My Record Collection 7

Saturday 10th March

Joan Armatrading 2   Her second album was Back To The Night.  I find this a slightly unsatisfactory record: it was recorded mostly with a handful of session players, who I don’t think were really attuned to Joan’s songs. Or it may have been the other way round, and Joan wasn’t really ready to work with these new people.  She is reputed to have argued with her record producer that she didn’t even want to sing on the record at all, that she just wanted to write the songs and play guitar or piano.  Whatever the reason it doesn’t quite work despite having the splendid song “Cool Blue Stole My Heart” on it.  I was, at this time – the mid-seventies – an avid recorder of live concerts on BBC radio, and live she sings this and a few other songs from this record far better and with far more feeling ‘live’ than on the studio versions.  Maybe she was just having difficulty working with other players, which, when she went on tour with her own hand-picked band, was not a problem.  Having seen her myself a couple of times live, her songs take on a special resonance live.  And yet she has been quite reluctant to release live albums until this Century, when maybe her slowing down of new material has prompted her to put out, but even here, only a couple, of live records.

Her third album was simply titled Joan Armatrading, rather strange for a third album.  But this was indeed a re-launch.  Glynn Johns was her new producer, and he seems to have worked brilliantly with her.  This is THE early Joan album to get, almost every song is exceptional, and her voice is so sensual and lazy, wrapping itself around the words, caressing them.   The album opens with a bluesy “Down to Zero” and closes with “Tall in The Saddle” and there isn’t a poor song between these two classics.  I think that “Love and Affection” is just possibly the most accurate love song ever written, it is just exquisite.  I also love “Water With The Wine” and “Somebody Who Loves You”.  I don’t think Joan’s singing has ever been better than on this record, bluesy and gentle and yet strong and determined, even in the same song.  Like all the greatest singers, she is not only note perfect but manages to get so much emotion into her singing – and is instantly recognisable.  They had a programme on telly once where they tried to get ‘Pop’ singers to sing opera, and vice versa.  Of course, it didn’t work, but the most ridiculous were those perfect opera singers completely ruining rock and pop songs.  There is something about the immediacy of this music that just hits the right nerves in our brains.  This record is so good I have just listened to it three times in a row – and it sounds just as fresh and relevant each time.

Market Day

Thursday 8th March

Another Thursday, Another Market Day.  We used to measure our weeks by the weekends, now it is Jeudi, Market Day.   The market in France is an institution, it is far more popular than in England.  There is a market every day of the week in one of the surrounding towns – but Thursday is market day in Eymet.  And almost everyone comes into town for the market.  It is not only a place to shop, but a meeting place.  The town is transformed, the normally (in Winter) deserted square if full of stalls; a real butchers, two fresh fish stalls selling every variety you could ever want, cheeses from all over France, fantastic vegetables, many of them local and ‘bio’.  There is a man selling hats of every shape and size, a few clothes stalls as well as others selling jewelry or children’s toys.  And then there are the hot food stalls; rotisserie chicken, paella, a Chinese van selling nems.  The market sets up around seven – and I am there to serve them coffee.

The French come out before nine and get the best bargains, the freshest fish, the choicest fruit and veg.  the English start emerging around ten, and meander around, dropping in to us for coffee and a chat later.  The Café is buzzing, people almost fighting for a table – but everyone gets served.  I am not sure they really want coffee, they meet their friends and talk…

And by 1 it is all over, the stalls are all packed away into vans and driven off, the square is clean, every scrap of paper and litter is taken away.  By 2 you would never know there had even been a market at all.  It is quiet again.  Until next Thursday when the transformation takes place again.

Image result for images of market in Eymet

Trade Wars

Wednesday 8th March

It is almost impossible to keep up with the serial tweeter Donald Trump.  Blink and you miss them.  In the time it takes Theresa May to declare for the nth time that she will make a success of Brexit, the Trumpster has tweeted that he will start a trade war and he will win it…

Oh dear….

The whole trajectory of recent years has been for free (or as free as can be negotiated) trade deals.  The EU’s Single Market is the best in the world.  And America soon followed with NAFTA (basically Canada, USA and Mexico) and there is another in South East Asia.  It has been demonstrated that allowing unfettered and free trade between countries is good for everyone.  But the Donald disagrees.  He says that Free Trade Agreements hurt the USA, that everyone is ‘ripping them off’, that Free Trade is closing American Factories and Coal Mines and Steel Plants.  And there is some truth in this, but only some.  It is American businessmen who are to blame – just as in Britain, rather than invest in new machinery and processes, they prefer to close down factories and import from the far east.  And bugger the consequences.  International Capitalism has no conscience – it will always follow the biggest profit.  So, Donald’s answer is to place large tariffs on Steel entering the USA, in the hope that American companies will start buying steel produced in America instead.  But, strangely, it doesn’t work like that.  Firstly, it puts up the price of Steel, and not only for foreign steel but home-produced will rise in price too.  And maybe that imported steel will start to get cheaper.  Very rarely do Government’s taxes and tariffs have the desired effect.

And then, of course, there will be the inevitable retaliation.  The EU, and China and Japan will start to impose tariffs on American imports.  And tit-for-tat – everyone loses.

Trade Wars are not winnable.  They are just as destructive as all wars, only jobs and living standards are the victims not territory and direct death.

So, we may be about to be entering a new downturn.  World trade is the biggest driver of wealth.  Combined with the inevitable increases to come in interest rates, prepare for a bumpy ride

Not exactly the best of times to have triggered Article 50…

My Record Collection 6

Tuesday 6th March

Joan Armatrading 1   The first of the biggies – and they don’t come much bigger than Joan.  She really has been THE premier British female artist of the last fifty years – and I would go as far as stating, that for her longevity and her song-writing and performing and playing a multitude of instruments, hardly any other woman in the World comes close.  Born in St. Kitts in 1950, her family moved to Birmingham when she was three.  She taught herself piano and guitar and amazingly was fired from her first job for playing her guitar to workmates in her lunch break….so much for multi-cultural Britain in the Sixties.

She joined a rep company performing ‘Hair’ and met Pam Nestor.  Together they wrote Joan’s first album, Pam the main lyricist.  “Whatever Is For Us” was released on Cube records in 1972.  And I bought it (I think I liked the cover and was intrigued by her name).  And it is so wonderful that I would rate it along with Joan’s far more famous later releases.  Every song is beautiful, and Joan’s singing is so clear and strong, and yet gentle too.  She really is the most remarkable singer, no-one else sounds anything like her.  She has also managed to meld into one, her black West Indian cultural roots, her black identity, her female identity – alongside a rock sensibility second to none.  She comes up with original melodies time after time, and her songs are complex, moving through phases and time shifts.  Her piano and guitar playing are wonderful too.  Anyway, the album opens with “My Family”, and her family is all of us.  Best songs are hard to choose, but I love ‘Visionary Mountains’ and ‘It Could Have Been Better’.  One thing, which I only learnt much later, is that Joan is a lesbian -but as her songs (mostly about love) are almost all directed at ‘you’ it doesn’t make the slightest difference to the emotion.  And emotion is just what she gets into those quiet love songs, in a direct manner rarely approached by others.  I know she became famous a few years later, but this record is simply brilliant too.

Well, the partnership with Pam Nestor didn’t work out, neither did the contract with Cube, and she seemed to disappear for about three years.  But she was busy plugging away at her song-writing ready to burst back on the scene in 1975.

There Is A War

Monday 6th March

Another Leonard Cohen song; of course – who else.  And there is a war.  Politics has turned really nasty.  The post-war consensus has broken down.  And it is not even really along Left and Right lines any more.  It is far deeper than that.  It is, on one level, a War between the old and the young.  In almost all of the Western world we have a generation or two who have done incredibly well.  Many working-class people now own their own houses, have decent pensions and lead what can only be termed a decent lifestyle.  But for our younger people that rosy future is rapidly fading fast.  Their chances of owning their own home probably rely on their parents dying and leaving them a house; their chances of a decent pension have also got harder as more and more (both public and private) sector employers are paring back pensions as each year passes.  And of course, their State pensions are fast disappearing over the hill, each new Government seems to push the retirement age higher.  They also have to pay for their University Education; or get into huge debt at a young age – and besides, unlike for their parents, there is no guarantee of a decent job at the end either.  It is no accident that mostly older people voted Brexit and tend to be Tories.

There has always been a War between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have Nots’.  But it is getting worse, and far more desperate for those at the bottom of society.  Homelessness has doubled in the last seven years; Universal Credit is more and more aimed at depriving the poorest of even a basic living.  The only way this will change is if there is a complete change of our whole approach to Taxation and Public Spending.  We have had approaching eight years of Austerity.  The excuse was to bring the deficit under control, which it may have belatedly achieved.  But the real politics behind Austerity was to roll back the state, to force people to make private provision.  And those that could afford to have benefited – but at the cost of the poor.  And guess who most of the Haves vote for too.

There is a War between Ignorance and Enlightenment.  We have seen the rise of ‘Strong Popular Politicians’, who appear to some people as clowns but to others as the answer.  And so Farage, and Trump, and Putin – soon maybe to be joined by  Berlusconi in Italy, march on with their armies of believers.  I am still confident that in the long run, common sense will prevail, that compassion will beat cruelty, that sharing will overcome greed.  I just don’t have much hope for the immediate future.

Reality Check

Sunday 4th March

We have had a couple of days to digest the latest Brexit speech from Theresa May.  So, what do we think of it?  The papers were mostly positive.  But it wasn’t really about the content (where there really were no surprises) but the tone.  She appeared less strident, more grounded in the real world, less confrontational – all of which was indeed welcome.  She spoke of hard choices, and that no-one, neither the EU, or us, would get everything they wanted.

But she still fudged the hard decisions; we still do not know her real end-game.  Sometimes she blows hot and sometimes she blows cold.  At times she appears to be at the mercy of the mad Brexiteers, at others a more reasonable face is worn.

She did trot out the usual stuff about wanting a frictionless border, especially between Northern Ireland and the South.  She repeated that she wanted no Single Market or Customs Union (but did mention a possible Customs Arrangement, whatever that may be) and some small involvement of the dreaded (and for some unknown reason) ECJ in certain sectors.

So, some sort of a reality check.

It all depends now on how this is received by the EU.  I suspect that they will simply sit and wait.  Not exactly stonewalling, but waiting for concrete proposals from us about the exact nature of our desired relationship with Europe after we leave.  And this is where the real reality check will happen.  It is all very well to spray your speeches with sweet words about a close relationship – but, we have decided to leave, we are causing the remaining EU problems, in trade and for their future budgets.  But….we must not forget that much as they would have preferred for us to have stayed, or stayed at least in the Single Market or the Customs Union; they are reconciled to us going.   And…their main priority will be to maintain the cohesion of the remaining 27 nations.  They will not give us anything like as good a deal as we have now (and even Theresa May hinted at this in her speech).  They will not want to be seen to be punishing the UK, but they will be sending a signal to possible other leavers.  I think that we will have to end up in some sort of a Customs Union (call it an arrangement, if you will) whereby goods can pass freely between us and them.  But there will be a cost attached; it may be possible to (eventually) electronically track goods but some paperwork will undoubtedly be required and some tariffs too (despite what everyone says).  The real problem is with Services and Finances, which at the moment are covered by the Single Market – not the Customs Union, as no physical goods cross borders.  And most of our trade with Europe is in these sectors.  I don’t think that the EU will blink first.  After all, only a few years ago Germany went through a painful process of re-integrating the East with the more successful West; the EU have managed to keep things going despite the Greek crisis.  They are resilient, and, I believe, that they will be prepared to take a hit in the short term in order to maintain their integrity and their rules.

This will be the hardest reality check for Mrs. May – and she already knows it.  I am still of the opinion that if things get tough she may cut and run with no deal at all.  Immediately dissolve Parliament and call a general election, hoping that the Tory party and the press will rally round.  Then, of course, all bets are off, except that Labour will say that they will go back and re-negotiate, an option Mrs May will have thrown away.

 

Snowbound

Saturday 3rd March

Well, I am back in the UK, and the country is snowbound.  Well, not really.   I know I have just been in Stansted and London and many parts of the country have had it worse, but it doesn’t really seem that bad.  An inch of snow, maybe.  So, why has this year’s snowfall caused so much trouble.  Are we going soft?  Or is something else going on?

It may actually be a coming together of several factors.  Firstly, it is the first year in quite a few, when we have even seen any snow.  I know that memory is an unreliable guide, but growing up, snow was not unusual.  We had some Winters worse than others, especially 1963.  But many years as an adult I seem to recall trudging through much deeper snow than this.  So, maybe we are just not so used to it. But….this was hardly unexpected.  It had been predicted quite a few days in advance.  The country should not have been taken by surprise.

It came late in the year.  Maybe our defences were down, we thought the Winter was over.  But none of this would begin to explain how badly this spell of snow and cold has affected our transport systems.

My plane arrived over two hours late from Stansted.  It had to be de-iced after landing there.  But, at least Stansted kept planes flying.  Both Heathrow and Gatwick cancelled flights and Glasgow and Cardiff shut down entirely.

But it was the trains which seem to have been hardest hit.  I had to wait 35 minutes for the train from London on Thursday night; there is normally a train every 15 minutes.  And we crawled into London.  Friday morning there were no trains going out of Liverpool Street to Clacton on even to Colchester.  They did start running by midday, but I was worried about getting back, so I didn’t venture out to Walton this visit.  The roads, according to the TV have been badly affected too, and some people were trapped in cars or trains all night.

So, the country is pretty snowbound.  People are warned to only travel if absolutely necessary  – but how do you define that?  Many hourly paid staff will simply not be paid if they don’t get in to work.

And there were even scares that the country might be running out of gas. The excuse is that as we only get this level of snow about every 10 years it isn’t worth investing in the systems that allow other countries to deal with this sort of weather.  You have to wonder it the disruption and damage caused is not worth it either..

 

My Record Collection 5

Thursday 1st March

Fiona Apple   Another shouty American girl, heralded as the next big thing.  Her record “The Pawn…” achieved notoriety for having the longest record title (it was a long poem) is okay, but except for one quality song “Get Gone” it really failed to inspire me.  It is probably just me, but most new music after the mid-nineties leaves me a bit cold.  But, I still keep trying (well, less so of late), hoping that someone will come up with both something new, and relevant and which moves me.  Maybe we all suffer from the Music of our younger years, when it meant so much more to us, casting a shadow over everything else we listen to.  I am one of those hopeless cases who has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Sixties and Seventies music, but when young girls and boys sing songs on The Voice or X Factor, I have no knowledge of the song they are singing (from this Century) and sometimes haven’t even heard of the Artist they are emulating.  Oh Well…

Arcade Fire  Another 21st Century Artist, or band – Arcade Fire.  I only have the one record ‘Funeral’ and it is really rather good.  But maybe I am just getting tired of bands -but although these are certainly different and have their own distinctive sound I have not felt moved to buy anything else by them.  I am simply spending too much time (and money) filling in the gaps and wading through 8 disc box-sets of too many old favourites.  Anyway, this record is rather good, if a touch on the repetitive side.  None of the songs really stand out from the rest, and the voice of French Canadian, Win Butler is a bit desperate sounding.  They seem to have a loyal following though, and I wish them well.

Argent When the Zombies split up, (although they stayed close enough to often play on each other’s records) Rod Argent, the keyboard player and writer of many of their songs formed Argent.   Vocal duties were by Russ Ballard, who was in Unit 4 + 2, and who, along with Rod wrote most of the band’s songs.  They formed in 1969 and had split by 1975.  This was far more common in the Sixties and Seventies – bands came and went, and so did their members.  I used to have a lovely chart which hung in my loo, a family tree of many of the Sixties bands and how people moved around forming sometimes short-lived new bands.  Anyway I bought a couple of Argent records from second hand shops.  They were quite good, but by no means really exceptional.  I now have their Greatest Hits CD.  I used to be quite snobbish about these compilations, but actually sometimes all you really need is a Greatest Hits album.  Best songs are, of course, “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” and “Hold Your Head Up”.  The rest of the record is very pleasant too.  Rod Argent had a short solo career and of late has reformed The Zombies, making albums with Colin Blunstone (see B), and live they always play the two big Argent hits too.