The summer of political vandalism

This country got smashed to bits this summer. A big decision had to be made, and the people made it. What is most shocking, dumbfounding and gobsmacking of all, is that not a single one of the people in the country’s pay knew what to do.

For 52% of those who voted to leave, may feel as though they ‘got their country back’. For others it feels like it’s somehow gone forever – and it’s not even about leaving the EU. It’s about what this country has become in the four months since the real campaigning got under way.

Enough has been said about the referendum, and whichever camp you voted for, the outcomes have been unedifying. Lies and walk-outs have been the only deeds done so far by the players in both Remain and Leave camps. A Conservative Party where the three main actors have walked away in Cameron, Johnson and Gove, and the fourth main player, Osborne, lying low – hoping it all blows over – in order to save his political skin.

With Andrea Leadsom having dropped out of the Conservative leadership race it might seem that body politic of the governing party has got its punch-drunk legs back. What was most telling in the few days that passed for ‘Leadsom-mania’ was that her CV was analysed for her financial competence rather than her political cache. For Theresa May, cleaning up the blood has not even started,  no matter how much of a united front they put on it.

A party that has been unconvincing for 6 years in both its long-term strategy and its demonstration of competency, has butchered public services and still not made any difference to the nation’s debt, had no contingency plan whatsoever – because the main players were playing for their careers and not the country’s benefit. Now that party has to initiate the process of withdrawal from Europe, under the terms that it, in the main, campaigned for.

A collective dereliction of duty of the highest order. But thankfully we have more than one political party to demonstrate leadership and cool heads in a time of crisis, right?

This past four weeks has been nothing short of a calamity for Labour. Jo Cox, a backbench MP was killed in the street, six days before the referendum, the must unjust and tragic of punishments for someone serving their community. Last week Tony Blair (and by association, his government) was found to have gone into conflict with Iraq, without credible justification. Since the referendum the party has imploded with divisions and attempts to oust Jeremy Corbyn. Almost the entire Parliamentary Party wants to get remove him from leadership and replacing him with….

And yet again, there is absolutely no credible plan.No clear logic by or strategy by those most hostile to his continued leadership.

The Labour Party are in tatters can now no longer be considered in any way credible opposition, no matter who leads them – such is the divide in its ranks. In the time of a national crisis, when the country needed one party to hold its nerve, it failed most spectacularly of all. Corbyn might have a groundswell of support from the Labour membership, but nowhere near enough to make a difference. The electorate no matter how skewed their logic might appear, vote for parties in general elections – and one man will never be a party.

Angela Eagle, or any other challenger that might come forward, lack political will and charisma. Corbyn, has bucketloads of the former but sadly none of the latter. There is not one senior member of the Labour Party who seems to have demonstrated either personality or strategy for the way forward.  At a time when their enemy is weakest, the opposition has fatally wounded itself.

Labours ideals and values, although needed more than ever in the increasingly fraught and complex society of the 21st century, are out of synch with modern society. It is a party based on unionisation and the labour movement, in an age when the labour movement is either not permitted or not applicable.  Mass industrialisation is dead in the UK. Having squandered the opportunity to provide jobs and long-term futures last time round, they’ve lost the trust of the people who were their base.

Labour had its last chance to revolutionise its funding sources, its priority and its ideology after losing the 2010 election. It had a chance to reassess its values and identify the communities it would lose – to a more sinister politics – if it didn’t campaign for the values and issues they care about; whatever it did, it didn’t do it well.

The referendum more than anything else, told Labour, and those left-of-centre voters, that the rest of the country no longer feels the same way; that lies can be told about the funding of social institutions as vital as the NHS can tolerated, but the threat to one’s freedoms or personal income by the threat of overseas agencies cannot.

Perhaps we no longer live in a society where the dominant idea is that we try to look after each other and rub along to the best of our abilities despite it all; the paradigm has shifted and our individual needs are more pressing than those with whom we share a road, a neighbourhood, a city and a state.

A society where bankers, CEOs and politicians can fail and mislead the public while collecting handsome financial rewards is now just an accepted fact.  It is not even a surprise.

Society needs people like Jeremy Corbyn; unfortunately, much of it doesn’t want him, and those who shape the world, definitely don’t want him. He remains the only Labour candidate to have any kind of political framework, and without that framework the party (has) become(s) a corporate political vehicle, a watered down version of the party it claims to keep in check.

Just as the party nerve went, so will the voters – no matter how they re-brand their flag, and with whoever as leader.  This will create a vacuum for right-wing parties, such as UKIP to further gain further ground and further credence.

Nigel Farage, remains perhaps the embodiment of the political will over society. A man not even an elected member of parliament, that was allowed so much media attention that he ultimately had more say over the nation’s future, than any of those who had been given a mandate.

On the morning of the 24th June, half the country were overjoyed that they’d taken their country back. Democracy was reinstated. Yet it has never seemed so far from the public’s grasp.

Jack the Clipper barbershop – review

I’ve been looking for a regular hairdresser now for quite a while. My regular hairdresser used to be Ego Hair in Soho – but the quality, increase in price and distance from home mean that I no longer go there.

Ego used to be run by an Aussie girl named Natasha, who was the ‘hair’ love of my life. My hair loved her, and she loved my hair. She cut my hair like no other – she was cool – loved punk rock and rockabilly had an easy way with conversation and gave me the best haircuts I’ve ever had. The best quiffs I ever sported were entirely down to her expertise.

When she returned to Australia to live when her grandmother fell ill, there was a large coiffeuse-shaped void. I had a brief dalliance with It’s Something Hells, the rockabilly hairdresser near Carnaby Street, but I returned to Ego, my cuckolded hairdresser.

Briefly, a Portuguese woman called Raquel worked there and she too was a fantastic hairdresser – not quite in the same league as Tash, but pretty bloody close. Sadly Raquel quit her job last year while I was working abroad, and I never got a contact number for her. When I returned to Ego last summer I didn’t feel like I’d got value for money.

Having had a few cheap and cheerful haircuts at my local barbershop, I wanted to enter 2016 looking sharp.

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Having priced up some of the hairdressers in Brick Lane – which is a short bus journey from where I live – I chose Jack the Clipper despite the slightly cringeworthy name, it was one of the only places that did men’s haircuts for under 30 quid. Not much under, mind: £26 – which is the most I’ve ever paid for a haircut despite having some cracking chops – the fabulous Tash used to charge £21.

So, with that price in mind I was expecting a very nice haircut indeed.

I was seen as soon as I walked through the door, which is always a good thing. My hairdresser was a nice enough bloke. He was Turkish – as are all of the hairdressers who work at Jack the Clipper. After washing my hair he set about trimming the top of my head at lightning speed – taking what looked half a millimetre of hair off every strand of hair.

I asked him about Turkey – I told him I had visited the country twice and asked where he was from, I then asked him what his views were on the controversial Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Not being Turkish, or a Turkish speaker I don’t feel I have too much of an informed opinion, although much of the Western press doesn’t appear too keen on the cut of his jib.

My hairdresser loved him. It was almost like talking to Erdogan’s press officer. He went into great detail about how the hospitals, the roads and the schools had all improved during Erdogan’s administration – and how he had paid off a monumental debt to the IMF. Big claims, but if true undoubtedly impressive. He told me that Erdogan’s presidency hadn’t been perfect but his critics had blown out of proportion the mistakes that he has made.

While declaring his love for the Turkish president, he spent what felt like an eternity shaving the back and sides of my head. I thought I was going to spend the rest of my days on this planet sat in a barber’s chair having the base of my head buzzed with a grade 1 while slowly starving to death, soundtracked by the positive spin of an AK Party supporter.

What made me anxious and doubtful, was that my barber for the day was wearing a hat. Now, some of the most mediocre haircuts I’ve ever received have been from people who themselves had bad hair or who hide their hair. I want my hair cut by someone with stylish follicles goddamnit.

What I was looking forward to most of all though, was the hairdresser chopping off and styling the top. That’s the most enjoyable part of getting a hair cut – seeing how it is cut and sculpted into the style I requested. As much as I love the feeling of freshly shaved sides and back, it’s on top of the head where the real artistry lies.

Having wondered if I’d ever be released from my clipper clinch, and mentally making a brief final will and testament in my head, he began to brush me down – and took off the hairdresser’s gown. He reached for the the wax and began applying it liberally to my barnet.

“What about the top? Are you not going to thin it out and style it?” I asked.

He muttered something about it needing to grow. Being deferentially English, I politely nodded, but felt like I hadn’t got the haircut I’d asked for. I paid him and smiled then walked out of the place muttering and cursing.

Given that there are a whole bunch of barber shops on Bethnal Green Road, just minutes from Brick Lane, all charging in the region of £10 – I felt like I’d not got great value for money. My haircut was okay – but was it really 2.5 times better than the hair cuts I’d received from the cheap and cheerful barbers closer to home?

There are too many men’s hairdressers who offer limited hairdressing skills yet charge premium prices. If you’re going to charge north of a twenty, then you’d better have some skills.

As men tend to have shorter hair than women, it’s understandable that hair cuts for blokes are traditionally far cheaper – there is less hair to style, and men’s styles tend to be simpler.

Jack The Clipper have a nice looking salon and offer a speedy service. Sadly the end product does not, in my view, merit the price.

5/10

Jack The Ripper Barbershop, 178b Brick Lane, London E1 6SA

 

Living and working in Saudi Arabia part 2

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In my previous post, I briefly wrote about some of the things that stood out for me during my time in Saudi. In this blog post I’d like to share with you my impressions of the people I met while I was there.

Upon arriving in Saudi at Dammam airport around 11pm, I was confronted with a three hour wait at customs for no real reason. The customs clerks sat with their mobile phones in their hand, texting friends and sharing jokes amongst themselves. Feeling like I was enrolling myself into some kind of penal colony for the foreseeable future, I was in no real hurry to enter the country, despite the wait being tedious. After about 2 hours stood with the queue not having moved an inch, an middle-aged English bloke pipes up:

“Fucking Saudis. They’re all lazy bastards.”

‘Charming.’ I thought to myself. Despite the lack of urgency I thought it was a pretty harsh indictment on a nation’s people, but I was prepared to meet a lot of those kind of people – or should I say those kind of expats. I didn’t think about it again until weeks later.

Almost all of the westerners who worked in the small oil town I based in lived on a compound. There were two compounds – one was for men only, the other was for men who had brought their families with them. Neither compound was particularly nice to look at or live in. Both compounds were remnants of the first Gulf war when Iraq invaded Kuwait – with the ‘rooms’ being trailers that were left by ground forces. These trailers had been compartmentalised, and were let by the day, week or month.

The compounds still had that military feel about them; surrounded by huge walls with barbed wire and guarded by a listless Saudi with a machine gun. They were home to newcomers and expat veterans. Some of the old boys who lived there had developed a siege mentality, and clearly didn’t think much of the locals – I often wondered why they’d stuck it out for so long.

I didn’t want to live on a compound. The idea of being sectioned off from the society I had come to work in seemed a bit weird. There was plenty of Saudi society that wasn’t open to me due to being a westerner – I wanted to make the most of what I did have access to.

So I moved into an apartment block in the old town. The apartment block had a couple of other westerners but mainly Saudis lived there, the old town, was mainly inhabited by Indians from Kerala and poorer Saudi families.

Despite many of my colleagues being western, the boys who I taught and spent most of my working days with were Saudis.

I met only Saudi men, aged between 18-22, of course, but what struck me was, they were just like anyone their age and fascinated by the same things. I had one corner of the room whispering questions to me ‘what are English girls like?’to others wanting to debate the merits of Real Madrid over Barcelona in the Spanish La Liga – telling me their favourite English team. Had I not known anything about football I would’ve been screwed, luckily however I am as football mad as the kids were. With the absence of pretty much anything to do, socialising is about watching football or ‘drifting’, which is what people do in the absence of alcohol, or in the west due to the abundance of it:

Football was a great way ‘in’ for me with the boys. It allowed me to build rapport with them and to find common ground.  Many of the boys had come from places all over Saudi Arabia and it was not only there first time away from home, but also their first opportunity to meet a westerner. So it was as fascinating for them as it was for me.

They were fascinated by London and what life was like there. One guy in the class had been there as a kid for a few days, most had never been out of the country – or only to Bahrain.

Getting them to do any kind of work was a monumental task in itself. I thought back to what the English guy had shouted at the airport upon arriving – and it struck me that ‘the cultural norm’ cannot not be applied from one society that has developed over millenia, to one that is less than a century old – and founded on oil.  Everything is so heavily subsidized in Saudi that not much money is required to get by. Added to that, outside big cities, people live very simple existences. Nevertheless, the idea that Saudis all walk around with Platinum credit cards and high-end sports cars is a western myth: poverty is very much present, albeit well hidden.

For decades Saudi has relied on foreign labour both skilled and unskilled in order to create, maintain and expand its infrastructure. In recent years, the Saudi government has embarked on a ‘Saudization’ programme in order to give its own people training and skills – and to ween itself off from the over-reliance on expat expertise.

When you’ve been in Saudi long enough, you begin to hear an array of stories where a company has hired a Saudi to fill its quota of nationals, only to find that the Saudi in question has no aptitude or enthusiasm for the job – so they are sent home and told to stay there, while remaining on the payroll.

Are Saudis lazy? Well, they’re not known for their work ethics per se, most westerners working in Saudi would probably say ‘yes’ to this question – I found that most of my students did little or no work in mine or anyone else classes. It was an accepted fact. That said, I had a couple of kids who were exceptionally bright and hardworking. I’ve also met other Saudis (outside of Saudi) who have been smart and driven.

It would be unfair to make such a generalisation about a nation’s work ethic when, from my own experience, my only meaningful contact was with kids who had been given a job for life with one of the world’s wealthiest companies.

As many of my students had come from small towns and rural areas, the idea of working for a huge company with a western organisational structure, albeit owned by the Saudi government, was perhaps overwhelming. The word that was repeated endlessly by the western middle managers was ‘acculturation’ and how they had to be ‘acculturated’ to the company culture and western work ethic.

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What was fascinating for me most of all was the culture clash that these kids faced every day: apart from getting used to conforming to a company ethic that was imported by Americans on the discovery of oil in the country in the 1930s, they were grappling with the weight of modernity and digital technology encroaching on their traditional ways.

Living in a society where ultra conservative Wahhabi islam rules, they also somehow had to retain in their mind the doublethink of western liberalism that was on offer to them through their tablets, smartphones and laptops: another world of hip-hop, Hollywood and beautiful women with uncovered faces and revealing clothes.

As you’d imagine, they were fascinated by women. If it was possible for an 19 or 20 year old bloke to know any less about women than I did at that age, then these were good examples.

Although any website that has the slightest suggestion of titilation is blocked by the Saudi authorities, teenagers will always find ways around the rules. VPNs are used by practically everyone in Saudi in order to download films or check sites that might have fallen foul of the censor. They illegally downloaded hollywood blockbusters and porn and freely admitted it.

As far as meeting women was concerned, that would technically be out of the question until a bride was chosen for them. However, being a two-hour drive to Bahrain, many of them would drive down to Manama, the capital, (as many Saudis do every Thursday evening) to revel in a slightly more liberal society – where alcohol and prostitutes are readily available.

Without ever eliciting this information the students freely gave it to me, including the prices they paid for their brief education in female flesh.

One day, while doing a listening exercise with the boys in class, something  happened that stuck with me. They were all using textbooks that had been vetted by the Saudi Ministry of Interior to make sure they were culturally appropriate in their material – there were pictures of women all of whom had their faces uncovered, but usually wearing a head scarf.

One of the boys while listening to the exercise, in an absent-minded reverie (he had tuned out of the exercise too) began sketching, with a pencil, the outline of a full face veil (niqab) onto the photo of a woman in the textbook. I quietly asked him why he had done it: ‘I don’t know’ he shrugged, and continued to fill in the outline with more shading.

One of the few locals from the area was my student and neighbour Sulaiman. He was about 20 years old, always had a smile on his face and was cheeky chappy in class. Despite doing very little work, he was very likeable. He epitomised Saudis for me. He loved talking and laughing – usually while smoking – and he was always friendly and very generous. Like most of the boys I taught, he was a good kid.

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Sulaiman would always come over to me and say hello in the training complex where I worked, and if he ever saw me while I walked around town doing shopping, he would usually stop and offer to give me a lift somewhere.

He drove what Americans call a ‘land barge’ – huge American car from the early 1980s with a dark brown leather interior and that handled like a tank – they’re very common in Saudi. One weekend I decided to go to Riyadh on the train. He offered to drive me to Dammam train station, which was about 50 miles away, despite it being a Friday, the holiest day  of the week. I learnt a lot about the people and the country

 

I’ll talk more about that car journey in the the third and final part of my  notes on Saudi, where I’ll focus on some aspects of culture.

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Working and living in Saudi Arabia Part 1

Two years ago I went to work in Saudi Arabia. While plenty of people – particularly those from the States, UK, Australia and South Africa go there to work, it remains a country that is still a mystery to many. It’s taken me a while to process my experiences there, but it seems more relevant than ever to write about the country that is increasingly in the news.

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Ras Tanura – where I lived and worked

Saudi was definitely not on my ‘to-do’ list as a traveller,  but I was headhunted for a job there. In hindsight I’m really glad I did it, and  I’d done a lot of research about the country, its people and most importantly, its laws. This is no country to get caught out unawares or to be ignorant of customs and laws. Yet, you’d be surprised by how many westerners do.

I was there to teach English to Saudi apprentices in the oil industry. The Saudi government had a huge intake for its nationalised oil industry, as part of the Saudization programme to make the workforce less reliant on foreign workers, and to give locals jobs. The general feeling was that this was more about Saudi’s ruling family and their concerns that the Arab Spring uprisings would spread to their backyard, and so a mass-employment programme would occupy minds susceptible to radicalisation.

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Lots of foreign workers arrive in the country on the The kafala visa system, giving employers a great deal of power of their expatriate employees, and is open to abuse – and such abuses are widespread. When I arrived I had my passport confiscated, and told I could have it back in three months. I was very apprehensive about just giving my passport over, but once you’re in the country there isn’t much you can do. Even with a passport you still need your employers permission to leave.  If you’re white and western it’s not as common. If you’re Indian or Pakistani you’re not likely to get your passport back until you somehow find a way to leave, and as salaries are higher in the Gulf than the pittance they make back home – they usually end up staying years.

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Unlike the majority of Pakistani, Indian (and Filipino) workers, my salary was quite handsome, rewarded by the lottery of birth and the fortuitous nature of being a UK passport holder. I never felt comfortable knowing that I was making far more than other people just by merit of my birth, but I always tried to be nice and tried to interact with the cab drivers and shopkeepers – almost all of whom are from the Indian sub-continent.

If you don’t have a job offer and you’re not a muslim attending the Hajj pilgrimage, entering Saudi Arabia is near impossible. It remains a closed shop for a great number of people, and as such, people’s perceptions of it are often incorrect or misguided. There’s not a great deal to do or see even if its borders were open – there are no cinemas, bars, clubs or theatres.

If you’re in Saudi, you’re not there for the culture or the nightlife, put it that way. And outside of working hours, you need to know how to entertain yourself. I saw a couple of people ‘lose the plot’ while I was there – one of my colleagues was so bored to tears, he furtively left on plane at the midnight hour before the employer could catch him,  another had a breakdown event in the staffroom, was hospitalised, and deported shortly afterwards.

If you’re planning to write a novel, or read the complete works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Dickens then it’s probably the perfect place. Paradise on earth. The same applies if you’ve got 3 years of HBO dramas to catch up on, or its your life’s dream to complete every computer game known to humankind. I worked with a guy who played Football Manager religiously, even in the gaps between classes he was teaching. Find something and marry it.

Thursday night consisted of finishing work at 11pm – the end of the islamic week of course, and while we all dreamed of ice cold beers in a bar filled with excitement, the reality was hitting a juice bar, or the  coffee shop to have tea (or coffee) and confectionary. Probably the most surreal thing I’ve done for kicks at midnight (and I’ve done my fair share), was getting excited for a cup of tea at the advent of the weekend in a small town in Saudi.

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While this might be enough to make many dribble at the mouth and start beating their head against a wall, the boredom is in some ways the beauty of the place. Look inward, stretch and investigate who you are. I read more novels than I have done since finishing a Literature degree; I also started writing a novel and by doing so, created a reality that wasn’t around me. For some reason, Saturdays were boring as sin – and I always felt restless and homesick on a Saturday. Friday – the first day of the islamic weekend  – was always easier: being the holy day it was ok to sleep until late, laze around with food and coffee at home and wait for the shops to open at 4pm. Apart from food, there was nothing much worth buying unless you like buying shit for the sake of it.

I had an American neighbour who, as nice as he was, was also into World of Warcraft and tons of other fantasy simulations. He would corner me for hours in his living room and explain them in painfully minute detail –  I’m all for escapism – I get it,  I get the fascination for weird monsters and Middle Earth dreamscapes, and I say go for it, but I can’t really roll with being a fantasy forest dwelling beastie with some superpower hangup, playing a game that takes 3 months just to ascertain who got to roll the first dice. That was his way of dealing with the boredom – everybody has their own methods of distraction.

So, I’d sit in my room on my own and smoke a million cigarettes and have a dozen cups of tea and write and write and write. I set up a writer’s club too – we would meet at weekends to read and discuss each other’s work.   Having so much down time, I read a whole lot of books too. It was the closest thing, in some ways, I’ve had to paradise, minus booze and contact with the opposite sex, whom I didn’t have contact with for several months – and that was possibly the hardest part of the whole experience.

When I say this, I don’t mean from a sexual or romantic perspective either. I’m talking about socialising or working with the opposite sex – something we take for granted in the west.

I found the gender exclusive societies very strange, and completely unnatural. Many of the quirks and unorthodoxies of Saudi(s) [men] stem from not having public interaction with women. While I suspect that women grow up less damaged than men, despite the segregation, it is clearly women who lose out once they reach sexual maturity. Loss of freedom, loss of autonomy and ultimately, loss of visibility. While it is very rare to see people walking about in Saudi publicly – due to the heat – you’re far more likely to see a man than a woman.

One evening at dusk, just after prayer time, I met a local woman on the street while walking home from playing football – as I did most Saturday evenings. Now I don’t for one minute presume she fell so madly in love/lust with me that it was worth her risking her freedom – or most probably life – for me so I figured she needed something.

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She approached me, and stood maybe five foot from me – I heard: “excuse me..,” So I stopped, as I’m a am pre-programmed to do in a thoughtless  western way when somebody calls my attention.

She said something else, but I couldn’t hear through her niqab it could’ve been Arabic or English, but I suspect it was English. She repeated herself and I again, I couldn’t understand her. This went on almost comically for about 5 or 6 more times before I froze and thought ‘what am I doing?’ and politely declined her further contact.

My first thought was that she might be in some of distress, although one of my colleagues suggested she might have been selling her wares, which doesn’t make any sense. If she had been in some kind of distress I realised there was little I could do, but it was more dangerous for her to be seen talking to me than it was for anything I could do to help her. And ultimately, as a westerner you are blocked off from this side of Saudi society.

The segregation of men and women was the hardest thing for me to understand. Saudis know that westerners find it tough to understand: when I accidentally walked into the women and families only area of a restaurant in my first few days, a Saudi man smiled at me and said ‘it’s ok!’very cheerfully.

Making a social faux pas can carry serious consequences in Saudi, depending on who sees it and how they interpret it. One colleague went out in shorts during ramadan and received a slap on the face by a member of the religious police (mutawa) for wearing inappropriate clothing. That said, most people are understanding and helpful.

In Part 2 I talk about the people I met and the impression they made on me.

Disappears perform Bowie’s ‘Low’ @ 100 Club 23/11/15

This was an event put on at London’s legendary 100 Club by the Sonic Cathedral record label.


It’s a brave move by anyone to cover a David Bowie song, given the respect and adoration that he commands – it’s an even braver move to cover a whole album as a live set, especially from a three-piece – given the depth of the album in question.

But that’s what Chicago trio Disappears did – covering Bowie’s 11th studio album, and the first of the so-called ‘Berlin trilogy’ albums, which were recorded/mixed in Berlin and collaborated with Brian Eno.

It’s certainly not one of Bowie’s more commercial albums but yet it leads itself well to a live performance, and those in attendance were almost certainly there for their love of Bowie, with no disrespect to Disappears – and the fact that they (or anyone else) is unlikely to see Bowie perform it. Disappears did an immense job and did the album justice in at an intimate venue.


The first side of the album has a poppier element to it than the the more experimental later songs and that gave the crowd enough to go on to evaluate Disappears interpretation of the material – songs such as Breaking Glass, What in the World, Sound and Vision are the very epitome of Bowie’s melding of art and pop sensibilities.

Bassist Damon Carruesco did an admirable job of Bowie-esque vocals when called upon, but the star performer was the drummer Noah Leger -his relentless pounding adding to the soundscapes of the guitar and bass effects, and when he came off the stage at the end of the set drenched in sweat it was clear that he’d earned his crust for the evening.

Overall, this was a solid performance from Disappears, covering material that requires bravery, spirit and some ingenuity – bravo, gents, bravo.

Fighting that 2nd draft

I’m working on the second draft of my novel and after 3 months, I’m starting to enjoy it. I finished the first draft in July, after spending about 18 months on the first draft, most of which was written frantically last summer.

I gave myself some time away from it before starting the next draft so that I’d come to it with fresh perspective, but after reading over the early chapters it felt like I was looking at a stretch in a Siberian salt mine.

What I was reading in the early chapters of the first draft was making me wince, and I’d reached a point where I knew my sub-plot wasn’t going the way I wanted to – I’d need to start taking a knife to some of that work. Butchering hours of your own hard labour, snatching away all the hard fought words. You do the crime, you do the time.

It wasn’t wasted time though, I like to think of that non-writing time as time letting the story ruminate.Some days I was totally baffled by the way I’d written the story. Eventually, I sat down and realised I’m stuck with this story whether I like it or not, so it might as well have a more eloquent and concise existence.

I wanted to do a bit of research though, before starting.

On the internet you can find countless blogs and help for general writing tips, or about character development, ‘writing your world’  and how to build your story – especially at the moment with NaNoWriMo on second drafts, when it’s done but not finished.

I mean, you’ve brain dumped 80,000 words on to a bunch of Word documents, and now you’ve got to go through and make sure your story is tight as a gnat’s sphincter. Cut the chat.

Two that I found really useful as a general and more specific guide to writing can be found here and here.

The first one is about editing generally, the latter is all about that first re-write. If you’re rewriting in any way, I’d really recommend reading them – they’re well-written, enlightening and funny.

What’d forgotten to do in the meantime, while I was doing all this mulling over, was to read a book. My fiction reading time has been eaten into by the avalanche of material presented by social media and that life/existence thing – I’d forgotten to fall in love with a piece of writing. To read something great – or even something awful, to recognise the inimitable limits or ambitions of the written word.

So, I thought I’d read a great story while reading about writing. A book that I’ve been meaning to read for ages and which, coincidentally, I’ve seen mentioned a lot recently is Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ – I book I’d been meaning to read for many a moon too, and it goes without saying (and I’m saying it) it’s brilliant. Part-memoir, part-writing boot camp it is unputdownable and as insightful as you’d expect from someone who has sold a gazillion books and knows a trick or two about story-telling.

Being one of those wanky Literature graduates, I don’t really think of King as being an influence as a writer but when I think back, sure enough, I read a lot of his short stories as a 13-year old kid. My trips to the library on Thursday after school to get a fresh batch of reading material would be exciting, blissful. Skeleton Crew by King is one of the best collections of short stories I’ve read. Looking back I think that I got the same pleasure from the library as most other kids did from visiting the video shop.

Stephen King invited me to worlds that I’d never dreamed of at an age when my imagination needed to stretch and feed, and so who better to guide me further along my chosen path?

Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing – of being flattened, in fact -is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you. – Stephen King

I should have written down some of King’s more sage advice while reading, but one thing that sticks out and has stuck out while writing is King’s insistence to cut anything that doesn’t add anything to your story. Here is but one nugget of the goldmine that King offers in On Writing:

After reading that, I feel like I’m reading the novel from a new perspective. I’ve cut out nearly 5,000 words in a matter of a few chapters – and you know what?  The story is still there and now the writing is much tighter.

You only realise how much shit you’ve written when you have to analyse your first draft. Be brave! Cut, cut, and cut some more!

 

 

 

Paris attacks: the buck stops with Arab leaders but West complicit

The atrocities committed in Paris on Friday evening was a reminder to Europe that the conflicts in the Middle East are spilling out of the Syrian and Iraqi borders and threatening to become a global issue, without end. The old borders created by the Sykes-Picot agreement have turned to dust in a post-Saddam Iraq, and Bashar Al-Assad’s government being propped up by Russian military support.The power vacuum created by western intervention and removal, or undermining, in the case of Al-Assad’s case, have allowed a battleground to flourish – supported by funding and agitation of the region’s more affluent and stable players: Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

ISIL, or Daesh as it’s known in Arabic, are handily placed for the key players of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), all of whom are majority Sunni states, with the exception Bahrain. Having ISIL controlling swathes of Syria and Iraq keeps the Shi’ite Iran in its place. It also allows their brand of Islam to flourish elsewhere. There is some evidence to suggest that these two countries have supported Islamic State  – but is this really a proxy war being played out in a Sunni-Shia conflict? The attacks that have played out globally are more than a mere positing of Hezbollah-Shi’a/Al-Qaeda/Sunni posturing that we are supposed to believe in the battlegrounds of Iraq, Syria and, once again, Lebanon. ISIL have stepped in have taken over the running of a region that the US, the UK and other Western countries didn’t have the long-term strategy or guts to see through.

Islamic State’s influence has grown beyond Syria and Iraq and has now stretched into north Africa; with evidence of activity in Egypt’s Sinai penninsula, as well as control of control of Tripoli and the western part of Libya; the problem has spread to Europe’s doorstep, as was emphasised by the massacre in Tunisia in June. Further less-newsworthy armies, such as Boko Harem in Nigeria and Al-Sheebab in Eastern Africa, seem like isolated cases, and hang in a suspended reality that doesn’t fit with the building-block lego politics of Western and Arab relations and the investment deals that underpin them.

The oil and weapons industries go hand-in-hand, with the West very much an active agent in filling the Gulf States’ coffers with oil money, while selling back to them arms technologies. Saudi, Iran, Qatar and then UAE have all hugely increased expenditure on defence in recent years, and at some point there should be growing concern regarding their stockpiling. The UK makes large sums of money trading in arms to Saudi and agreed a contract to sell 100 fighter jets to the UAE for £6bn in 2012, endorsed by David Cameron. Saudi is currently putting to use this technology in its bombing of Houthi (Shi’a) rebels in Yemen. It wouldn’t be unthinkable to suggest that some of the huge cache of weaponry it has collected, might find its way to a growing army to the north of Saudi borders and beyond.

France and Russia’s involvement in Syria’s civil war has seen hundreds of their nationals die in terrorist atrocities in the space, bookending 14 bloody days. The message is clear from ISIS: get involved in Syria and you will be a terrorist target.

The question that needs to be asked has become ever-more pressing: is ISIL a rogue band of Islamic fundamentalists or is this a subsidiary army of the region’s powerful flexing their muscles, reminding western military and western intelligence that they are now competitors in the global power grab? As ISIL has gained a foothold in the more unstable states of the Islamic world, this is a creeping kind of theocratic imperialism where the radicalised become pioneers of old frontiers.

The flow of refugees from Syria and beyond that have overwhelmed European borders are escaping from a tyranny that threatens to go on tour for the foreseeable future. EU nations must weed out the radicalised while showing compassion for those who seek a better future. This is now a major challenge to Europe’s richest states.

Problems in Syria and Iraq will not go away through western intervention, as recent history has shown. The Middle East’s conflicts can only be resolved through local solutions and the will of the Arab world. The West must use political and financial pressures upon the sources of ISIl’s funding to bring about change; The Arab Spring’s failure to to bring stability and western-style democracy to the most oppressed sectors of the region, and the longer historical view – in terms of the tribal and religious schisms, as well as the hierarchical nature of Arab societies – demonstrates that regional conflict means business as usual.