September 16, 2007

Tuck but no TUCs at the TUC

Party conference season is upon us and this past week saw the warm-up act, the Trades Union Congress, hit Brighton. I was there. For work.

I’d never been to Brighton before. It’s a bit like an English San Francisco: hip, hilly, by the sea, with a lot of gays, hobos and people with American accents.

Work involved going to fringe meetings (lunchtime and teatime events with speakers and a policy theme which take place outside the main conference) and eating the free food. I also had to take copious notes then write up reports on each.

The most interesting fringe I attended was organised by the Public Services Not Private Profit campaign, and featured several union bosses and the man who was so very nearly elected Prime Minister, John McDonnell MP.

It was a hotbed of leftie propaganda, which I found very refreshing. It’s a shame there wasn’t a leadership contest because there’d have been a good debate about the neo-liberal ideology of the Labour Government, given the litany of botched privatisations McDonnell et al reeled off.

Bob Crow, the RMT General Secretary and scourge of London’s commuters, was there, calling for a return to nationalisation and talking fondly of his Staffordshire bull terrier Castro (bought on May 1st no less). I don’t know what they put in the water at the RMT, but his oratory was remarkably Prescottesque.

The chief of the Prison Officers Association Colin Moses gave a particularly rousing speech. He may very well be the first black Geordie I’ve ever come across, which, having spent most of my life in Newcastle, says a lot about the city’s demography.

The worst event I went to was on the NHS. They only put on crisps and three types of sandwiches – including cheese and pickle, which I don’t like, and really dry tuna. Next door was the Morning Star’s event, and I checked out their food offering. Boy, if that’s the kind of spread we’d get under a communist regime, sign me up!

Most surprisingly, not one of the events had TUC biscuits.

I’m off to Brighton again in a couple of hours, this time for the Lib Dems.

September 09, 2007

Holyrood leads the way on asylum policy

Labour’s going to announce that skilled non-EU immigrants will have to speak English if they want to come over here and take our jobs. I wonder if, say, Thailand will retaliate and force British ex-pats to learn their language.

As vaguely hypocritical anti-immigrant policies go, it’s fairly reasonable, even to a liberal like me; it might foster more cultural exchange in our communities and will hopefully shut the Tories up for a bit.

I was rather amazed how different the immigration agenda is north of the border. At work this week I read a debate in the Scottish Parliament on asylum seekers. The motion, made by an Scottish Nationalist MSP, called for them to be given the right to work. They sit on their arse all day, living off the state; why not let them work and thereby contribute to the economy and lift their self-esteem?

It’s a good policy, yet I was surprised that everyone agreed with it – Labour, Lib Dem, the SNP minister, and even the Conservative Shadow Justice Secretary Bill Aitken. In the 2005 General Election only the Lib Dems were advocating it.

To be fair, the Scottish Parliament has no power on immigration issues, so nothing will come out of the debate except a promise from Stuart Maxwell, the Communities Minister, to have a chat to the Home Office about it. But it’s nice to see that public discourse on asylum seekers can ignore the scaremongering press and be progressive.

September 08, 2007

Biofuels: for life, not for climate change

Writing about web page

A year and a half ago, in an attempt to salvage some credibility for my embattled employer the RPA, I evangelised about the wonders of biofuels. It seems like I got a bit carried away.

Western governments are loving biofuels – oilseed rape, ethanol and the like – and have made them a key weapon in their battle against climate change by setting some ambitious targets for their use (the European Union wants 10% of transport fuel to be bio by 2020).

In recent months, however, it’s become apparent that they’re not all they’re cracked up to be. Several scientific studies have reported some flaws and unpleasant side-effects:
- biofuel growth will reduce the amount of land used for food crops so prices will rise, creating “agflation”;
- the orang-utan is facing extinction because farmers in Borneo are destroying rainforests to plant palm trees, the oil of which is in great demand;
- the energy output of a field of biofuel crops isn’t that great;
- the actual effect biofuels will have on combating climate change is pretty negligible. In theory, they’re carbon-neutral – burning them only releases carbon dioxide that was already in the atmosphere before the plants were grown. But in practice there are further emissions involved in the production process. And most green fuel for vehicles consists of 85% or more fossil fuels anyway. (see above link)

Governments have seen the “carbon-neutral” and “renewable” labels, thought it meant the same as “zero-carbon”, and championed biofuels as a panacea to global warming without thinking about how it would work and how the agriculture sector would be affected.

Which is not to say biofuels are totally evil; it’s just that our leaders have managed to conflate global warming with the oil running out. The fact that they’re renewable is good – it’s an area that deserves support to develop. But we shouldn’t chuck targets and public money at producing biofuels until the technology makes them viable.

September 01, 2007


Follow-up to Spotted: Health Secretary in South London supermarket from Esprit de l'escalier

Alan Johnson was in Sainsbury’s again! And once again, I failed to ask him for an internship. This time he was entertaining a small child – presumably his grandson – so I felt it would be inappropriate.

Plus, I’ve just started a new internship anyway, at DeHavilland, the political monitoring firm. I’m based in the Emap offices just over the road from Mornington Crescent tube station, where I was delighted to discover there’s a blue plaque for the late great Willie Rushton.

It’s been a slightly surreal first week for me, possibly because I started a day after I got back from Reading; possibly because the work is pretty similar to what I did at Quintus Public Affairs, so I’ve just hit the ground running; or possibly because I’m used to the 20-strong Quintus whereas Emap’s a massive organisation but I’m in a tiny team.

I was subject to some rather Kafkaesque bureaucracy yesterday morning. On Tuesday and Thursday front desk gave me a temporary pass to the building and on Wednesday they just waved me in. Yesterday, they decided to implement some draconian changes: without a staff pass I couldn’t enter Emap unless someone with a staff pass could vouch for me. The same guy who’d let me in the previous three days couldn’t make an exception. He had no contact numbers with which to ask someone to come down so if I hadn’t happened to have my supervisor’s number as a recently called number, I’d have been waiting in the lobby all day. I’ve got my photo ID now – unfortunate cowlick and all – so it’s all good.

Apparently, the brothers Miliband have inspired a new game. The Guardian’s “What We’ve Learned This Week” segment mentioned Musical Miliband Three-Way. There’s little on Google. Can anyone explain what it is? It sounds rude.

Cabinet Secretary Glenn Miliband

Foreign Secretary Steve Miliband

August 30, 2007

Reading: Saturday and Sunday

Follow-up to Reading: Friday from Esprit de l'escalier


We started late on Saturday after a boat ride down the Thames to fetch some beer. The first band we saw were the Shins, of unsubtle plug in Garden State fame. Apparently they’ll change your life. They sounded alright but I’m not converted yet.

Young Knives were pretty good, refreshing my memory of last summer’s hits. Thanks to backpacking and not have a radio in my room, my keeping track of new music has been a bit slack the past year. I thought I would have heard more of the current big thing Pigeon Detectives before I saw them, but I only managed to recognise two songs. The rest of the crowd were certainly au fait and the atmosphere in the NME tent was great.

I think I saw some of the Tokyo Police Club but they obviously made no impression on me. Bloc Party had the tunes and were basically flawless but they didn’t really offer anything special so I got distracted by teenagers on piggyback getting stuff thrown at them by angry people behind them. And the bar.

Arcade Fire were one of the highlights of the weekend with what are now bona fide anthems and their insane percussion section. The sunset halfway through their set was a nice touch.

We Are Scientists are in many ways like Jimmy Eat World with their epic, vaguely indie rock and the fact they are well underrated. While everyone was getting to the Main Stage for the Chilis, I went up to the relatively sparse NME Tent to catch the Californian three-piece. The set was half a showcase for the last album and half a bunch of new songs, which are sounding promising. The only problem was I couldn’t hear their whimsical banter between songs.

I caught six songs of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, only one of which I’d heard before – that shit Hey Oh one. What Hits? indeed. Saw a bit of Hot Hot Heat, who were decent enough.


This is how out of the new music loop I am. I own not one album by a band who were playing on the Sunday. It was a good opportunity to flit between the Carling and NME stages to take in some random bands and see what all this New Rave fuss was about.

Pull Tiger Tail were good. Hadouken! were better. Ben, the lucky get, found some chump’s unused VIP pass lying on the ground so went to watch the band from backstage alongside folk from the Klaxons, CSS and the NME.

New Young Pony Club did exactly what it says on the tin: they were new, they were young, and they were pony. The only memorable part of the Operator Please set was when NME editor Conor McNicholas walked past me, and it turns out he’s quite short! If someone like him can get into a position of power, there’s hope for me yet.

After missing Kubichek! every time they played live when I was in Newcastle, I finally saw them and they were rather frenetic. Cold War Kids and Devendra Banhart were up next and they were probably the most impressive of the weekend’s “new” music. At first I thought CWK’s singer sounded like James Walsh out of Starsailor, but then it transpired that he was from the States, so he’s allowed to sing in that accent. Banhart wasn’t inaccessibly quirky as I’d been lead to believe though at one point he took the unusual step of bringing some “random” members of the crowd on stage to sing a song.

Former Ash guitarist Charlotte Hatherley was looking and sounding good. We saw about half of CSS who were enjoyable enough before heading over to see Seasick Steve, a grizzled old slide guitarist playing some swampy delta blues. Completely anachronistic at Reading, but brilliant. Everyone was chanting “Seasick! Seasick!” between songs and he said that made a nice change from “Steve-o! Steve-o!” which he got at his last gig. Of course, everyone took this as a cue to start chanting “Steve-o!” which was a bit harsh on the kindly old man, but he was a good sport.

LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy doesn’t look like he should be fronting a hip dance-rock outfit. A session drummer at best, maybe. I might buy their latest critically-acclaimed album, but I was slightly put off by their set-closer, the lyrics to which are “yeah” ad infinitum. And Daft Punk Is Playing In My House needs more cowbell.

We decided to be poncey and buy some Thai food then returned to see the NME Tent’s headliners the Klaxons. It seemed like if you didn’t have a glowstick you weren’t getting in, so we tried to listen from outside, but the strains of the Smashing Pumpkins drifting over from the Main Stage got in the way of the New Rave so we cut our losses and went to end the festival at the Silent Disco.

August 29, 2007

Reading: Friday

Follow-up to Reading 2007 from Esprit de l'escalier

This is who I saw:

First, I went to check out the Pipettes on the Main Stage. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for bubblegum pop with a 60s twist, or maybe they were just irritating.

Then it was the Sounds on the NME/Radio 1 Stage. Swedish purveyors of power pop with a stone-cold, and foul-mouthed, fox for a lead singer. I was impressed.

Back we went to the Main Stage for the Long Blondes, who offered the winning combination of cracking songs off Someone To Drive You Home and the presence of the singer Kate Jackson, whom I quite fancy. As a bonus, I had the revelation that the intro to Giddy Stratospheres sounds just like the one for the Dead 60s’ Riot Radio.

Hirsute gypsy punks Gogol Bordello were up next and they were madder than a badger in spats. Very enjoyable songs featuring such lyrics as “Have you ever been to an American wedding; where’s the vodka, where’s marinated herring?” [note: it helps if this is sung in a Ukrainian accent]

We ducked out during Start Wearing Purple to catch who I’m now told are called the Blood Red Shoes (as opposed to the Red Shoe Diaries). Yet another rock outfit fronted by a hottie, but pretty forgettable.

After that we went to the Alternative Stage for a sit down, and semi-famous comic Tim Minchin just happened to be starting. He was surprisingly good; think the campness of Eddie Izzard and the piano skills of Bill Bailey, with an Australian accent. I particularly liked his song about the failed rock star because I got the joke before the end.

The rest of the day was a no-brainer: the Main Stage had big name acts up the Ying Yang, starting with the band who kick-started the Emo craze (though I don’t hold that against them), Jimmy Eat World. They played a blinder of a set, with all the classics off Bleed American. I haven’t seen them since Leeds ’02 and frontman Jim has got a bit podgy. He reminded me of Matt Parkman out of Heroes.

Between bands the announcement by the hapless compere that Razorlight would be headlining that evening was met with boos. Wow, they’ve come a long way.

Maximo Park were a bit disappointing, playing far too many slow songs off the new album, and no Limassol or A Fortnight’s Time. Paul Smith’s wackiness got a bit too much and seemed to be trying to introduce each song in an even more baffling way than the last. He might want to learn some self-awareness. And how to devise a good set list.

I finally saw Interpol and they were little more than really, really cool. I got pretty close for the Kings of Leon who were brilliant, as expected. A few songs off the new album had the cigarette lighters out, so the crowd wasn’t as physically intense as it could have been. Still, I wouldn’t have liked to be wearing flip flops.

The boys from Tennessee departed and the chants of “fuck Razorlight” began. As you may know, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Borrell and his band. It’s like this: I know they’ve got shit, but I can’t help enjoying their second album. So I retreated far enough to avoid the true fans but remained close enough to indulge in my guilty pleasure. Five songs in, Johnny Borrell’s histrionics got too much so I went to find the others and watched a nice but dull Albert Hammond Jr. of Strokes fame in the Carling Tent. Holly, if you’re reading this, what did your text about Razorlight say again?

We avoided the mass exodus by hiding in the empty Lock-Up Stage where Jimmy Eat World had been playing again and Officer Parkman, the lovely guy that he is, was chatting to his fans. Also there we saw TV’s Rob Rouse!

Shit, I’ve written loads, and I’m only a third through. More tomorrow, hopefully.

August 28, 2007

Reading 2007

I’m too old for this shit!
- Roger Murtaugh, 1987

After skimping on festivals last year, I forked out £150 for Reading, which I got back from yesterday. The first festival I went to, Leeds in 2002, cost £75. Yes, the price of a Carling Weekend ticket has risen by an average of 15 percent each year. Inflation in that period has been running at about 2.5 percent. Go figure.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun. I went with Shall, Ben and Rick but managed to meet Ralph and Dave of My Travels fame, Holly, Mark, and Simon and Rosie. Hello to you.

Before it started there were fears that thanks to the flooding whole tracts of the site would be rendered uncampable. In the event, everything was fine, except for the tent I’d borrowed from home which turned out not to have any fucking poles. So I bought a shitty one for £20. We pitched up in the Brown campsite, which, despite the name, was green and dry, and we had loads of space. Not only that – in an unprecedented move by the weather at festival time, all three days were scorchers.

The conditions were good, but I hadn’t reckoned on feeling really old. The Reading Festival is the weekend after GCSE results for a reason. Probably. I think it’s safe to say 23 is above the median age. And it’s scary when there’s a popular music movement that you don’t get, namely new rave. It didn’t help that my feet were aching by the end of each day and I was struggling to stay keep my eyes open at 2am while kids were running by in a big mob, chanting “angry mob!”

Aah, middle class teenagers letting off steam. Bless. Unfortunately, things didn’t get as violent and rampage-y as last time. Security had been stepped right up (bizarrely, all the folk policing the campsites were Scottish) and they weren’t standing for any tomfoolery. Confiscations meant there were no epic games of Trolley Jousting we saw one lone trolley which had escaped the crackdown desperately seeking a challenger. Ben and I managed to get its unruly custodians singing Trolley Trolley, Trolley Trolley Trolley to lift their spirits. Deprived of their trolleys, the children resorted to standing in a circle, passing a hat around their heads, singing Pass The Parcel Round.

Speaking of starting chants, Bollocks has really come into its own since 2005. Get it right and everyone (well, the more immature – not me, folks) joins in, and a roar builds and spreads like a sonic Mexican Wave. Rather than being really lame like when a callow youth does it on his tod, it’s quite impressive.

The organisation of the festival has changed since last time too. Festival Republic have taken over from Mean Fiddler and it’s got really civilised. There’s gourmet food stalls like the fish and chip shop that sells minted mushy peas. They erected a barrier in the middle of the main stage audience to distribute water and there was hardly any crowd surfing. The bars have got environmentally conscious, offering a 10p refund on used beer cups (poor people spend most of the festival collecting them so it also helps redistribute wealth). There are also extra-curricular activities like a funfair (with dodgems!) and a silent disco wherein you get given headphones with two radio channels playing different things, so you can listen to one or the other or take the cans off and listen to a crowd singing a capella. That was quality.

What wasn’t quality was the mobile battery recharging facilities. There was a time when you could rock up to a big tent and hook your phone up to one of the many chargers. Now they’ve got a tiny stall where you have to queue for over an hour to hand over your battery. Twats.

Did anyone there/watching at home see that Kenyan flag? I can reveal the guys carrying it didn’t look Kenyan.

My music review tomorrow, with any luck.

August 22, 2007

Shock negative review of new Bourne film

The Bourne Ultimatum
2 out of 5 stars

The funny thing about the Bourne films is how hyped they are for such a forgettable franchise. (That, by the way, is the only funny thing.)

Reviews across the board are giving the new one, The Bourne Ultimatum, 4 out of 5 plus. And okay, it’s fairly gripping with some cool action set-pieces, but there’s very little more to it. I suppose the reason the series is so critically acclaimed is that is it’s not pretentious or flashy. It has the memory-loss gimmick and a smattering of murky intrigue but apart from that it’s balls-to-the-wall action. No hi-tech gadgetry, no glamorous locations, no witty repartee, no suave goodie, no wacky baddie.

Matt Damon acquits himself well as the unassuming killing machine and his antics provide all the entertainment. Maybe it’s because I’m more of a comedy fan but I’m finding it hard to remember a more humourless film. The only times I laughed were a part of a “Ha! Awesome” reaction to something brilliant Jason Bourne did. This happened frequently, happily, but in between you just had endless, frenetically-shot car chases, motorcycle chases, rooftop chases (once you’ve seen one Tangier window smashed by Bourne jumping through it, you’ve seen ‘em all) and fist fights.

When Bourne first appeared it was understated and worthy, which was probably refreshing for some – especially compared to the later Brosnan Bond films. Maybe Casino Royale has made me look on the Bourne in a new light – it offered what The Bourne Ultimatum does and so much more. Bourne kills a man in a toilet with his bare hands. We get that in Casino Royale along with a more intricate plot, better characters and even a bit of humour.

And why cast Albert Finney as a senior CIA type when you had Brian Cox in the last one and his character, a senior CIA type, shot himself? I got a bit confused.

Brian Cox

Albert Finney

Just me then.

August 20, 2007

The floor is wet

I’m out of work these days. The internship at Quintus was excellent, but I was hankering for something more financially rewarding, so quit three weeks ago and now have a new internship lined up. Arguably the worst thing about unemployment is that you lose track of days. It happened yesterday.

I’d run out of milk. As I cannot physically leave the house of a morning without having drunk tea, I needed to replenish my fridge so at about 7 I stepped out into the miserable August evening and headed off to Sainsbury’s, planning to use this opportunity to purchase some more obscure items. It was only when I was halfway up the street that I remembered it was Sunday – said supermarket would be closed at this late hour. So I decided I would buy my semi-skimmed at the Costcutters on the way.

The lights were on and the door was ajar, so I entered and set about locating the dairy products. A teenage girl was mopping the floor. Clearly they were winding up the day’s business – I was just in time. The girl said, “the floor is wet”. The floor was merely damp, but glad of her concern for my traction, I said, “okay”, and continued searching in vain for the milk.

“Excuse me,” she said. I turned. She was staring at me with disgust, as if I’d been the one at her cousin’s wedding who got a little too drunk and exposed himself and propositioned her mother and should have understood that he was no longer welcome in her shop.

“Sorry, are you closed?” I asked. Girl said nothing and continued to stare with inexplicable fury. There was another girl, behind the counter. I turned to her for an answer – all I got was a dead-eyed disdain and silence.

Girl 1 suddenly raised her voice, “please leave!” I detected a foreign accent which may have explained the – how can I put this? – lack of British-style customer service, but the command nonetheless rendered me lost for words for a moment or two. She continued, “the floor is wet”, as if it were common knowledge that a floor’s dampness is indicative of a customer’s right to be in a shop. I wasn’t going anywhere without some kind of closure, so I rephrased my question: “so you’re not open?”

“No.” I left, bemused. The girl sounded east European so I can only assume that they were expecting a visitor from the KGB and “the floor is wet” was their codeword. When I didn’t reply with “here, use my towel”, they knew that I didn’t have the secret microfiche containing the embassy blueprints and urgently ushered me out in their unorthodox style.

I did manage to get some milk in the end.

August 19, 2007

What I've been losing sleep over this week

Does anyone know why a rubber is called a “rubber”? Is it because it’s made of rubber, or because you rub with it?

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