Saturday, July 25, 2009

Layer 177 Bruce, Pete Seeger, Tom Joad, Social Mobility, Aspirations and Education.


I forgot to mention that B.Springsteen Esq was in London this summer. This guy is so great in so many ways, it's impossible to overstate how amazing he is. For those not yet up to speed, his excellent website gives a flavour of the man, and of the E Street Band.

I found the following words on the site, by the man himself, of course:

"As Pete [Seeger] and I traveled to Washington for President Obama's Inaugural Celebration, he told me the entire story of "We Shall Overcome". How it moved from a labor movement song and with Pete's inspiration had been adopted by the civil rights movement. That day as we sang "This Land Is Your Land" I looked at Pete, the first black president of the United States was seated to his right, and I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. My own growing up in the sixties in towns scarred by race rioting made that moment nearly unbelievable and Pete had thirty extra years of struggle and real activism on his belt. He was so happy that day, it was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man! . . . It was so nice. At rehearsals the day before, it was freezing, like fifteen degrees and Pete was there; he had his flannel shirt on. I said, man, you better wear something besides that flannel shirt! He says, yeah, I got my longjohns on under this thing.

And I asked him how he wanted to approach "This Land Is Your Land". It would be near the end of the show and all he said was, "Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, about private property and the relief office." I thought, of course, that's what Pete's done his whole life. He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we'd like to leave out of our history as a people. At some point Pete Seeger decided he'd be a walking, singing reminder of all of America's history. He'd be a living archive of America's music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete's somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant, and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won't let him take a step back from the things he believes in. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country's illusions about itself. Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures as well as shining a light toward our better angels and the horizon where the country we've imagined and hold dear we hope awaits us.

Now on top of it, he never wears it on his sleeve. He has become comfortable and casual in this immense role. He's funny and very eccentric. I'm gonna bring Tommy out, and the song Tommy Morello and I are about to sing I wrote in the mid-nineties and it started as a conversation I was having with myself. It was an attempt to regain my own moorings. Its last verse is the beautiful speech that Tom Joad whispers to his mother at the end of The Grapes of Wrath.

"Wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I'll be there."

Well, Pete has always been there.

For me that speech is always aspirational. For Pete, it's simply been a way of life. The singer in my song is in search of the ghost of Tom Joad. The spirit who has the guts and toughness to carry forth, to fight for and live their ideals.

I'm happy to report that spirit, the very ghost of Tom Joad is with us in the flesh tonight. He'll be on this stage momentarily, he's gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He's gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass.

This is for Pete . . ."

When I read that piece I assumed that Bruce had written it for his concert programme or for a newspaper – that he'd written it after much thought and several drafts, perhaps. In fact it's a transcription of his unscripted spoken introduction to a performance of “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. Beautiful, warm, loving, inspiring, appreciative words – not a single one sounding false or out of place. Genius.
View the recording of it on the website under BRUCE'S INTRODUCTION AT PETE SEEGER'S 90th BIRTHDAY CONCERT :

Also on the site, amongst tons of really good stuff, is a video of Bruce and the band performing the opening song at the Hyde Park gig: London Calling. Fantastic guitar work on this. Find a big amp and plug it into your computer.

This is a classic song, written by Joe Strummer. I wrote about it last August in Layer 71. It's very similar to Bruce's song, Born In The USA, in that people who don't really listen to lyrics seem to assume that both these songs are somehow celebrations of London and the USA. Duh!

You should also check out on the website:

Bruce Springsteen appeared on the "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Thursday, March 19. View Bruce's interview and performance of "Working On A Dream" here, and be sure to visit

As he did in L.A. last year, the extraordinary Tom Morello joined Bruce and the Band for "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Here, with Tom's kind permission, is an extended excerpt.

[Incredible stuff – never seen a guitar solo quite like it.]


On Saturday, June 27, Bruce and the Band played to their largest audience since East Berlin in 1988. A total of 135,000 people at the Glastonbury Festival watched a remarkable and emotion packed set. Here is the full version of one of many highlights, The River. The flags you see waving were held high by fans from the beginning of the show to the end. The mist you see behind Bruce is the steam on stage bouncing off of his back. For everyone there it is was a night to remember always.

The River

"I come from down in the valley

Where mister, when you're young,

They bring you up to do

What your daddy done . . .”


Social Mobility

Bruce has written many songs about working class and blue collar communities, speaking from the heart about people he knows and cares about.

Here's a couple of extracts from a recent Guardian editorial on social mobility:

"Sometimes the obvious needs to be stated. Britain is an unequal society. The elite look after their own. Poverty traps people from one generation to another. Government action and huge expenditure have at best stopped social division worsening. Encouraging aspiration is hard. And these conclusions, from yesterday's excellent report on access to the professions, sit alongside some startling individual facts.

It is uncomfortable to be told such truths; behind its modern veneer, British society is determined by who you know, and who your parents are. Some things have improved, of course. There is more gender equality (although not enough); more racial equality, too. But effort and merit are not rewarded as they should be. In some regards, poor children born in 1958 had better prospects than those born five decades on. This was, of course, one of the problems that Labour won power to tackle. The conclusion of the panel led by a former Labour cabinet minister, Alan Milburn, is that the party has failed.

What went wrong?

The corporate world needs to change; so do many professions, most of all the law, whose training structure could not have been more perfectly designed to protect privilege.

The report is refreshing in its refusal to draw political dividing lines, or blame underinvestment, when there is no more money to be had. It points out that to help people is not to dumb down society, or disadvantage the bright. Perhaps it shies away from the biggest source of inequality of all, Britain's addiction to private education; since no government in a liberal society would abolish it, the imbalances it creates must be fought in other ways. The cries from the right at the Charity Commission's attempt to force obligations on independent schools are telling. The report calls on the government to maintain education budgets, and stresses that what happens before 16, rather than after it, matters most – both challenges for a possible Cameron government. But this is a report for the future; the next government, from whichever party, will learn from it.

This social mobility thing is very interesting. Whilst it's obviously a social evil that the kids who start life with the most advantages, including private tutors/coaches/crammers, get the best opportunities in tertiary education, it's annoying that the underlying belief in this debate is that anyone who doesn't even get to university is a failure in life. There's an unspoken assumption that to be a tradesman or a small businessman or anyone below the level of 'manager' in an organisation is to be an also-ran in the rat race.

This is patently crazy when you see the numbers of miserable, striving idiots and bastards in the high status jobs and professions, and compare them with the numbers of people who enjoy their lives whilst working in low-status jobs on relatively low incomes.

What's missing from this entire debate is any understanding of what really comprises a proper education and whether or not young people are developing all their intelligences and learning to be creative, imaginative people who live enjoyable and well-balanced lives. What's the point of being alive unless you're finding fulfillment and enjoyment?

The Guardian's editorial is called “Ambition Is Everything”. One of the reasons young people lack the ambition to go to the elite universities and join the prestigious professions is the sheer effort required from their particular starting points. There's also an issue about having to give up their own sense of identity in order to join those particular clubs, and the sacrifices not being worth it anyway.

It's fine to campaign for more working class kids to join the professions, to become politicians, etc, but can we please stop assuming that only middle class people can live valid and fulfilling lives?

“What happens before 16, rather than after it, matters most” should be amended to “What happens before 12, not after, matters most”. Enabling kids to become confident, lively, thoughtful, curious, energetic, enquiring, imaginative, creative learners for life is what matters most. This government has done more than any to turn the clock backwards and ensure this doesn't happen, thanks to its beliefs in “traditional” modes of schooling and education, where all that matters is 'academic' success, albeit on a non-level playing field.


More worthwhile articles to check out this week:

Simon Jenkins on swine flu and scaremongering:

Larry Elliott on cutting spending versus raising taxes:

“Given this background it seems perverse that the current debate is all about which bits of spending should be cut rather than which taxes should be raised. There are plenty of ways to raise revenues. Darling could delay the introduction of the 50% tax rate but lower the threshhold; he could prevent corporate tax avoidance by taxing companies on their turnover rather than their profits; he could deter speculative holdings of property through a land value tax. Is the public ready for this? Almost certainly not. But it is probably not ready either for a bigger squeeze on public spending than Margaret Thatcher ever managed.”


Nick Clegg had this excellent column in the paper this week:

"For years, banks took insane risks with other people's money. Yet beyond some regulatory tinkering, big decisions to bring sanity to the sector have been ducked. There has been no action to split up the biggest banks or protect high street customers from the risks of casino investment banking, and no blueprint for more balanced economic development.

In banking and politics alike we have the bare minimum: lowest common denominator answers from a government without the imagination or zeal for the radical changes needed. Scratch beneath the limited rule changes and easy rhetoric, and a dismal picture of business as usual emerges. With one eye on the end of the parliamentary session, Labour and the Conservatives have played for time. Only the Liberal Democrats have remained outspoken in support of reform. The despair millions of people feel about an out-of-control banking system and an out-of-touch political elite will only deepen once they realise that neither of the establishment parties has any intention of putting them back in their place.

It is easy to understand the resistance to reform from the Conservatives. Maintenance of the status quo has always been the party's hallmark. David Cameron and George Osborne have highlighted a few eye-catching proposals – abolishing the FSA or cutting back quangos – which give the impression of change; but they leave vested interests in the City and Westminster intact.

Labour, however, was supposed to be a party of progress and reform.

The Conservatives will never challenge the way in which money and power are distributed. It is a Westminster stitch-up from which they hope to be the main beneficiary. But it is a betrayal of people's hopes for a different future that a Labour government has become so conservative."

Just have a read of the whole piece.


A song about money, power, property, entitlement, inequality, and hopes for a better future:

words and music by Woody Guthrie

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me


I've roamed and rambled and I've followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me


The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me


As I was walkin' - I saw a sign that tried to stop me
That sign was painted – it said private property,
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!


In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Layer 176 Laughter, Tax Havens, Spain, Limits on Interest, and Breasts.

That Mitchell and Young Look

“Making a woman laugh is halfway towards getting her into bed”, said Kirsty Young, knowingly, chuckling her way through her Desert Island Discs interview with David Mitchell. To his credit he didn't immediately say, “OK, Kirsty – your place or mine?” He just came out with “It's the other half I have a problem with”.

Earlier in the programme he'd said, “People often think that comedy and humour is frivolous. The truth is that it must be part of everything.” Amen to that.

Mitchell described himself as someone who probably sees the glass as half empty, but realises that half is better than nothing.

The other comment I took note of was about age. David Mitchell's known as a guy who's tweedy and anti-cool, or the antithesis of 'cool'. He said he'd like to live to be 90, providing he could be 50 the whole time. I know what he means. Or at least I think I do. It depends on what we define as the dominant characteristics of the average person of 50.

He obviously sees the positive aspects of 50, of which there are many, including maturity, better judgment, being knowledgeable, having a certain amount of wisdom, experience, etc. The average 50 year old should still be physically fit, sexually active, mentally sound, and emotionally strong. More so than people at either end of the age spectrum, at any rate. We could also assume a certain level of financial and material wellbeing, independence, autonomy and confidence. What's not to like about being 50? The challenge is to gain, and to hold on to, all those positives.

Wikipedia says Mitchell lists Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Peter Cook as being his comedy idols. Mitchell has stated that Morecambe and Wise, Monty Python and The Two Ronnies have been a big influence on his career. He once claimed he owns no records at all, and is "not remotely interested in music."

His lack of interest in music is curious, but pretty obvious, going by his choice of terrible discs for the desert island, which were presumably meant to be humorous and/or tweedy.


Gibraltar Revisited

Guardian editorial:

"The visit of a Spanish minister to Gibraltar yesterday could be regarded as historic. It was the first time anything like this had happened in 300 years, and it went off smoothly. Foreign minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos was denounced by the opposition People's party as a traitor – it claimed his visit was an insult to the dignity of Spain - and by the Gibraltar Socialist Labour party, which wanted the Rock to show the Spaniard just how British it was.

The discussions that took place between Mr Moratinos, David Miliband and Gibraltar's chief minister, Peter Caruana, represented a step back. They discussed six areas of future co-operation, including financial services, environment, maritime safety and visas. Everything, in other words, bar the main the issue, the only one that has kept this dispute going since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713: sovereignty.

Gibraltar's disputed sovereignty remains the elephant in the room.

It should be for Spain to demonstrate the very obvious advantages of joint sovereignty to a people whose identity would be underpinned by the ending of this ancient dispute, not undermined."

The thing that really struck me about Gibraltar is the sheer impressive dominance of its Rock over the surrounding landscape, and how galling it must be for the average Spanish citizen to feel that a foreign country has annexed this visually imposing part of their environment.

But surely the real elephant in the room is that this place is still a tax haven?

The Guardian's editorial also says this:

"Gibraltar's escape from the global downturn, with an economy that has grown at Chinese rates, can be read two ways: Mr Caruana's way, which is to say that, if Gibraltar were a sovereign state, it would be the 13th richest in terms of per-capita GDP; or the opposite, which is to say that Gibraltar's wealth would not exist without the 7 million visitors who cross the frontier every year."

In Gibraltar there are construction projects dotted everywhere, with gleaming new apartment blocks springing up all over. The work goes on. The majority of these smart apartments are supposedly the homes of 'residents', who in fact use them occasionally, if at all, for their tax exile. Very few people come and go through the lifts and lobbies of those tall buildings – the majority of the smartly and expensively furnished flats remain devoid of inhabitants for the majority of the year.

In Spain, meanwhile, huge building developments can be seen everywhere – abandoned and half-built. It's a strange world of speculation, accumulation, greed and bankruptcy. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and those in the middle are more and more teetering on the brink. See also Jonathan Freedland's recent column (below), and the following piece on Spain.


Spain Revisited

by Giles Tremlett, published in G2

End of the dream for British expats in Spain.

Hundreds of thousands of Brits have headed to the sun seeking a Spanish idyll. But the economic crash has left many facing disaster.

"The British butcher has gone and the karaoke nights at Jack's and the Big Ben bar are all but dead. You can still get all-day British breakfasts and John Smiths on tap in San Fulgencio but a row of dusty, unkempt shop windows is all that remains of the internet cafe, the installer of pirated British TV channels and the Property Choice estate agent.

"It's like a ghost town," says Dennis Conway, 76, who is thinking of joining the exodus of Britons from this once bustling estate of bungalows and modest two-storey houses a few miles from Spain's eastern Mediterranean coast. "It's devastating. My pension is slowly disintegrating and there is nothing we can do about it. It is bloody frightening to think what might still happen."

Dennis has been here for 15 years. He has seen the La Marina estate in San Fulgencio go from a sleepy outpost of retired Brits to a boomtown of holidaymakers, second home-owners and young families trying to make a go of it in Spain, to the current bust. "I've never seen it this bad. I'm thinking of going back."

Britain's fevered obsession with the Spanish good life is over. Once, ex-pat bars up and down the Mediterranean coast heaved with happy talk about cheap beer, low council taxes and why it was so much better to be in Spain. Now the drinkers are more likely to curse the pitiful pound, discuss who missed the last outing of the British pensioners' club, and swap stories of friends who are moving home. There are whispered tales, too, of repossessions and of people packing up, dropping their keys at the bank and trusting easyJet to save them from Spanish creditors.

"We've had retired people calling us and saying they are going to Bulgaria or places like that," explains Angie Russell, whose Union Jack company near Benidorm has been moving Brits – legally – for 22 years.

Television shows such as Channel 4's A Place in the Sun promised adventure, swimming pools and the good life. A collapsing pound and the credit crunch have brought a harsher reality: homesickness, financial hardship and something those who call themselves "expats" rarely take into account, that they are immigrants – often with all the problems of not understanding the language or the rules. Interestingly, a surprising number of them list immigration as one of the things they dislike about Britain. Few, indeed, come from Britain's own ethnic minorities.

For some, Spain has become a nightmare."


Jonathan Freedland:

“This morning an unlikely platoon of religious leaders will march on the City headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland armed not with bricks but books. Three to be precise: the Torah, the Qur'an and the New Testament. They'll be delivering them to the RBS chairman, Sir Philip Hampton – but not in a friendly way. They're meant as a warning to the titans of finance that a campaign is coming, one that starts today in both Britain and the United States, aimed at changing the way banks do business by reviving a law as old as money itself.

The law in question is the prohibition on usury.

It contains a powerful and simple idea: that there should be limits on the amount a lender can charge a borrower and that to charge too much interest is immoral.

The ambition is to do for personal debt what Jubilee 2000 did for international debt, to bring the issue of extortionate, exploitative borrowing back home.

People can always find ways to comply with the letter of religious law while breaking its spirit. But the guiding sentiment is unambiguous.

And that ideal has never been the exclusive preserve of religious types. Plato and Aristotle denounced usury; ancient Rome capped interest at 8.33% (a shade above the 8% limit sought by London Citizens), a rule that endured for more than a thousand years.

Only Britain was in a hurry to scrap usury laws, ditching them in the 17th century under pressure from – surprise, surprise – the burghers of the City of London, who claimed that they could barely pay for the orphans in their care. For the sake of the poor little waifs, the bankers needed to rack up interest rates. And so began the City's transformation into a commercial universe free from all but the most feeble moral constraints.

Now, nearly 300 years later, it's surely time to put the cap back on. It can't be too much to ask that banks which currently borrow from the Bank of England at a rate of 0.5% lend it out at no more than 8%: they'd still be charging customers 16 times more for money than they had paid for it.

The trouble is, it has been too much to ask. The banks have proven that they cannot be trusted to restrain their own greed: when even a respected, high street bank demands 22% in interest on money it all but shoved in a customer's hand, you know that any appeals to the bankers' better angels will be futile. The better angels packed up their bags and gave up long ago.

It is telling that the lead voices in this new effort are from mosques, inner-city churches and synagogues. The politicians have been left looking flummoxed by the financial crisis, apparently desperate for normal business to resume as soon as possible. It has been left to the Pope to offer the most comprehensive critique of our devastated economic landscape, in his latest encyclical. But those facing crippling debts will not be too bothered by that. When people are desperate, they will take leadership from wherever they can get it."


And finally . . .

G2 had more nipples on view yesterday than an entire issue of The Daily Sport, in an article called “Topless or Not?

It's a pretty unenlightened double page spread.

In the YES corner we had Joanna Moorhead:

"When I was a teenager I would think nothing of sunbathing wearing only bikini bottoms. In fact, I think my friends and I would have seen it, back in the early 80s, as almost de rigueur. It felt so good, taking off your top and lying half-naked in the sun on the beach: free, liberating, warm and, hey presto, no bikini-lines. Being on holiday wasn't being on holiday without a bit of topless sunbathing.

I still assert my right to sunbathing, and swimming, topless.

Women's breasts spend far too much of the year hidden away in often uncomfortable bras. We have to ask ourselves whose agenda it is to get women to keep their breasts covered, and why. My rather uncomfortable hunch is that this is a debate which is driven by the desire of men to keep a part of women's bodies that they (mistakenly) believe is only for them, covered up. And this, it seems to me, is why our society is shot through with all sorts of unhealthy problems about breasts and their raison d'etre.

So, in an age when the young seem to have decided to kowtow to the male agenda and cover up, it seems to me that it's all the more important for we fortysomethings to be flying the flag for feminism. If there's a half-decent sunny day in Devon this year, I think I owe it to the cause to get my breasts out."

In the NO corner we have Zoe Williams:

"The real reason I deride toplessness is that small matter of what I actually look like. Perhaps it's unsisterly to say so but taking your top off does rather draw attention to your attributes – and they had better be good.

With toplessness, my first and insurmountable objection is a "how do I look?" thing ("better with a top on" is the answer). This isn't a gravity thing. I cannot blame the ravages of time. I had this conversation with myself on my French exchange aged 14, and I think the decision I reached was the right one."

It's an interesting subject, and there must be people who have interesting and well thought out views on it, but they're not here.

Six pages of readers' comments!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Layer 175 Return to Base, Nihilistic Despair, The Alpajarras, Jeem, Jamming, and Healthy Living.

Trying to get your head around what's happening in the world when you've just spent two weeks off the planet is a bit like trying to open a memory-intensive word processor on your computer when you only have 5 megabytes of RAM available. There's just too much information needing to be uploaded, assimilated and processed, with far too little processing power on tap.

It's very tempting to just switch off, close the curtains and stay ignorant.

What's happening in politics on these sad little islands was pretty well summed up by Marina Hyde in her usual excellent column in the Guardian on Saturday:

A new politics? Let's revert to a state of nihilistic despair

Do you remember "A new politics"? It was that turn-of-last-month movement for restoring faith in the way in which we are governed. It sort of coincided with the vague tetchiness that capitalists had just blown up capitalism and the plebs were expected to foot the bill.

Once upon a time – June, basically – a series of scandals made it voguish to go around saying that not only ought the public to be exempted from funding lavish accommodation for MPs' ducks, but that the whole rotten system needed reform. Even some members of parliament themselves were saying it. Honestly, they really were.

She goes on to describe a typical debate in parliament:

You need hardly be told that the debate played out to a typically underpopulated chamber, or that government engagement tended toward the half-hearted. Indeed, one had the overwhelming sense that the home secretary really just couldn't be done with the hassle, and anyway the argument was way over his head. "I accept that I am not a lawyer," Alan Johnson declared blithely. "I am a hack politician. I go by the advice I get."

This man is home secretary. It's all very well for call-centre operatives and Little Britain characters to drone "Computer says no" at the public, but when you hold one of the great offices of state, and are in charge of an annual budget of £10bn, it does make you look a bit of a spanner. Can you imagine Roy Jenkins addressing the house during the debate on capital punishment with the words: "Don't look at me, luv, I just work here"?

Wednesday's "debate" . . . seemed to crystallise so much of what repulses the electorate about their representatives. The secretary of state . . . seemed to wear staggering incompetence as a badge of honour.

This pretty much sums up what I've come to understand about how our governance works – politicians (i.e. 'our' representatives) at both local authority level and nationally have no wit, no imagination, no wisdom, no experience of real life, no guiding philosophy or ideology, no level of enlightenment whatsoever. All they do is put their signatures on documents drafted by bureaucrats who have no wit, no imagination, no wisdom, etc, etc.

Marina then quotes from a letter written by the appalling Denis MacShane MP (nee Denis Matyjaszek):

“The Commons will survive this scandal as it survived earlier scandals ... The great historian Macaulay wrote that there was nothing 'so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality'. The British public is in one of its fits of morality right now but this will pass."
Do excuse our ridiculousness, Denis. We are now back in our state of nihilistic despair, and you will find that rather less of a caprice.


I suppose we have to give honest broker Alan Johnson at least a little credit for his admission that he's just a hack politician who has no particular expertise or even any critical faculties - who just does what he's told by his 'experts'.

Read here what Wikipedia has to say about 'MacShane', his record as a parliamentarian, and his expenses claims:

This ridiculous shithead wrote a column in the Guardian last Thursday in which he actually advocated Tony Blair as the first 'president' of the European Union. It's like he's living in a parallel universe, let alone on another planet.

A realistic assessment of Blair's suitability for the post is given in a column by John Palmer:


Since returning to base I've been catching up with some spiritually refreshing music, and thanks to Spotify have been listening to the entire output of the divine Webb Sisters. Out of curiosity I also tried “Webb Sisters Radio”on, which is a curious Internet vehicle for listening to music. This is an outfit that started life in Shoreditch, whose aim seems to be to feed you music that's supposedly similar to the artists you actually enjoy. All I can say is that the solo female singers they send to your computer – supposedly lyrical, melodic, original, etc; supposedly similar to the Webb Sisters – just highlight the sheer brilliance of the Webb Sisters themselves, whose work is outstanding in every way: vocally, lyrically and musically.


Last week I met a guy called Jeem who plays the piano accordion. He's tall and thin, has long hair and a crazy kind of Dali moustache.

He was playing in a little square outside a cafe called El Tilo, in a village called Capileira, up in the Alpujarra mountains, which lie next to the Sierra Nevadas.

He was playing some Spanish tunes, and I sat down and started to video him. He then switched to playing a great arrangement of “Season of the Witch”, which he also sang. Sitting on the terrace of Bar El Tilo (the lime tree) we were treated to a range of different styles and tunes, including some 12 bar blues.

At the end of his ‘set’ the people in the cafe gave Jeem a good round of applause. He then came round with a hat and collected cash from the customers.

It turned out he’s from Arizona, having been brought up initially in Chicago. He decided to leave the US 17 years ago, feeling disgusted at the turn to the Right the country had made under Reagan and Bush The First.

He now spends his time travelling by bus between places in the mountains and places on the coast, playing in squares and markets and streets, spreading the happiness.

He said he’d loved Donovan’s ‘Season of the Witch’ from the first time he’d heard it, way back in the sixties. I said his version sounded a lot like the one recorded by Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll, which he’d apparently never heard.

(Type “Season of the Witch” into the search box on Spotify and you can hear about 10 different versions. I still love Brian Auger's Hammond instrumental.)

He said he’d started playing the accordion when he was 6 years old, though it seems unlikely he could even have picked up a full-sized piano accordion at that age.

Jeem’s the kind of guy who really appeals to me – laid back, laconic, talented, humorous, thoughtful and idealistic. It feels good to be around people like that, as they go around raising spirits.


We bumped into him again later that day, sitting on a bench, his accordion in its case beside him, plus his folded stool. He chatted some more about his musical influences, and how he intends to learn to play in the classical French accordion style of Bal Musette. I’d have liked to have chatted more, and listened some more, but the hour was getting late.


The Alpajarras are definitely my kind of mountains – high, but not too high; lush and warm and accessible. The kind of mountains with well-established paths that enable you to walk up to the tops and the ridges, and not have to scramble or rock-climb.

It would be good to go back there next year, rent a room somewhere, and spend several days, maybe even a month, exploring the region on foot. I'd also like to get back to Granada and the Alhambra, and get to know those places better. Learning some Spanish would be a good idea as well.


Jeem talked about hanging out with other musicians and having jams that go on late into the night. The ability to play an instrument and jam with others is an absolute gift. It's too late now for my kids, but I'll try to make sure my grandchildren get hold of instruments at an early age and learn to play them.

Imagine a world in which every home, and every market and square in every village, town and city was enlivened by live music. How great would that be? Instead we buy our kids TVs, DVDs, Playstations and Wiis. These things have their place, but their very ease of use takes up time and opportunity that could be put to much better use.

The only public singing that takes place spontaneously in Britain is when drunk people and/or sports spectators lose their inhibitions and let rip with cacophonies worse than frustrated cats and dogs.


This was the first time in ages I've been in Spain during the summer months, and the first time I've paid some attention to the way the Spanish people use the beaches as places to gather at weekends and after work.

I guess it's similar to the other places around the world that enjoy 'Mediterranean' types of climate – places like Australia, California and Brazil, where descendants of the original colonists get together by the sea and hang out in the same fashion as their European forebears have done for centuries – informally and joyfully soaking up the power of the sun in beautiful places where whole communities can meet and mingle.

Last week, down at the little bay, there were still more than 30 cars parked each evening till just before sundown, with at least 60 – 80 people scattered along the shoreline enjoying the sun, the sea and one another. Some had barbeques and little fires, with fish and meat grilling on little sticks pushed in the ground. Others would head off to eat in bars, cafes and homes. There's a deep simplicity, enjoyment and relaxation in such a social lifestyle. Being able to sit on beaches and terraces in the open air and to eat and drink every day al fresco has such huge benefits.

Back in London, these days, smokers in particular like to sit at tables in the streets. But let's be honest – what is point? In coats. Near traffic. Polluted. Noisy. Sucking poison into lungs.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Layer 174 Gibraltar and Spain

Travel by air is the pits. These days we allow ourselves to be regimented, coralled, processed, monitored, x-rayed, scanned, frisked, scrutinised, questioned and treated like objects. We agree to be deprived of any autonomy and dignity. All in the name of security and safety. The bad guys have already won when they've turned civilisation into this stressed-out struggle to move from A to B.

Even so, moving through Stanstead is a breeze compared to the awfulness of Heathrow.

Malaga was even better. I was third off the plane, first to get to baggage reclaim, first to pick up my case, and first to the buses/taxis. There was very little traffic on the way into town, and so I was sitting on the bus to Algeciras within an hour of touching down. The flight itself had taken just two and a half hours.

The Costa Del Sol is boring, barren, dry, parched and scruffy. The hillsides are full of little outcrops of flats and timeshares - bland and sometimes downright ugly holiday 'units' piled on top of each other.

Some of these places are retirement homes. I can understand Brits who've enjoyed holidays in the Med coming to live here for the sunshine, sea and cheap booze, but in reality the Del Sol doesn't compare to South Devon, for example, for beauty and character. Places like South Hams, Dartmouth, Totnes, Ashburton, Brixham and Dartmoor are quite sublime.

Onward we trundled past 'urbanisations' of ever-increasing hideousness. The flats might be perfectly decent inside, but from the outside they're just the lowest-cost solutions to providing the maximum number of storage and living spaces for human beings on any given plot of land.

Many of the new developments are now abandoned: unsold, and only half-completed. Cranes stand idle on deserted building sites. This is the reality of the drying up of credit and mortgages.


There was just a two minute wait in Algeciras for the little bus that wended its way on a 40 minute trip round the bay to La Linea. It had been quite a trip - by car (thanks to my lovely daughter), train, plane, taxi, coach and bus.

There's a three minute walk from the bus station in La Linea to the border with Gibraltar. After the customs the first thing you come to is the runway of the airport, which you have to walk or drive across. It's apparently one of the scariest airports in the world to fly into since the plane has to approach over water and the runway sticks out into the sea at both ends, across the narrow strip of land that connects Gib with Spain, under the towering mountain of the Rock itself.

We had dinner in a restaurant on the roof of a hotel from where there were fabulous views of the town, the Rock, the sea and the sunset. Afterwards we went down to the bar, where a very decent jazz trio were playing. The guy on upright acoustic bass was very good. Chatting to him afterwards he said there's a bunch of musicians who drift in and out and jam together twice a week.

B & G are staying in a huge four-bedroomed flat on the 6th and 7th floors of a new block right next to the harbour. Apparently it's the 'main' residence of friends who've set up a business in Australia. Which is nice.

The views from the huge windows and the large balcony are incredible. I can't believe how close the coast of North Africa appears - just 14 miles away. An enormous Morrocan mountain sits on the skyline - grey, craggy and barren. The lower slopes are hazy in the sea mist, but the top half is sharp and beautiful against the deep blue of the sky.

The amount of traffic in and beyond the harbour is amazing. There's an incredible variety of small boats, ferries, coasters, and massive ocean-going vessels - container ships and tankers. Gibraltar seems to be a refuelling stop for many of them. You get a real sense that this place is a major crossroads between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and between Europe and Africa, and the rest of the world.


Saturday - late - Costa Tropical.

It's the beginning of Apocalypse Now. A ceiling fan is spinning, the room is hot and humid, and someone is lying undressed on a bed, seemingly waiting for a mission.


Sunday - morning.

Are humans really so different to reptiles? I need to sit in the sun each morning, soaking up its energy through my skin before I can feel fully charged, fully alive, and ready for the new day.

I love this climate, and always have. Stepping out of the air-conditioned car in Malaga yesterday was like stepping into an oven. 40 degrees C. It made Gibraltar seem positively cool.

Here on the Costa Tropical it's incredibly exotic. There's bananas, mangos, oranges, lemons, peaches and apricots growing in the garden. The vibrant colours of bouganvillea and oleanda are everywhere, along with others of brilliant white, orange and magenta - shrubs and climbers I don't even know the names of. T's veranda has million-dollar views up and down the coast, and down on to the glistening sea.