, where people are suffering because of the bedroom tax, because of poor assessments on the sick, because of draconian changes to benefits – these people are not deemed worthy of help.  And we are told that these cuts, to say nothing of the continuing cuts to local councils and with a NHS struggling to make ends meet, are because the country cannot afford it.  And yet we can apparently afford to allow (much welcomed) increased childcare allowances and higher tax-free allowances and less tax on savings and increasing the ‘help to buy scheme’ – all policies which will help rich and middle class and poorer workers alike.

The truth is that all changes to taxes or public spending are down to political choice.  The choice being made is that the poor will be paying down the deficit, while the rich are allowed to keep more of their money.  There is some truth in the argument that if people can keep more of their own money then the economy will benefit.

But many of these changes will simply be poured into housing or the stock market.  For example – one of the changes will be that from July on retirement you won’t necessarily have to take out an annuity with very poor rates at present but can have a lump sum tax free.  What would you do with £200,000 for instance.  Buy a house and trouser £500 in rent every month, while still leaving the asset to your kids when you die – or take an annuity paying much less than that and dying when you die.  Durghh…..

And if suddenly pensioners are buying houses the house price will go up again and push buying your own house out of the reach of even more young people.  Mind you those oldies do vote, whereas the youngsters don’t.

W – is for White Mansions

Wednesday 19th March

Not a band this time, but a single LP.  Actually two, because the follow-up ‘The Legend of Jesse James’ is really White mansions part 2.  Confused?  You should be.  These two albums were the brainchild of Paul Kennerley, an Englshman, a singer songwriter who I have never found any records by – he preferred to write for other voices.  In the mid-seventies he teamed up with some Americans and developed the brilliant concept album ‘White Mansions’, which was about the American Civil War from the Confederate viewpoint.  An entourage of singers including Waylon Jennings (which was why bought the record) Jessi Colter and Steve Cash with Eric Clapton playing uncharacteristic country guitar appear on the record.  It tells the story in a series of wonderful songs, telling of the optimism, the battles, the defeats and the despair as the war rips up the South.

It was a very minor hit but two years later Paul released the follow-up which tells the story of Jesse James.  One of the characters in White Mansions turns to being an outlaw after he is dispossessed by the Yankee soldiers, as does Jesse James – so the two albums are related.  If anything Jesse James is better, having Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris singing.  Again the record barely disturbed the charts.  It was all maybe twenty years too early.  It is pure Americana, which is so popular now.

Anyway, Paul Kennerley has written a few country songs for Emmylou and others but it seems the muse that infected him with such great songs has deserted him.  Some artists only have one great album in them, or two.  The albums are now available on CD as a pair, and are well worth the few pounds to buy them.

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Life is a Trap

Tuesday 18th March

Life is a trap, or rather a series of traps.  You realise you are in a trap, somehow you escape and in no time at all you are in another trap.  We are born into a trap of our parents making, even though they weren’t aware themselves of building it, even if they were prescient enough to realise that it was a trap.  Hahaha….  We grow up knowing nothing, absorbing everything we see around us, learning eventually that it is a trap.  Sometimes this is too late.  Some of us never have the strength to escape the parental trap, living ‘happily’ in the comfortable trap of their parent’s lives until another trap-door opens and they slip into their own married trap, but as it may be very similar to the one they just left they may not notice the bolts on the windows and doors.

Education is now almost entirely devoted to making us except the trap, to want it, to fashion our own locks even.  And some traps can be very comfortable.  Life outside the trap may appear too dangerous to ever venture outside.  We are trapped in the system, unless we want to be a tramp, homeless, a vagrant.  Or in those rare cases when enough wealth may be created to escape and live a different life, or what may pass for it.

And the biggest trap is our feeble minds and bodies.  Who can truly escape the bonds of the body, with its needs and ailments?  Who can faithfully dismiss all the memories of earlier traps to free your mind and live a trap-free life?  And do we really want to?  Think of all the billionaires, they all get married, they all have kids, despite the freedom all that money could buy.  But maybe freedom becomes another trap also.

Sorry if this blog sounds depressing.  I realised as a child that life was a trap, or to be more precise that I was in one.  As I escaped for a few years I failed to see the hair trigger snap as the trap shut time and again.  And even now, comfortable, I know too that it is a trap.  As living on my own would undoubtedly be too.  Self-awareness doesn’t bring true enlightenment, or if it does you realise you can do little about it, except exchange one trap for another.  Keep smiling….

War By Referendum

Monday 17th March

Well we already knew the result – long before a single Crimean resident had voted.  And it was a Masterstroke.   A bit too rushed, but really this has been the pattern along.  There hasn’t been any time for Diplomacy, for talking, for compromise.

But who started the whole thing.  The Orange Revolution was largely engineered by the West.  If you can believe the conspiracy theorists it was CIA backed.  Who knows?  And there is obviously a large proportion of Ukraines population who want to be part of Europe, who see the West as the future and Russia as the past.  But there is also a large proportion, mainly in the East who seek safety and security in Russia.   Everyone proclaims that Ukraine should remain intact, that it shouldn’t split, but I think it is now inevitable.  America doesn’t like it at all.  But Russia doesn’t like the moves towards Europe either.

And now the Masterstroke has been accomplished.  A referendum that everyone except Russia says is illegal has taken place.  We know the result already.  The population there will overwhelmingly vote to join Russia.  And I don’t think anyone will be able to stop them.

And what do we in the West really believe in?  Certainly not Democracy.  We support Saudi Arabia, where the country is run by a few rich families, we support an Egyptian Army which has illegally deposed a legally elected President and banned his party and arrested most of its leaders.  We supported Ukraine until its legally elected President favoured Russia over us.  And then we supported the mob who orchestrated his downfall and the hastily ‘elected’ new President.  We have declared illegal the very idea of a referendum in Crimea.  We will undoubtedly not recognize the result.  But why ever not?  I have no love for Russia, especially under Putin, but I do love Democracy.  And as the overwhelming desire of the people of Crimea is to be Russian I respect that.   Of course whatever happens next it will just get worse.  Other regions of Ukraine will demand referenda too.  The West is on a loser whatever we do.  So too maybe Russia, but no matter how many sanctions we impose they will surely still be a great world power which we will sooner or later have to do business with again.  This is a new type of war and one we cannot possibly win; it is War by referendum.  Fait Accompli.

The Missing Plane

Sunday 16th March

It’s over a week now, and we still really know nothing.  Actually of course the authorities know a hell of a lot more than they are telling us.  Unless they are completely incompetent.  So; theories.

Plane malfunction – extremely unlikely as there is evidence of the communication systems being deliberately disabled before radar contact was lost.

Terrorism – extremely unlikely, as a) it hasn’t landed anywhere, b) it hasn’t crashed into any buildings, and more importantly c) no terrorist group claims that they did it.

Pilot error – hardly, as it appears that the plane changed course so distinctly, by anything up to 180 degrees.  Besides there was a pilot and co-pilot, so some degree of collusion.

Which leaves in my mind a deliberate suicide by either the pilot or co-pilot, who, one or the other being restrained flew the plane out into the Indian ocean and into the sea.   Mad theory I will admit but nothing else seems to fit.

And very unexplained too – no mobile phones were used by crew or passengers to let anyone know something a bit strange was happening.

Bizarre, yes.  Unbelievable, yes.  Irrational, even more so.

Anyway, the sad fact is we may never know.  The black box may never be recovered, or even if it is we may know the flight path but never the motives, or if the pilot was guilty or forced to do it.

Before long the news will move onto some other story….

Tony Benn – A Personal Memory

Saturday 15th March

I was in my early twenties and had joined the Labour Party.  I do have a problem that I cannot seem to say no to people.  At least I did back then in the mid-seventies, I have learnt as I got older how to stand my ground and walk away, slightly embarrassed maybe, but relieved to have escaped.  I started attending monthly meetings, delivering leaflets and helping organize the Christmas Bazaar.  Before long I was full time, and had been cajoled into or elected as Finchley Constituency Secretary.  It must have been ’78 and we decided to have an Action Week, full of events and posters, culminating in two public meetings with speakers.  This was in Callaghan’s years and the constituency was pretty left-wing, only just held together by the Irish descendent Chairman Mick O’Connor whose wise counsel generally prevailed.

Many names were bandied about and in the end I was asked to write and invite both Tony Benn and Michael Foot.  At this time these two giants bestrode the party, Foot within the Cabinet and Benn a troublesome presence outside.  I was sure we would be ignored or politely declined by both.  Amazingly they both agreed to come and talk at our Action Week.

Foot was first, and the hall was packed, and not just by Labour members; many members of the public came along to hear him.  He spoke well, but generally kept to the safe party line; nothing outrageous, nothing too socialist.  Afterwards he shook my hand as he left.

A week later it was Tony Benn, and the hall was even bigger and packed even tighter, many people standing at the sides.  I met Tony before hand and he chatted with this fairly ignorant long-haired youth as if we were equals.  He seemed interested in my own Pilgrim’s Progress; running away from school and parents at seventeen and for a while being a single Dad.  Neither condoning or condemning me – he just listened.  All too soon it was time to start.

He stood up and spoke for two hours without notes, taking us through the Sixties and early Seventies, analyzing the national and international situation with uncanny precision.  He had the whole audience in his hands, no-on heckled, no-one interrupted him.  And he answered questions for nearly an hour too.

I saw him again a couple of years later as the party was tearing itself apart.  He looked sterner and obviously didn’t remember me – he was on a mission to change the Labour Party.  Well, he failed, but only just and in a way did nudge it a bit further to the left.

I saw him last a couple of years ago at a Rally about Pensions in Hyde Park, Miiliband had just been elected and Benn, an old man now, was perched to the side on his shooting stick and smiling at the crowds gathered.  I went up and introduced myself but I could see in his eyes he didn’t know me.  Why should he?  It was nearly 40 years ago.

But I never forgot him and never will.

The Scottish Problem

Friday 14th March

We are still some way off the Scottish Independence Referendum.  It will be in September, which still seems a long way off.  There has been a lot in the Press about it recently, with arguments raging back and forth.  Heavyweights like the Governor of the Bank of England even being wheeled out to explain just why the Scots couldn’t retain the pound if they split from us.  And the polls show no sign of moving at all, which given all the bluster seems surprising.  Have the Scots already made up their minds?  Or are most of them sitting on their hands?  And at the end of the day will emotion win over sense; will the excitement of something new and unknown; the rare chance for voters to actually affect the future, to really change things – be enough to push the vote over 50%.  At the moment it looks unlikely.

But say it happens, what then?  Many people assume that on September the 19th Scotland would be a separate country, but that won’t happen at all.  There will no doubt be a lot of negotiating, maybe even with the Labour party being invited in for talks too, because the Coalition may well not be in power for that much longer.  An agreement of sorts will be hammered out, a timetable agreed and announcements made; but still little change on the ground.  The Scottish team will ask the IOC if they can appear at RIO in 2016 under their own name; there will be even heavier negotiations with Europe – incidentally at the same time as Cameron may well be negotiating reforms he hopes to sell in his own referendum in 2017.

And there will be a long period of transition while all the institutions and treaties are re-written.  It may well be 2020 before the Scots stand on their own, and even then there may well be an even longer financial transition to ensure the markets don’t sell Scotland short.  By 2025 they will be truly independent, and by then North Sea Oil, already on the decline may be no more.  Who knows how many firms will re-locate either way, or populations.  My guess is that they will be okay, life has a tendency to carry on.  But whether it will really make that much difference to the man in the street I doubt.  He may well read of how people in England are better off, but then they always have been.  London is booming and will continue, and whether Scotland is part of the UK or not they will always lag behind.

The problem of being Ed

Thursday 13th March

Which Ed?  Ed Milliband or Ed Balls?  Well, both really.  Ed Balls is so tarnished by his close association with Gordon Brown, coupled with his too-fast mode of speech, where words and ideas tumble out of his mind with little time for pause or thought.  Let us hope there isn’t a TV debate between Osborne, Cable and Balls because Vince will win hands down.

Ed Milliband has an unfortunate pallor, unruly hair and a tendency to frown on TV.  When he has a platform, at conference for instance he is a very accomplished speaker – but how many potential voters watch conference speeches, or even the soundbites on the news.  The Tories will undoubtedly make the 2015 election almost a Presidential one, emphasizing the Statesman-like presence of Cameron and the relative inexperience of Ed.  Who knows how it will end, but usually the polls at the start of the campaign proper are a good indication of who will actually win.

Labour may well be elected despite Ed, and not because of him.  After all – now that the LibDems have shown how happy they are to ditch their principles there is nowhere else on the left for voters to go to.  Many may actually drift towards UKIP, though Labour should be safe in the North and old City centres.  A lot could depend too on how the Scottish Referendum goes.  If Salmond wins the SNP may make big gains on the euphoria in the General Election.  If, as I suspect, they lose, Labour may be able to claw back in Scotland, especially if they offer Devo-Max.

It is far too late to change either of the Eds now and Labour must just plug on regardless.  I suspect that Labour will end up the largest party, and may have to go into Coalition with the rump of the LibDems.

Not such a terrible prospect.

Even the Tories Don’t Like Cameron

Wednesday 12th March

Well, actually in the circumstances my opinion, though nobody has ever asked me for it, is that Mr. Cameron is not so bad.  At least compared to Heath or Thatcher, who were equally awful.  In the same way that many life-long Tories didn’t really mind Tony Blair; the reason being that he isn’t a full-blooded Tory (just as Blair wasn’t really Labour).  Mind you – many in the Cabinet are, especially Jeremy Hunt and Ian Duncan-Smith, who are like dogs who though kept on their leashes refuse to stop snarling and baying for blood.  The trouble with Mr. Cameron is that he realised early on that the tide was turning against the Tories.  Labour won a landslide in 1997 which even took them by surprise; it was as if they couldn’t quite believe the polls themselves.  In the end they wasted much of that good will, with internal bickering and a caution which was probably unwarranted.  They won two more elections on lower shares of the vote, largely because the Tory party was being led by right-wingers Hague and IDS and Michael Howard.  Then along came Cameron, whose mission was to detoxify the Tory brand.  He only partially succeeded and now that we have had four years of (a slightly watered down) Tory administration the Tory brand is again hated by many. But not as much as many Tories hate Cameron.

Firstly for trying to introduce the concept of Compassionate Conservatism in the first place; secondly for not winning in 2010 outright; thirdly for going into Coalition rather than leading a Minority, but Real Tory Government, even if it might have been shot down in flames after a couple of years; also for his natural caution in not immediately giving them a referendum on Europe and last but not least for sanctioning Gay Marriage.   This last actually raises the hackles of more Tory backwoodsmen that any other single policy.

All of this means that he is in real trouble.  Until 2015 he must still appease the LibDems – still try to appear reasonable, but at the same time he knows that not only will he have to fight those same LibDems for many marginal seats, but UKIP is snapping at his heels, presenting the Tory faithful with just the very ideaology they actually love.