Non-vulture culture

One of the main reasons I haven’t been writing much here (apart from work and family obligations) is that I’ve been running a project that means a lot to me. Now that it’s almost put to bed perhaps I can get back to other stuff that means a lot.

The project idea came from an unlikely source – the Elton John Christmas advert for John Lewis. It’s the one where he sits down at his childhood piano, bought at great sacrifice from his parents, and reflects on the way that some gifts are – well – more than just another gift.

The thing is, I’m the son of a musician and composer of a similar background to Elton John, and the massive sacrifice of his parents guided his approach to music. Dad left school at 15 having been told by his teachers that council house kids just don’t “do” classical music. He was busily performing – mostly for free – around the country from that age anyway, but he was in his thirties before having the self-confidence to go to teacher training college.

Doors to musical opportunity have been slammed in his face all his life, e.g. for being the wrong class or (since settling on the Isle of Man) the wrong national background. Yet he continued to perform, to compose, and to encourage new generations of working-class kids to be musicians.

A few years ago we noticed a change, which at first we put down to his age. Then a couple of years back he was diagnosed with Alzheimers. Now, while if guided to a piano he can still play, he cannot concentrate enough to write music, or even to read it and learn new pieces.

The challenge for me was to continue what he started. How to encourage teenagers from backgrounds as unlikely as his to produce “serious” (as opposed to bland pop) music. To read the government PR you see in the press, there has never been a time when so many brilliant young musicians were being produced. But that PR is a lie.

The state school system is a mess, reduced to producing conformist office fodder as surely as it was in the 1950’s, and not much else. Music lessons are seen as luxury items, one of those “extras” middle-class kiddies get in the same way they learn to ride ponies, sail or ballet dance. The chance that a kid from a council estate could get to the Royal College of Music, study composition and become the next Elgar is nil, and on the Isle of Man doubly so.

I wanted to change that in at least some small way. My solution was to pester some people who were handed a huge legacy to stop wittering on endlessly about how to invest it, and to spend some of it instead on enabling people from a humble background to do something creative, within the lifetime of either the (mostly elderly) other trustees or me.

My suggestion was a prize to produce short pieces of music for a new national ceremony. The prestige and prize money might provide valuable first steps on a career ladder for a new generation of dreamers like my Dad (or even me in my time). The idea went down well, both with the trustees and various well-connected, overprivileged bods who get public money to stimulate what passes for “Manx national culture.” The realisation was – well – a little harder. But it has happened – if in a very small way and not quite as I would have liked.

The great irony is that the only way I’ve been able to run a project which encouraged people (especially young people) to produce new and beautiful creations was for it to be centred on two of my pet hates – death and folk music. In my own teens and twenties, I played everything from Renaissance brass music to UK avant-garde, and aspired to work with the likes of John Cage or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (managed the first, sadly the second folded before I could get there). So I really hoped to enable similar spirits from this generation who might then be the next generation of experimentalists. Sadly, I couldn’t push the envelope that far.

The trade-off is that the only musical entries the trustees actually liked were of the conservative Manx folk variety (albeit mostly created by young people ) and the ceremony at which the music will be played commemorates war dead (albeit innocent civilians of all nations in recent and current conflicts, rather than just Tommies from long gone ones “we” (whoever that is) “won” (by whatever means that has been officially decided).

So much for my hope of a truly new 21st century ceremony without barriers to participation revolving around truly new 21st century music. But as I ran the project (and am the only person driven enough to do the donkey-work), I also slipped a few extras in under the radar.

We got some excellent entries which do not fit the favoured categories, and they have the seeds of something new and original about them. So, in arranging for the winners to get an airing on local radio, it “just happens” that we needed to fill a little more air time (well, they are only two minute pieces), and that “accidentally” some of the more experimental and unique stuff is being included.

Oops! Us hopeless avant-gardists, all head—in-the clouds and forever muddling up the details. What are we like, eh?

But if Dad and some of my other past mentors were in any position to judge, I think they’d approve. And do I care what necrophiliacs and cultural conservatives think about it?

Not really.


Why write?

“Write from where you are”, they say, so I am.

This is me, writing. But for whom ……. and why?

I write here and now.

I write because I am alive, to paraphrase Nina Simone.

And as Jo Spence said: “You can either write or be written off”.

I write because I am not a Drab.

I write to make War on Drab. In fact, my entire life is that war.

I write because I do not have pebbledash for brains. I come from Ordinary and Decent, but while I try to be decent I can never be ordinary, because Ordinary no longer wants me, and is rarely Decent.

I write because I am not what e.e. cummings called “mostpeople”.

I write because I am not a peasant.

I write because time not writing is time not living.

I write because I am only fully alive, fully functioning when writing. All the time not spent writing is time wasted to me, time I watch ticking, ticking, ticking down until one day there will be none.

I’ll be gone with things left unwritten, unsaid that I might have. And what a waste that would be.

Green, but not cabbage-looking

When Greta Thunberg first emerged like some 21st Century Joan of Arc I was impressed. But when the School Strikes began, the first doubt crept in. All good historical accounts of the Childrens’ Crusade back in the Middle Ages warn us what happens when mass hysteria starts to take hold.

Now? I wouldn’t care if I never heard another word about her. To subvert a saying of my granny, I might be green, but I’m not cabbage-looking.

Seriously, who but the worried well-off still follow this campaign? One thoughtful conservative blogger summed it up nicely by pointing out how environmentalism is fast unravelling from a worthy humanitarian project into a millenarian cult. And when I say he did it nicely I mean just that. It was not malicious, just a note of genuine concern.

Everybody wants to leave a decent world for the next generation. But anybody who is serious starts by asking how it will be paid for. And the minute someone starts talking about “saving” anything (from souls to whales, polar bears and eventually the planet), then likening all responses from the business community to the moneychangers in the temple, they are getting into religious nutjob territory. At that point folk like me make our excuses, leave quickly and never come back.

Hardcore Thunbergians like to pretend that there is a concerted corporate attempt to mock and write her off as an odd adolescent freak because (allegedly) Big Business sees her as such a threat. Frankly, that joke is worse than anything Aaron Banks could tweet, even after a particularly boozy business lunch.

The sad truth is, the serious business community does not see Greta’s antics as any kind of threat. Far from it. They are too busy smiling at a neat bit of misdirection by the best niche travel industry idea since Why would they destroy something they may soon be investing in, knowing the profit margins will be astronomical?

Put it this way. Thunberg is currently crossing the Atlantic with a family friend of Philip Green. The ultimate funding for her campaign comes from people who pay little or no tax …….. anywhere.


The thing is, overt corporate sponsorship of, say, the arts and education is so last year. It can also backfire, as both the oil and pharmaceutical industry have found out. Just this week David Aaronovitch pointed out in The Times that woke fundamentalists don’t negotiate or compromise, because they don’t really care if more people get fed, housed or educated, now or at any point in the future. Inadequate little miserablists like that just get off on saying that they are right and everyone else is wrong.

Far cleverer, then, for red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists to fund some useful idiots while staying under the radar, discreetly guide public opinion away from the current travel model, then pounce when the competition is wiped out. As they well know, economically things are halfway there already. Travel world Leviathans like British Airways and Cunard are on their last legs, the big travel agents have already gone and even the budget airlines are struggling as fuel prices rise and the unions finally achieve living wages for air and ground crew.

The dominant 21st century travel industry will centre on luxury adventure for the very rich. Everyone else will be staying at home. The signs have been there for a year or two for anyone who was paying attention.

Ironically, some of the most obvious ones are bright green. Just look at the growing trend for rich thickos to take a gap year imposing on some unfortunate African or Amazonian.

Philanthropy? No, just opportunism by some new generation Branson or other they went to public school with. The money the trustafarian pays for the experience never – ever – filters down to the world’s dispossessed. Meanwhile, under the current educational funding model, working class kids find it increasingly harder than at any time since the 1950’s to get into university.

Mark my words, with such potential for implosion should there ever be a genuine threat to the status quo (which, as I say, there just isn’t) the adventures of the green movement’s SuBo are not going to end well. For anyone except the already privileged.

So, excuse me while I concentrate on more interesting things for the immediate future.

Television – the heroin of retirees?

I witnessed something odd yesterday while out on errands with the firm van.

I pulled up behind an expensive car at a red light. The light changed to green, but the car didn’t move. When it still hadn’t moved 20 or so seconds later – and the white-haired head of the driver didn’t appear to be moving either – I got out to check.

I found her asleep at the wheel so tapped the driver window, fearing the worst. She then awoke with a start and screeched off, leaving me stuck at the head of a long queue as the lights changed.

But dangerous driving is hardly our greatest threat from the blue-rinse generation. No, without a doubt that is free TV licences for the over-75s, which in the UK – but not Isle of Man – are funded directly by government.

The latest chapter in this saga was written recently (see ).The backlash from some local geriatrics and their confused supporters includes bizarre calls to boycott the BBC.

Why? While it is the BBC who need the income, in effect the funding deficit is made up not by those who never previously paid for a licence but by the government paying the BBC the money which would otherwise have to come from such pensioners. Over here the sticking point is the Manx government’s reluctance to do the same.

But then, I think the whole argument misses the real problem – the detrimental effect of TV on oldies. It also misses the real reason governments always pay up – even if indirectly.

In the years when I worked on psycho-geriatric wards, TV was used as a supplement to what was often termed “the liquid cosh”. The easiest way to stop the patients wandering was to pump them full of major tranquillisers, and TV played at deafening volume from breakfast to bedtime formed a sort of audio-visual equivalent to this.

I kid you not. Television is to old people what heroin is to unemployed kids on sink estates. In my daily struggles with family elders, the biggest obstacle is a TV permanently tuned to 1970’s sitcoms, in a room where drawn curtains shut out the sun and make it impossible to tell if it is night or day, winter or summer outside. Getting them to turn it off and open the curtains (or indeed a book) is like getting a junkie off smack.

Officially, government policy is to discourage such dependence. But as I remember the Chief Constable of Merseyside telling council busybodies some time before the Toxteth riots, better whole estates of placid druggies than the police facing thousands of young, fit kids angry at the way they had been dumped on for life and left in sub-standard housing by politicians more concerned with the quick economic gains of urban redevelopment. Well, that may not be word-for-word what he said, but it is exactly what he meant.

For the same reasons, I predict the Manx government will pay for the tranquillisers, just like their UK counterparts. What parasite on the public purse wants to face the very real policy demands which could be made by older, mentally alert people with an interest in the world and a lifetime of experience seeing off shysters and tin-pot dictators?

Of course, there is another alternative. They could cut the tax and petty restraints on alcohol and smoking (along with the relentless prod-nosing of health nazis), and let people decide if they prefer shorter, happier lives or longer but nominally healthier ones ending in decades of vegetation.

No. Thought not.

A new low for Soho

Fellow hack Nick Cohen has startling news about an old haunt of this blog’s inspiration, Jeff Bernard.

  It’s a sad tale, and further damning evidence of the decline of Soho since Bernard’s day, so we shouldn’t laugh. But it is very, very funny.

The Coach and Horses, on Greek Street, was a hang-out for Soho bohemians during a golden age. The columnist Keith Waterhouse famously adjourned there for the day after finishing a daily column before opening time. It was also an unofficial office during 1960’s limited pub opening hours for Private Eye contributors, right from the first days of that publication. Other “regulars” included George Melly and the painter Francis Bacon, and John Hurt, Tom Baker and David Warner whenever such actors were “resting” (or even when they were gainfully employed).

Jeff Bernard was a daily presence there from the late 1950’s onwards (i.e. well before his journalistic career). From his early days with Sporting Life right through to his Low Life column in The Spectator he became the pub’s unofficial chronicler. Through his writing the world learnt of the cantankerous Norman Balon (“London’s rudest landlord”) and his eccentric mother.

Despite (or maybe because of) Jeff’s weekly stories of atrocious service, inedible food and abominable clientele the place became a legend. In 1989 the interior was even recreated as a West End stage set for Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell  – Waterhouse’s play about his good mate.

Long after Jeff died in 1997 the Coach and Horses was still being sought out by generations of would-be hacks and tourists alike. In 2006 Balon finally called it a day and things started to go downhill. By that time the gangsters, strippers and other demi-monde had long left Soho, which fell into the hands of even nastier characters, such as estate agents and property developers, and the only writers to be seen were advertising pondlife.

Earlier this year the Coach and Horses was being advertised as “London’s first vegetarian and vegan pub”, and now all hope is finally lost. Last month it was awarded a nudist licence. This grants all staff and patrons the right to be naked on the premises.

Yes, really.

The very thought would be enough to drive Waterhouse and Bacon to alcohol-free lager. And what would poor Jeff make of it all?

More ordure of the brown nose

It seems that pointing out one annual instance of Manx brown-nosing is not going to be enough. For this week I need to point out another – this time directly involving government figures agreeing to further subsidise the side effects of UK military incompetence and neglect.

This (see is the long term effect of letting a Manx government minister take up a kind UK invitation to go and play in a tank a few years ago.

You should ignore the UK Ministry of Defence’s explanation of the Military Covenant, just as you should regard any MOD press statement as an outright lie. The real roots of the Covenant go back about a decade, when the British Army really started struggling to recruit new blood.

Forget all the UK tabloid guff about “supporting our boys”. The reality is, in the 21st century no UK citizen wants to go to countries they’ve never heard of and get shot at by whoever Trump or the oil industry (not even the UK government, never mind the UK parliament) decides we’re at war with this week.

One temporary answer was to increase recruitment from smaller Commonwealth countries and British Dependencies. Senior defence figures warned the MOD that if the proportion of such recruits ever exceeded 8% the cultural change would cause irreparable damage. Unofficially, they knew that proportion already did, and it is getting bigger year by year.

In effect, the warning said, service personnel would no longer feel they were a British defence force. So they would be ever less inclined to face danger in conflicts they did not understand, alongside recruits from countries they have barely heard of and seemingly under the command of yet another country’s generals.

As usual, the UK government ignored expert advice. Instead, it increased the subtle (often illegal) recruitment of Commonwealth recruits while – for once – acknowledging their bravery by increasing the percentage of the most prestigious medals such as the Victoria Cross. “Coincidentally” these awards seemed to get rather more media attention than usual, as anyone subscribing to the MOD press bulletins can testify.

The other PR stunt was the Military Covenant. This was actually a vicious cost-cutting exercise to address a growing problem – an increasing percentage of troops being severely injured (rather than just killed) in conflict. The horrific injuries range from the purely physical (such as losing a leg after stepping on an IED) through to mental conditions such PTSD, which have vastly increased from the time of the first Gulf War onwards.

The public misunderstanding is that such casualties are dealt with by state-of-the-art medical facilities where military personnel jump the queue. This is an outright lie.

Firstly, there is a massive waiting list, with a clear pecking order determined by the longstanding class and racial prejudices of the UK military. Secondly, much of the treatment is offloaded onto private medical facilities run by MOD sock puppet “charities” such as Help for Heroes, which are massively overpriced (to pay back all the vested interests) under-equipped and understaffed. Thirdly, they only offer very short-term help; after that it’s back to overstretched regional NHS facilities and any remnant of family the casualty may still have.

Previously, Commonwealth troops expected to at least join the queue for the mainly non-existent primary medical care. Under the Covenant, the governments of the Commonwealth agree to take full responsibility for any of their boys (and increasingly girls) once they leave the conflict zone and get quietly kicked out of the military without further support.

To be fair, governments of many of the small, struggling islands and territories tried to resist. It was quickly made clear to them that if they did not sign up UK help in dealing with problems ranging from natural disasters through to territorial disputes with neighbouring countries would not continue. Even the minimal support given to small countries by the Foreign Office in resisting the large corporates who, in effect, expect to operate tax-free and ignore both national and international law in those places would stop.

Was the Isle of Man amongst those governments with enough self-respect to at least offer token resistance? I doubt that.

Around the famous three-legged symbol on our Tynwald emblem is a Latin motto which translates as something like “Whichever way you throw me, I stand”. For some years now local cynics have quipped that it would be better translated as “Whichever way you throw me, I grovel.” Continue reading

Brown Nose Day

I see from that Brown Nose Day has rolled round yet again.

Odd, isn’t it? Point out to those (in theory) running it that the health system is bust and you face both the sack and expulsion from the profession. But twat about at cocktail parties with other rich dimmos arranging to avoid tax by charitable donations and they give you a medal.

As for people who facilitate sports and plastic history events……. Well, there’s never a runaway bus when someone ought to be under it, is there?

And after the apparent failure of the last few attorney generals and Manx senior politicians to get a gong on retirement, I thought Madge’s staff had finally acknowledged that nobody – but nobody – gets elevated by their fellow crooks to those positions unless they’re so suspect that Brown Nose award publicity could cause a journalist somewhere to look closer. Which makes me wonder what Steve Rodan has done right.

Maybe it’s a late acknowledgement of his service as the last Manx Education Minister who could spell his own name. If not that then…. who knows?