The Voice vs X Factor

Monday 31st March

We are inundated with talent shows, it is almost wall to wall, with all the spin-offs too.  I can remember a time when Hughie Green presented Opportunity Knocks.  Thirty minutes a week.  And these were real amateurs, and it often showed; they would sing off key, or drop balls or fall over – but above all it was real.

But now we have a professional slick tv show, over rehearsed, with rumours of pitch control overriding flat notes and it is fucking boring.  And worst of all they are all karaoke singers.  There have been a few attempts over the years of original artists singing their own songs, but they have never really caught on with the audiences.  What people at home want, apparently, is ‘pop-star’ look and sound-a-likes who sing songs they already know of the current round of pop-stars.  Trouble is I don’t even know the songs or the artists they are trying to sound like.  Occasionally an older artist will sing a song I know, but as I invariably have the original sung by the original artist I always prefer that anyway.

And what becomes of them anyway?  Mostly they have one or two hits, an album which does well, then they fade back into obscurity.  The music business is a machine for turning out clones with no originality and often very little real talent, young people who are so desperate for fame that they will do anything, sing any song, prostitute any talent they might have to be famous.  And of course all the most famous artists worked at their art for years and years, performed hundreds of gigs for peanuts, wrote and rejected hundreds of songs before finding their sound, their voice, their talent at all.

If I have to choose it will be the Voice, because the judges are more encouraging, their isn’t the venom, the nastiness, the bitchiness, the put-downs that Simon Cowell has created.  But it is still just a karaoke show at the end of the day, and as usual I couldn’t care less who wins.  Does anyone?

Roadside Flowers

Sunday 30th March

The verges are full of flowers, mostly daffodils but a few lily of the valley and crocuses too.  Some have been planted by local councils but there are occasional bunches of self-seeded flowers springing up along the sides of the road.   Together with the yellow gorse, the white hawthorn and many trees now coming early into blossom, it is a real riot of colour everywhere.  And not least because of the rape, whole fields are blooming a bright yellow.  This continental plant was unseen when I was a child, but now many fields are planted with it, making a patchwork pattern of green and yellow spread out over the fields.  And where fields had been planted with rape, many seeds escaped, or have self-seeded and the verges are now rapidly filling up with wild rape.

They seem to ripen later and are growing in bunches not in serried rows, and so even the verges are changing too.  When I was a child there were cowslips and cow-parsley and thick tangled hedgerows.  Many of these hedges have gone now or been thinned out.  And the little spinneys have been cut back too, the fields made larger to accommodate the combined harvesters, and just as in France there are acres now covered in plastic sheeting to promote faster growing.   We take the countryside for granted, but it is a business, and the business of farming is rapidly changing too.   I used to work on a farm as a teenager, cleaning out the pigs, collecting the eggs from the hen-house and best of all, helping with the harvest.  My job was riding the wagon behind the tractor and stacking the bales of hay being tossed up by the men walking alongside.  I had to scramble higher and higher as the bales rose until I was perched swaying some ten or twelve bales high.   That has all been mechanized now of course, and farms run on only a few workers, all of whom will have been to college to study animal husbandry and crop rotation and the liked.  When I was a lad you needed no knowledge just a strong pair of shoulders and a willingness to get your hands dirty and do whatever the farmer asked of you.

Times change.

Radio Caroline

Saturday 29th March

It is 50 years ago yesterday that Radio Caroline first broadcast, incidentally from just off the Essex coast near Walton-on-the-Naze where I live.   There a few celebrations here today, live bands promised but of what provenance I am not sure; but the star of the show will be the Honeycombs who had one hit only with “Have I The Right” way back in ’64.  The town has always been a bit 60’s and 70’s rock and roll, a biker café on the front and a rock memorabilia shop, and today (Friday) there are a lot of oldies like me wandering around.

But what was so fabulous about Radio Caroline.  It is obvious – the music.  It was wall to wall music, and it was all our music.  The BBC was very staid, it had the Light Programme which was more “popular” music but was far closer to today’s Radio 2 than anything we wanted to listen to.   The Beatles were huge and in their wake came a whole host of bands, some beat groups like Gerry and the Pacemakers, but a lot of R’n’B influenced bands like the Stones.  There was precious little that didn’t get into the charts on the BBC at all, and nowhere for new bands to get their music played.  Radio Luxemburg was the only alternative and the signal was so bad it was hard work to hear anything at all.  suddenly everything changed with so-called “pirate radio”, and Radio Caroline” was the first and the best.  First record played was “Not Fade Away” by the Stones and it got better from there on in.

The DJ’s were all unheard of, and were mostly zany characters suddenly let loose to do their own thing entirely; they included Johnny Walker, Tony Blackburn, Screaming Lord Sutch and John Peel.  The Government declared them illegal and set out to close them down and finally succeeded.  But the game had changed and they knew it.  BBC radio was changed from the Light, Home and Third to 1, 2, 3, and 4.  Radio 1 played ‘pop’ music all day and recruited most of the old ‘pirate’ D.J.s.   At last we had our music available, a whole station of it – and all thanks to Radio Caroline.  Strange to think it was only 50 years ago now, seems far longer.  By the way Caroline still lives on in the internet these days.

Road Rage

Friday 28th March

Let me first state that I am not a car-driver or a cyclist, simply a mere pedestrian, but maybe that slower more pedestrian style of transport in some ways cools the blood.  Perhaps it gives you a bit more time for reflection, which those in faster modes of transport do not have.  And car-drivers are possibly the worst, and the very worst of them are owners of sports cars, who seem to think that if they are not gunning the engine to its maximum, if their foot is not pressing the accelerator to the floor, if they are not leaving every other road user in their wake, they are not living up to the image and maybe the expense of the vehicle they are in.

Last night, emerging from Canary Wharf Jubilee Line I prepared to cross the one road between me and the D7 bus-stop.  Being a good boy I took the pedestrian crossing rather than a slightly shorter route.  As I approached the orange beacon-ed zebra crossing I saw that the lights were solid green though no other pedestrians happened to be crossing at that moment.  I still looked both ways (old habits die hard) and was about to step across when I saw a bright red sports car approaching at rather a fast speed.  A bit wary I waited for the driver to slow down and stop.  He did, but not quite, he was still moving, slowly I will admit but not absolutely stopped.  His bonnet was inching over the black and white road markings and the vehicle was still moving.  He, the driver, was hunched over the tiny steering wheel and glaring at me.  I started across the crossing watching him carefully, and yes he continued moving, now almost half his vehicle was on the crossing, the front wheels certainly over the markings.  I stopped and pointed at the still green man showing on my light.

This was obviously too much for him.  Both hands left the wheel and he gave me the double “V” sign and screamed “Fuck Off” which I heard quite clearly.  I was tempted to continue into his path and simply stand there, arms open and tempting him to do his worst, but some survival instinct kicked in and I stepped back onto the pavement.  Immediately he roared off as fast as his 0-60 acceleration would carry him.

He was obviously in the right.  Red lights do not apply to him.  He works in Canary Wharf, he has a bright red sports car, he is one of those making millions in Finance, why on earth would anyone assume that the rules should apply to him.

A Benefits Cap?

Thursday 27th March

There is to be a vote, which the Government will surely win to cap the total amount spent on benefits.  This is supposed to be legally binding, and to hold future Governments to account.  Labour will be reluctantly supporting the measure, more out of fear of being reckless spenders than out of conviction.  It is a very political trap being laid by George Osborne, who hopes to embarrass Milliband into voting for something he doesn’t really believe in.

But let us for a minute examine this principle.  Health spending has been similarly capped, although there is some argument that maybe savings can be made in some areas without compromising treating patients.  But the difference with benefits are that there is no element of choice, benefits are an entitlement and not a choice; in a way you have a choice whether to be treated if and when you may become ill, but if you are entitled to a benefit, you either qualify or you do not.  And mostly the people who are claiming benefits have no choice, if they do not receive the benefit they will not eat, or they will become ill through lack of heating.  And their numbers and the number of claims (although they are really entitlements) is not and cannot be capped.  They are served according to their needs, and not according to the amount of money allocated for their entitlements.  So what happens if by October say, the budget cap has been reached; will new applicants, new destitute people simply be refused because the budget cap has been reached.  And will this apply to existing benefit recipients or just for new ones?  Surely if as a citizen one is entitled to a certain entitlement if one loses ones job, or becomes too ill to work then that entitlement cannot be granted to some and not to others.  No-one would dream of a Hospital closing its doors half way through the year because it had already treated its budgeted number of patients for the whole year.

In principle, of course a budget should be set and every effort made to stay within that budget, but in practice you cannot ride roughshod over long established rights as citizens because a bunch of right wing politicians think enough is enough.  Look at the mess America keeps getting into, as they reach their Spending Ceiling.  We will see….

The more chaos, the clearer I see my way

Wednesday 26th March

There are times in your life when it all closes in.  Chaos chaos everywhere, and whereas most people panic it seems that I have amazing bouts of clarity and can see my way.  Maybe chaos is my natural state, though I crave order.  Maybe only at times of chaos does my brain even begin to wake up and smell the coffee, breathe in deep and analyse the problem.  Who knows.  But the worse it all gets somehow I start to feel uplifted, and start to plan a new direction, a way out of it all.

The real killer is complacency.  And yet we all hate change; change threatens us, we are scared of the unknown, though most often change can be accommodated quite easily – all you need is a sense of direction.  And it is amazing how that comes when you are initially overwhelmed with it all.

At work at the moment there is one restaurant closing, and decisions have to be taken quickly – suddenly I am full of ideas, solutions, possible ways of sorting things out.  Another restaurant, we are losing a key person and in theory their work will fall in my direction.  I am taking the opportunity to rethink the whole Accounts operation, turning it to my advantage, outsourcing payroll, and streamlining other operations.  For a few years now, I was complacent, nothing changed, I was just going through the same motions month after month.  Now it is all change, and actually  am relishing it.

Gentle Words but with a Big Stick

Tuesday 25th March

The Andrew Marr show on Sunday started with Andrew quoting American president Roosevelt who said that in negotiations one should use gentle words but have a big stick, and that it seemed that today’s Western response was to use big words and a twig.   A lovely way to describe exactly what has happened over Crimea.  And more and more Cameron and Hague are looking ridiculous by their childish rhetoric.  Even Kerry in the USA has shut up for a few days.  It is obvious that the consensus is that Russia has been warned, Crimea but no further.  For now anyway.    And sooner or later everyone will have to talk to thrash out, if nothing else the new rules of engagement.

No-one, neither Russia nor us, wants war; especially over a country that cannot seem to decide its own destiny.  And this is the real problem.  The Ukraine is, maybe fatally, split.  Almost half of its provinces are pro-Russian, while the other half hates Russia, and are looking to the West for assistance.  The pro-Russian areas have been excited by the success of the Crimea in returning to Mother Russia and many are requesting their own referenda, and whether ‘legal’ or not it will be very hard to deny them.  Meanwhile many in Kiev and the Western leaning regions want to be part of the European Union and maybe even Nato.

The crisis will rumble on, but I suspect that for the moment Putin will stop at the Crimea.  However there is still the question of the Trans-Dnieper region of Moldova which could be the next flash-point.  This tiny region, but with a population of 600,000 is legally part of Moldova which broke away as the Soviet Union collapsed, but this slice of Moldova, east of the Dnieper river and sandwiched between Moldova and a fairly Russian favouring area of Western Ukraine declared itself independent a few years ago.  They too had a referendum which voted overwhelmingly to join Russia, but with no contingent bits of land adjoining to Russia it seemed hopelessly adrift, and is a ‘non-region’ not officially recognized, but also where Moldova has no control, and ‘de facto’ Russian money helps them.  Will this be the next flashpoint?

I suspect that a few more weeks of sabre-rattling will end with a ‘peace conference’ between Russia, Ukraine (though just who will represent them I do not know) USA and the EU; where hopefully a peaceful reconciliation will result.  In the end, you cannot force people to belong to one country or another; surely self-determination must be the guiding principle.  We’ll see.

If It Ain’t One Thing, It’s Another

Monday 24th March

We had the heating go at my house in Walton, it was repaired, then a few weeks later it went again.  I called the heating guys who did the repair.  Answerphone; and they didn’t call back.  Apparently the owner was away on holiday and no-one else bothered to read the machine… Anyway I got British Gas in and I bought a whole new boiler, which despite costing a fortune, at least gives me a two year guarantee.  My partner has an annual maintenance with British Gas, and just before it was due, the boiler stopped working.  Worse than that it started leaking badly, which meant we had to have the water off too.  It took three days to fix.  Luckily we had a house with a new boiler to go to.  Then a few weeks later the electrics went.  I managed to fix that one.

Last week, returning from a funeral I found the thermostat undone and in pieces, and again no heating.  The boiler was again not working.   It was dark so I couldn’t turn off the power but tried anyway, unsuccessfully to rewire the thermosstat.  Then chcking the boiler I saw it was out of water.  There are two taps under the machine that have to be turned towards each other and it fills up with water.  Hooray, at last hot water.  But because my partner assumed it was the thermostat which was now unwired  we had no heating.  She bought a new thermostat the next day, but it was a different model and there were three possible connectors for two wires.  Despite tutorials on You-tube we were none the wiser.  We tried a few combinations but no success, so as a desperate measure we tried to re-assemble and re-wire the old thermostat.  I don’t know how many times I went downstairs and switched the power on and off but eventually we got it working.  We are now sitting here waiting for the next thing to stop working…


Sunday 23rd March

Blossom everywhere, and the third sunny weekend in a row (almost a record in itself) even if it is quite chilly out.  Doesn’t the sight of all that blossom really lift the heart.  Daffodils are lovely, but are mostly planted nowadays, you rarely see a wild one, and the winter pansies and crocuses are pretty too; but the real harbinger of Spring is blossom.  Especially hawthorn, a pretty boring but very common bush in England, and for a few weeks it is a mass of creamy white blossom, the individual flowers pretty small and insignificant, but for a few short weeks whole expanses of hawthorn hedgerows are ablaze with blossom.

Apple and cherry blossom are out too, and the pinks and reds are stunning.  But the gem, the most amazing blossom of all is the magnolia.  A tree that is pretty boring all year round has a couple of weeks of splendour, as the buds swell and turn from green to pinky creamy white and then all together they open and hold those beautiful cups up to the sun.  Splendid.  And so early this year too.

The Missing Plane 2

Saturday 22nd March

It gives me no pleasure in having guessed correctly (or so the consensus seems to be forming) that the reason for the plane going missing was a suicide by the pilot.  The news is strange.  We have 24 hour news and yet we are told very little.  Whether this is deliberate or due to massive cock-ups I am really not sure.  There was an unconfirmed report that the pilot’s wife had left him the day before the plane disappeared – and then nothing.  As if that had never been it is now not mentioned at all.  I suspect that it is true but they are now rapidly ensuring the safety of the wife and children.  In any case it is hardly her fault if her husband whom she wanted to leave should react so disastrously.  Amid all the coverage it has emerged that actually pilots committing suicide with a full plane-load of passengers is not unheard of at all, in fact there have been a few cases.  Makes flying that bit more risky.

One of the consequences of 9/11 was that the cockpit on passenger planes has been sacrosanct, locked from the inside to stop any crazy or terrorist passengers attempting a hijack.  What no-one thought of was that the crazy person could be inside the cockpit after all.   And why on earth is the pilot able to switch off all communication with the ground; what possible reason could there be for giving him (or her) the possibility of doing this?

It is also amazing to think that in this day and age, when we are told that satellites can identify a packet of cigarettes on the ground (nonsense as it turns out), when we have all this technology that once a plane leaves one countries air-space all radar coverage is lost until it enters another country.  So, all those transatlantic flights are completely untracked.  Hopefully one of the long-term results of this tragedy will be that a re-think of the responsibility given to the pilot will take place.  Of course accidents can never be totally eliminated, both human and machine error can never be completely over-ridden, but with each disaster hopefully flying becomes that tiny bit safer.  It is of little comfort to know that flying is statistically by far the safest form of transport, as when a plane does crash the chances of surviving are so small.   Sit back and have a nice flight – you are in the safe hands of the pilot.