Going for a song

This little item (see http://www.isleofman.com/News/details/82375/new-york-bound-choir-perfoming-this-weekend ) has been the source of some amusement to me and mine in recent weeks. If I was related to Martin Luther King Junior I might also be very embarrassed – even if the rumours that his family aggressively chase a financial percentage in any scheme involving his name did turn out to have substance.

For various reasons I knew of this sad enterprise (for it is little more than a financial enterprise) some time ago, and can safely say that media reports are a little light on the fuller facts. In brief, this isn’t so much an invitation to take part in a world premiere as a bizarre pyramid crowd-funding scheme, and both Jenkins and Manx socialites have form for this kind of thing.

It goes something like this…..

In the traditional arts model, a composer is commissioned to write a work, and in order to maximise impact obviously wants the best venue and performers for the premiere – which can require a lot of upfront funding if that work is ambitious, involves a lot of performers and only works well in a large venue. More recently, it would be quite normal for the composer or performers to get some sort of TV, DVD and CD deal to lay off those costs. But the management behind Jenkins – whose product sells well in the amateur and semi-pro choir world – found a way to take that even further.

Jenkins has built a reputation for producing safe, middle of the road, vaguely religious waffle to order for public authorities, the Beeb and Arts Council. It’s cheesy enough for any small town mayor to sit through – no controversial themes, no postmodern wierdness, just do-goody topics like World Peace with extensive plagiarisation of the words of religious “thinkers”. It has the added attraction that even a beginner can pick up the tunes in about 5 minutes, so the sheet music sales and performing royalties flowing back from small town choirs are humungous.

Then the Jenkins marketing machine had another wizard wheeze. What if, instead of paying professional singers for the world premiere, you “invite” amateur choirs to do it, then charge them an arm and a leg to perform? You can even take it further than that – having milked one lot for the world or national premieres, why not tender for places on the CD recording too?

So somebody at the IOMCS answered the web call for choirs, and oddly enough somebody in New York wrote back to say that a choir from a place known worldwide only for a tax-avoidance industry had made the shortlist.

Crikey, that must have been a surprise. Almost as surprising as the comparative absence of choristers from poorer countries with top quality amateur classical musical groups like, say, Bulgaria.

Having – of necessity – endured numerous performances by the IOMCS and other local choirs over the years, I would have to say bluntly that if the selection for the NY gig was purely on musical ability they would not have a prayer. Because Manx musical groups prefer to overcome technical shortcomings by sheer numbers and volume, rather than diligent practice.

Ten people singing slightly out of time and tune is obviously and painfully wrong. With 140 wrong, but in roughly identical ways at the same places, the audience will tend to think it’s right – especially if they are not too familiar with the music. On that basis Manx national ensembles are falsely judged “better” than smaller groups, and being both “national” and expensive to join attract socialites of minimal ability (who do nothing to drag standards up but do ensure sufficient funding).

What the local reports also neglect to mention is that (1) the real cost for each participant is around £1500, of which about a third is paid direct to the Carnegie organisers and (2) the performers are not allowed to view either rehearsals or performance of any other item on the concert programme.

But presumably the offer also pulls in more than the choirs, because relatives will pay to go and watch it too. Which is where the next sting comes in, because friends and relatives have to pay for their own concert tickets (prices start about $500) and if they want to come along to the post-gig reception with the singers (who have already paid for that as part of the package) that would be about another $500 – possibly far more depending on what Noo Yawk glitterati are prepared to pay to swan about with the likes of the Luther Kings.

So, to sum up, you go to New York at the height of winter, get herded into two long rehearsals, kicked out again and told not to come back before the night. If at any stage in this a connecting airport is closed, New York is snowed in for a week, etc., you are on your own. Nightmare if you actually have to work for a living and a family to worry about. Minor inconvenience in return for some swanky pics when you have money, time on your hands, and nothing better to do.

But something about it this also reminds me of a scam a senior Manx cleric used to run to pay for his (frequent) foreign holidays. In essence, he struck up a deal with a local travel agent to run tours to the Holy Land, or some traditional UK or European pilgrimage site. For every 10 places on the package holiday the cleric flogged, he got one free. So, 20 and he and the Mrs got a free holiday.

Being connected to charitable and government bodies, he soon branched out, to the extent he was taking maybe half a dozen free foreign holidays a year. Oddly enough, his church and various statutory bodies he chaired managed perfectly well without him, which says something else about the way such organisations work on the Isle of Man.

I hear that invitations to perform, at first restricted only to the richest members of IOMCS, are now being thrown about ever more desperately to a wider circle of less and less musically able (or even interested) punters. It is quite possible that the eventual Manx contingent will entirely consist of tone-deaf wealthy retirees.

It is even more amusing to speculate if (on the same basis as their own concerts) their duff notes will be drowned out by more able singers from elsewhere, or if this is a global phenomenon. In which case I hope at least the sound engineer at the Carnegie recording this for posterity will be a professional and get union rates for the job. If he’s as mercenary as the Jenkins machine he could even make a small fortune on the side flogging unedited versions of the master-tape.

Loki is risen, and Bugs Bunny died for you

Hmm, apparently it’s Easter Day. I know this because when the light of my life turned on the TV this morning to see if anyone got bombed overnight a bloke dressed up like a daffodil was spouting latin at a large crowd of ageing conservatives.

If all these Christian leaders are going to give the public a message, then maybe I should do the same. Oh look, just ….. try to be happy, make others happy if you get a chance and don’t cause more damage to the world or bring people down more than your employer absolutely insists you do…and that’s about it really.

The whole thing’s a bit silly, but best not to get pedantic. If I remember correctly, it goes something like this…..

Today we give each other chocolate eggs because Bugs Bunny got executed for crimes he didn’t commit as some sort of obscure, interplanetary political pay-off arranged by his all-powerful Dad, which means that we are all now innocent – again mostly of crimes that we didn’t commit anyway.

All this happened two thousand years ago last Friday, and ever since we eat fish and not red meat on Fridays. I never quite grasped the logic behind that either, but given the strong links between religion and masochism maybe it was because Mary Magdalene got slapped with a wet fish by a Roman centurion at the crucifixion…..something like that anyway.

Oh do grow up, that’s no wilder a theory than anything you’ll find in the New Testament accounts.

And if there was ever a reason why Brits eat lamb at Easter they definitely forgot to tell me that at school, even back in those distant days when (the Christian) God and the Empire were central to the curriculum.

If I am musing upon such oddities, that may be because almost the last discussion with some younger workmates before downing tools on Thursday afternoon was on the meaning of Easter, from why Good Friday is a public holiday to where bunnies and chocolate come into the whole equation.

Nobody understands the bunnies and chocolate, but many say they were baptised, christened and confirmed and, while not weekly churchgoers, would have to go to church today with their families. Despite this, their knowledge of the Christian basics was – frankly – not just negligible but generally non-existent. To a mild-mannered if mischievous atheist this is all highly amusing.

And moving swiftly from the religious to the national aspects of Easter……

As the tramline quite literally runs down my street, today has also been marked at half-hourly intervals by rumbling, rattling and tooting trains – presumably full of happy punters, though I really cannot be sure as I was still in bed most of the time. What I can be sure of is that having studied the extensive selection of Easter entertainments being offered by state Klingons (and subsidised by my taxes) I am giving all of them a miss. Put this down as you will to an intense dislike of plastic nationalism, or just a general dislike of over-priced, over-subsidised heritage kitsch. It is also because I simply have better things to do – or just a chance to do as little as possible.

So, finally, the meaning of Easter for me is that I am not at work and even freer than usual to enjoy myself, including poking fun at powerful purveyors of nonsense. If I was celebrating the rebirth of any deity today, it would have to be Loki or some other manifestation of the Trickster.

Texting, booked…and no case?

I am amused at a recent rash of adverts in the local press and online warning that those who use cell-phones while driving face prosecution and fines running into thousands of pounds. The press advert runs to half a page in local giveaway mags, and an online one has a strapline saying something like “Smartphone, Idiot Driver”.

‘Well, good’, you might think, ‘at last the police are taking the problem seriously’.

One little problem though. The courts are not prosecuting, even when there is abundant evidence.

There is a perfect example in this week’s local papers. A story about someone found guilty of motoring offences concludes by saying that a further charge of using a phone while driving was not heard, due to no evidence being presented.

This was odd, because I happen to know that the driver in question has been reported on at least three separate occasions by individuals who would happily witness in court if it kept death off the roads for a while – or preferably for ever.

On at least one occasion this airhead went through a red light while texting and on round a bend, almost ploughing into a group of school kids on a crossing close to a school. Things like this happen so frequently at that particular set of lights that, again to my certain knowledge, parents are warning children not to cross there.

So are the police not bothered? From what I hear, they are very bothered, and have referred this and other worrying cases up for prosecution.

The problem may be that the old police prosecution system (under which junior officers presented their findings to a senior officer and any prosecutions were brought by a prosecuting sergeant) is no longer in use. It seems local judges grumbled at the number of poorly presented cases and insisted that a crown prosecution service be introduced, with cases being argued by a local advocate who had first whittled out any likely losers.

In other words, the police do not decide who is potentially guilty and ought to be tried in court. Government-employed advocates do that, and then negotiate with the courthouse administration system for a court date.

Except that other sources tell me it then gets even worse. Because Manx courts are so busy that, in a vain attempt to clear the books, all likely court cases are seemingly subjected to some sort of points system based on a time and motion study. The end result is that the court administrators don’t think driving-while-on-the-phone cases are an economically viable use of court time.

But OK, the very technology which causes some drivers to be dangerously distracted is itself at the heart of the issue too.

Once, if accused of something, you had your day in court and there were strict rules to ensure you were tried only on the evidence heard in that court on that day. In lengthy cases, the press reported as the case proceeded, but could not assume innocence or guilt until the jury decided that.

If found guilty, effectively part of your punishment was that you were named and shamed in a press report based closely on the judge’s summing up, verdict and sentencing. Similarly, if found innocent the subsequent press reports enabled everyone to learn from any mistakes. This was a pretty fair system.

Now, we are reluctant to report crime, and even more reluctant to take time out of work and report what we saw in court. If mere spectators, we are equally reluctant to wait for the full facts to be heard and justice to be done in a fair way, after submission of all the available facts and arguments rather than what a neighbour is rumoured to have overheard from pub gossip.

How much easier to tweet a folk rumour based on kneejerk prejudice. Accuse, try and sentence someone electronically without the slightest piece of hard evidence.

No, the rule of law is protracted, exacting and hard work, but there is no civilised alternative. It is all that we have, so when threatened by either economic cutbacks or idle Facebook chatter we will need to defend it.

A welcome refugee

So, what did you do this morning?

Me? I’m just back from Douglas, where I was speaking to a Syrian refugee.

No, you did not misread that. I was in Douglas, though it isn’t a work day, and I was speaking to a Syrian refugee, even though our infinitely wise government has decided the Isle of Man cannot take Syrian refugees. Can I also add that the refugee did not seem to be having a problem adjusting to Manx culture (though to be fair he is being hosted and helped by some of our most cultured citizenry)?

He was Baraa Essay Kouja, the founder of the charity From Syria With Love (see http://fromsyriawithlove.com/ ), which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. The occasion was a private presentation by Baraa on the work of that charity, which is pretty inspirational – especially given that every official body you can imagine seems to want to hinder it.

Can you believe, for example, that FSWL had the greatest difficulty getting UK charitable status, and that every one of the UK high street banks has refused to give them a bank account, citing money-laundering risks as an excuse? Given the involvement of (oh, let’s take some random examples) HSBC, Barclays, Natwest and Lloyds in ensuring deals by the British arms industry are quietly routed through third countries before their deadly product reaches African and Middle Eastern dictator customers, (then to be used on unarmed civilians – in many cases in the same countries), or HSBC’s selfless work in propping up South American drug cartels then that is a bit of a bad joke.

Anyway, this morning was far more pleasant. Due to another appointment, I squeezed in at the back 10 minutes late and missed the introduction, but still caught most of Manx Gaelic choir Caarjyn Cooidjagh‘s performance (with the former – and last serious – Minister for Overseas Development singing inconspicuously in the back row). Baraa then made his presentation, with some video and photographic material, and we were then all free to look around the exhibition proper.

And that was also when I got a chance of a few words with Baraa. As a trained journalist and NUJ member in good faith, I know every malignant troll and throwback in the British Isles will write this off as “fake news” if I did not ask him, so, no, he is not receiving benefits, and, no, he didn’t actually plan to be in the UK or a refugee, and certainly doesn’t see it as a better, or more economically attractive, life. It’s just that as the Syrian government want to kill him for helping refugees in Lebanon it would be a little unwise for him to go home before the bombing stops, and Western governments have put some kind of muzzle on their psychopathic friend, the Syrian president.

Oh, and I still have my wallet too. All that is missing from it is the money used to buy several copies of a book with pictures by kids from four refugee camps. One copy is now in Ramsey Town Library (and the librarian was very pleased to get it), and a second copy will be in my daughter’s school library on Monday.

Speaking of my daughter – I am also the proud owner of a picture by a girl just one year younger than her, who lives in one of the camps and has ambitions to be a journalist (or at least I will be once the exhibition is over and the pictures taken down).

I cannot deny my daughter her dreams. How could I not help another girl with a dream, currently facing far more obstacles because her government would happily kill her (while ours is just too clueless or idle to ensure mine has adequate teachers, text books and other educational facilities)?

Red Nose? No thanks!

As the astute will have noticed, this is a work day, so if I am writing this I cannot be at work. There is a reason for this, and that reason is Red Nose Day.

It seems to be a law of the land that on Red Nose Day merchant bankers and other stains on humanity sit in baths full of baked beans (which they claim is hilarious) and female varieties of the species bake fairy cakes (which are inedible). It is not a law of the land that I have to watch, or sample the cakes, or throw money in a bucket to do either. Until it is, I simply take the day off and do something interesting instead.

But I am always prepared to negotiate with such buffoons. If, let’s say, they would act like at least halfway decent human beings on most of the other 364 days of the year (no, let’s be honest, humanity needs that to be all 365) I would stop wishing they could fall under a runaway bus on a steep hill. I still would not “donate” to their fake charities, because the poor have enough misery already without having TV celebrities inflicted on them.

Also, of course, when not at work I meet far fewer people of limited intelligence with a variety of speech defects indicating descent from car-thieves, Calvinist butt-heads or sheep molesters. Instead, I can (and did) spend the day reading a book written by someone whose humour is much blacker than my own, and whose tolerance for such freaks makes me look like a benign uncle on his second whiskey at Christmas.

Last night, by comparison, I was in far better company. To wit, joining the finest accordionist the island has ever known and his wife (i.e. my parents) at a once-in-a lifetime performance given in a small venue by the greatest Shetland fiddler and accordionist in world history. And they were all so witty, modest and friendly too.

It was …. how can I put it ….. like a winter night in a comfy old chair before a roaring peat fire in a cottage with solid walls and a sea view, sharing reminiscences and a bottle of single malt with old friends. Yes, that good.

Even coming home to watch a harrowing, very graphic TV documentary about Syrian prisoners – the day after yet another zealot carved up innocent bystanders to demonstrate his contempt for….well, who knows any more what excuse these nut-jobs plead – could not restore Business As Usual.

Not unwell but….

A couple of weeks back I was joking that the blog is getting more Bernardian by the day and that, in future, each time I go a week without posting I will put a small message up saying “Manx Gent is unwell”.

This week I came close. The Unpleasantness became more unpleasant, as these things do. All the business manuals on workplace stress say that the real test of your abilities is the way in which you turn around a flow of negative feedback by staying positive, pro-active… and a bunch of other numbskull buzz words. Somehow, I think management and their stooges missed that e-mail.

By coincidence, I had been reading Hannibal, the sequel to Silence of The Lambs, in which at one point Hannibal Lecter explains to somebody that, when feasible, he chose only to eat the rude. Such a shame there’s never a helpful cannibal around when those of us trying to maintain civilised values and human decency could benefit most.

In addition, having agreed to give a daily lift to a stranded colleague the workday also became longer. So, in the 20 or so minutes which used to be my readjustment zone between home and work each morning and evening I get treated to a litany of somebody else’s work problems. What kind of screwed up world is it where even my altruistic acts are being turned against me?

But at least the week ended well.

Firstly, on Friday my first day cover of a new P.J. O’Rourke book on the Trump election, How The Hell Did This Happen? , arrived. For those not in the know, O’Rourke’s work is neatly categorised by the title of his first book, Republican Party Reptile. I discovered him back in the mid 1980’s, when a review of that very book described it as just the thing to buy a bishop for Christmas if you wanted him to die of shock.

It was a pretty apt review. It is ironic that conservatives, while wrong about everything, at least manage to be wrong with cutting edge humour while liberals… Well, when you have no choice but to deal with life’s worst absurdities up close the last thing you need is a sermon in your spare time.

Every acid phrase by O’Rourke has you screaming “No, no, you can’t say that” while doubled up laughing. A lifelong Republican, he finally balked at the idea of Trump and, like his cohort Chris Buckley, advised conservatives that there was no other choice but to vote for The Great Satan (i.e. Hillary) as someone who, however clueless, at least knew where the White House was and understood what a US president was supposed to do.

The other good thing was the remarkable kindness of some public sector employees who contested a petty restriction for me. About a week ago, I asked if I could put up a poster for From Syria With Love in….let’s just say a public building where it might be seen by a lot of passing trade. I was politely informed that the noticeboard was for local events only ( visions of the Royston Vasey shop there for a moment), so went to look elsewhere instead.

A couple of days later I had a message from a manager, who’d been out when I asked, saying the matter had been brought to her attention, that no such policy existed and that I was welcome to bring the poster in. Later, on calling in on quite another matter, I was actually told to go home and fetch it. So I did, and it’s now up there alerting decent people to a worthwhile event and annoying xenophobes and petty bureaucrats.

In short, not thriving, but not unwell either. Just middling.

Never mind the government, here’s the refugee aid program

Those who know the “real” me are aware I supported a modest proposal to settle one Syrian refugee family a year to the Isle of Man over a period of five years. The proposal and figure was intended (using the same ratio of refugees to national population) to match David Cameron’s promise to rehouse some Syrian refugees around the UK. The families were to have come from a specific, well supervised and monitored, refugee camp, and would have been subject to exactly the same rigorous checks as those the UK government would take.

Well, the world knows what happened to the UK promise, and recently Manx people also discovered that our own government were even less interested – even though Manx civil society would have done all the work and government was simply asked not to get in the way. Because if you try to do anything to buck the trend for institutional xenophobia on the Isle of Man, you expect such knockbacks.

Oddly enough, our government either sees nothing wrong in (or turns a blind eye to) the way, say, the London property portfolios of Middle Eastern dictators are overseen on the Isle of Man. That, after all, is strictly business. Oh, and it also means, for instance, that Manx government ministers and their staff can travel (at public expense) to the Dubai offices of a frivolous Department for Economic Development PR scheme to attract Middle Eastern investments (without any awkward questions about human rights or industrial scale corruption).

So anyway, as you’d need a ouija board to start a conversation with most Manx politicians or civil servants (assuming they even have souls), those involved in the original proposal have moved on.

Now, there’s a great scheme called From Syria With Love (see http://fromsyriawithlove.com/ ), and one of their projects is http://fromsyriawithlove.com/from-syria-with-love-art-exhibition/ , a collection of paintings by Syrian children living in refugee camps in Lebanon. And it’s coming to the Isle of Man. You can see the whole thing in Noa Bakehouse, Douglas, where it will be for two weeks between 25th March and 8th April.

Baraa Essay Kouja, the founder of the charity , and himself a Syrian refugee, will also be here for four days. You can catch his public presentations on Saturday, 1st April at 2.30 PM and Sunday, 2nd April at 10.30 AM and 7.45 PM. Baraaa will also be visiting secondary schools on Monday 3rd and Tuesday 4th to give talks about the refugee camps, the Syrian crisis and the children behind the pictures.

Framed prints of exhibition pictures will be on sale for £15 and there is also the opportunity to order unframed prints for £10 which will be available to collect one week after the exhibition closes. 100% of the proceeds goes directly to small scale projects in the Lebanon camps and at displacement points on the Syrian border.

You know, it’s almost a shame we can’t get anybody that efficient, hard working or imaginative running Manx government enterprise schemes. Because by my back-of-the-envelope calculations that’s a success rate about 100% higher than the Dubai scheme, which has produced no genuine new Middle Eastern investment. Most of those shady deals have been quietly in place here for two decades or more already, which is why by now they’re so complex and opaque that they rarely show up on the radar.

Anyway, excuse my cynicism. All I really mean to say is, go, see the exhibition, engage with a few local people who actually want to be part of the human race for a change. Maybe you might even want to lend a hand to what they’re doing.