Tuesday, October 18, 2011

MAUREEN WALKER (1939-2009)

Today would have been my mother's 72nd birthday. The more I learn about people’s experiences in childhood, the more I realise how lucky I was to have been brought up by someone like Mo: someone who appreciated, and even revelled in, everything that struck her as beautiful – a roadside bank of wild flowers, a passage in a novel, an operatic aria… She impatiently shared her reaction to these events with a kind of unbounded enthusiasm which people either found incredibly engaging and occasionally mildly startling. I don’t think she ever lost this ability to respond to things with wonder, even when plagued by migraines and insomnia in her later years.

And this is what she tried to cultivate in me too, beginning with the fairy tales which were my Ur myths (I’m so happy I was reared on the Ladybird “well loved tales” from the Brothers Grimm et al rather than the New Testament) and lullabies, through which she awakened in me an untutored musical gift, especially a love of songs of all kinds. Throughout her life, she had a special affinity for the magical world of childhood, which inspired many of her poems and striking expressionist paintings.

Although she insisted that she believed in “the absurd universe”, she had an idealistic moral insight, which seemed to encapsulate the moment and occasionally penetrate far beyond the political chatter on the News. I remember in particular how she could never forgive Blair after he refused while on walkabout somewhere to visit a family of a dead serviceman. She was appalled by the millions of pounds poured into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I felt she was a good judge of what was truly important.

She encouraged all my projects as a boy and even into teenage years, when my taste for pop music and psychedelic culture were a thousand miles away from her world of Matisse, Schubert and Proust. She even inspired me to record my first “album” into a cassette recorder – a response to the story of the guard and the citadel in Kafka’s The Trial – when I only knew a couple of chords, couldn’t tune the guitar or sing a note in tune. Her efforts to bring out my creativity and her unstinting support for my efforts, probably not consciously noticed or valued by me at the time, meant that I never really doubted the worth of the hundreds of songs I wrote in my youth.

Sadly, Mo was more critical when it came to her own work, and decided to destroy many of her poems, complaining that they were inferior to the writers she admired, and some of her paintings are also missing. She left behind only the ones she thought would pass critical muster, as well as her Culture Vulture blog, where she began to share her passion for literature, and build up a small community of quite devoted fans.

Her tastes weren’t exclusively highbrow. She used to enjoy Strictly; she’d laugh out loud at Rory Bremner; and for several years was an avid fan of Eastenders, insisting that some of the dramatic situations were “as good as Shakespeare”.

She was driven only by passion, never duty, and would drop a project once her enthusiasm had dimmed. She spent several years intensively researching the history and significance of fairy tales, and another period reading deeply about Renaissance painters. Both projects ended overnight as soon as Mo felt she’d learned or experienced enough. Eastenders went the same way. Because I’d been entranced by her vivid paintings, I would often urge her to paint more, but she insisted it had become a chore. In the end, this may have been the case with her own life.

Death is always a tragedy. It’s still worth celebrating a life full of beauty, and in which love was well expressed. Mo was a mercurial, incredibly determined and wholly remarkable person. When her passion burned, it was bright like a star. Everyone who knew her well was touched by this, most of all me.

Sunday, May 02, 2010


This is a pre-Election song for the worst Parliament in living memory. While it's not completely finished, but thought I'd post it while election fever is in the air. I'll re-release it for the next big wave of disillusionment. The video was a rushed job - the water near the end was supposed to be a symbol of stagnation.

The video is on YouTube here.

Now - to vote or not to vote? Like the sucker that I am, I always do.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Let this moment be inscribed in history.

by Mark Lynas, The Guardian, 23.12.09

"Copenhagen was a disaster. That much is agreed. But the truth about what actually happened is in danger of being lost amid the spin and inevitable mutual recriminations. The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful "deal" so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.

China's strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world's poor once again. And sure enough, the aid agencies, civil society movements and environmental groups all took the bait. The failure was "the inevitable result of rich countries refusing adequately and fairly to shoulder their overwhelming responsibility", said Christian Aid. "Rich countries have bullied developing nations," fumed Friends of the Earth International.

Here's what actually went on late last Friday night, as heads of state from two dozen countries met behind closed doors. Obama was at the table for several hours, sitting between Gordon Brown and the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi. The Danish prime minister chaired, and on his right sat Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the UN. Probably only about 50 or 60 people, including the heads of state, were in the room. I was attached to one of the delegations, whose head of state was also present for most of the time.

What I saw was profoundly shocking. The Chinese premier, Wen Jinbao, did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country's foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama himself. The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal, as was the practical implication: several times during the session, the world's most powerful heads of state were forced to wait around as the Chinese delegate went off to make telephone calls to his "superiors".

Shifting the blame

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China's representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. "Why can't we even mention our own targets?" demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil's representative too pointed out the illogicality of China's position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord's lack of ambition.

China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak "as soon as possible". The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks in every corner of the world.

Above all, Obama needed to be able to demonstrate to the Senate that he could deliver China in any global climate regulation framework, so conservative senators could not argue that US carbon cuts would further advantage Chinese industry. With midterm elections looming, Obama and his staff also knew that Copenhagen would be probably their only opportunity to go to climate change talks with a strong mandate. This further strengthened China's negotiating hand, as did the complete lack of civil society political pressure on either China or India.

All this raises the question: what is China's game? Why did China, in the words of a UK-based analyst who also spent hours in heads of state meetings, "not only reject targets for itself, but also refuse to allow any other country to take on binding targets?" The analyst, who has attended climate conferences for more than 15 years, concludes that China wants to weaken the climate regulation regime now "in order to avoid the risk that it might be called on to be more ambitious in a few years' time".

Copenhagen was much worse than just another bad deal, because it illustrated a profound shift in global geopolitics. This is fast becoming China's century, yet its leadership has displayed that multilateral environmental governance is not only not a priority, but is viewed as a hindrance to the new superpower's freedom of action. I left Copenhagen more despondent than I have felt in a long time. After all the hope and all the hype, the mobilisation of thousands, a wave of optimism crashed against the rock of global power politics, fell back, and drained away."

full article here

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Let's be clear. This decade didn't produce anything like Dummy, Revolver, Suede, Grace, Led Zeppelin IV or Dark Side Of The Moon - but I had a little trawl and came up with:

White Stripes: De Stijl (2000)

Jack White is the rock musician of the decade, bringing some spontaneous fire to a tired genre.

Waterboys: A Rock in the Weary Land (2000)

This album is just one great, passionate song after another - Mike Scott's best since the mid-90s, and my personal favourite this decade. I find it hard to believe he's not more widely recognised.

George Harrison: Brainwashed (2002)

George's posthumous LP was of some sentimental value to me, but it was also a high quality career end. Stuck Inside A Cloud was on my mind for days.

The Coral: The Coral (2002)

Saw them live at Glastonbury, and enjoyed their penchant for '60s garage psych. Why can't more bands be this inventive?

Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand (2004)

Scotland's reply to the Strokes; it got the latest new wave revival going, and is endlessly catchy - and clever.

Robert Plant & the Strange Sensation (also the worst name for a band this decade): Mighty Rearranger (2005)

Before he got together with Alison Krauss, Percy produced this post-Zeppelin career high-point, incorporating some of his "world music" influences, and including the beautiful All The King's Horses. This coincided with a very happy, sunny spring for me.

Elbow: Leaders Of The Free World (2006)

Band of the decade? Their record company went bust and couldn't promote this excellent album. Enjoyed jamming the title track with friends. They always have a strong lyric, and the way they build up themes in the melody is a masterclass in songwriting.

King Creosote: Bombshell (2007)

Another inspired, under-rated songwriter who is original and thought-provoking. His brother is in The Aliens, the best psychedelic band in Scotland. Maybe the only one?

The Aliens: Astronomy For Dogs (2008)

See above. Fans of psychedelia: you are still being entertained.

Kings Of Leon: Only By The Night (2008)

This is just old school "classic rock". The singer's voice makes it very distinctive, and the arrangements are good.

I also wanted to put in more White Stripes, The Good The Bad & The Queen, Editors, Burial, LCD Soundsystem, Feist, The Shins and The Green Man by Roy Harper (brilliant at its best moments) - but there was no room. Sadly, nothing from 2009, not the greatest year for music - or is it just that I'm getting older? Apart from the album my friend made under the name Dick Brucinson & The Basics, far and away the best album of the year, the only things I remember were by Lily Allen, Doves and Them Crooked Vultures. Resolution: listen to the radio some more.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Cormac McCarthy's The Road seems to haunt everyone who reads it, so bleak is the picture it paints of a world of depleted resources and a truly broken society. Here, George Monbiot and Paul Kingsnorth debate eco-collapse and whether industrial civilisation is worth saving. Timely, prophetic stuff - well worth a look.

In Monbiot's words "... the survivors of this collapse will be subject to the will of people seeking to monopolise remaining resources. This will is likely to be imposed through violence. Political accountability will be a distant memory. The chances of conserving any resource in these circumstances are approximately zero. The human and ecological consequences of the first global collapse are likely to persist for many generations, perhaps for our species’ remaining time on earth."

Friday, August 28, 2009


When I was a kid I used to play at being Doctor Who, and that entertained me even in the playground, or walking to school. In particular, his abilty to regenerate fascinated me. Being transplanted very suddenly, as I have been this month, sets off the same kind of dislocated feelings I imagine would happen were you to wake up in a new body. My whole adult life has been like this. When you measure it in eras, life seems long, even though you know it isn't really.

I’m here in Nottingham, to all intents and purposes alone, and surrounded by relics that are like the memorabilia of my past lives. Where did I find time to read all those books in my 20s, for example? I only have the sketchiest memories of them, and it took me a whole day to clean 12 years of dust from the spines. I’ve also unpacked my CD collection, the soundtrack of very different days. My old clothes don’t fit, for some reason – and here are a couple of cardigans (cardigans?) and jackets I can hardly remember wearing.

The place like a new planet. People seem very different from Hungary – mostly because I can understand what everyone is saying in public places. I have to mention this example, overheard at a bus stop – a son, in his late 40s, to his mother (thick midlands accent): “You’re the age Gran was when she pegged it and I’m the age you were when Gran pegged it!”

The climatic conditions are (what else?) changeable. I seem to remember the wind blowing the clouds across the sun in some other waning summer, and being caught in the rain. Have I been here before?

There are some continuities too: I still have an appetite for red wine, and now my console is reconnected, I’m in magical touch with everyone I knew from other time streams. This is a good thing when you’ve got that exiled feeling.

Friday, May 08, 2009


There is no justification for these ludicrous expenses claims (see below) by people who have also regularly voted to hike their salaries well above the average rise, and who recently called for a 66% pay rise. They ought to be removed forthwith.

full report in The Guardian 08.05.09

• Hazel Blears, the communities secretary, who allegedly claimed money on three different properties in one year alone. She also spent £5,000 on furniture in the space of four months after she bought the third property.

• Jack Straw, the justice secretary, who claimed back the full cost of council tax, even though he received a 50% discount from his local authority. Straw repaid the money last summer after a high court ruling requiring the receipts to be published.

• Lord Mandelson, who claimed thousands of pounds to repair his constituency home in Hartlepool after announcing his resignation as an MP in 2004.

• David Miliband, who spent hundreds of pounds on gardening at his constituency home.

• Alistair Darling, who changed his official "second home" designation four times in four years.

• Geoff Hoon who switched his second home to allow him to improve his family home in Derbyshire at taxpayers' expense before buying a London home.