S – is for Viv Stanshall

Wednesday 8th February

Vivian Stanshall was a founding member of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.  They were a strange mix of trad jazz and comedy and eventually a rock band.  Neil Innes was also in the band.  They had one big single “I’m the Urban Spaceman”, which was actually produced by Paul McCartney.  Viv Stanshall, a Teddy Boy really, played saxophone and euphonium and anything else you could blow.  He was also an incredible brilliant lyricist and his voice could be immaculate, posh, erudite and coarse in the same sentence.

When the band broke up, or ran out of steam Viv went solo.  He did the vocal bit at the end of Tubular Bells, but Viv was a manic depressive and an alcoholic too.  He was notoriously unreliable, missing studio recordings, live gigs and even radio slots with increasing regularity.  He was a great friend and drinking pal of Keith Moon.

But he did make at least one brilliant album.  “Sir Henry At Rawlinson End” is mostly a spoken word monologue with occasional musical interludes.  Viv weaves a hilarious but beautifully written and spoken world, centred on Sir Henry, an aristocratic and brutal alcohol swilling and foul-mouthed lord of the manor.  There are a whole cast of characters, all voiced by Viv in a range of wonderful voices.  The songs are quite funny too but bizarre in their arrangements and vocal deliveries.

There was even a film with Trevor Phillips in the lead role.  Album and film both sunk with little trace.  As did Viv.  He struggled to create a solo career, despite help from many musician friends including Steve Winwood (Viv wrote the words for Arc of a Diver) and died in a house fire, probably caused by his smoking and drinking in bed and falling asleep.  He was a true English eccentric and like a lot of very funny men he may have been desperately unhappy too.  I loved his work, a pity more people didn’t.

Vivian Stanshall

Religious Discord – 3) Israel and the Arabs

Tuesday 7th February

I am not even sure if this is a ‘Religious’ conflict at all.  Though some of my friends who happen to be Jewish will insist that even writing about this is anti-Semitic.  This one goes back a long way, how far back is not really known.  What we do know is that for hundreds of years Jews were despised, legislated against and persecuted all over Europe and the Middle East.  No-one can possibly defend this behaviour, and of course, to a somewhat lesser degree, it is still going on today.  The terrible events of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.  But, and here is where things get complicated; should our collective shame over these events blind us from what is happening in the Middle East today?

Fast forward to the late 1940’s.  Promises were made, apparently to both sides during the First World War and after, about who would be given land and independence in the former Turkish Empire, now in the hands of England and France.  Lines were drawn in the sand which have caused problems ever since.  After a vicious campaign by radical Zionists/freedom fighters (take your pick) where several British Soldiers were killed Israel (Jewish) was created and approved by the UN.  Immediately the surrounding Arab (Muslim) countries vowed to destroy Israel.  There were also accusations that many Palestinian Arabs (Muslims) were removed from the land (by the Israelis) they had farmed for generations and huge refugee camps grew in Lebanon and Jordan.

In 1967 there was indeed a war, which Israel won comprehensively.  But….

The Israeli troops did not return to their former borders; in effect a new larger Israel was created in the Occupied Territories.  Negotiations have been brokered over the years and mostly broken down.  Many Palestinians have resorted to violence in the face of what they see as Israeli intransigence; this has been met with even more violence from Israel, which has been generally protected and supported by America and the Arabs, on and off by the Russians.

I see absolutely no prospect of this dispute being resolved in the near future.  Netanyahu, the Israeli leader seems hell-bent on increasing settlements of Israelis (Jews) on land claimed by and often occupied by Palestinians (Muslims).  The current leadership of the Palestinians appears to be less virulently anti-Israeli than former leaders – but this is making little difference.

Seen from the Muslim perspective this is just another aspect of the crusade against them.  Seen from the Jewish perspective, they are still being persecuted, and this was anyway their promised land and they were there two thousand years ago.

And really, this is not just about Religion but rather another hangover from the days of Empire, which some believe was also all about Religion.

Religious Discord – 2) Christians and Islam

Monday 6th February

I have been sorting out books at Walton.  Goodness, how many I have read over the years.  Now I read on kindle; I know, and I too love the beauty of books but it is far more convenient and the words are the same – and it is and always has been the words which matter.  Anyway, I have just come across “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth.  The premise of the book is that Charles Lindbergh of aviation fame actually succeeded in the 1940 US election (in reality he lost) and what happened then.  He was a rabid anti-semite and, in the book, he makes a pact with Hitler and persecutes American Jews.  Anyway, it reminded me instantly of Trump.  Different time, and a different hatred – or maybe not even a hatred but a playing on people’s fears rather.

I have a few work colleagues and friends who are Muslim.  And they see the current situation rather differently than our news media reports it.  They feel that the West, and specifically America is embarked on a crusade against Islam.  Well, if you simply look at the facts – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and now possibly Iran; there is one common thread, these countries are all Muslim and we are bombing, or threatening to bomb, the hell out of them.

The West blames radical Islam, Al Queda, Isis, Daesh – call it what you will, while continuing to insist that the majority of Muslims are okay.  Well, that was until Trump’s latest travel ban, where he seems to have lumped all Muslims and potential terrorists together.  So what is the truth?  Or is the truth the first victim in this Religious conflict.  America is a far more Religious nation than the U.K.  it was the Pilgrim Fathers who first tried to ‘colonise’ the place and so-called “Christian Beliefs” which have dominated.  Strange really when you think about Slavery, Segregation and the brutal nature of Capitalism that these are in any way consistent with Christian beliefs – but there you go.  And the Republican Party is staunchly Christian.  It is almost impossible for anyone standing to be President to also profess to be an Atheist, or maybe worse still – a Muslim.  And Americans, and I have met a few, are so isolated on their continent anyway that they see the whole world through American eyes.  They struggle to understand other cultures, and even more so now that Trump is in power, see their role as the ‘Greatest Nation On Earth’.  And anyone who questions that….?

Trump can no longer be laughed off as an idiot, uncouth, and all the rest.  He and the Right-wing cabal he has assembled are hell-bent on their mission to re-assert American Supremacy.  The biggest flashpoints?  Ukraine, but he wants to be best buddies with Putin so that may be ignored.  China and Taiwan – even Trump must be wary of China.  Israel can sleep easier now that he is on their side too.  But it may be Iran where the real danger lies.  If things keep getting worse and he starts to bomb Iran then who knows where this may lead….

Back to sorting the books, far too many to save – in reality, I want to keep them all.  I know I won’t re-read many at all, but they are all beautiful; if only they didn’t take up so much space.  But at least it will save someone else the trip to the charity shop one day….hahaha

Religious Discord – 1) Northern Ireland

Sunday 5th February

We thought, stupidly as it turned out, that we had put this one to bed almost twenty years ago.  Possibly the greatest achievement of Blair’s Government was The Northern Ireland Agreement.  It took a couple of years of hard negotiation and a lot of compromise to achieve, thanks largely to dear Mo Mowlam.  If only Blair had put half as much effort into helping find a settlement in the Middle East the World might have been a safer place, but that is for a later post.

So, exactly what has gone wrong with the Northern Ireland Agreement.  It has tottered a few times and even been suspended, but has survived.  With its unique form of power sharing Northern Ireland has thrived, paramilitary killings almost completely eradicated and a sense that slowly Northern Ireland was becoming more tolerant and like the rest of the United Kingdom (ahem, more of that later too).

The current stalemate and fresh elections (which will achieve little) have come about because of a financial scandal involving grants for a green scheme; badly administered Sinn Fein claims by the now First Minister and Leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster.  Now, the most unlikely of bed-fellows, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness had found a way to work together despite their huge Political and Religious differences but since Mr. Paisley’s demise things have got slowly worse.  And now that Martin, who is seriously ill, is departing too – it must fall to a new generation of Politicians to find a way of getting on.  Or not.  And it would seem, that despite the success of the last few years, there are plenty on both sides who would rather go back to some former time. Everyone claims they do not want a return to violence, but without some form of agreement that is looking more and more likely.

So, what is the core of the problem in Northern Ireland.  Does it really go back to King Billy and his Orangemen’s victory over the Catholics of Ireland over three hundred years ago?  Or is it the years of oppression by the Protestants in the North which led to the Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties and ultimately to the troubles.  Much of the problem is that almost every family knows someone or was directly affected by the troubles.  It is once more the older generation who cannot forget, most youngsters are better educated and realise that a person need not be defined solely by their Religion.

But dig a bit deeper and read some Victorian novels and you will realise how much hatred there still was of Catholics in Britain as a whole only a hundred or so years ago.  It is actually the losing of our religion in England that has been our saving grace (apologies for using a biblical reference).  Our religion is now so poorly observed that most of us don’t really care what, or if you have any, religion at all you profess to believe.  But just under this bland surface lies a deep suspicion of the ‘different’, of ‘foreign’ cultures and religions.  And UKIP has successfully scratched these almost healed scabs and is itching to let the blood flow again…


Saturday 4th February

Harriet and Jane loved to cut out the models and clothes on the back of Bunty, pasting Bunty’s be-vested and be-panted little body on to an empty Corn Flake box, then hacking with a pair of old scissors would cut it out again, and with a piece of cardboard inserted in the base at right angles would stand her up and hang on all of her clothes, carefully folding tabs A and B around her shoulders and waist.   And Harriet would make up plays where the different Buntys would go shopping or to the Pictures with their Mummy’s, and Jane would have to move them around on cue, and cock their little be-hatted heads towards each other as Harriet would make up the conversation for Bunty when she would meet her dear friend Bunty on the way to the park, dressed in her white pompom-ed coat, skating boots in one hand and red and white handbag in the other.  They never tired of Bunty, and Harriet, who could read more fluently than Jane, would recite the story every week as Jane followed her finger across the page, desperately trying to convert the letters into the words coming up moments before Harriet spoke them.

*  * *

Harriet thought Jane was such a baby; she never seemed to want to grow up at all.  Harriet was dying to grow up, to be a teenager and a woman and all of that stuff, she didn’t know if Jane even thought about tomorrow, let alone the rest of her life, she just seemed content to live in the moment.  Harriet was always planning her life and even though she was in no position to fulfill these ambitions it didn’t stop her having them.  She would be going to the Grammar School, that was a given, after all she was top of the class, then it would have to be University.  Her father was a Cambridge man, and he was always talking about his University days, and the College he was at.  He would watch the Boat Race every year on the television.  He wasn’t really interested in any other sports; he barely watched any television, except for the News, the boring old news.  Even Sunday Night at the London Palladium with those glamorous Tiller Girls all dancing with their spangly legs going up high in the air, Jane and Harriet were allowed to stay up and watch it, but their Daddy would be reading his paper, hardly noticing the girls or the television.  Harriet used to practice in her bedroom kicking her legs up higher and higher, and would dream of being a Tiller girl and living the high life up in London, getting invited to parties with film stars and being adored by everyone.  ‘Heaven knows what Jane was going to do with her life,’ thought Harriet; she wasn’t even sure if she was clever enough to pass her eleven plus, and that was one thing Harriet couldn’t help her with.  She would have to manage that herself.

*  * *

Harriet easily passed her eleven plus and was starting for Grammar School in a few weeks time, and her father was really proud of her.  He knew she was incredibly bright and always had excellent reports and he wondered what she would be when she grew up. He wouldn’t have even minded if she had become a lawyer like him, hopefully a cleverer and more devoted one than he was.  He hadn’t known what he had been thinking when he started reading Law, some brilliant career at the Bar he supposed, defending murderers or complicated arguments about some obscure aspect of the law.  The reality was that he was dealing with property and disputes about bits of land, or empty industrial units, or writing to tenants about rents outstanding in a small country Practice  where nothing of any excitement ever happened at all.  The same old grind day after day, week after week, until he turned into a replica of his own father, scarcely talking to his children, and burying himself in his work to stop himself from going completely mad.  He was just managing to keep his head above water financially, but as soon as he seemed to get some money in his bank it would need to be spent on something or other.  In Phil’s case it certainly wasn’t trying to keep up with the Joneses, he had no desire to emulate Jones with his dry sarcasm and logical way of looking at everything, far too dour for his liking.  He kept thinking he had gone into the wrong business; he should have been in commerce of some kind, buying and selling, the excitement of the market, instead of this dry legal career.  He had tried a few small ventures, but they always seemed to come to nothing, and they were more trouble getting out of than they had been worth in the first place.  Better give up those silly ideas altogether really, just accept his lot.  he had two lovely girls and a still very pretty wife, what more could anyone expect.  Looking back he had done it, at nearly forty he had made it, or at least on the surface it looked as if he had made it, and really that was what mattered most wasn’t it.  People looked up to him, to them, the Wilkinsons.  They were ‘somebodys’ in this town, though no-one knew how hard he had to work to hold it all together.

*  * *

All too soon the girls were grown out of Bunty and even the few dolls they had, and like Harriet before her Jane was on my way to the Big School, the Grammar School.  She could remember for weeks they were drilled and tested on old 11 plus exam papers until they could do it in their sleep, and almost all of them got pass marks every time and all the other girls in her class of about 12 passed the actual exam without any trouble at all.

It was only later that she learnt that the kids from the council houses, who went to the local Junior School, the 30 or more kids to a class state school, weren’t prepared at all.  One day they were simply told that the fourth year pupils were to stay behind after Assembly, and then were sat at desks and told not to turn the paper over until the Headmaster told them to.  Totally unprepared they were told to answer the questions and write their name and address on the form just as it was written on the blackboard.  Inevitably, at least one child headed his barely completed paper just as the Headmaster had done ‘Joe Bloggs, 1 Brick Lane’.

And there in the bewildering atmosphere of their first ever exam, and having no clue what it was all about, the wheat was sorted from the chaff.  There, as they were asked the next number in the following sequence, or if milk is to cow, what are eggs to, and other such brain-teasers designed by the clever-clogs at the Ministry of Education to accurately assess a child’s Intelligence Quotient, their futures were decided.  The lucky few who by chance or some native skill actually understood and completed the questions were rewarded by being separated from their friends forever and much to their parent’s pride got a place at Grammar School.

The vast majority were rejected, and condemned to a second class and second rate Secondary Modern School, where they would never get the chance to take G C E exams or to learn Latin.  At least their parents would be able to afford the uniform without too many sacrifices, and when they got to fifteen they would go down the foundry or work on the farm like their dads before them, but they would also learn how to change a three-pin plug, and how to use a fork and spade, and how to strip down a motor-bike engine, and how to cook a few dinners, and how to sew and darn, so maybe it wasn’t all bad.  Strange now that a different folk-memory exists of how wonderful it all was before the ‘awful conformity’ of Comprehensives, talk about rose-tinted spectacles.

And the important thing was that you ended up with the right children in the right schools, while preserving the fig-leaf of democracy and entitlement and a fair chance for all children of whatever backgrounds.  How pleased they must have been with themselves, at their Masonic lodges or at the golf club, that they had interpreted the legislation so equably and fairly.

But it wasn’t this, or the realisation of that injustice of it that began to wake Jane up. No, that was all down to Music, and Harriet of course.

S – is Squeeze

Friday 3rd February

Squeeze were actually formed in 1974 but had to wait until 1979 for any sort of success.  That was the way of things back then; bands formed and spent a few years on the circuit, playing pubs and clubs and learning their craft, writing and rejecting songs until they found their niche and their fans and eventually a record contract and possibly hits.  Squeeze were basically Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook who wrote all the songs, Jools Holland played keyboards.  Over the years various drummers and bass players have joined and left.  Jools went off to present ‘The Tube’ on channel 4 and later ‘Later’ on the Beeb.  Paul Carrack sang vocals for a while – but it was really always Chris and Glenn, songwriters superb.  And they are still going, still writing songs and recording again.  At the height of their fame they were even compared to Lennon and McCartney.

And the songs they wrote were always very English, very individual and quite brilliant.  Their first hits were “Cool for Cats” and “Up The Junction”, sharp songs about London and young kids starting out in life – but always with a twist.  My favourites are “Goodbye Girl”, “Pulling Mussels From A shell” and the very sad “Labelled With love”.

I only have their greatest hits on CD nowadays but really must look out their earlier albums if I get a chance.  They remain one of the very best English bands of the Eighties and Nineties and always bring a smile to my face when I hear their songs.


The Debate

Thursday 2nd February

For once the House of Commons excelled itself, brilliant speeches (on both sides) in the Brexit debate; or rather the bill giving permission for the Government to actually trigger Article 50.  It was presented by many, mostly Tories, as a carte-blanche for Mrs. May to do what she wants (which seems to be a hard Brexit) with no more ado, no further debates and no possibility of Parliament being able to reject or amend or even approve what she eventually ends up with.  This was of course nonsense.  But it was the first time an actual bill has been presented to Parliament for M.P.s to debate and pass or amend or reject.  There is no doubt that it will be passed; there never really was – despite some moving speeches from a few Labour and SNP M.P.s who said that in all conscience they had to obey their constituents (who voted remain) and vote against the Government.  But there were a few threats too, from the SNP mostly that they WOULD stay in the Single Market whatever; in other words a new, possibly illegal, Scottish Independence Referendum and then some form of Unilateral Declaration of Independence.

There are literally hundreds of amendments, which will barely get a chance to be debated or even voted on, but the hope is that somehow there will be some check on Mrs. May’s independence and that she will have to amend her plans.  Of course in the heat of negotiations there is no telling what Mrs. May will agree to or even be offered by the other 27 countries.  Her, and our, best hope will be a long transition period where we are still members of the Single Market but able to negotiate trade deals with other countries.  But that transition period will in all likelihood simply extend the free movement of people and our payments to the EU…not exactly what the majority of people voted for I think.


Wednesday 1st February

All our lives we are on a treadmill, methodically placing one foot in from of the other and slowly turning the wheel round and round; it moves so slowly that we don’t even notice passing GO or collecting £200.  From childhood into old age we plod on and on, most of us are so used to the treadmill that we don’t even notice – sometimes in fact we are so mindless that our feet positively skip.  The days are repetitious; you wake and fumble to the loo and pee, make a cup of tea, then a poo and cleaning of teeth, shave and shower and another cup of tea.  Maybe there are dogs or cats to be fed or a partner to ask if they slept well.  Then onto the day itself, tread-away young hearts – you won’t get very far.  Sometimes the treadmill changes, we even delude ourselves that we are in charge of the treadmill, but try stepping off and you will be thrown to the ground.

Some of us achieve a state of wealth that we may live in Hotels, no more beds to make or meals to cook, but even indolence is a treadmill – maybe the hardest to tread of all.

And this is the state of being a member of the human race, we are all engaged in keeping the treadmill turning – though exactly where it is going and if anyone is in charge of direction or speed remains a mystery.  And those lucky few, vagrants or hippies or call them what you will, who manage to slip away from the treadmill – do you really think they have escaped at all?  As a child I sometimes dreamed of being a hermit, living alone on an island away from all people, but maybe even island existence is a treadmill too.

But hey ho, don’t be glum– let’s all haul away together boys.  Tread softly now or we might wake our neighbours as they sleep walk through their days, each and every one on their own little treadmills….

Tomorrow is another day, another treadmill maybe.  perhaps this one will lead us where we think we want to go; we can dream anyway.