Monday, 25 May 2015

On the Road When I was Young

It seems to me that Steve Tilston has never sought fame on anything but his own terms. He has been driven by his own enthusiasm for his chosen subject matter.  He writes beautiful words and melodies and when our generation of songwriters is assessed on our contribution to our time, Steve’s work will rank alongside much better known artistsRalph McTell

British folk singer-songwriter Steve Tilston inspired the storyline of Danny Collins the film starring Annete Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner, Al Pacino as a washed-up Rock star in his sixties living off his reputation and Christopher Plummer as his friend and manager Frank. In the film Frank gives Danny a surprise birthday present: a framed letter written to him by John Lennon in 1971. The letter startles Danny into revaluating his broken-down life, sustained by cocaine, booze and the uncritical admiration of elderly fans, and make some hard choices.

Sounds corny, but the film is funny, poignant and thoroughly entertaining. And it's based on a true story. In 1971 John Lennon read a magazine article in which Steve Tiltson expressed anxiety about the detrimental effect on him as a performer of wealth and fame. Lennon, rolling in both, told him not to worry about it; he had been poor and rich and neither detracted from his song-writing.

None of this was known to me until Sunday when Lesley and I went to Sunday morning pictures to see Danny Collins. After we came home I looked on the net and found Lennon's original letter. Moreover I found on Youtube a little film of Steve Tilston singing and playing his song On the Road When I was Young. I played it three or four times; the tune is still with me. Thirty-eight years ago I started out on an unknown road as a 28-year-old apprentice journalist on a regional evening newspaper. That road comes to an end this Friday, May 29. Steve Tilston's song could not be bettered as a valedictory.

Danny Collins is not a better film than Robert Altman's Nashville, released 40 years ago in 1975 when John Lennon was going through strange times in America; but it is more appealing. Altman's epic, like Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party and Nuts in May, is excrutiating, at least it is to me, because none of the characters is remotely appealing. That's not accidental: Altman felt it like that and meant it to be like that. The final scene, following the assassination of folk legend Barbara Jean, gunned down on stage at a political rally, ends with Barbara Harris singing "It Don't Worry Me". I could eat my knuckles at the awfulness of what's being implied, especially when a negro choir joins in...It don't worry me, it don't worry me/ You may say that I ain't free, it don't worry me...

Robert Altman comes up because at a previous Sunday morning pictures outing we saw a double bill: a feature documentary about Altman's career as a television and movie director, and then The Long Goodbye, a Raymond Chandler story that I could actually follow thanks to Altman's direction. He got into pictures after coming out of the US armed forces and going to see Brief Encounter, which made him cry. My future life will be spent in part going to the pictures on Sunday morning, Tuesday morning and maybe Wednesday afternoon. Between films there'll be time to reflect on the road when I was young.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Everywhere We Go...

This is me walking towards today's service of remembrance for the 56 people who died in the Bradford City Fire Disaster at Valley Parade on Saturday, May 11, 1985.

Thirty years ago I walked away from the burning main stand believing that everybody had got out. In the early hours of Sunday morning, May 12, I knew that many had not.
At today's service the Bishop of Bradford, the Right Reverend Toby Haworth, spoke forcefully of light prevailing over darkness. That Sunday morning, I looked out of the window of my top storey flat and saw above Valley Parade the blue glow of a solitary floodlight above the area where the bodies were discovered. It was not poetic but deeply poignant. Bradford is still coming to terms with the experience. Today I felt proud of my adopted city, battered old Bradford, that has looked after me for 40 years. 

The names of the dead were announced and after each name a bell in the tower of City Hall chimed once. In recent weeks, much has been made in the national media of the multiple losses suffered by the Fletcher family: four of them did not return home on May 11. But as the names were called out and the bell sounded, the multiple losses suffered by other families, families not highlighted by the media, reminded me that Bradford, collectively, had been here nearly 100 years before.

On Saturday, July 1, 1916, hundreds of volunteer soldiers from the 16th and 18 Battalions of the Bradford Pals were sent over the top at the opening battle of the Somme offensive. Many of them were among the British Army's 60,000 casualties that day. Three or four hundred of them were among the bodies of the 20,000 dead. The memory of the multiple deaths suffered by Bradford families in 1916 came back to me as the bell rang for the families of the dead at Valley Parade:-   

Jack Leo Coxon, Leo Anthony Coxon; David James Crabtree, Harry Crabtree; Muriel Firth, Samuel Firth; Andrew Fletcher, Edmund Fletcher, John Fletcher, Peter Fletcher; Felix Winspear Greenwood, Peter Greenwood, Rupert Benedict Greenwood; Edith Hindle, Fred Hindle; Gordon McPherson, Irene McPherson; Gerald Priestley Ormondroyd, Richard John Ormondroyd, Robert Ian Ormondroyd; Craig Albert Stockman, Jayne Ashley Stockman, Trevor John Stockman; Howard Turner, Sarah Turner.

Among them was an elderly couple, I was told, who, trapped by the speed of the fire and knowing they could not escape it, held hands as the flames engulfed them

Thirty years ago Valley Parade, like most Third Division grounds, was in a state of delapidation. Watching professional football in grounds little better than cow sheds was part of the culture. The state of the ground reflected the state of the city in the aftermath of the recession that ripped through industry after the oil price hike by OPEC. City's hardcore supporters, accustomed to disappointment on the pitch, had a chant of their own which they hurled at rival fans from the steep, open terraces of the Kop: This is the Valley, the Valley of death. When results were really bad they sang it at themselves. Gallows humour was ever a part of the experience of following a lower league club in 1985. After the fire they stopped singing it.

You'll Never Walk Alone and Abide With Me were sung today. But part of me wanted to hear the chant that comes from the steep covered Kop of the rebuilt Valley Parade:- Everywhere we go, everywhere we go, it's the Bradford boys making all the noise, everywhere we go.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

PR and the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

A campaign is underway for a system of Proprtional Representation, what Paddy Ashdown glibly used to refer to as "fair votes".

The argument has been going on for years. Is it fair that the nearly four million votes cast for Ukip in Thursday's General Election resulted in just one MP, whereas 1.5m votes for the SNP in Scotland resulted in 56?

PR would share parliamentary seats according to the number of votes cast for each party, putting an end to swing voting and marginal seats, we are told. The sense of disenfranchisement and disillusion would diminish as more people realised their vote counted for something.

Various forms of PR are employed all over the world. It's used to select British Members of the European Parliament, so why isn't it deployed in general elections to our own House of Commons?  I don't know, but I hope it isn't. I don't wish the fair votes petition well, I hope it fails. Why?

In part because I think that too much democracy leads to poor decision-making or no decision-making; parliamentary representation shared out according to votes is bound to increase the number of small parties which will regard its MP as a single-issue delegate rather than a representative of all the people in a constituency - including those who didn't vote for that person.

Representing people who didn't vote for you is what real democracy is, for it tacitly acknowledges other views, other standpoints, other arguments. I was once Father of an NUJ chapel and quickly found out how difficult it is representing others with whom you might not entirely agree.

The argument for PR - it militates against single-party domination - is also an argument against PR - it causes factionalism which in turn can encourage parties of political or religious extremes. 'Oh no!' I hear you cry, 'You're not going to bring up the Weimar Republic as an example!' Of course I am. On the day Victory in Europe was celebrated in London, why wouldn't I?

Between 1919 and 1933 Germany was governed by 21 coalitions. And we know what happened in January 1933 as a result of prolonged instability: power was handed to Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party. The Nazis, like the German Communist Party, were encouraged by the constitution of the Weimar Republic.

A system of PR operated. Germany was divided into 35 equal electoral districts. If a party got 60,000 votes in a district it got one deputy in the lower house of the Reichstag. Party officials chose who that deputy would be. If the number of votes was half that in several districts the votes were added up and an appropriate number of deputies was allocated.

In addition, plebicites or referenda were offered on specific issues. Under Article 48 of the constitution, the President  had emergency powers to abolish governments and suspend all human rights. Which is precisely what Hitler did as Chancellor after the Reichstag fire. He persuaded President Hindenburg to give him the power to outlaw political opposition and trades unions.

I wasn't there. But the American reporter William S Shirer was, in Berlin, up until December 1941 when Hitler declared war on the United States. This is what he says in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich about Weimar's system of governance.

The weaknesses of the Weimar regime were obvious. There were too many political parties, and they were too much at cross purposes. Too absorbed by looking after the special interests they represented, they were unable to form an enduring majority in the Reichstag that could back a stable govenment.

Parliamentary government had become what a majority of Germans called 'kuh handel' - cattle trading - with the partners bargaining for special advantages for the groups which elected them, and the national interests be damned. 

It had been impossible to achieve a majority in the Reichstag for any policy - of the Left, the Center or the Right. Merely to carry on the business of government it was necessary to resort to Article 48 of ther constitution, which in an emergency permitted the chancellor, if the president approved , to govern by decree.

Although I won't be alone in having voted for a party, not especially a candidate, I've always done so knowing the identity of that party's candidate in advance. I don't like the idea of having an MP conferred on me after the election. I like the first-past-the-post system. Since 2010 it has given Britain coalition government and now single party government.

One defeated Liberal-Democrat MP I spoke to the day after the General Election told me that on the doorstep people complained that MPs from different parties needed to work together more. At the same time they criticised Liberal-Democrats for abandoning their principles by working with the Conservatives.
  
Many of those nearly 4m people who voted Ukip were tactical voters more interested in keeping somebody out than getting somebody elected. The SNP, as I have said elsewhere, were beneficiaries of Labour Party incompetence. The SNP replaced the Liberal-Democrats as Britain's third party. Temporarily. Five years from now the picture could be very different.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Labour's Bannockburn

In the event of an incursion by Scottish Nationalist MPs and a consequent coalition between Mr Ed and Nicola Sturgeon - and all that that a union between two militantly pro-EU, climate change parties is likely to mean financially - the blame will lie with the Labour Party.

Because Scottish Nationalists can only determine the balance of power in Westminster by a collapse of the Labour vote north of Berwick-on-Tweed. All those years of Labour hegemony since 1997, probably longer, will have come to this: Bannockburn revisited. The crowing from Edinburgh will be awful.

Unless. Unless the electorate has managed to deceive election pundits by voting contrary to their expressed intention. Wasn't this the case in last year's independence referendum. Scottish Nationalists scattered the Highlands with blue saltires and VOTE YES in loud letters. But instead of landing in the driving seat, as they expected, they ended up in the dustbin of history.

A good Labour turn-out today north of the border would keep them there. But the pundits say that is unlikely to happen. Nicola Sturgeon has been going around telling SNP supporters to prepare for government, a line first cast by that fly fisher of men former Liberal Party Leader David Steel at the conclusion of a particularly upbeat party conference in 1981. Yes, it was as far back as that.

He turned out to be as wrong as Neil Kinnock was before the 1992 General Election. Labour lost the election in Sheffield by mounting a Nuremberg-style pre-election rally complete with spotlights and the arrival by helicopter of prospective prime minster Neil and first lady Glenys. I watched it live on television and cringed as an excitable Mr Kinnock uttered the fatal words, repeatingly, "We're alright!" Anybody with a spoonful of common sense recognised instantly that this miscalculated hubris would do for Labour's hopes of dislodging John Major's deeply divided Conservatives from power. And so it proved, to my great irritation.

Five years on I met John Major, briefly. It was in late March 1997; he was on his way through Bradford to rally support against shiny New Labour. I think he'd given up the ghost by the then. But, as our photographer lined up a shot of me with the Prime Minister, in response to my admission that I always looked bad in photographs Mr Major replied with what passed for wit in the circumstances: "You're not trying to get re-elected.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Labouring Partly

In spite of ignoring the theatre of the General Election campaign, my eyes keep catching images of gesticulating, shirt-sleeved party leaders emphatically unwrapping or wrapping up large paper parcels on public platforms. They remind me of a Goon Show script the late Spike Milligan wrote: Six Charlies in Search of an Author.

Inventing their own narratives, each of the main characters tries to triumph over reality. They're all idiots, of course, in The Goon Show, believing that nobody else can possibly guess what they're up to. So when the Head Boy, David Cameron, declares that child benefit is safe with the Conservatives, you know it's not.Why should it?  And when Adrian Mole - the man who is ready for power - declares that he won't do a deal with the Krankies, Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish Nationalists, you know that, given a stalemate next week, that's precisely what he'll do.

What are these Charlies in search of? The right line of public opinion. Politicians who try to follow public opinion instead of leading it are charlatans - hence, Six Charlies in Search of an Author. The same applies to journalists, those pilot fish who feed off the skins of bigger amphibians. Public opinion is volatile, straws in the wind. Politicians have to raise a standard and stand their ground.

I could never be a politician: I don't have perfect teeth so I don't smile much and the sight of the electorate usually induces me to walk the other way. And from the end of May I won't be a journalist. Journalism was a trade I found myself in by default 38 years ago.A three-week placement as a mature student on a teacher training diploma led to the provisional offer of employment on the only evening paper left in Bradford. "How do you know I'd be any good?" I asked the then-editor Arnold Hadwin.

So it was all his fault. When I started covering politics of all sorts from 1979, elections were much livelier. The Labour Party was in a state of civil war, the Social Democratic Party was born out of the cracks that opened up in Labour, driven partly by principle and partly by the aim of Roy Jenkins to make British politics less parochial, more, shall we say, European. The Conservatives were riding to power on the back of the Grantham Boudicca's chariot.

The old patriarchal Tory Party must have hated her. She was a leader, not a follower. I thought Jim Callaghan was like that too, telling the trades unions he wanted them to halve annual pay demands from ten percent to five percent - that's what led to the Winter of Discontent, the strikes by lorry drivers and bin men, and ultimately did for him at the 1979 General Election. 

Labour only survived in power between 1977 and the election by doing deals with first the Liberal Party and when that failed Ulster Unionists. Labour beat off one vote of no confidence but narrowly lost the second one in March 1979, brought about by the Government's refusal to implement devolution legislation for Scotland.

I reported on a lot of big party rallies and conferences which included Michael Foot, Harold Macmillan, Arthur Scargill, Dr David Owen, Margaret Thatcher, Shirley Williams. I had quite a bit of respect for politicians then, I liked them . Ed, Dave, Nick, Nicola, Nat and Nige, don't do it for me.


The outcome on Thursday? Well, the Duchess of Cambridge is going into labour; but I wouldn't rush out to the bookies to put a packet on the party of Ed coming first past the post. In which case, who is likely to be the next leader of the labouring partly? Brother Dave?

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Ozymandius

Three disturbing things I've seen on television these past couple of nights. In a BBC 4 programme about a maximum security prison in Russia, a barbed-wire encampment holding multiple-killers, rapists, maniacs and terrorists, the voice-over said the place was seven hours' drive from the nearest town, in a forest "as big as Germany".

They put a camera in one of the guard towers for a crane shot of the the land beyond the prison and the houses for the guards and their families: nothing but trees in every direction. In winter the icy road through the trees looked like a track to one of Dante's circles of hell - perhaps Solzhenitsyn's First Circle. A mother visiting her multiple killer son made a 5,000-mile round trip for four hours sharing an internal phone with her boy. He was in a box with a perspex window.

Not having seen her son for five years - getting there and back was expensive, she said - and in the presence of foreigners with TV equipment, she asked if had seen the earthquake on television. "I don't watch television. There's too much filth," he said. There were too many paedophiles. If they would let him out to murder paedophiles he'd do that willingly, he added quietly. His mother didn't reply but cried silently.

Locked up in box in a forest as big as Germany...

The second thing that disturbed me was Ed Miliband on his own on a rostrum declaring: "I am ready for power." Eyes as big as oysters, marbles, tongue flicking across his lips. "I am ready for power." Dial M for Power. Adrian Mole as Ozymandius. Nothing to do with the media sending him up because I haven't followed the election campaign either in the papers or on the telly. My disquiet was caused solely by that image of Ed Miliband's slowly turning head, the unblinking stare out into the middle distance: My name is Ozymandius, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Okay Ed. Pandora's got the message. You're ready to take the Duke of Edinburgh's Gold Award.

Tonight, watching a re-run of Peter Taylor's BBC2 documentary about the black-garbed desert beheaders of Islamic State, I saw bearded righteous brothers attacking images of Ozymandius with sledge hammers. Colossal wrecks, boundless and bare. In part it was a publicity stunt to show the infidels of the Western world how ruthless, how pitiless, warriors of Allah can be.

But when the cameras are switched off they trade these antiquities on the world market for dollars so they can acquire more serrated knives, cages and orange jump-suits for the Western hostages they either hold to ransom or, failing that, ritually decapitate to frighten the godless.

Smashing religious artefacts, destroying places of worship, burning and beheading the enemies of the state...Sounds familiar? I don't suppose the likes of Jihadi John picked that up from Tudor history when they were at university in England? 

IS came out of American detention camps in Iraq. As Sunnis they were treated like dogs by Iraq's Shia rulers, Taylor said. Now in power in areas of Iraq and Syria, they take their revenge, treating Shias like dogs. Forgiveness isn't part of the programme. We live in a political world, where mercy walks the plank. Or sets out to sea in a pea-green boat that sinks off the coast of Italy.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Mili-Clint. The Shape of Things to Come.

There was I, getting on with my work, when a wall-screen on the far wall started showing pictures of Ed Miliband in full flow. Evidently the Labour leader was telling a gathering of the party faithful (the Shadow Cabinet were there) that he was "ready for power".

The last time he had the reins of power between his teeth, of course, he was Gordon Brown's Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and signed us up to the EU's carbon capture programme. Brownie points if you believe in Apocalypse Now (in 2017). None if you don't.
 
I got on with my work. When next I looked up Hillary Clinton was beaming winningly at me. Evidently, the former First Lady of the United States intends to pitch for the Democratic ticket in the next Presidential election.

The last time I took any notice of her she was beaming winningly at David Miliband, who was Gordon Brown's Foreign Secretary. Hillary, on the footslopes of the Everest of ultimate power, was President Obama's Secretary of State, 2009-2013.

Head down again, I contemplated the future should these two events come to pass. On this side of the Atlantic, the Miliband dynasty, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Clinton dynasty.

The prospect of Miliband and Clinton in power at the same time will doubtless cause a flutter of excitement among those who view the alternative as likely to encourage the advance of what Heaven 17 call "that fascist groove thing".

Some of them may have second thoughts after a year of sanctimonious trend-setting - those who haven't taken advantage of the job opportunities, that is.