Monday, 20 November 2017

Mugabe: why he was never going to go willingly

It was the taxi driver who gave us his opinions once we told him where we were from. 'I can't believe Mrs Thatcher would go voluntarily. No post-independence African leader would do that.' It was early December 1990 and our prime minister had just been ousted by her party. Our arrival into Harare seemed to send out cabbie into a tailspin. 


Harare market, harmony in a park, young musicians and hotel staff on Xmas day 1990

I'm not sure about about other post-independence leaders and maybe our driver was too nervous to talk specifically about the situation in his own country - and simply say the word 'Mugabe'. But what happened last night makes our driver's words seem prophetic. Yesterday, twenty-seven years after we were there, and with his party and country finally turning against him, Robert Mugabe still tried to hang on

People say that it's been 37 years of turmoil. For us in 1990 it didn't seem too bad. After 2000 the whole world suddenly saw Zimbabwe explode in violence. But before then, tyrannical rule must have been simmering below the surface. We could walk down the street in Harare of Bulawayo at One am without a hint of danger. 

Looking back I wonder if tourists had this incredible ring of steel around them. If you attacked a tourist, the authorities would be onto you. And we gave a lift to a woman who was hitch-hiking, only for us to be pulled over by the police. They told us our tyres were bald - no lie; the car hire place was a rent-a-wreck - and that they'd let us off the fine if we gave two policemen a lift. They got in either side of this poor woman. In the driver's mirror I saw nothing but pure, 100% terror on her face. 

But at least when we were there in 1990 the country was functional, you could visit as a tourist and the people were unbelievably friendly (when not squashed in against two fierce-looking policemen). 

Let's hope, despite the fact that the 'coup' is a Zanu-PF internal fight, Zimbabwe can at least be more outward-facing and the people of that country, including the hitch-hiker and our astute taxi driver, have a better time. 

Listen to Taxi Driver by Zimbabwe's Jonah Moyo 


Thursday, 2 March 2017

Better on a camel: Sue and Steve’s BOAC adventures

A colleague at work – Sue - was one of 100 female baby 'orphans' (a word used in the past) flown from Hong Kong to the UK in the 1960s and early 1970s, cradled apparently by airline staff. It was courtesy of the magnificent-sounding International Social Services UK Hong Kong Adoption Project. 

Sue is the poster-girl for the project
Sue regularly meets up with others who had come over here at the same time, to start new lives with their adopted families. And the project, encouraged by the United Nations World Refugee Year 1959-1960, was backed up, not only by cuddling air crew, but by the airline that Sue and her friends travelled on: BOAC. 

It seems that Sue and I have more in common than mere banter around the water cooler. We both flew across the world on BOAC - British Overseas Airways Corporation - and the precursor to British Airways. 
The Palmers in Singapore sometime in the 1970s. 

An up-and-down-experience

These days Sue might be called a ‘child in care’. She was flown from Hong Kong to be adopted. And I was in ‘posh care’. When my sister and I were kids we went to boarding school. From 1971 to 1975 our parents lived in Singapore and we visited in the holidays. So, like Sue as a baby, I was suddenly, aged eight, flown across the world to a new life. But in the opposite direction to Sue. And before that first flight no one had told me what turbulence was and there I was, with my sister, bouncing around with me shouting: “We’re going to crash.” I still hate turbulence today.

Brings back the memories 
BOAC was cruelly renamed by some ‘Better on a Camel’ and I've told Sue about my BOAC 'Junior Jet Club' log book, which the captains signed, my BOAC badge, which is attached the log book and my BOAC tin sweet box. These souvenirs in my loft are physical signs that my sister and I used to do the journey to and from the Far East. But in those years that we ‘commuted’ to Singapore, my sister and I often travelled solo. At Bahrain airport, where we normally transitted,we used to leave each other letters behind the cardboard advert of a woman, in a bikini, advertising Kodak. 
Sue and Steve 2017
It's strange to think that Sue and I flew off in different directions to young lives that have surely shaped us. And perhaps, from now on, when we meet at the water cooler, we'll give each other a knowing look; knowing, in that Sue and I had some pretty life-changing experiences, courtesy of BOAC. 

Better on a camel?

Monday, 14 November 2016

Is jazz shite?

Listen to a mini podcast version of this blog (Dur 2 Min) 

I've got a friend who loathes and detests jazz. He doesn't mean any harm. It's just that he likes a tune with a beginning, middle and end. Whereas I spent much of my childhood with jazz on in the background. Not only did my dad have records by the likes of Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis and the Dave Brubeck Quartet; but one of my parents' friends even used to play the trumpet. Nice. 
The Fast Show, gently mocking jazz
Their generation, who were in their twenties in the 1950s, lived with jazz as their thing. And it's quite attractive. They were cool cats that went to jazz festivals and really bummed out their uncool, square parents. And there's no doubt that jazz, from that time and from those artists I mention, has bequeathed much of the music that my friend and I listen to. It's just that we prefer to listen to our music. And I've tried. I've tried so hard to listen to jazz. 

The good news is that there are some artists out there that can hold a tune without going off on a huge distractive jazzy ride. Try The Bonzo Dog Band, music from TV show Boardwalk Empire and Abdullah Ibrahim. For all the influences of British and American jazz, this South African artist is actually listenable. It's just that I find credible artists like Ornette Coleman a real struggle. 

But back to my friend. I'm more of an open-minded kind of cat and do try. I do. But it can be a challenge can't it? Despite it's legacy, is jazz shite?

Listen to a mini podcast version of this blog (Dur 2 Min) 

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

In praise of... Chas and Dave

"Oi mate. Are you a punk?"

Well hardly...This remark was made in a school cricket match where a fellow player noticed that I'd drawn a safety pin onto my teenage arm. It wasn't exactly Johnny Rotten. Don't get me wrong. Some punk records were amazing. I say to you Nervous Wreck by the Radio Stars. What a song. But then again, my sister's boyfriend's brother recorded every Led Zeppelin record for me to prepare for the trip to Knebworth in August 1979.  Was it a crime to like both rock and punk?


And Knebworth was a massive event. Record historians might refuse to admit this but Knebworth, with the presence of Led Zeppelin and perhaps 250,000 fans over two Saturdays, was a massive V sign to punk. And as Chas and Dave came on as a support act, I was quite happy to buy into the theory that these cockney rejects were an outdated embarrassment, not popular with any music fans. But there was a problem with that.

They were absolutely brilliant.

Just the piano and the guitar - and songs about having a knees-up. Chas and Dave were better than Led Zeppelin. I know. Mad, isn't it? OK. By the time Led Zeppelin came on, my 16-year-old body gave up and I slept through 'Dazed and Confused'. That day also started a lifelong love of one of the other support acts, Todd Rundgren. But my best memory of Knebworth is the Chas and Dave set. They talk about it here. And I don't care if it's not fashionable now in 2016. It wasn't in 1979.

Right. Enough of this incessant talking. They were the dog's bollocks. 

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Crimes against rhymes in music

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t enjoy a misheard lyric. From ‘Into the loo, leaving it all behind me’ (Carpenters) to ‘How’s your boiled egg; how’s your boiled egg?’ (Odyssey). 
Travis: What happened when you were 17?
But I want to discuss something altogether more potentially sinister. With misheard lyrics, it’s the fault of the person listening. With words that are used purely-because-they-rhyme, the high-pressure nozzle of contempt must be thrust squarely in the direction of the lyricist. 

Take this, from the Police and 'Wrapped around your finger'. I'm so glad I'm finally writing this down, because for years the sheer audacity of what you're about to see has sent me trembling with a shock that can only be born of disbelief. Disbelief that someone actually thought they could get away with it. It got to number seven in the charts.

"I have only come here seeking knowledge
Things they would not teach me of in college."

A colleague tells me that it's not just popular music where this sort of crime-against-everything has occurred. It's happened on the West End stage. A lyric for Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat includes the lines:

"All these things you saw in your pajamas
Are a long range forecast for your farmers."

The song? Phaoraoh's Dreams. The effect? I closed my eyes. 

But there are also those artistes who take it on themselves to write a line and then 'sort of' make it rhyme with the next. I'm a great fan of Travis but really:

"Why does it always rain on me? 
Is it because I lied when I was seventeen?"

What did he lie about? Why was that date important? Or is it that the syntax just scanned in a seemingly trendy way? 

But, to my mind, by far the biggest, baddest, and, quite frankly the worse lyric of all time is by Wet Wet Wet. (The song was originally by the Troggs, but WWW repeating it is just as bad). I mean, they actually rearranged the words of a sentence just to make it scan and rhyme. No one speaks like this unless they're in a play at the Globe theatre, and even then Shakespeare would be aghast, forsooth. Love isn't all around...

"There's no beginning, there'll be no end
'Cause on my love you can depend."


Sunday, 24 April 2016

In praise of Rugeley, Staffordshire

In 1981 Mrs Steve was at a dinner / dance. They were all the rage as Soft Cell’s Tainted Love topped the charts. Mrs Steve and her sister grew up in Rugeley, Staffordshire. More of the dinner / dance in a moment...


Raised by Wolves - Channel 4
First though: Rugeley isn't well known. The town probably doesn't see the producers of property programmes turn up and do up people's houses. There was always Dr Palmer (no relation), the Rugeley poisoner. Or, as Wikipedia describes him: ‘William Palmer (murderer)’. Anyway, he was hanged and it sort of put Rugeley on the map; in 1856. It's been pretty sleepy ever since. 

So, we were watching the comedy 'Raised by Wolves' recently; set it Wolverhampton, the single Mum goes out on a less-than-glamourous date and, on her return, says rather ironically: 'He took me to Tesco in Rugeley - and back'. I know the shop well.

These days Rugeley hosts a massive Amazon depot; across the road from a soon-to-be-abandoned power station. A sort of old days / new days snapshot of modern Britain. Mrs Steve freely admits that, in the 1980s, until her sister's husband turned up and started to take them to clubs and gigs in Birmingham and Stoke, her social life was pretty mundane; it was either house parties, the social club at the power station or a conference suite at a nearby hotel. Edgy stuff.

Back to the dinner / dance, thirty-five years ago. This hotel’s function room had to have a shiny parkay floor.  It was mandatory. Or should have been. It was the eighties, after all. At a sixth form party in the function room, in front of her peers, Mrs Steve's sister went to the loo and returned to the table, only to turn on a heel and go arse over tit on the heavily-polished floor. Everyone laughed. The entire sixth form. 

Then Mrs Steve went to the loo and, on her return, did exactly the same thing. Arse. Over. Tit. Everyone laughed. Again. It’s the sort of déjà vu development that sisters don’t ever want repeated. They were forever remembered as the sprawling sozzled sisters. But they weren’t drunk. They were just unable to negotiate that slippery floor in heels.  

It's the sort of scene that could have ended up on Raised by Wolves. 

Sunday, 14 February 2016

My gran meets Steve Buscemi. It's the roaring 20s

I brought my girl an apple; she let me hold her hand.
I brought my girl an orange; we kissed beneath the band.
I brought my girl bananas; she let me squeeze her tight.
I'm going to bring a watermelon to my girl tonight.

My grandmother in c 1926, aged about 20

Lyrics to a Bonzo Dog song from 1966. But it was originally recorded in 1924 by the risque Billy Jones and Ernest Hare. It's the sort of thing that might have been found on my grandmother's gramophone record player.
What the Bonzos did in the 60s was to scour the flea markets, find old 78 rpm records, and re-record them. And then, about 15 years later, in the early 80s, I started listening to them. And still do. So, the recordings live on. 

Steve Buscemi as Nucky Johnson in Boardwalk Empire 
And here we are talking about something that happened in the 1920s and those records give us a direct link back in time. But there's more. I mentioned to a colleague that I'd just started watching the box set of Boardwalk Empire (which starts in 1920) and we concluded that the roaring twenties were a great time for music; with the idea of lots of people being able to listen to recorded music in their own homes for the first time. And that included my maternal grandmother.

A '78' player, like my grandmother's (similar to the one on the left) was made between about 1898 and the late 1950s & played at a speed around 78 revolutions per minute
I remember Nana's wind-up 78 gramophone record player in her flat in Chislehurst. When she died, in 1991, it was still in pristine condition. That's because I reckon it was only me and my sister that ever played with it. Sadly, in 1991 it was sold on to a collector. I say 'sadly' because actually, in reality, what would we do with it? It was about three foot tall. So a bit impractical to have hanging around. But it was beautiful. 


Music and scenes from Boardwalk Empire 

So perhaps there's a direct link between me, my grandmother and Nucky Johnson, the character depicted in Boardwalk Empire by Steve Buscemi. And that link is those 78 records that define the era. 

Suggested listening

Boardwalk Empire soundtracks vols I, II & III

The Bonzo Dog Band - Cornology (Best of) 

Songs the Bonzos taught us 

Woody Allen - Wild man blues