Saturday, 31 January 2009

Making do with Lewisham

Never mind the BBC and Sky’s refusal to screen the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza. They’ve done more to publicise the appeal by rejecting its broadcast than ever they would otherwise.

On a more modest scale, Chris Boddington has been doing his bit for the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians by asking people to sponsor him to stay in the London Borough of Lewisham for the next five years. That’s presumably on the basis that if the people of Gaza are besieged in an area of roughly 360 square kilometres with a broken economy and few services, he can make do with a rather smaller but more prosperous part of south east London.

Actually if you read the small print he’s only promising to ‘reside’ there and he says that should he ‘fail to complete the challenge, you will of course be within your rights to go [to Gaza] and ask for [your money] back’. Which doesn’t show quite the commitment to the cause that some have displayed, but MAP is worth a donation anyway if you missed the address for the Disasters Emergency Committee.

Monday, 26 January 2009

White socks for the convict's opera

My career as an actor, singer and member of a pioneering boy band peaked in a sailor’s suit on the stage of Liverpool’s Neptune Theatre at some point in the 1970s. There were a few of us loosely associated with the Liverpool Youth Theatre who got roped in as members of the chorus in a production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Written in 1728, it’s currently enjoying a short sold-out season (anyone give me a ticket for old time’s sake?) at the Royal Opera House, where it’s been billed as the ‘world’s first musical’.

A variation on John Gay, The Convict’s Opera, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, is also touring the country at the moment with its mix of songs old and new and performances good enough to wow any West End stage. I caught it in Salisbury, being in that part of the world for back-to-back trail marathons around Portland and Stonehenge over the weekend. Very bruised and aching limbs were not enough to deter me from the chance to revisit my teenage triumph (somewhere my mum has a Liverpool Echo photo of the sailor-suited boy band), especially since I managed to wangle a front-row seat with plenty of room to stretch out.

Mistake. Sometimes you go to the kind of theatre where audience participation is de rigeur or you know the ‘fourth wall’ is only there to be broken down. Sometimes you go only to reminisce, relax and be entertained. It was only at the start of the second act, when the The Convict’s Opera’s leading convict was leaning over the edge of the stage, fixing me in the eyes and asking to loud and very camp dramatic effect what my name was, ‘little boy’ (yes, he really did add that suffix), that I realised that, for a few minutes at least, I was going to be back in Gay’s opera again as a comic prop.

I have a pre-prepared get-out script running in my head for occasions such as this. It goes something like, ‘My name is Michael Barrymore. I’d love to get up there with you, but I’m so dangerously unpredictable that you really wouldn’t want me to. And anyway, I’ve only been let out of the unit for a couple of hours on the understanding that I don’t go anywhere near bright lights, and I really must take my medication now. Why don’t you talk to one of them [gesturing to the empty seats in the rest of the auditorium] instead?’

Unfortunately, the brain was far too slow (all that pounding on the paths of Salisbury Plain). And so it was that ‘Sailor Steve’ (far too slow to make the obvious ‘seasick’ joke) was press ganged into a centre-stage appearance as a convict-ship crew member, where he was lathered up for a public shaving with a gleaming cut-throat theatrical razor, doused with a bucketful of glittering clown’s water and then made to walk the plank back to his front-row seat with all dignity demolished.

And I was wearing a pair of white running socks, which the spotlight illuminated exquisitely between the comfy trainers and scruffy Levis. White socks at an opera, I ask yer …

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

A patriot for Aretha

Aretha Franklin does it for me every time. So if it’s ‘My country ‘tis of thee’ that she’s singing, even if it isn’t my country, I’m a patriot. And yesterday I was a British-American patriot.

The pessimist, the sceptic and the cynic in me have all struggled to keep pace with my inner Obama on that incredible journey to the White House. Mostly, they’ve managed to keep in touch, albeit at a distance. Yesterday, though, they got left behind somewhere in the deep recesses of leftist soullessness – because soul is what you would have to have been without not to be moved by this occasion. It is one of those great, shared global events, like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the release of Nelson Mandela, that I am glad to have lived to see.

It’s sometimes hard to grasp the fact that it is only four decades, barely half a lifetime, since the civil rights movement tore down the legal barriers that kept black Americans segregated and oppressed. Or that it is only two decades since Barack Obama’s predecessor in the office of president and his equivalent in the UK were the principal defenders of apartheid outside South Africa itself. If so much can change so quickly, why not believe that so much more can yet be changed?

Friday, 16 January 2009

1,000 years of pop

Suppose you had to sum up 1,000 years of popular music in a couple of hours worth of songs. Which would you choose?

That’s the task Richard Thompson set himself when Playboy magazine asked various musicians to pick their top ten songs of the millennium in 1999. While most of those asked didn’t go back much further than their own lifetimes, Thompson decided he’d call Playboy’s bluff and do a real thousand-year selection. It wasn’t printed.

Thompson is currently touring the UK with his latest choice of songs, which range from medieval madrigals and ‘colloquial Renaissance Italian dance music’ (you can really dance to it, as it happens), via Richard the Lionheart, Henry Purcell and W D Yeats, to Gilbert and Sullivan and music hall – and all that before he even starts on the last hundred years.

In London last night, he had Stick (brother of Brownie) McGhee’s ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-Oh-Dee’ stand for the rock ‘n’ roll canon. The Kinks’ ‘See My Friends’ (reputedly the first piece of Indian-influenced western pop music after Ray Davies was inspired by fishermen chanting outside his hotel window on a trip to the east) represented the 1960s; Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ the 1970s; the Korgis’ ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime’ the 1980s; and – here it gets a bit weird – Nelly Furtado’s ‘Maneater’, complete with medieval church Latin interlude, brought us up to the present.

Encoring with a medley that climaxed with ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ put the Beatles – justifiably, I think – at the top of Thompson’s charts. But if I had to pick one song that will still be featuring in selections in another 1,000 years, Cole Porter’s 1932 classic, ‘Night and Day’, which he once said had been inspired by a Moroccan call to prayer, and has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to U2, would be a choice I could happily live with.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Wearing your politics on your chest

Philosophy Football’s splendid t-shirts have been getting the sort of free publicity that the big corporations would pay serious fortunes for on Celebrity Big Brother. The former Scottish Socialist Party MSP Tommy Sheridan, who is still awaiting trial on perjury charges arising from his £200,000 libel victory over the News of the World in 2006, must have packed a whole suitcase of them to take into the Big Brother house and has been wearing them virtually every day. He’s even got some of the other housemates to model the shirts, including La Toya ‘My contract says you can’t film me without make-up’ Jackson, who was sporting one featuring Nelson Mandela.

Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman says Sheridan must have bought some of the shirts ten years or more ago as they’re no longer available. You can still buy one of my personal favourites, though: the Bill Shankly shirt, which Sheridan modelled the other day. (‘The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.)

And the ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ have just produced one that Mark says ‘is partly inspired by one of the hundreds of hand-written anonymous placards carried at the 3 January demonstration in London. The Palestine 09 design expresses vividly the cycle of despair that has turned the tiny Gaza strip into a war zone of Israeli reprisals using its overwhelming military might.’ Priced at £16.99 and helping to raise funds for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, it’s available from

Monday, 5 January 2009

Phil Jeffries

The Reaper claimed a rich crop of lefties at the end of 2008, Adrian Mitchell, Harold Pinter and Aubrey Morris among them. One of those who died was an old friend of mine, Phil Jeffries, with whom I participated in many housing and other struggles in the 1970s and 1980s.

Phil died, aged 55, on 14 December of a particularly virulent form of lung cancer – killed no doubt by the trademark roll-ups he crafted with the same meticulous care that he brought to his speciality legal work in the service of various community-based campaigns. Latterly he’d been most active around the King’s Cross railway lands development, but I knew him best from his time as an unpaid campaigner with a forensic legal eye on behalf of squatters, short-life housing residents and other badly-housed or homeless people. Literally thousands of people over the years have owed the roofs over their heads to the unsung work carried out by Phil and others around him. A long-time peace activist, he also helped found the Peace Movement Legal Support Group and establish the legal framework within which nonviolent direct action could flourish.

Last year, as the London Fire Brigade’s statistician, he and two colleagues brought the same attention to detail to bear in tracking down a hoaxer who had made 885 false 999 calls from public phone boxes in 45 days. Phil’s analysis of the pattern of calls predicted where the culprit would strike next, leading to his arrest.

Diana Shelley, Phil’s partner for 32 years, has written a tribute about him on the website. ‘His final act, as a scientist dedicated to improving life for everyone,’ she writes, ‘was to leave his body to the London teaching hospitals. This means there will be no funeral, but details of an event to celebrate his life will be posted here when available.’

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Spot the difference

‘Tories poll lead cut to five points as voters turn back to Labour,’ the Guardian headline declared just before Christmas. ‘Labour has cut sharply into the Conservatives’ lead as voters turn to the government to protect them from the economic storm, according to a new Guardian/ICM poll … Today’s poll is in line with other recent surveys, making it clear that the opposition has crashed back to reality after a triumphant summer, and David Cameron is not seen as the man to revive the economy,’ it reported.

Seven days later, in the same paper: another poll, another headline. ‘End of the “Brown bounce?” New poll puts Tories five points ahead of Labour,’ this one pronounced. ‘Poll suggests that David Cameron would win a huge majority at a general election …’

Apart from the fact that the second poll was carried out by ComRes for the Independent, it’s hard to spot any difference between the two. The first poll had the Tories on 38%, Labour on 33% and the Lib Dems on 19%; the second saw the Tories on 39%, Labour 34% and the Lib Dems 16%.

We all know a week is a long time in politics, but from Conservative crash to Cameron landslide without any intervening change in voting intentions is as clear an indication as any of why it’s best not to look for too much insight in the froth of opinion poll punditry.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Time Team, Roman temples and apostrophes

The new series of Time Team, the 16th, starts on Sunday with the discovery of a Roman temple complex in a field in Hertfordshire. It’s something of a triumph for the friendly family archaeological show because every previous attempt to identify the site of a Romano-British temple has yielded only muddy holes in the ground. On this occasion, the team has come up trumps with not one, not two, nor even three temples but at least four of the things, thereby going one better than the proverbial London bus, which only manages to arrive in bunches of three.

The Time Team website, of which I’ve been editor for the past ten years, is also enjoying a minor triumph, having survived the current carnage that is Channel 4 to celebrate its second decade in the virtual digging business with the start of the new series. The cuts at the channel mean that it has done so in much diminished form. We won a Bafta (for interactive entertainment) with the website in 2002, but certainly won’t be repeating the achievement any time soon. With almost everyone I’ve ever worked with at Channel 4 now having either left already or been made redundant in the run up to Xmas, we few freelances who somehow survived the cull cling to the scattered bits of wreckage of what used to be the organisation’s public service remit wondering how long it’s possible to stay afloat when even the lifeboats and lifejackets appear to have been dispensed with.

Sunday’s programme comes from one of those places that must drive the apostrophe pedants to apoplexy. The village of Friars Wash (population 113) has got by very nicely, thank you, without the aid of an apostrophe ever since the original friars (or friar) did their washing there (or not, depending on your view of how the placename originated). Rather like Barons Court and Earls Court in London, which are always good for throwing the Lynne Trusses of this world into confusion. Earls Court is almost invariably apostrophe-less, except on the tube map, where someone bunged one in between the 'l' and the 's'. Incorrectly, as it happens, because if you want to be pedantic about it, it should be Earls’ Court, as the reference is to the Earls of Oxford. In the case of Barons Court, there’s no baron – or barons – so make what you will of that one.

As for Friars Wash, don’t be surprised if Channel 4 gets it wrong in the TV listings and trailers. There’s no one left there to check such things.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

A year of change

Happy 2009 - and here's to a year of, erm, change (we can believe in).