Sunday, 27 July 2008

The South Bank and 'Supergeordie'

Quality busking and street theatre, display hula-hooping and Parkour, pavement artists and sand sculptures, a Critical Mass bike ride and a Reclaim the Beach party, free foyer gigs in the Festival Hall and the National. And ten-quid tickets for some of the best theatre in Britain with seats going spare all summer.

I could live on the South Bank. In fact, I did live there for a week or two just before the 1987 election, when the Observer thought it would be mighty cool to have me and a photographer hang out with the rough sleepers and see how they viewed the forthcoming Third Election of Thatcher in Cardboard City.

I’d done it before (sleeping rough, squatting, that sort of thing), which was partly why the Observer asked me. So it was no big deal bedding down with the real dossers, especially knowing I could sneak off home to my cosy, recently-allocated housing association flat if the sleeping got too rough. The photographer wasn’t so keen on the prospect, though. Concerned about what might happen to his gear if he stayed out after bedtime, he’d head off back to Brighton each evening before the last train left (ludicrously early, then as now, so he’d be gone before most of the cardboard came out).

Down And Out in Paris and London it wasn’t. I’d drained my well of homelessness stories so dry after a decade of writing on the subject that in my eagerness to find a different angle I didn’t spot that the photographer and I were being brilliantly, gloriously had by one of the subjects of our reportage.

He called himself ‘Supergeordie’. A middle-aged, bull-necked, bulging-biceped ex-serviceman in a wheelchair, he claimed to have completed some unfeasible number of marathons as a disabled athlete but had only a super-sized cardboard box under the South Bank concrete to call home. Supergeordie was so brazen in his boasting, giant banners celebrating his athletic achievements and announcing the commencement of his next one – a round-Britain-by-wheelchair Britain charity fundraiser – that it seemed inconceivable that he was lying.

But he was. Or, let’s be charitable about this, as his doctor was when we heard from him subsequently, and say that he was fantasising. Either way, on the day that he was due to set off on his fundraiser, the day after our photo-reportage appeared in the paper, Supergeordie did a runner, leaving his assembled friends, supporters, well-wishers, television camera crews – and me – to hang around like big daft drips in a sauna.

I’d like to say that I’ve never been taken in by a con-artist or a sob-story since, but once bitten the sharks can smell the blood. Suffice to say that I can never be completely scathing about the people who fall for those Nigerian emails asking for their bank account details so that the sender can deposit a few million dollars in them.

As for the South Bank, which is where I started this little meander, Cardboard City is long gone – though the homeless, of course, are not. Sometimes, as I did this weekend, I wonder what happened to Supergeordie and his wheelchair and his fantasies. It would make a great play.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Barack Obama is a Muslim

I’ve lived my life one consonant short of being a dickhead, so I sympathise with Barack Obama’s problems over his name. If a simple misspelling could help the Republican cause this autumn, I’m sure Fox News would be happy to have him down as Osama as often as they can get away with it.

There are some in the Obama camp who believe there is a deliberate attempt to make people think their candidate is a Muslim. In a country where the arts of black propaganda managed to persuade a substantial number of voters last time around that a decorated war hero was a coward and a documented draft dodger a hero, this is far from incredible.

Media commentator Roy Greenslade gives an example in his blog today of what he says is ‘just one of the examples of the way in which the US media is helping to relay the “Obama is a Muslim” lie to American voters’. He describes as a ‘disgraceful oversight’ an MSNBC Live report that ran for 25 seconds with the caption ‘Obama Is a Muslim & He Will Not Win Because of That’ over a discussion about what people think of him in Baghdad. The caption was a ‘purported quote from an Iraqi engineer’, though you can tell from the ‘purported’ that Greenslade isn’t convinced.

There’s no doubt that branding Obama/Osama a Muslim, even subliminally, would cost him votes. Polls suggest that while being black is now less of a problem than being a woman, about as many people would vote for a Muslim in the US as for an atheist, which is as low as it gets before you start asking about crack heads and child molesters. But is there a concerted right-wing conspiracy – or, to put it more mildly, campaign – as some of Obama’s supporters are suggesting?

Well, there are certainly plenty of far-right anti-Obama people out there in the blogosphere who are doing their best to create one. Greenslade himself has attracted one or two. I am reliably informed that the following post in the comments section of his blog is not satire:

‘It's not a big lie – Obama bin Osama IS Muslim – probably a Wahabiest, as it were. He and his radical spouse first will award “reparations” to blacks – per capita annuities of many tens of thousands of dollars. Then they will begin slowly to institute Islam. How will they overcome a Christian congress? With their Democratic allies, basically an anti-American party, they will pack the supreme court with radicals who will then see to it than Islam becomes the state religion in all but name. Muslim countries will receive gobs of military assistance and other aid. Unbiased observers won't recognize America after the first two years of an Osama bin Obama administration. Be afraid, Europe. Be very afraid. We're in danger of becoming Muslim even before you achieve pure socialism and adherence to Allah.’

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Pitmen Painters is back

Pitmen Painters transfers to the Littleton Theatre from 27 January 2009. Tickets go on public sale tomorrow (23 July). If you only go to the theatre once next year, make sure not to miss this. And don't dawdle - this will sell out fast.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Flog me with nettles

It’s a jungle out there. A wet summer has brought with it an explosion of growth and a plague of mosquitoes. Many more warm winters and malaria won’t be far behind.

Forget about biting insects for the time being, though. Global warming’s current seasonal aberration is eight-feet high nettles. I had to run through a field of the things yesterday as part of the 14th Fairlands Valley Challenge. The nettles aren’t meant to be part of the challenge, any more than the tree-like brambles that have grown up among them, trying to entangle and trip you, like some flesh-tearing triffids. It’s a trail marathon, not a rainforest survival test, and it’s in Hertfordshire, not the Congo.

I’ve never seen nettles like these in such size and number. I’ve heard tell of New Zealand’s Urtica ferox, 'ongaonga' to the locals, a tree nettle said to grow to five metres in height and capable of killing a fully-grown man with a single glance. But these fat-fruited, heavy-headed, hirsute stingers near Stevenage (can a nettle be hirsute? You wouldn’t ask if you’d seen them) were something new to me. And definitely not what you need at the 20-mile mark.

There is, apparently, a practice called urtication – flogging with nettles – which sounds very handy as a form of S&M gameplay, but is also supposed to be a longstanding folk-remedy for rheumatism. It’s based on the principle that by inducing wholesale inflammation of the skin you can provide short-term relief from rheumatic pain – presumably because the nettle stings hurt even more than the rheumatism.

This is the 'Stop your crying or I'll give you something to really cry about' theory of pain relief. There's nothing like breaking both elbows to take your mind off spraining your wrist. (Believe me, I've done it.) And there's nothing like running through a field of eight-feet high nettles to take your mind off the tiredness in your legs. It works for all of, oh, at least as long as it takes you to get out of the field.

A friend tells me that St Benedict, of Benedictine Order fame, used to strip off his clothes and roll about in nettles as a cure for ‘impure thoughts’. But I don’t suppose he was running a marathon at the time.

Friday, 18 July 2008

How to lose £11,000 without even noticing

I’ve just lost a little over £11,000. Or, to be strictly accurate, I’ve just discovered that I’ve lost a little over £11,000. The loss actually accumulated over the past year or so but I’ve been too busy with other things to realise that what used to be the British building society sector has being going to hell in a handcart. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed now if it wasn’t for the fact that HBOS’s attempt to dig itself out of a financial hole by issuing a load of new shares hadn’t drawn my attention to it.

Yes, I knew that something nasty had happened at Northern Rock and that something called the sub-prime market in America was in the process of bringing Gordon Brown and quite likely the whole western economy crashing down with it. And of course I knew that share prices can go down as well as up, and that when they do the really rich get out quick, the fat cats collect their bonuses before they quit and it’s small investors that carry the can.

So I know I should have paid more attention. A lot more.

The thing is I don’t own my own house; I rent a flat from a housing association. I don’t have a pension; I have this quaint notion that I’ll just keep on working until I drop. And I don’t have what you might call investments.

What I do have is a small number of shares that I acquired as a stroke of good fortune a couple of decades ago when demutualising building societies was all the short-term, Thatcherite rage. It went along with selling off council houses and nationalised industries on the cheap – ‘selling the family silver’ as Harold Macmillan rather haughtily but acutely called it. It enabled a generation to be briefly spendthrift on the back of what their parents and grandparents had worked hard to accumulate; and it bought the Tories 18 years in power before Tony Blair came along, like a well-educated Yosser out of Boys from the Blackstuff, and said ‘I can do that’.

I was lucky enough to have a small redundancy payout in the Halifax building society at the time (it was the 1980s; we were all being made redundant then). I transferred it to the Leeds when the Halifax demutualised. The Leeds promptly followed suit, and then went on to merge with the Halifax.

At every stage, the people who stood to make the really big money out of building society demutualisations bribed the ordinary borrowers and savers into giving up their membership rights with a bundle of shares. I did quite well out of the process, even though I cast my vote against demutualisation every time. Over the years, I allowed the new privately-owned Halifax to reinvest my share dividends in extra shares. When it was taken over by the Bank of Scotland and became HBOS (you can tell how much attention I’ve been paying because I had to look up what the BOS bit stands for), they gave us some more money for allowing it to happen. I let them invest that in extra shares too.

Over the years, it built up into a tidy sum: 1,541 shares in all. It was never a fortune but I must admit I quite liked the idea of having a few shares set aside for a rainy day. A bit of a bonus on top of the £90.70 single person’s pension when I reach retirement, I thought; that’ll pay for the odd taxi home after a night on the tiles.

Occasionally I’d take a glance at the share prices. They tumbled a bit from their early high, if I remember rightly, down from around £14 apiece at their height to a steady £10-11 for as long as I can remember. Never seemed to do anything very exciting. I got bored; the Premiership title race was less predictable than this. I took my eye off the ball.

Then, about a year ago, they must have started falling. I didn’t notice. Safe as houses, I thought – that’s the expression, isn’t it? Whoever heard of a bank (which is what the demutualised societies became, after all) losing money? Yes, I saw Northern Rock’s walls falling down and I’ve lived in enough squats in my time to know that even the best-built houses aren’t always safe. And I know it sounds stupid for a socialist to say this, but I sort of trusted that the people running the show – and making lots of money in the process – knew what they were doing. Obviously they didn’t.

There’s a handy calculator on the HBOS website to tell exactly how little they knew. Type in the number of shares you own and then select a date in the past and it will work out how much their value has gone down. Mine had lost £11,187.04 in the past year the last time I looked (they’re now worth £4,345.62), or as near as dammit three-quarters of their value.

No nationalised industry, local council or public service has ever demonstrated financial and managerial incompetence on such a scale. Just imagine if a government agency had blown three-quarters of its assets in as little as 12 months. What would have happened to those who were deemed to have been responsible?

What certainly wouldn’t happened is what occurred in the case of HBOS and its top executives and directors – and happens almost as a matter of course right across the private sector when big companies make a mess of things. The fat cats didn’t get a kicking for their failures; they helped themselves to some more cream.

In March this year, when HBOS shares were still about two-thirds higher than they are today, the bank acknowledged that its top executives weren’t meeting long-term targets for ‘total shareholder return’. This meant that the poor impoverished souls who make up the HBOS board didn’t receive their long-term incentive payouts in 2007, while their short-term cash bonuses were reduced to 46 per cent of their salaries, down from more than 60 per cent a year ago.

Clearly the directors didn’t think this was fair. So what if their stewardship had resulted in the bank hopelessly overexposing itself with a reckless rush into risky lending practices? So what if they had seen three-quarters of the company’s value wiped out in the time it takes to go from one annual report to the next?

What did the directors do, then? Resign? Forgo their bonuses altogether as an act of contrition towards those whose investments they had looked after so badly?

Do me a favour! They halved the targets they had to meet to qualify for their full bonuses.

Andy Hornby, the chief executive whose tenure has coincided almost precisely with the collapse in the HBOS share price, got a pay increase from £1.6m to £1.9m, a new short-term bonus to make up for not qualifying for the old long-term one – oh, and a few hundred grand extra for his pension. Peter Cummings, who runs the wholesale bank, was given £2.6 million, including a £1.6 million bonus. And Benny Higgins, the former retail chief executive whose performance was so poor that even HBOS decided to get rid of him, received £2.3 million, including £819,000 in lieu of notice. Nice work if you can get it.

HBOS isn’t alone in rewarding failure: it’s the private-sector norm. When the disgraced Northern Rock boss Adam Applegarth quit last December, the details of his severance payment weren’t published. But he was entitled to at least a year’s pay (£760,000), an annual bonus of around £660,000 and pension and other payments. IN other words, Applegarth walked away with a cheque for more than most of the victims of his incompetence would earn in a lifetime.

Does anyone believe that this is right? If survival-of-the-fittest capitalism, red in tooth and economic claw, is to mean anything at all, surely it means that those who stand to gain so very much must also stand to lose it all when they get it so very wrong?

But of course that’s not how capitalism works. The rich look after their own, and the people who pay the price are the ones who can least afford to do so.

For my part, I feel simultaneously disappointed by my loss, annoyed at the lack of attention that I (a socialist and a journalist, for Mammon’s sake!) paid to the details of one of the key economic developments of the day, and aggrieved that yet again a small number of people have been getting rich by not giving a damn about how they do so.

I almost feel philosophical about it all. This was money I hadn’t earned and it should never have been taken from the mutual building societies, which were functioning perfectly adequately without the intervention of the speculators and the profiteers, in the first place.

But then I start to get angry about it again – and about those who are responsible. There is someone I know through my sister, a bit older than me, who also got made redundant a while back. He invested it all in shares of his former employer, BT – shares whose value collapsed just as preecipitously a few years ago as those of HBOS. From having enough to give him a decent lifestyle in his retirement, he went to having barely enough to keep him going until he made 65.

It’s a story that can be told many millions of times over and in almost as many different ways. But it boils down to the same one in the end. People who have been thrifty, who have tried to put something aside for their old age, are done over by those who never lose out, no matter how of other people’s money they lose.

Spare a thought, then, if you will, for one of the men who has done most to bring about the biggest banking crisis since the 1930s. It was revealed earlier this year that Angelo Mozilo, the failed former CEO of Countrywide, one of the companies at the centre of the subprime lending collapse in the US, and a man who sacked 12,000 employees and cost many more thousands of people their homes, received a payout of $88 million for his efforts. That was on top of two gilt-edged, guaranteed pensions, enhanced stock options that he would be allowed to cash in straight away, continuing free access to the company jet and all his country club bills being paid for the next three years.

I'm sure he needs every penny.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

'Only the dead have seen the end of war' - Plato

One of the joys of the internet (and of life itself – the net just speeds up the rate at which it happens) is stumbling across people whose life experiences are completely different to your own. I like it especially when they challenge your preconceptions about who you might imagine them to be. And I like it all the more when they are intelligent and open-minded enough to want to learn from other’s experiences as well as sharing their own. (So that rules out most of the political blogging community, then, who are so in love with their own opinions that you often wonder whether they are actually interested in anyone else’s at all.)

One such internet 'acquaintance' whose writings I stumbled across recently is Andrew Olmsted, whose blog posts go back to 2001. The year is significant because Andrew’s blog is primarily about his experiences as a US soldier. In his most recent post he explains why, as a soldier, he not only served in Iraq but volunteered to go back there.

‘Soldiers cannot have the option of opting out of missions because they don't agree with them: that violates the social contract,’ he argues. ‘The duly-elected American government decided to go to war in Iraq. (Even if you maintain President Bush was not properly elected, Congress voted for war as well.) As a soldier, I have a duty to obey the orders of the President of the United States as long as they are Constitutional. I can no more opt out of missions I disagree with than I can ignore laws I think are improper. I do not consider it a violation of my individual rights to have gone to Iraq on orders because I raised my right hand and volunteered to join the army. Whether or not this mission was a good one, my participation in it was an affirmation of something I consider quite necessary to society.’

Reading through his posts, it’s obvious that here is no gung-ho, gun-toting, Muslim-hating, Bush-loving, mindless moron of a killer. He’s sensitive, thoughtful, critical of the military and of those on the left who don’t understand soliders alike – and, as I realised as I read that most recent post, dead.

He wrote his final post for publication in the event of his death, and there it sits now, forever at the top of his blog, dated 4 January 2008 and headed simply ‘Final Post’. I defy anyone, from whatever part of the political-religious-national spectrum, who believes in our essential shared humanity or has any shred of empathy for the life-paths others have trodden, to come away from reading it unmoved.

This is Andrew Olmsted’s one express request, so I’ll add no further comments of my own:

‘I do ask (not that I'm in a position to enforce this) that no one try to use my death to further their political purposes. I went to Iraq and did what I did for my reasons, not yours. My life isn't a chit to be used to bludgeon people to silence on either side. If you think the US should stay in Iraq, don't drag me into it by claiming that somehow my death demands us staying in Iraq. If you think the US ought to get out tomorrow, don't cite my name as an example of someone's life who was wasted by our mission in Iraq. I have my own opinions about what we should do about Iraq, but since I'm not around to expound on them I'd prefer others not try and use me as some kind of moral capital to support a position I probably didn't support.’

You can read his blog here.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Tramp the dirt down

Today, Bastille Day, is forever associated in my mind with the beheading of Margaret Thatcher. For it was on this day in 1989 that my aunt, who is French, set up a giant guillotine at the front of her house in Southampton to mark the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. I’m not sure what the neighbours made of the tricolour flying in southern England. But they came to the party, some of them got very drunk on French wine, and some of them joined in when the family (or at least those parts of it who didn't secretly vote for her; the rest sat quietly with their knitting) carried out a ritual beheading of the then prime minister.

That was the same year that Elvis Costello released Spike, which I still think is possibly his best album and certainly contains some of his best and most varied songwriting. As well as the spine-tingling anti-capital punishment ballad about Derek Bentley, ‘Let Him Dangle’, there’s ‘Veronica’, ‘Coal Train Robberies’ and ‘Any King’s Shilling’, to name but five songs that still have the power to move me today.

And then there’s ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’ (‘When England was the whore of the world Margaret was her madam / And the future looked as bright and as clear as the black tarmacadam’) with its chilling refrain:

Oh I'll be a good boy, I'm trying so hard to behave

Because there’s one thing I know I'd like to live long enough to savour
That's when they finally put you in the ground
I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down

People who weren’t adults at the time sometimes find it hard to believe the extent to which Thatcher divided Britain (and families, including mine). I won’t tramp the dirt down on her, or anyone else’s, grave. But the optimist in me still hopes that I’ll live long enough to see, one day, her social and political legacy well and truly buried.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Smoking the celestial dream

Jimmy Cliff is playing in Finsbury Park later this afternoon as part of the Greater London Authority's Rise festival. One of Boris Johnson's first acts as mayor was to strip the free event of its anti-racist theme, a decision that led to the withdrawal of £60,000 in trade union sponsorship but was greeted with delight by the new BNP London Assembly member Richard Barnbrook.

Of course any multicultural event still carries an implicit anti-racist message and Bojo hasn't invited the BNP to set up a stall - yet - so it's still worth trying to get along. Jimmy Cliff did as much as anyone to bring ska and reggae to an international audience, starring in Perry Henzell's iconic film The Harder They Come, currently revived as a stage musical at the Playhouse Theatre; and there's a huge range of other acts, all free.

I reviewed The Harder They Come before its West End transfer in a piece called 'Guns and Ganja', which you can read here. And if you want to read even more from me about the blessed 'erb, my article 'Smoking the Celestial Dream', from the June/July issue of Red Pepper, is now available in full on their website,

Friday, 11 July 2008

Haltemprice and Howden: a failure for the Greens?

No surprises in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election, then, which may not quite have managed to put civil liberties on the political map to the extent that some would have hoped but has at least introduced the political commentariat to two previously unknown towns near Hull.

David Davis has got his expected walkover on a low turnout, with two out of three registered voters staying at home. He can now savour what must be the biggest majority (in percentage terms) in the country, albeit one that guarantees a huge swing against him at the general election. None of the loonies managed to save their deposits, although Miss Great Britain on 521 votes (5.21 per cent) must be mightily pleased at beating anti-rape campaigner Jill Saward on 492 votes (2.07 per cent) and the Official Monster Raving Loony candidate, Mad-Cow Girl on 412 (1.73 per cent).

The most disappointed candidate, however – apart from independents Tony Farnon and Norman Scarth, who couldn’t even get all of the ten people who nominated them to cast their votes in their favour – must be the English Democrat, Joanne Robinson. She called for a recount after losing second place to the Greens by just 44 votes.

The Green Party candidate, Shan Oakes, polled 1,758 votes (7.40 per cent, which the party is claiming as a by-election record). In any normal by-election in England, fighting candidates from all three major parties, that would have been a creditable result. In Haltemprice and Howden, it’s a poor performance – barely beating a fringe nationalist group and doing no better than the combined vote of the various loony candidates.

In the absence of the major parties, but with the presence of the national media, all desperate for a fresh and different angle on the campaign, this was an unparallelled opportunity to present the Greens as 'the real civil liberties candidate', as the party's slogan had it. That opportunity was missed.

I wrote last month that ‘anything less than several thousand votes and second place will have to be marked down as a failure’ for the Greens. I see no reason to change that assessment now.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Ban the Board of Film Censors

I see the hackers have got at the British Board of Film Classification's paid-for google listing. They've done so, though, in a year that is probably going to see the smallest number of cuts made to films screened in the UK since records began. Only one film (out of 352 so far) has been cut on the BBFC's say-so in 2008. That's down from 240, more than a third of the total, in 1974, when cinema soft porn was in its heyday, and compares with between five and 20 per year over the past decade.

So which film do you suppose got the chop? Zombie Strippers maybe or El Bano de Papa (The Pope's Toilet)? Nothing so exciting: rather, it was Peter Cattaneo's The Rocker, and then only because the distributor wanted it to get a 12A certificate. Any film censorship these days takes place long before a film gets to the BBFC.

How to make £10,000 by this time tomorrow

Got a spare million? Want to make a quick £10,000 by this time tomorrow?, which describes itself as ‘the world’s biggest betting community’ with 15 million bets placed daily, is offering odds of 1/100 on David Davis winning the Haltemprice and Howden by-election. Since Davis is as near as you get to a dead cert winner (in fact he’d still win if he was dead), that’s got to be worth a flutter. It’s certainly better than the miserable 14/1 that Paddy Power quoted on a Green Party victory, which is about as likely as Port Vale winning the 2009 FA Cup, for which SkyBet is currently offering 3000/1.

Note to the kind of people who are taken in by ‘get-rich-quick’ email scams, chain letters and that sort of thing: There is a catch to this scheme. First, you need a million quid to bet with. And second, Betfair uses a ‘matching-bet’ system, which means you’d only win the full whack if enough people bet against Davis winning. Still, the world is full of fools, so who knows, your luck could be in.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

First they came for the Roma . . .

An email arrives from Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP, Liberal Democrat European justice spokeswoman, ahead of a vote by MEPs on a resolution condemning plans by the Italian government to count and fingerprint all Roma gypsies, including children. I’ll let the baroness speak for herself:

‘Singling out Roma people for a census and fingerprinting is illegal discrimination contrary to European law, which was passed precisely to stop Nazi and fascist racial persecution. It beggars belief that the government of Silvio Berlusconi can be so dismissive of history as to launch this misguided plan.

‘It is a disgrace that the EU’s other 26 member states are keeping their silence, and that Italy’s foreign minister, until recently the EU justice commissioner, has endorsed the human rights abusing scheme. The fingerprinting of children is particularly abhorrent.

‘There needs to be a European Roma strategy with funds attached to improve the status, education and integration of Roma people, rather than marginalising and stigmatising them.’

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Venus, he purrs

The Wimbledon coverage (Radio 5 Live, on a loop) continued to perk me up to the end, particularly with regard to any swooning over Venus Williams, for years round at mine known as Little Vixen Rising. ‘A lot of people fancy Venus, full stop,’ said one commentator to another at the start of the final with her sister Serena.

‘So, how’s she looking?’ said the first commentator. ‘She’s looking pretty sharp,’ replied the second with the reliable tone of an Old Speckled Hen drinker. ‘She’s unbelievably fit. She’s in a piratical outfit and her tanned and muscular arms are revealed by a sleeveless vest. Seeing her in the flesh is some sight.’ (Hmm, best switch on the telly to check this out, I thought, but keep the commentary going . . .)

‘Her hair’s still wet,’ the first commentator noted, fascinated. ‘She’s obviously just stepped out of the shower and then tied that bandanna around it.’

‘She’s kicking her heels behind her. She’s crouching, she’s crouching, she’s crouching. She’s out there and she’s running and hopping from foot to foot and shadow boxing and there’s a lot of physical domination going on.’

‘She’s well pumped up!’ burst the first commentator, suddenly reckless. ‘The world’s number seven is just dancing around! This is simply great tennis!’

‘Iveta Benesova,’ said the second commentator, suddenly serious. ‘Fourth in the world. Kind of gawky-looking, I’d say. Big strong legs, but – nothing much on top. Unlike Venus!’

A couple of days later, I shuffled into the kitchen at night only to find Boris Becker in the corner on 5 Live Extra, riffing away, rapt. ‘You know, people are always talking about Venus’s boobs like it’s a kind of pose, but she's just naturally like that. She’s always been like that. She’s always been big. I saw her when whe was just 15 and I’m telling you – it’s simply the way she is.’

Okay it was Rafael Nadal rather than Venus Williams and it was his biceps rather than her boobs that the commentators were getting all excited about. And I suppose I should say that it was the New Statesman's radio columnist Antonia Quirke and not me who authored the above piece (about Rafa not Venus, of course) – just in case you were wondering.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Central London shop for sale, under £27,000

How much do you reckon you’d pay for a shop in St John Street, Finsbury, a stone’s throw from London’s Barbican centre, the City and some of the highest-value real estate in the land? Okay, it was only a dry cleaning business, albeit one that brought 24 years of customer goodwill along with the deal. But it was the freehold that was up for sale, allowing you to do whatever you wanted with the property, subject to planning consent. And it is in one of the few parts of the country where property prices have still been rising despite the recent credit crunch.

How does £26,809 sound? Done!

The lucky buyer was the property investor Structadene, who snapped it up as part of a £69.5 million portfolio of 222 shops and other commercial premises sold off to the company by Islington Council. The council originally claimed to have sold it for £260,809 and it took campaigners and the local press a month to get it to admit to the real figure. It wasn’t a cover-up but a ‘clerical error’, according to the council – presumably by a council officer who couldn’t believe that the £26,809 figure could possibly be correct.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

De Profundis: the gods are strange

Actor Corin Redgrave has appeared only rarely on a public stage since suffering a major heart attack while speaking at a rally in support of travellers in Basildon three years ago last month. So the chance to witness his reprise reading of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis at the National on Tuesday (he first did it at the same venue, as well as in a special recording made from Wilde’s former prison cell at Reading jail, to mark the centenary of Wilde’s death) was too good to miss.

Redgrave’s physique – at 68 he still holds himself with the same thickset, chunky strength he brought to many of his characters – belied a frailty that only became apparent when he stood to take his thunderous applause. Assisted from his chair by a stagehand, I thought at first he was acting out Wilde’s own broken health, just as he had done Wilde’s broken spirit in this 60-minute monologue from the famous letter Wilde wrote from jail to Lord Alfred Douglas, ‘Bosie’, the architect of his downfall. Sadly, it wasn’t acting.

Nor, you felt, was the passion that Redgrave brought to this reading. In a short, moving article distributed to accompany the performance, he writes, with the same sort of impassioned commitment that took him into radical politics as well as the acting profession: ‘Visiting De Profundis a hundred years later is like gazing at the Elgin marbles. One is at one and the same time awestruck by their beauty and troubled by the collective shame of England’s cultural vandalism. An English court and English prisons silenced a great Irish heretic almost as effectively as English crusaders under Simon de Montfort had cut out the tongues of the Cathars in Minerve seven centuries ago.’

They could not have done so, of course, without Wilde’s own misguided passion – his weakness for the hateful, self-centred and utterly selfish Bosie, who first pushed him into taking the libel action that led to his arrest and imprisonment and then persuaded him, when he still had the chance to withdraw the action and flee, that to do so would somehow be a betrayal of his love for Bosie.

There is a line in De Profundis in which Wilde writes that ‘the gods are strange, and punish us for what is good and humane in us as much as for what is evil and perverse’. A contributing factor to Redgrave’s heart attack in June 2005 was the stress induced by his (good and humane) concern over the treatment of the traveller community. ‘He got so angry when he was talking because he had heard people telling lies about us,’ said Kathleen McCarthy, from the local travellers’ site, who accompanied him to the hospital.

‘We are all feeling it. He is like a member of our family. He is such a nice man. If he goes we will all grieve for him like one of our own,’ she told the Independent at the time. I do hope that’s not for a long time yet.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Gordon Banks, Pelé, Desmond Tutu and me (2)

It looks as though the chance to play in that Gordon Banks XI v Pelé XI celebrity charity football game at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke, on 12 July (complete with half-time team talk by Archbishop Desmond Tutu), has gone to a dealer. The one consolation in not being able to afford the winning bid of £3,101 was that someone who’d really appreciate it would get the chance to turn out at the Britannia and the three grand would be going to a good cause.

The nominated charities will still get the money, but almost certainly not out of the pocket of ebay member dave100166, who placed the winning bid. Dave is an autograph dealer and since his bid also entitles him to keep the match ball, signed by Banks, Pelé and Tutu, plus a full kit and all sorts of other memorabilia (which he’ll probably also get signed by the stars of the occasion), he stands to make what could eventually be a tidy profit on it all.

I’d like to suggest that the organisers of the event now invest in a couple of hundred footballs and get Banks, Pelé and Tutu to sign them all. It would raise a few extra thousand for charity and undercut Dave’s profiteering at a stroke.