Saturday, May 30, 2009

They've already been squooshed

After Thursday's accidental invention of horrorblogging, this site needs something sunny for the weekend.

Sometimes you just need a ukulele version of De La Soul's Eye Know.

(Eye Know was of course the peak of hip hop. All been downhill since then...)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood

This man is an antiquarian bookseller.

No really, he is. His name is John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood. He changed his name by deed poll in 1989*.

John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood goes to every Portsmouth game, home and away. He rings a bell, whacks a drum and plays a tuneless trumpet for the duration of the game, no matter what is happening on the pitch. He is the most probably the most recognisable football fan in Britain and he’s often on television.

In real life, John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood looks younger and thinner than he does on television. I know this because last Sunday my father, my uncle and I sat in the JJB stadium, Wigan, amongst the travelling Portsmouth fans. We had been given free tickets to the final game of the season because we went to a wedding at the stadium the day before.

I don’t support Portsmouth but I ‘look out for them’ because I was born in the city. I was taken to a few games at Fratton Park in the 1980s, when the team contained players such as Neil Webb and Vince Hilaire. I can’t remember any of the other players, but John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood can because he knows everything about Portsmouth Football Club. He has written a book called The True Pompey Fan's Miscellany.

The game was a meaningless one in the sense that both teams were safe from relegation and could gain nothing much by winning. The Pompey fans - there were thousands of them – made a 600-mile round trip to watch a meaningless football match. They sang throughout. John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood led the singing, rang his bell, banged his drum and played his tuneless trumpet. There is no such thing as a meaningless Portsmouth match to John.

Portsmouth played some reserve players because it was a meaningless game. Most of the Portsmouth fans who made the 600-mile round trip to watch reserve players play a meaningless football match wear replica tops. John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood wears a novelty Pompey top hat, a blue and white dreadlock wig, a blue-check vest, shorts and a pair of tattered blue-check clown shoes. Portsmouth played badly and lost 1-0.

Many of the Portsmouth fans who made a 600-mile round trip to watch a meaningless football match in which their team played badly and lost 1-0 have Portsmouth tattoos. John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood has 60 Portsmouth tattoos on his body. He wears a blue check vest and shorts so you can see some of them.

John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood hasn’t missed a Portsmouth game, home or away, since 1980. He has a Wikipedia entry and an obscene definition in the Urban Dictionary. He has appeared on the BBC’s Video Nation series and on the cover of a book by American writer Chuck Culpepper.

John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood has 60 Portsmouth tattoos on his body and the club crest shaved on to his head. He changed his name by deed poll in 1989. Portsmouth played badly and lost 1-0 in a meaningless game. John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood rang his bell. He has "PFC" engraved on his teeth.

John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood has strange sad eyes and has been thrown out of several grounds for being drunk and disorderly. Many people want to have their photograph taken with him because he rings a bell, wears a novelty Pompey top hat and is often on television. John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood is an antiquarian bookseller and he has 60 Portsmouth tattoos on his body, the club crest shaved on to his head and "PFC" engraved on his teeth and he rings a bell.

John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood wants to eat Portsmouth Football Club and to be eaten by it. John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood is called Portsmouth Football Club and his body is Portsmouth Football Club and he rings a bell. John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood is running out of places to go and he has strange sad eyes. John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood.
John Portsmouth
Football Club Westwood
John Portsmouth


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sea Spray

After extensive research I can reveal that the worst service station on the M5 is Frankley northbound (between junctions 3 and 4). Mere words cannot begin to describe its awfulness but if you must visit it I will proffer this advice: leave nothing but tyre-prints, take nothing but a quick leak. Then get the hell out of there.

Strensham southbound isn’t so bad. It's one of those silvery-glass Roadchef ones mostly consisting of a huge lounge area with armchairs, just right for reclining and dopily contemplating the gentle unreality of such travellers’ non-places.

We stopped at it on the way home on Monday and ate McDonalds. That’s right, educated blog readers, MCDONALDS! Mrs Brit had an excuse for this – she is pregnant and is therefore entitled to eat a breakfast consisting of a cup of microwave porridge and a Rolo McFlurry ice-cream. My defence is that I am required to put on a stone as a mark of solidarity with my birthing partner. After the indolent Turkey trip I’m well on the way and I imagine the strange cheesy-baconey bagel thing I consumed was another helpful nudge in the right direction.

The bagel was terrible and delicious. McDonalds has dramatically improved, hasn’t it? I avoided the place for about 12 years, regarding it as by far the worst of all the major fast food joints – partly because of my middle-class food snobbery, but mainly because they seemed to do something to everything to make it taste nasty. But since they’ve tarted up the branding and introduced all the supposedly healthy stuff, it leaves Burger King in the dust (KFC still rules, of course). At Strensham my cup of PG Tips was 80p and compared to the £3.99 buckets of froth on offer at Costa Coffee, McDonalds seemed honest, humane and noble.

For various reasons I seem to spend a lot of time on the motorways. I don’t mind because it means I can get through a lot of CDs, such as Paul Weller’s last one, 22 Dreams. It had very good reviews and indeed it is a return to form after a decade of mneh dadrock. Mind you 14 Dreams would be an even better album as there’s a fair bit of noodling nonsense on there. But it’s a good motorway record: its length kills a lot of junctions and it ebbs and flows along nicely, carrying you home and then right at the end wallops you with a wonderful, rolling, sucker punch of a song called ‘Sea Spray’.

Immediately upon hearing the song for the first time I felt like I’d learnt it in the womb. It filled me with a faux-nostalgia which then triggered a drenching Proustian torrent of real, awful nostalgia for the town of my early childhood: the cold sunlit slabs of Old Portsmouth harbour long before they built the Spinnaker Tower, the Pompey Chimes, the broken trampolines sunk in the shingle beach, the salty air, learning the forward defensive cricket shot on Southsea Common, fizzy coke and crisps at the Still and West pub, schooltrips tramping around HMS Victory, cub scouts, foghorns, Spice Island, North End and South Parade Pier, vast naked ships in drydock, Grandad watching the racing as we munch corned beef sandwiches, acolytes in Portsmouth Cathedral, the Jubilee Fountain and the ferries churning ceaselessly across the dirty bluegreen, scrotumtightening sea.

That sort of nostalgic rush is pretty dangerous when you’re barrelling down the M5. I’ve always said I had no particular geographical roots other than Englishness so it’s strange to find them suddenly tangling at your soul from a 2008 Paul Weller number, but there they were.

A contrarian

I celebrated Bobday by obsessively reading the user album reviews on Bob Dylan’s excellent website. Particularly compelling are the posts of one McRamahamasham, who has used the site to publish his theory that all the best Dylan records are actually the worst, and all the worst ones are actually the best.

For example, here he is on Highway 61 Revisited:

Other than the title track, it’s filled with somewhat tedious, mid-tempo, too long excuses for clever lyrics: “Queen Jane Approximately”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Desolation Row”.

And on Blonde on Blonde:

The tedious songs (“(Sooner Or Later) One Of Us Must Know”, “Visions Of Johanna”, “Temporary Like Achilles”) are growing greater both in number and in length. …Even the title of “Stuck Inside Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” is too long….Not that I don’t like Blonde On Blonde but really, I put on the double-album Self-Portrait far more often.

But he has rare praise for infamous 1985 shocker Empire Burlesque:

Personally, I think the synthesizer-laden sound actually adds a lot to the album

And here’s another random quote:

It is one of the most musically complicated things Bob’s written since the jazz chords of “If Dogs Run Free”

If this means nothing to you because you don’t do Dylan, all you need to know is that McRamahamasham's claims are analogous to an argument that the only genuine musical talent in The Beatles was Ringo. (If Dogs Run Free from New Morning is surely the most toe-curlingly horrible thing that Dylan has ever committed to vinyl, and in a very long and strange career, that’s saying something.)

McRamahamasham is even contrary about being contrary, which is the mark of a truly top-notch contrarian:

I know it seems like I’m just disagreeing with the commonly held Dylan perceptions on just about everything. But I’m not doing it just to be contrary. Case in point: I, like most everybody else, actually like Blood On The Tracks.

I must therefore elect McRamahamasham to my personal pantheon of All-Time Great Contrarians, along with Christopher Hitchens, Peter Hitchens, Harry Eagar and, of course, Bob Dylan himself, who doubtless wholly approves of his unconventional reviews, if he has bothered to read them.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The trials of pregnancy

Women just don't understand what we men have to go through.

Rip it up and start again?

Extraordinary defence of his £87,000 expense-mining activities by Tory MP Anthony Sheen here.

Not extraordinary because he claims people are ‘jealous’ of his country pile, but because he is so tone-deaf to the debate that he thinks that “following the rules” is still some sort of defence. Being within the rules ceased to be a defence in this scandal almost immediately - the question being, of course, whether the MP had a conscience about exactly how he spent taxpayers’ money.

Revolution is in the air. Reform of the expenses system is already old news; pundits are talking about separating the Cabinet from Parliament and making the Commons a proper legislative chamber again, free from the tyranny of the Whips.

Be wary of revolutions. There are plenty of decent MPs who deserve a future, even amongst those who wandered into grey areas on the second homes issue. And if, Guido-style, you demand complete popular contempt for democratically-elected party Parliamentarians per se, you must consider what would replace them. Esther Rantzen and Joanna Lumley perhaps? But also George Galloway and Nick Griffin and other demagogues pounding the populist drum for their own dark ends. I dislike career politicians as much as the next man, but there are always worse things.

Exciting times, I’ve even started watching the news again. Which way is the wind blowing?

Chris Huhne was on This Week last night talking about reform that would take us back to the way Parliament operated before the First World War, when the Executive had far less control over the House and Parliament was more than just a glorified electoral college for the PM. Reform to take us back to 1913? Now that’s my kind of progress!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Birthing Partner writes...

I emerged from our second antenatal class a weakened and queasened man. These medical preparations should come with health warnings.

This week was the Big One: labour and birth, in infinite detail. My eyes were certainly opened and then watered. So naïve was I prior to the class that I thought the standard delivery method was lying on the back, legs akimbo but chastely covered in a pale green plastic sheet, pushing. Not a bit of it. That’s just in the movies, apparently. No, these days the lady is expected to squeeze out the sprog whilst wallowing walrus-like in a paddling pool, or bouncing about on a gym ball (toning the abs at the same time). Or possibly riding a horse and using her mobile to broadcast the latest developments via Twitter.

Alternatively she can stand and embrace her Birthing Partner in the Last Dance of the Disco method, rotating slowly about the room and timing her contractions to the romantic rhythms of Lady in Red. Yes, it’s a brave new world wot Brit Jnr will enter, and no mistake.

Odd business, being a Birthing Partner. The seven men in the class are all clearly Dads. Dads are encouraged to go to these things and to take as much part as possible, in this brave new world. But when we Dads get to the classes, we find that the midwife has been told to unDadify us. We are Birthing Partners, because of course we might be lesbians or colleagues or something and thus take offence at being referred to as 'fathers'. And then the Mums are advised that Dads are often pretty crap at being Birthing Partners anyway because we can't hack it when our ladies are in pain and we start fights with doctors and what have you, so it's generally advisable to hand over the role to Grandma. But we are invited to drive the car to the hospital, provide snacks, pay the child's university fees etc.

Thus the NHS simultaneously pulls us in and pushes us away. Fortunately, we Dads are used to that sort of thing. If we couldn't deal with self-conflicting instructions and irrational mixed messages we'd never have managed to attain Dad status in the first place...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

We won the Eurovision Song Contest!

…well technically Jade Ewen came fifth with “It’s My Time” but it amounts to the same thing, especially given the self-imposed handicap of having Andrew Lloyd Webber squatting froggishly at the piano throughout. They seem to have done something to eliminate the Soviet bloc-voting, which is a bit sad. Takes a lot of the fun out of the thing.

Perhaps Eurovision will be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s project for a few years, he seems to have found a way to make money out of it.

Certainly I predict a new West End musical, based on the song “It’s My Time”. He’s got the tune (I seem to recall that Phantom of the Opera is pretty much just one tune repeated over and over for three hours) and the story’s already there in such lyrics as:

It’s my time, it’s my time/ My moment, I’m not gonna let go of it/ My time, it’s my time/ And I’ll stand proud /There’s nothing i’m afraid of/ I’ll show you what I’m made of/ Show you all it’s my time now.

The plot will centre around a young girl. Act I will see her dreaming that one day her Time - or Moment, if you prefer – will come, and in Act II it will be clear that her Time or Moment is coming very soon. After the interval, it will look briefly like her Time may be in danger of not coming at all, but then, triumphantly, it will arrive and her Moment will be now. She will stand proud and insist that she's not gonna let go of it. In the final act, she will remember fondly that that was her Moment, and a rousing finale with full choir and orchestra will offer hope that one day her Time, and possibly also her Moment, will come again.

A surefire smash, I'm sure you'll agree.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Ikea, football and the vertiginous nature of eternity

I spent all day Saturday building Ikea wardrobes but succumbed to only two really prolonged sessions of swearing.

Impressive, yes, but I am pretty adept at building Ikea furniture these days. I know its sneaky ways. I know, for example, that before starting you should lay every bit of wood out on the floor exactly as shown in the minimalist instructions, paying very careful attention to the arrangement of the bastard little holes. Failure to do so is fatal. In my early years of Ikea, things were very different: essentially one long stream of expletives interspersed with occasional hammer-whacks. The futon, which had about three hundred plastic nodules each of which had to be hammered in with maximum physical force, was a particularly memorable afternoon.

I also know that there is never enough storage space in the world, and just because you have built stuff to hold stuff, and thrown stuff away in the process of moving stuff into the stuff you have built, there will always, always be more stuff. This just has to be accepted.

Anyway, one of the two foul-mouthed effusions came when I was attempting the apparently simple but actually immensely difficult task, when performed solo, of screwing a clothes rail into the completed wardrobe. The camel’s back broke when, contorted unnaturally inside the wardrobe with the rail balanced on my head, I dropped the screw I was attempting to affix. For the eighth time.

The second cascade of cussing came when the wireless told me that Manchester United had won the Premier League and thus equalled Liverpool’s record of 18 titles. As a Liverpool supporter, this hurts, but less than it would have done a few years ago, because I have wilfully detached myself from caring too much about football. Alistair McGowan was talking about a similar thing on the radio; he has gradually weaned himself off his Leeds United addiction.

The key thing is perspective. Sure, Manchester United have equalled Liverpool’s record and next year they may overtake it. But so what? That isn’t the end. Liverpool can catch up again, if not in the next few years then in the next decade, or the decade after that, or the next thousand years. Even Sir Alex Ferguson will eventually retire or die, but football will continue. It is a race without a finishing line. There is no end to football, it just goes on and on and on. Like the infinite inadequacy of storage space, this just has to be accepted and enlightenment is possible.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Blow up Guido

Over at the Yard I once criticised Guido's 'project' to "reduce the esteem in which politicians are held."

This is mostly because I think Guido is hopelessly misguided and that he is both a product of, and a reason for the perpetuation of, the horrible insular world of the career politician which he claims to be attempting to destroy. Guido's blog is bad for British politics. Actually it's bad for humanity.

But it's also partly because I believed that reducing the esteem in which politicians were held was a literally impossible job, since they were already as low as they could go.

Obviously I was wrong about that but I'm still right about Guido's blog. Of course Guido has gleefully pounced on the expenses scandal, but it must be gutting for him that it was the frigging Telegraph - so Old Media it's still a broadsheet - that broke it, while Guido's 'finest' hour is an undignified squabble with the even more unlikeable Draper.

The world's worst party piece

Over at Nige’s place Will admitted that his recitals of Shelley’s great short poem Ozymandias might now include some of his own freestyle improvisations.*

Since I too learnt Ozymandias as a child, Will’s confession had me worried that I might also be inadvertently including some idiosyncratic embellishments on the rare occasions that I give the sonnet a public airing.

So I checked and, sure enough, it turns out that Percy Bysshe’s pedestal did not in fact proclaim: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and throw your hands in the air/Like you just don’t care.” Boy is my face red.

Anyway, as I was saying at Nigeness, in one of Michael Palin’s travel programmes the ex-Python is required to perform a party piece for some collection of foreigners or other, and he opts for a halting and (as I loudly and irritatingly pointed out to my fellow viewers at the time) error-strewn recital of Ozymandias. And it strikes me now that, for a professional entertainer and founding member of the most influential comedy team in television history, a halting and error-strewn recital of Ozymandias is a pretty damn feeble party piece.

But feeble as that may be, for entertainment value it knocks into a cocked hat a routine I witnessed in Turkey last week, which gets me at last to the point of this post.

The act in question was a fire-eater. He was supposed to perform in a sort of outdoor amphitheatre, but inclement weather forced all the resort entertainment into a small indoor theatre. But it turns out that, even in Turkey, health and safety laws prohibit indoor fire-eating.

So what did he do to adapt his performance, given that a key (you might say, critical) element of his act had been taken out of the equation? The answer is: absolutely nothing. He simply did a fire-eating act without any fire.

To the accompaniment of deafening dance music and sporting a wide grin, this almighty eejit pranced about waving two elongated cotton buds which were notably not on fire, rubbed them daringly up and down his arms, and then, the thrilling climax, poked them (obscenely) down his throat.

The audience was too nonplussed to boo when he eventually bounded beaming from the stage, but requests for an encore were thin on the ground. A fire-eater without any fire: has anyone ever been served up a more meagre feast of entertainment than that?

*I give that opening line a mark of 6/10.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How to answer an unanswerable question

What is the smuggest thing you can imagine? Is it Jamie Oliver splashing some balsamic on an organic free range chicken breast and declaring it ‘pukka’? Is it Damon Albarn talking about his latest project involving Tibetan drummers and the artworks of Banksy? Is it Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan lying in a jacuzzi full of £50 notes?

Well forget it, because I’m here to tell you that the smuggest thing in the world is a room filled with contented, heavily-pregnant women rubbing their bellies.

I know this because I walked into one yesterday morning, as Mrs Brit and I attended our first antenatal class. Almost half of the women had brought their partners along and I was one of seven men. We sat in fraternal solidarity, the brotherhood of the babyfathers, occasionally cracking wise and shifting uncomfortably during the more anatomical discussions. Mind you, that stuff wiped some of the smugness off the ladies’ faces and no mistake. Not a dignified business, giving birth.

Anyway, it was all useful info and we met lots of nice people. However, there was one remarkable moment. The midwife taking the class – a very matter-of-fact lady not afraid to make use of alarming hand gestures – divided us into groups and invited each group to write its questions about pregnancy and birth on a large sheet of paper. She then held these sheets of questions up to the whole class and undertook to answer them.

But as soon as she held up the first sheet I felt a quiver of excitement, because nestling at the bottom of it, underneath all the mundane queries about what to pack in your hospital bag and the drawbacks of the epidural, was a quite magnificently unanswerable philosophical poser.

As the midwife marched authoritatively through the list, getting closer and closer to this impossible question, I began to physically twitch with anticipation. I heard nothing of her explanations of birthing suites and dilation, my whole being was focused on how she might tackle the great conundrum, scrawled in red marker pen, at the foot of the page. At last she got to it. She read it silently to herself, paused briefly, then read it aloud as I gripped my seat in tension.

The question was: “What does my unborn child dream about?”

Well, she didn’t miss a beat. She just looked up at the ceiling, sighed gently and said: “Hmmm. Food, probably.” Then she carried straight on to the next sheet.

God bless the NHS, I thought.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In which Brit meets Comrade Cohen

So the wife and I went to see the great Nick Cohen hold forth at the Watershed in Bristol earlier this evening. Thought I’d get me some sweeeeet Cohen autographs.

I already owned a copy of (the brilliant and urgently recommended) What’s Left? so I thought I’d take that with me and get him to sign it. I also wanted to give a friend a signed copy as a pressie, so just to be sure I ordered it from Amazon and paid for special delivery to my workplace today, in plenty of time to take with me to the gig. Sure enough, the book arrived, and I placed it in a specially-prepared Tesco Bag for Life, along with my original copy, all ready for the great man’s signatures. And sure enough, I drove to the gig having left that specially-prepared Tesco Bag for Life containing two copies of What’s Left? on my desk. So I had to buy another copy from Nick at the gig, which means I have now bought that bloody book three times, and I only hope he appreciates that I’m paying his mortgage for him. I mean it’s good, but it’s not three times good.

Anyway, Nick gave a fluent and authoritative kicking to the Damned Parliament, poor lost Gordon, and numerous other well-deserving arses. He has no time for the arguments of those people – I suppose we could call then gloomy optimists – who welcome the imminent recession because the important things in life are lost in a boom; a position which, interestingly, the great Yard has explored at length in the Sunday Times. According to Nick, everything is worse in a recession.

Disappointingly however, the advertised Tariq Modood failed to turn up to kick back on behalf of the morally-confused element of the Left, so I missed the chance of witnessing a good row.

Expecting a Q&A session at the end, I was trying to decide which of the following to ask:

1) Where the hell is Tariq Modood?
2) Mr Cohen, should the audience bulk buy your book because Christmas 2009 is closer than we think? Yes or no please. You can't wiggle out of this one. (courtesy ‘Jeremey Paxman’)
3) Just how pissed were you really, or were you? (courtesy Malty)

But there was only time for three audience questions (one was good, the other two were long, rambling and not questions) so I didn’t get the chance.

However, I did approach Nick to get the signatures and to mention that I was Brit, reader of and occasional commenter on his blog. Instantly he leapt up with some animation, shook my hand and cried “Ah Brit!” and quite rightly berated me for not asking question number 2 above. It was a disarming experience because although I suppose I am Brit, nobody has ever called me it in real life, and actually I’m not really quite Brit, and I felt a bit like I was impersonating myself. I was momentarily quite discombobulated. I got over it though, you know. Who really is himself, when all’s said and done?

Anyway, go and buy Waiting for the Etonians before I accidentally buy every copy in the country.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Dead Zebras and the British Class System

Early on Sunday morning as the plane eased through the clouds and good old patchy-green England was spreading beneath me, I tried to crystallise the various poetic and philosophical thoughts that emerge when one is afforded a God’s-eye view of tiny sleeping towns and miniature cars and cows and so forth, so that I could share them with you. Fortunately I then remembered that you should never attempt to crystallise and share the various poetic and philosophical thoughts that emerge when one is afforded a God’s-eye view of tiny sleeping towns and miniature cars and cows and so forth. They are so terribly lame.

However, some hours earlier than that I was lying stretched on a bench at a Turkish airport, pondering the issue of class. (The benches at the airport are made of many curved wooden slats designed to look nice and to press uncomfortable horizontal stripes into the backs of passengers attempting to recline on them, so my sleepy ponderings were interspersed with dreams about prison bars and dead zebras.)

I was thinking about class because at the resort where Mrs Brit and I were enjoying a last lazy holiday for a good while as a sprog-free couple (as David correctly identified), a high proportion of our fellow guests were thirty and forty-something Britons sporting football shirts, shaven heads, big red beer bellies and copious tattoos. And that’s just the women, ho ho. The usual package holiday mix of Bristolians, Brummies, Glaswegians, Mancs, Scousers, Welsh and Cockneys, indistinguishable except by their accents and home strip. Buggies and brats and cider and cigarettes. The flag of St George or the Welsh Dragon on everything with the space to print it. The Sun (Mirror for the Scousers), kids with earrings, big dirty laughs, women on the karaoke belting out Mustang Sally. In other words, we are talking about what used to be called the British working class.

Except of course in the quantum flux the old tripartite system of English class division is now so hopelessly outdated that the term ‘working class’, with its images of Trade Unions and factory floors, is quaintly archaic. We are all Thatcher’s children, one way or another. The tattooed skinheads soaking up the bargain-priced Turkish sun are, what, plasterers, builders, plumbers, engineers, drivers? Armed forces too, naturally, but mostly contractors and small business-owners. They live in new houses on satellite estates and drive big family cars. They have exceptionally boozy barbecues whenever the weak English sun pokes its head out.

Yet I know lots of builders, plumbers, engineers, contractors and small-business owners - I play football and go on horrible stag nights with them – and very few of them have shaven heads and copious tattoos. So what we are talking about here is not a financial class, but a tribe.

Tattoos across the back and shoulders look aggressive and thuggish but look closer and nine times out ten they’re the names of the thug’s children writ in some poncey script, a la Beckham. The ferociously patriotic but aspirational David Beckham is, I guess, the hero of this tribe. Other heroes include Ricky Hatton, Del Boy, Jordan, Cheryl Cole and though overwhelmingly white, the Tribe is not racist so throw in Ian Wright for the Cockneys and Amir Kahn for the Mancs. (Interesting that of all Beckham’s many iconic haircuts, the skinhead is the easiest to achieve for the average middle-aged bloke, so perhaps that too owes as much to him as to squaddies and 80s gangs.)

I’ve never gone in for tribes but I’m easy about it. The tribe that really hates the Beckham Tribe is the Educated Left. We’re all Thatcher’s children, but the irony is that we’re all also children of centre-left politics. Aspiration is only one half of it; the other is the many victories won on behalf of workers: minimum wage, health and safety, working time etc. For the Educated Left, it must be very frustrating to wait so long for the working class to stage a Marxist revolution and seize power, only to realise that the working class was quite happy to go on package holidays, audition for The X Factor, watch football, read Jade’s autobiography and, where appropriate, vote Tory.

So perhaps the Beckham Tribe is the key to explaining why the Left has so lost its moral compass in recent years (as detailed in Nick Cohen’s excellent book What’s Left?). The lowest British class, the baseball-capped chavs stalking hopelessly around no-go housing estates in ever-accelerating generations of welfare-dependence and despair, is of no interest to the Left, whose half-arsed solution to the cultural gulf created by benefits and wealth redistribution is merely to demand more benefits and wealth redistribution. And it can’t be bothered to address domestic issues because it has turned its attention to Palestinians and Islamic fascists and anything else going so long as it is anti-American. The Beckham Tribe dons uniform and fights racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Educated Left, because it hates the Beckham Tribe, especially when it teams up with America, opposes it and screams Not in My Name.

Well maybe that's part of the story, I don’t know. I was just musing in between dreams about dead zebras. But I do know that nobody seems to have a good grasp on what the British class system is or means any more, and that a tribal categorisation would make more sense. Perhaps we should just split Britain up along supermarket lines. The Beckham Tribe is Asda but the key vote would be the Tesco Mum. Leaders could be chosen by a simple meritocracy: the person with the most Nectar points wins.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Hiatus, Nick Cohen, Baked Potato

With swine flu currently ravaging the last few British survivors of the bird flu disaster, we're getting the hell out of the country.

I will be away for a week. Upon my return I will be going to see the great Nick Cohen hold forth at the Watershed in Bristol, so if there are any killer questions you want me to ask him, just say.

In the meantime, be good. And remember, as ever, to listen to what the baked potato say.

Friday, May 01, 2009

His Bobness

So I went to see Bob Dylan at the NIA in Brum on Wednesday night.

My excellent friend Martpol, who had seen him in Cardiff the night before, texted me before the gig with the news that His Bobness was on pretty good form but had played only keyboards and harmonica, refusing to pick up a guitar all night. I relayed this information to my fellow Bobwatchers and warned them not to expect any axe-wielding. And sure enough, straight away Bob comes to the front of the stage and straps on the guitar. Well that’s Bob Dylan for you. Attempting to second-guess the man is quite futile.

As it turned out, after finishing that one song – an almost wholly unrecognisable rendition of It Ain’t Me Babe – he put the guitar away and performed the rest of the evening’s setlist on keyboards, harmonica and impenetrable guttural croak.

It was largely a mixture of songs from Modern Times (played but not sung pretty straight) and, yes, almost wholly unrecognisable renditions of old classics, the most successful of which was, I thought, Ballad of a Thin Man and the least successful of which was a quite remarkably twee finale of Blowin in the Wind.

A strange experience, watching Dylan. Even though you know perfectly well when you buy the ticket that you’re not going to get an evening of 'Sing-Along-a-Bob’s Golden Oldies', the ear still strains for familiarity. When a lyric or chord sequence sounds ‘right’, the heart leaps. This happens rarely, of course, and there is zero communication with the audience. And yet, frustrating and confusing as it was, it was extremely enjoyable. He does have a rather good band with him. We left in high spirits. I’ve seen Dylan now, and he's not dead yet, and I probably don’t particularly need to see him in concert again, but I might.

I’ve been struggling to write a neat little insight about all this for you. The best I can come up with is that we need to think of Dylan’s recorded output in an unconventional way. I remember being startled by a passage in Chronicles Vol 1, where Dylan claims that, for a great many of the songs we regard as classics, he has only ever actually performed them, either at all or in that particular arrangement, once. On the day they were recorded. Never before and never since, and yet because they were captured on immortal albums, they’re as familiar to fans as Happy Birthday. But Dylan has no interest in being tied to those songs and arrangements just because they happen to be on CDs. He is a performer of live music on a Never-Ending Tour and Time is Meaningless.

To frame it another way: there is Bob Dylan and there are Bob Dylan’s songs, and as Humpty Dumpty put it, the question is: who is to be Master? For most artists, the songs are in charge because audiences demand it. But for Dylan the songs are tools to be used in the production of whatever kind of noise he feels like producing at this stage in his life. The rest of the world can take it or leave it, but it usually catches up, eventually.