The other day, in our local charity shop, I very nearly bought the same pair of jeans which I had donated to Oxfam the previous week.
I am an habitué of charity shops. I regard buying stuff in there as akin to renting: a pair of designer jeans - £4.99 for 6 months; a CD - £3.00 for as long as it takes to rip to my hard drive; a novel I missed first time round - £2.99 for a week.
I buy; I wear, read, listen; I give back. This is recycling. This is charity, with small amounts going regularly to our local hospice, the Red Cross and Oxfam, amongst others. And the bleeding heart liberal in me approves of this process.
The old-fashioned Marxist in me is opposed, of course, because it believes that charity is a means of absolving the state from any responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. And this is a view shared by Cameron, Clegg and Osborne. Osborne feels that he can withdraw support, even attack existing funding measures, in the expectation that charity and philanthropy will pick up the pieces.
And he may be right. Leamington Spa colludes in this to the extent that it has been named by Oxfam as the most generous town in the UK, with only the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge donating more to good causes.
I read this curious fact only this morning. So charity was on my mind as I walked into Warwick to attend the rally against the cuts in pensions for public sector workers.
There were hundreds rather than thousands of us in the Market Square in Warwick this morning, because most were attending the huge rallies and marches in Birmingham and Coventry. But it was clear that we had universal support across the political spectrum, across the class divide; because the teachers, the nurses, the carers who were assembled were not looking for charity, they were not asking for special treatment: they were demanding their rights.
It was good to see businessmen and lawyers pausing briefly and applauding the sentiments expressed as they passed through the Market Square to the courts and offices (or, let’s be honest, to the Rose & Crown and the Lazy Cow!). It was good to hear car horns being sounded supportively with equal vehemence by both BMW drivers and local bin-men.
In fact, apart from the occasional apparatchik from Tory central office on TV, I have encountered only one person who was opposed to the public sector protests. His child is being educated in our state system and he is – I guess - happy to call in the NHS whenever required. In other words, his family depends on the people he was d(ism)issing and with whom I stood this morning. But he believes that if the public sector receive their just pensions, it will affect those of people like him. He has, I’m afraid, swallowed whole the Tory propaganda that public sector pensions are greater than could be commanded in the private sector: that it is one or the other.
Two things I learnt this morning: the average public sector pensioner receives a paltry £107 per week; and the teachers have paid into their pension fund £46 billion more than has been paid out to them.
And yet, the speeches this morning were not about us and them. The banners spoke of “decent pensions for everyone”. There were references, of course, to banking profits and bankers’ bonuses, but I am angrier about these than most of the people from Unison, NUT, NAPO and the other workers present, who were more concerned with registering their solidarity with each other than making political points.
There was wit; there was humour; there was comradeship. And there was serious concern about our future.
I have no faith. I have little hope in the current situation. So it’s just charity. (Yes, I know that agape is translated as love these days – but I’m a King James atheist.) Cameron’s Big Society included many measures which he hoped would made giving to charity easier, in order to mitigate the impact of the coalition’s current strategy, which deliberately hits the poorest in our community and leaves a million young people without a job.
As Oscar Wilde said, ‘charity creates a multitude of sins’.
Today's listening: an excellent recording of Bob at the Apollo on Sunday
I was 15 when I first saw John Neville, who died on Monday, aged 86. The obituaries rightly mention his magnificent Richard II, which I saw on that occasion; but they don’t mention that the following night at the Nottingham Playhouse, he gave an equally compelling – but wholly different – performance as Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman.
These were life-enhancing, indeed life-changing, experiences for me. For the first time, I appreciated the power of performance: the power to educate, elucidate and transform. It was a lesson which has stayed with me, as have those two seminal performances, throughout my life.
I have read most of the Greek tragedies and comedies in translation, but only when I saw Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes at Epidaurus did I get it. I have no understanding at all of ancient Greek, but it didn’t matter: the power of performance in that beautiful theatre was more than sufficient to communicate the absurdities and subtleties of the Old Comedy.
I have thousands of hours of Grateful Dead shows, but none of them can compare with the experience of that first live concert in April 1972 at Wembley.
I have almost everything Dylan has ever recorded, but would exchange them all for the opportunity once again to stand a yard away from him at Hammersmith Apollo as I did on Sunday.
These days, I can and do watch almost every Sox game on mlb.tv. But to be present at Fenway for a single game is to experience something profoundly and fundamentally different: something visceral.
I can remember vividly the churning of my stomach, the heart palpitations, the nervous apprehension as Jon Lester came out in the 9th to complete his no-hitter against the Royals back in 2008.
In such circumstances, one is not merely a witness to the action, a detached and disinterested observer of the play, the band, the game, the spectacle.
One is an active participant. The involvement is not intellectual, but physical.
Today is Thanksgiving. I am listening to one of the great Thanksgiving shows – The Band’s Last Waltz. I have – thanks to a wonderfully generous American friend – part of Scorcese’s 200 page lighting cues script for that concert, and I am listening to the complete four hour plus show on number 211 of a limited edition of 3000 from Cool Daddy Productions.
But what would it have been like to be there? To be one of the 5,000 who ate Thanksgiving dinner, and then took their seats, not knowing who The Band’s guests were? And then to be present at one of the great shows of all time, with legend after legend taking the stage?
I don’t usually quote Van Morrison, but:
“It was pure situation. That show couldn’t be done – it was something that happened.”
Happy Thanksgiving to all our friends in and from North America - especially Michelle with whom we shall be eating and celebrating this evening. I suspect it will be quite a performance ...
Mark Knopfler is an accomplished guitarist, with a very distinctive sound. These days, he has an extraordinarily tight band and a repertoire which draws more on blues and folk than the pop which brought him fame and fortune with Dire Straits. It’s good stuff. But this is not why I stood in line for an hour, raced into the Hammersmith Apollo with barely a glance at the loos, the bar and the T-shirt vendors; this is not why I’ve spent an hour and a half taking one step forward, two steps back, and then one giant leap to the very front of the stage; and this is not why I am now standing so close to Knopfler that I could touch him.
I’m waiting for the man.
Jill has retired from Bob. She wants to remember him as she saw him in Carcassonne, his shadow cast on the walls of the cité, a song and dance man on the top of his form under a nightfall of diamonds in south-western France. I respect that decision, although I disagree with it. The compensation of course is that I no longer have to negotiate for seats which will provide Jill with an unobstructed view and can, as I did last evening, stand as close as I can get.
Sunday at the Apollo was the penultimate show of this European leg of the never-ending tour. But it felt as if it was the very first show for years, that Bob is “one who has been long in city pent”, desperate to break out. From the first chord, the opening lines, of Pill-Box Hat, Bob was in fine form, the voice powerful, the movements theatrical and dramatic, the engagement with fellow-musicians and audience total.
From Pill-Box Hat into Baby Blue, and Bob moved centre stage with electric guitar. This is amazing: just a yard in front of me are – left to right – Charlie Sexton, Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler, trading licks. And they are loving it as much as I am.
If you want the set list, it’s on BobLinks. He didn’t do Mississippi, which I was hoping for, but I did get Tangled up in Blue, Blind Willie McTell (my first), Desolation Row and Ballad of a Thin Man. And I did get to see and hear the version of All Along the Watchtower which provoked the discussion about Dylan erasing his old songs in the manner of Rauschenberg erasing a De Kooning drawing (see my blog on 04-08-2011).
It’s an attractive (at least to me) conceit but I can now tell you that it is, in fact, only a partial erasure. What Bob has done is stripped away all extraneous material, reducing the song to its very essence. It is clearly the same song, however, closer to the original of John Wesley Harding than to the subsequent Hendrix-influenced performances. It is extremely powerful, even if it does deprive Charlie Sexton of the opportunity for some virtuoso playing.
Still, my daughters will be delighted to hear that Charlie had many moments throughout the evening when he was allowed – even encouraged – by Bob to let loose. And he did.
So did Bob. So did the band. And so did I.
PS. Respect to the road crews for both bands: a 15-minute turn-round!
Today’s listening: last night’s show, in my head, over and over.
By now (11am on Friday morning), a significant proportion of the 50 million or so cases of Beaujolais nouveau which left the villages of Beaujolais at midnight will have arrived in the UK, and a fair amount will have reached Warwickshire. None of it will cross the threshold of Wilde’s.
This is not wine snobbery. This is a considered judgement.
Despite my occasionally vehement advocacy of the superiority of certain wines over others, I have only once been accused of being a wine snob. It was a party, some time ago. We were in the kitchen. A glass of red was thrust into my hand and it was clear that the wine was corked before I had taken a sip. As I put down the glass with an exclamation of disgust, a voice said: “Oh God, a wine snob.”
I was mortified, because I’m not: I would happily have drunk the offending wine had it not been corked. I was also surprised, because my accuser was an artist named Mary Riley, who was known for her trenchant views on art and artists. I tried to engage her in a discussion about one’s right – indeed, duty – to distinguish the good from the bad in all fields of human endeavour: art, literature, music, food, wine etc etc. But no. Some painters are better than others, some writers are better than others, some composers are better than others, but wine is wine. It is either red or white. (Kingsley Amis claimed that “Red or white?” was the most depressing question he was ever asked at a dinner party.)
The writer Rick Gekoski tellingly used a wine analogy when discussing the process of judging the Booker prize:
“You like Mateus Rosé better than Chateau Pétrus? No problem. You think it is a better wine? You're wrong. You're clearly without the experience, palate, or discrimination to make such a judgment.“
Rick went on to quote the Eliot phrase “the common pursuit of true judgement”, which was famously appropriated by Leavis, and is close to my heart. The importance of the common pursuit, and the collaborative process which it involves, is what I took from my education and what I believe is relevant and applicable today. Yes, even to wine.
One of the pleasures of our ownership of Wilde’s has been working with merchants, customers, staff and friends to select wines which satisfy taste and judgement (as well, of course, as commercial considerations). An even greater pleasure has been the creation of a wine list which attempts to explain those choices and to involve the reader/customer in the choice itself.
That process has been an education for which I am grateful to mentors such as Tim Hollis-Carroll. There are wines on the list which are not to my taste. But there is not a single wine which I do not judge to be one of the best of its kind, in its price range.
Which is why we will not be offering Beaujolais nouveau today. True, it is not to my taste. But more importantly, it is neither a good wine nor good value for money.
And if I have learned one thing in a lifetime of drinking wine, it is this: if it is not the former, it cannot be the latter - whatever the price. Can we not agree on that?
Today’s listening: gearing up for the Dylan gig in Hammersmith this weekend with the Rolling Thunder Review from Boston in November 1975.
Sometimes, one despairs of one’s friends.
I love America. I am an unequivocal admirer of, in no particular order and at random, baseball and the Boston Red Sox; Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead; Paul Auster and Don Delillo, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, Aaron Copland and Miles Davis. Although I have visited only a relatively few hectares of this huge country, I love its vastness and its diversity as much as I love its parochialism and sameness. I love its weirdness and its familiarity. I wept when Luther King was assassinated and again when Obama was elected President.
America matters to me. But sometimes, one despairs of the nation. And two of the reasons why were in the newspapers this morning.
First up was the news that healthcare may be unconstitutional, and that the 26 states – led unsurprisingly by Florida – are taking the case to the Supreme Court. For those of us in the UK and Europe, the US antagonism to even the slightest hint of a welfare state has always been inexplicable: here, even the extreme right pays lip service to the concept. In the States, Obama’s health reform aims to bring coverage to some 32 million people, “mainly those on low incomes” – really?
The clue is in the title of the bill: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It is frightening that providing these two fundamental rights has split the US and may even be made unconstitutional.
What certainly is unconstitutional is torture, and this is the second thing.
Three candidates for the Republican nomination came out in favour of waterboarding the other night. In fact, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann actually went further, criticising Obama for banning it and promising to reinstate it if elected.
We’re not talking about mere gaffes here. We’re not discussing Libyan foreign policy, Mr Cain. We’re not asking you to name the three departments you would abolish, Mr Perry.
We’re talking about something so fundamental to humanity that there should be no hesitation to our condemnation. John McCain, a presidential candidate who has actually been subjected to torture, has already condemned it. And President Obama has reminded us why we supported him:
“Waterboarding is torture. It’s contrary to America’s traditions. It’s contrary to our ideals. If we want to lead around the world, part of our leadership is setting a good example.”
Obama, McCain and – to be fair – Republican nomination-seekers Ron Paul and John Huntsman represent that side of America which gives us hope at a time when the right wing element of US politics has gone beyond a joke.
It is easy for us to watch these debates and laugh at their inanities and incompetence. But we laughed at Bush before we learned to our cost that his malapropisms were not funny at all. We know now that we should have taken him seriously.
We need to take these guys seriously, too. If we’re not careful, and the majority of Americans is not careful, we could end up with a President Perry, or a President Cain, or a President Bachmann.
And that doesn’t bear thinking about. Bill Clinton once said something to the effect that there was nothing wrong with America that couldn’t be cured by what was right with America.
I think that remains to be proved.
Today’s listening: The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow. Exquisite harmonies and great song-writing which make the Krauss/Plant collaboration sound almost trivial.
Yesterday, James Murdoch told the House of Commons select committee that he saw no evil, heard no evil and spoke no evil. And I’m inclined to believe him.
It’s true that I have been banging on for a very long time about the Murdoch hegemony in this country; and their influence on our government, society and culture. And it is also true that that I wouldn’t trust James Murdoch as far as I could throw him: which is no distance at all.
But I am inclined to believe his evidence to the committee yesterday, because I have seen at first hand the cavalier attitude of chief executives to the everyday detail of running an organisation. As we have noted before on these pages, there is a don’t-bother-me-with-that culture at the top of many of our corporations and, indeed, at the top of many of our government departments.
There is also, of course, the fact that Murdoch’s accusers are a former News of the World journalist and editor (obviously completely trustworthy) and a corporate lawyer working for News International (surely beyond suspicion).
But it is the former point that inclines me to believe Murdoch.
I find it credible that he had no interest in reading the so-called ‘for Neville’ e-mail. I find it completely plausible that he did not read News International’s QC’s judgement that there was a “culture of illegal information access” at the News of the World.
Why should he bother himself with such detail? After all, he was only signing off on a payment of £755,000 to Gordon Taylor. An executive summary, delivered by Crone (lawyer) and Myler (journalist), in the course of a 10 minute meeting, is surely enough to nod through such a paltry payment.
Because, in Murdoch's world, three quarters of a million is fuck-all.
Murdoch, unlike his father, is not a newspaper man. He is a corporate robot. The newspapers he controlled were merely products, and the way in which they went about producing those products (computer- and phone-hacking for example) were of no interest to him at all. His role was to ensure the bottom line: for himself, his father, his shareholders.
It is pointless and absurd to accuse him of being a mafia don. He is – simply and exclusively – the executive chairman of a multi-national company. Like Fred Goodwin at RBS, he can do what he wants and not do what he wants.
Have you read the stuff that’s emerging from the Abramovich trial? Murdoch is merely millions where Abramovich is billions. But it’s the same difference.
This is the way of the world. It’s called capitalism.
Today’s listening: Shostakovich, Symphony #9, Kyril Kondrashin + the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
There was a cloud over lunch in Wilde’s today. We were saying farewell to Danny and Renée Thomas, who leave for their new home in Florida on Friday.
Danny is a friend, a hero, and a legend. He played for Coventry City, Tottenham and England. He was the complete full back: fast, skilful, tenacious in the tackle and a great crosser of the ball. I saw him make his debut for the City at age 17 in 1980: my eldest daughter was born in May that year and for many years went to sleep each night hugging a Sky Blue teddy bear named Danny. I mourned his loss when the City sold him to Spurs but celebrated with him when Spurs fans were singing his name as they won the 1984 EUFA Cup. Three years later, his career was brought to a sudden and brutal end at QPR, but he used the compensation he received for the career-ending knee injury to train as a physiotherapist.
It’s since then that I have come to know him and his wife Renée. He established a practice back in Coventry and we sat a row or two away from each other at Highfield Road, and next to each other at the bar in Wilde’s. He is an unlikely hero, quiet and unassuming: Renée – who never saw him play and finds our hero worship even more embarrassing than he does – is his ideal partner.
They are going to love it in Florida, where Danny is joining a sports physiotherapy practice. (He’s a good physio: I know this because he got me running again after I ruptured my Achilles tendon.)
At lunch today, we discussed where and how he will be able to watch English football when he’s over there. I know my brother has a favourite bar where he watches Chelsea most weeks. But I’m not sure how much Danny will miss ‘soccer’. Last Saturday, I sat in the boardroom at Coventry City with John Sillett and Willie Carr as we watched the current Sky Blues lose 2-4 at home to Southampton. It’s not the same. The new stadium has a different atmosphere. And, I’m afraid, the City are not the side they were when Willie Carr bossed the midfield, when John Sillett lead out the team at Wembley and when a young full back called Danny Thomas graced Highfield Road.
I miss the Danny Thomas of those days. And I’m gonna miss the Danny and Renée of today even more. Good luck, guys.
Today’s listening: The Israelites, Desmond Dekker, Danny’s cousin.
To quote the opening line of the Rolling Stone review, by the great Greil Marcus, of Dylan’s 1970 album Self Portrait:
What is this shit?
I have no difficulty with light-hearted speculation about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Back in 1972, as a young adman, I was given the task of re-branding and re-launching a failing restaurant in Stratford-upon-Avon. In an attempt to make it stand out from the crowd, I suggested that it be re-named Marlowe’s and I wrote a series of ads based on the hypothesis that Marlowe had faked his death and written his subsequent plays under the name of Shakespeare. I am delighted to say that, forty years on, Marlowe’s is still in business.
Nor am I much exercised by the ludicrous liberties with historical fact which the scriptwriter has taken in order to promote the Oxfordian proposition. I don’t go to the cinema to learn history. I loved Shakespeare in Love at the same time as I was noting the errors that Stoppard had introduced. And, come to think of it, Shakespeare himself played fast and loose with historical accuracy in his plays.
No, my problem with Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous is that it is awful.
Sure, it has some very good digital recreations of Elizabethan London. And it has a great cast: Sir Derek Jacobi and Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson, Rafe Spall and David Thewlis amongst others. To be fair, only Jacobi is particularly egregious, but one does wonder what these people are doing. They can’t need the money, and the allure of getting out the dressing-up box for yet another costume drama must have worn off long ago.
But here they are, going through the motions, bestowing their theatrical truth on the banalities of a script which must push credulity to the limits in order to create a scenario in which de Vere’s authorship might possibly be fact. The more unlikely the theory, the harder it is pushed, the longer and more lingering are the scenes of court intrigue.
I have seen Ifans quoted as saying that the movie is “not fiction”; I have to believe that he has been mis-quoted. He is an intelligent actor and must surely be aware of the distortions, chronological absurdities and historical impossibilities that lie at the heart of the movie.
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast” said the Queen in Alice.
In the 130 minutes of this movie, you have to believe a hell of a lot more impossible things than that, and in a shorter time. (It just seems longer.)
But even if you do, you will still struggle to believe that the whole thing is any good.
Today’s listening: The Thelonius Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, Thanksgiving 1957.