Life is good with a colleague who extends an invite to gig featuring a band you’ve never heard of. On 3 March the Handsome Family (left) straddled the stage at Concorde 2 in Brighton to present their brand of – what I am reliably informed is called – goth country. That does not mean to say that they turned up dressed in black with white faces.
The Handsome Family are essentially a husband and wife team, Brett and Rennie Sparks who sing songs about things like frogs, holes in the ground and murder. Brett Sparks’ deep voice bosses the songs with Rennie Sparks offering harmony. The show is punctuated by choreographed bickering between the two, for example, whether today’s sandwich had the right filling.
Rennie Sparks provides the lyrics, bass and autoharp (banjo is also in her armoury, but was absent from this performance); husband Brett does the music, guitar and keyboards. Touring as a four piece, the drummer did sterling work; the fourth member was a multi-instrumentalist. Largely playing guitar, but this being country he flirted around with a steel guitar and bizarrely a keyboard instrument that seemed no bigger than a 1970s stylophone! The climax was an extraordinary duel between the two guitars, culminating in Brett Sparks requiring a major re-tune of his guitar before he could give an encore. Rennie Sparks narrated this activity expressing her own bemusement of her husband’s guitar abuse. Presumably it happens every night.
Austra is the music vehicle for Toronto’s Katie Stelmanis. I became aware of Austra in the days when the Guardian newspaper had live sessions. Me and my beloved caught up with the band in its extended form in Munich in 2011; they did a short BBC Music stage performance at Latitude in 2013, we saw that. I got a sneak preview of the new album, Future Politics, when in November 2016 Stelmanis did a free gig/Q&A at Kamio in London. And then on 9 March Austra appeared as a foursome at Ampere in Munich. Stelmanis, I understand, had opera training for her voice. It is extraordinary – it hurts just thinking about how she uses it. But she is also politically engaged. It is like that she could sing fascists into submission, much like Slim Whitman saw off the Aliens in Mars Attacks!
This tour is about the third album, Future Politics (left). I still have not fully digested it lyrically, but Stelmanis is open about its allusions to humanity’s failure to place itself as a carbon life form on a finite planet (Gaia). This leads away from Utopia – her call to a plausible brighter future. Stelmanis is also hugely melancholic about relationships. Her second album, Olympia, was over-burdened with this melancholia; for example, an unfaithful partner on Forgive Me. Future Politics’ relationship dystopia comes out in I love you more than you love yourself. “There is nothing in your soul tonight, I only see darkness” sings Stelmanis. However, in contrast to the Olympia album, Stelmanis manages throughout this album, irrespective of the lyrics, to evoke the positive, even to the ability to dance to the song. And what is more it sounded so much better live. That is why I would recommend seeing Austra live and not rely on the recordings.
As a foursome, they create a lot of sound. In Munich, Stelmanis’ voice did not have enough amplification, but Maya Postepski’s percussion was awesome (right), and the two male supports (Dorian Wolf on bass and moog, and Ryan Wonsiak), chalk and cheese as they were, ensured no one left melody-less.
This was as good a gig as I have been to. The tour continues:
Back in Munich, I find cigarette advertising in rude health. JSP is back, relinquishing beautiful people and men with spanners, in favour of going for a brash 40 per packet, just to help the chronic disease on a little bit. “Outside large, inside awesome” goes the modest strapline. I think it is time for a return to cigarette cases – decanting a few from the packet to avoid looking like a desperate smoker.
L&M is back on the streets with a new campaign and image. There are two posters at the moment, one red (left) and one blue (which I do not have the image for – I’m trying). I suppose it is just a play on words – the packet has more in it? The sharing options are more with L&M? And, naturally, open for more ways to die. Badly.
There has been a recent addition to the Pall Mall Enjoy the Moment campaign. Here we find two women, one with a cigarette, and a man giving the smoking woman a piggyback ride. The strapline “schon nach Hause” translates literally as “already at home”; naturally we enjoy the moment.
By goodness, the cigarette manufacturers do seem to like Hamburg as a city to market their lethal products. JSP (left), for example, occupies many of those smaller lit poster sites (bus shelters, etc.). What do we have here? Huge Plans. Enjoyable details. Presumably, let’s get that bolt sorted and we can go even faster on those infamous German autobahns. Better to die instantly now doing what we like rather than later with the inevitable chronic lung disease?
I am observing, like most of us, events in the USA. This time last week, I shivered at that image of Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister, holding the hand of Donald Trump, President of the USA. OK, she held his hand to steady him as they walked down some stairs. He’s 70 after all.
I have struggled with Owen Smith, Labour’s leadership challenger and now rebel. But he has gone up in my estimation relating to the last week’s vote in the UK Parliament sanctioning the trigger for Article 50 – starting the process of exit.
Brexit in the context of Trump is a different proposition to the one at the time of the referendum in June 2016. Especially with UK International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, being linked to Trump’s sinister corporate Dark Money (and notwithstanding Nigel Farage’s recent antics).
More significantly, however, is the realisation that we are all being hoodwinked by the Trump administration. Take, for example, Jon Snow’s tweet this morning where Trump has a go at his successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the Apprentice reality TV show:
Now Jon Snow is a good journalist. Indeed, he will be running next week a series of programmes about fake news (maybe this is why he sent the above tweet). US journalists persist with the White House briefings and are lied to by Sean Spicer, Trump’s media spokesperson. But they persist. It really is the only world they know. But the issue is different: the protagonist has changed. There is plenty of fake news about, for sure. Blatant lies, yes. But these are distractions from what is really happening. The media is being distracted apart from Fox News, the source of news for most Trump’s supporters.
Time to wake up? It seems to me that the EU has woken up. Theresa May’s offer to act as a bridge between the EU and the USA was rejected. I’m undecided whether it was laughable that the British even offered to play this role in light of Brexit, or whether this is a maturing EU. An EU that realises that it will be the bulwark of democracy in the new world. The USA is going to be lost.
The UK at the moment is in a mess.
Daily I am subject to the effects of ongoing industrial action by two transport unions – one for train drivers, one for (what we used to call) guards. It being a privatised and fragmented railway network, this is happening in a single region, and hence the effects are localised. The objective for the railway workers is to run the trains safely (drivers have recently been given total responsibility for safety on trains, over-and-above the driving, which they argue is not safe). The same unions are in dispute with Transport for London over safety and staffing on the London Underground.
Last week it was the turn of the National Health Service. People are dying waiting to get into a hospital. The Government is now blaming General Practitioners, the primary carers. Seemingly because they do not provide a 7-day service, too many people are going to the emergency departments in hospitals at weekends and evenings.
Then there is my own profession, university teaching. The Government’s priority is to push ahead with a bill that enables private companies to award degrees and add further metrics to the practice of teaching. This progressively turns teaching into a proscriptive exercise rather than a learning experience. The arrival of private companies, it is argued, will provide choice in the ‘education market’ (as if there are not enough universities to provide choice) and innovate.
My take is this. With respect to the railway disputes, this is a Government that wants to impose new working conditions on railway workers that have the potential to make travel less safe. We have seen this before at privatisation, It can be deadly.
With regard to universities, the advent of 9000 pound fees per year changed the relationship between teaching staff and students. The fees effectively commodified learning and universities have been complicit in this. Private companies such as the large publishing houses want to control content and merge their content production with delivery. This will squeeze out any critical thinking.
As we have seen with Brexit, all is not what it seems. The Conservatives, with hindsight, were always Eurosceptic. They never embraced membership or tried to change it from within. The incoming Prime Minister, Theresa May, simply sees it as an opportunity. The opportunity to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and to control border (something that she failed to achieve as home minister in the Cameron Government). The mandate from the referendum is there, even if the damage done to the economy is significant. This is not about the economy, it is about nationalism.
And not unrelated is the situation with the National Health Service. It is the ultimate outcome of a postwar rejection of conservatism. A majority Labour Government in 1948 enacted legislation to enable healthcare to be provided free at the point of use. The UK conservatives see now their opportunity to end this once and for all. They have progressively been privatising it with many familiar private-sector firms cherry picking services (leaving the public sector with the difficult stuff like geriatric care and chronic illness). Now, the crisis that has erupted in recent weeks with Accident and Emergency services struggling, the blame has been put on General Practitioners who are opposing 7-day working. It is reported today that some are indicating their intention to leave the National Health Service. On the one hand, this looks like something that the Government cannot ignore. On the other hand, maybe it is just what they are looking for in order to introduce an insurance system?
Pictures: A lecture in progress in Leslie Soc-Sci building in theatre 2A.
I arrived in Munich last night to the delights of Pall Mall’s new campaign. The strap line is Enjoy the Moment. There are two posters doing the rounds – one of men (left) the other featuring a women and a man.
So, the scenario for the first one (left) is that the bloke on the left has lost a bet. The forfeit, however, is not what one might expect for a smoker, his life; rather the minor issue of his beard. I trust that his life ends in due course with ghastly lung disease.
The second one sees a woman in the foreground and a man in the background enjoying the rain (Pall Mall has a thing about women getting wet while smoking). “Schiet Wetter” goes the strapline (I think we can all translate that). Enjoy the moment. Two things I enjoy not very much. Being wet and cigarette smoke, other people’s,naturally.
It was in the UK General Election of 2015 that we seemingly encountered the concept of the dead cat. It was a campaign innovation by the Conservative Party’s campaign strategist, Linton Crosby (left). Essentially, throw the dead cat into the arena even if it is not a cat. Or dead. It does not matter. For most observers, it is a dead cat and it is the only thing that people can see. So, for example, linking Labour and the SNP – with Alec Salmond calling the shots. Never on, but enough to worry English voters (and possibly Scottish).
I mention this because this is the year that the implications of all of 2016’s successful dead cats – Brexit and Trump to name but two – will be realised. At least partially. Both fill me with foreboding – the former because of the apparent incompetence of the Government to manage the transition; the latter because…well, anxiety about a Trump presidency is natural, is it not? The bigger questions, however, are about how to counter the dead cat when it is thrown in to the arena and to understand the causes of the Brexit vote. I have short observations on both of these.
Let me deal with Brexit vote first. Over the Christmas break I read a very interesting academic paper with some poignant empirical observations. The paper is called “The 2016 Referendum, Brexit and the Left Behind: An Aggregate-level Analysis of the Result”. The authors are Matthew J Goodwin and Oliver Heath and is published in the Political Quarterly (Vol 87(3), July September 2016). This is an early peer-reviewed analysis of available data that the authors have interrogated to ascertain who were the key voters. This is a summary of what they found:
- There is a statistically significant positive correlation between (high) levels of education and propensity to vote Remain (excluding London and Scotland).
- The over 65s – particularly in areas where UKIP polled well in the 2014 European Parliament elections – significantly voted Leave. So, 19 of the 20 “oldest” local authority areas voted Leave. By contrast, 16 of the 20 “youngest” local authority areas voted Remain (Oxford and Cambridge are the youngest of these). The exceptions again are London and Scotland.
- Areas with the fewest recent immigrants from the EU that were most likely to vote Leave (for example, South Staffordshire and the West Midlands). Of the 20 local authority areas with the most EU migrants, 18 voted Remain.
- Those local authority areas that have experienced a sudden increase in the number of EU migrants over the last 10 years tended to me more pro-Leave.
What conclusions can be drawn from this analysis? The authors conclude that the Brexit vote was determined by a high turnout by older voters, those with lower educational qualifications and in lower-skilled jobs. Essentially, those “left behind” in terms of economic transformation and whose values are at odds with those of a “liberal elite”. I conclude that these are all political factors that successive UK governments have ignored.
So, what do I have to say about dead cats? I was listening to an excellent suite of programmes on BBC Radio 4 this week under the umbrella title of The New World. In the the first of these, Jo Fidgen examined the concept of post truth. In this programme, there were a few uncomfortable findings. It seems that we are all as likely as each other to disregard the truth particularly if we disagree (with it) and live with others who disagree. Most disturbing is the dead cat syndrome. Fidgen uses the example of a murder inquiry to make the point. An aristocrat has her jewelry stolen. The media report that the gardener had been arrested on suspicion of the theft. However, the gardener was released with no charge; but in a controlled experiment, on his release, a sample of people still believed that he was guilty, despite the no charge report. It was not until the media reported that the butler had then been arrested and charged that the people in the sample were prepared to believe that the dead cat gardener was in fact innocent. Truth is perhaps beyond political.
So, Gauloises is rehashing some of the imagery of its Vive le Moment advertising campaign. New taglines. I have seen a newer version of the women with moustaches on railway stations without having the option of taking a photo. But the young couple dancing in the street is completely new to me. What is going on here? Tagline is “Old Love, rejoined, new fire”. Erm….ok. So, young couple break up and get back together again with new energy, hence the dancing in the street. Enjoy the moment, for sure.
What I am confused about here is the law on advertising in Germany. In my previous post on the subject, it was clear that negative images of the effects of smoking were explicit with the foetus in the ashtray. But here, with the exception of the small black writing at the bottom “smoking is deadly” (upgraded from “smoking can be deadly”), all is idyllic.