And if California slides into the ocean…

My working and thinking year has begun in the state of California, which has been racked by stormy rains since before I arrived. Here is a place that has been suffering a five-year drought made worse by its status as a farmers’ bastion, where agriculture pumps more water than falls from the sky, creating subsidence and sinkholes and shortages.

When you’re in California, you have to listen to the right music. This is surely a uniquely creative stretch of land even by the standards of 20th century pop culture. And there was a particular stretch of time – say, 1968-1977 – when it may have been the most important contributor of lasting, living cultural artefacts, at least in the so-called “West”.

Warren Zevon began his career in that period. Son of a Jewish Russian immigrant, he was born in Chicago but the family soon moved to the West Coast (Fresno, to be exact). While there, he had the chance to chill with Igor Stravinsky, before quitting high school and high-tailing it to New York City to begin a career as a folk singer.

He wrote what on any given day might be my favourite song, the one I come back to every time I’m here. Desperados Under the Eaves manages in just four minutes, forty-seven seconds to capture the heart of lost humanity. It is one of Zevon’s most personal songs, written from a real situation in the so-called “Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel”. Its short lyric, with five distinct sections – they aren’t really verses per se – is densely packed with allusion and literary technique and a hundred listens won’t plumb their depths.

On the surface it’s about alcoholism. There are references speckled throughout: empty coffee cups, shaking hands, and pledges to drink all the margaritas in Los Angeles. But that isn’t the heart of the song; it’s merely a feint, a way of entering a rabbit warren (no pun intended) of multiplying topics through an easy access entrance.

Instead this is about nothing less than the fear of death and the fear of life, the weirdness of being in a place where you feel misunderstood but cannot find another place that offers you a home. It’s a 20th century Californian’s riff on Shakespeare’s song from Cymbeline: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun“. That lovely song is an epitaph of sorts. This is altogether more in medias res as Zevon ponders on his state of mind: “So sick I am not, yet I am not well” as Imogen puts it prior to her seeming death.

Zevon literally fears the heat of the sun: the first climax of the lyric and music comes with a sudden burst of orchestral fear, and the line “Don’t the sun look angry at me?” He’s suddenly alluding to Christ on the cross: “Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves?”

The irony is that that burst of feeling comes after one of the driest stanzas on potential apocalypse ever written. He imagines the state of California sliding into the ocean “like the mystics and statistics say it will”, but reduces that monumental tragedy into amusement by suggesting that the hotel he’s in will remain standing, “until I pay my bill”.

He knows all this is going to hell, maybe sooner than we all think. But at the same time he can’t see a way out that isn’t worse. “Heaven help the one who leaves”, he says, and I fancifully read across – a desperado caught between staying and leaving – to the wider cultural atmosphere of the time, one in which the Eagles, that same year, would try to capture the mystical Hotel California.

Zevon is no mystic though and writes achingly about the real. The vignette that comes next sums up the pain, perhaps physical as well as emotional, of his situation:

Still waking up in the morning with shaking hands

And I’m trying to find a girl who understands me

But except in dreams you’re never really free

Don’t the sun look angry at me?

And then comes a most peculiar kind of redemption. Whenever I play the ending of this song to people, the invariable response is initially amusement. The idea of an air conditioner humming a hymn is inherently risible. But equally invariably, a deeper understanding eventuates as the coda rises and grows in strength. The warmth and depth of the strings building under Zevon’s layered choir, and eventually taking him over, is desperately moving, and movingly desperate.

“Look away down Gower Avenue.” I’ve never been to LA, but from all I can read of Gower Avenue – or, actually, Gower Street – it’s the most mundane of streets. But maybe it’s that quality of the mundane that qualifies it to be elevated into this most gorgeous of melodies. The normality of Gower is what is being venerated.

It’s a song that I’ll never fathom, and a song I’ll always feel could have come from my own heart.

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The late, great Warren Zevon. Copyright Neal Preston/CORBIS.

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The murder of Jo Cox taught us nothing

Maybe we were all dreaming. Maybe the 16th June 2016 passed without incident in British politics. Maybe that Thursday, a week before the referendum on EU membership, was quiet and peaceful.

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Flowers for Jo Cox

But we weren’t dreaming. And the horrific events that day, as a young Labour MP was shot and stabbed multiple times by a British nationalist neo-Nazi, will never stop haunting our country and our democracy.

The slow march of history is providing live context for that terrible day. These events are being shown for what they really were: mere collateral damage in the war of identity perpetrated by fascists. Not an isolated incident, but the natural consequence of ugly rhetoric whipping up outrage and carving division into the soul of a nation.

The newspaper headlines today say it all. The Daily Mail and the Daily Express have spent my lifetime viciously attacking anyone who does not conform to their hateful, racist ideology. Now that the EU is gone and the government has adopted their policies on immigration, they’re turning their fire on the people who have held them at bay for so long.

Thomas Mair, Jo Cox’s alleged murderer, gave his name as ‘Death to Traitors’ in court. And here the two chief attack dogs of the fascist right are, consciously using the same language. People who voted to remain in the European Union are not merely wrong: they are unpatriotic and subversive, and they are actively plotting. They are to be ‘damned’ and ‘silenced’.

We’re not talking about some cesspool backwater of the internet like Breitbart or Stormfront. These are ‘mainstream’ newspapers read by hundreds of millions. The Daily Mail’s website is the most visited English-language newspaper website in the world. Not just in the UK; not just in Europe; in the world.

Liberals have spent their lives mocking these newspapers. We write cutesy little songs about them. Sometimes we write serious songs about them. We pour scorn on their blaring headlines and we chortle at their farcical claims. We know they’re wrong and, confident in our grasp of the truth, we’re comfortable letting other people have the comfort of the lies.

And meanwhile those lies are taking hold. They are creating an environment that is poisonous to its very core. They are legitimising the febrile, turbulent, volatile attitudes that not only appeal to ignorance but demand it, cosset it, feed it, and turn it into something that feels like certainty.

We let this happen all the time. Last week there were a few timid voices against the tide of vitriol spouted by government ministers. One of them was mine: I wrote a long blog post about it. Notable among the many responses both here and elsewhere was a recurring theme: I was upbraided for using the terms ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’ too loosely. I was told that it was too much, that I was being hysterical, and that it undermined the point of the article.

The people who said this should be ashamed of themselves. The clearer it becomes that voices, livelihoods and lives themselves are considered dispensable by powerful people and institutions in the UK, the more we must respond. I’m ashamed of myself for having put mealy-mouthed caveats on some of those statements; ashamed, for attempting to soften my condemnation of an existential threat to humanity.

So I won’t stop using those terms. I won’t stop calling out fascist rhetoric and fascist policy when it is staring me in the face. I refuse to be silenced as the Daily Express demands. And I refuse to stand by and allow these bastards to spit on Jo Cox’s grave.

Pregnant women: ‘Papers, please!’

It might just be the increasingly autumnal weather, but it seems that every day another government announcement is made that chills me to the bone.

This morning I read in the Telegraph of a new pilot scheme, devised by the Home Office, that will force pregnant women to prove their right to use the NHS when planning to give birth.

It seems that con men have been making money by charging women (particularly from Nigeria) to use NHS services.

With breathtaking alacrity, the story explains that the London trust that is piloting the scheme (St George’s) decided to impose a blanket condition on all pregnant women ‘to avoid charges of discrimination’.

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St George’s Hospital

There are several problems with this.

First of all, it’s victim-blaming. If it is true, as St George’s say, that it has fallen victim to “organised illegal activity”, the response should focus on the perpetrators of that illegal activity. This response does nothing to deal directly with the con men who are promoting so-called ‘maternity tourism’.

Secondly, it’s likely to lead to discrimination anyway. Harassed staff will screen to save time and white women will be asked for their proof of ID less frequently than people of colour.

Thirdly, this is another step towards a ‘papers, please’ culture in the NHS and in our public services generally. The story says the pilot is part of “national efforts to ensure that proof of ID is routinely presented before patients access all NHS care.”

Two better solutions would be doing proper detective work to investigate and destroy the networks that enable men to con pregnant women, and funding the NHS properly so that it does not have to embrace euphemistic ‘revenue protection’ practices. But the Home Office has almost always preferred lazy authoritarian solutions.

Finally, the story doesn’t go into details on what happens if heavily pregnant women are found not to have the right to use NHS services. Perhaps that would be too distasteful for the dainty consciences of average Telegraph readers.

Theresa May’s Britain: disgraceful, unpatriotic and openly racist

I can’t remember a worse day in British politics than October 4th, 2016. Today ranked far below even last year’s general election, when 49 of my party’s MPs were defeated, and June 23rd, a date I thought had established itself as comfortably the worst domestic political event of my lifetime.

I have spent the day in a state of bewilderment, anger, disgust and despair at the way the Conservative government is dragging the country into a disgraceful mire. They claim to base this on a single vote, a vote to leave the European Union, that was decided on a knife-edge – a mere 1.3 million votes out of 33 million. On the basis of this vote, they claim to understand what “the public” wants, and even what it thinks. Just look at tomorrow’s Daily Mail front page, if you can:

That is the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, calling other people elites. Making up non-existent elites that you can then blame for the country’s ills is textbook fascism.

Of course, this also illustrates another fundamental problem the UK faces: a media that is not just supine but more than happy to promote this kind of language in the face of the truth.

And the truth is utterly stark. The government that Theresa May is running can now only be described as overtly racist. The policy announcements made today by successive ministers were worthy of 1930s Germany and, as UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn rightly crowed, redolent of his party’s 2015 manifesto:

The fact that his party’s leader Diane James resigned tonight after 18 days in the job is no more than a depressing footnote to today’s events. The spectre of Nigel Farage’s inevitable return no longer feels threatening given what the Conservatives have become.

Theresa May was the one who popularised the concept of the Tories as ‘the Nasty Party’. Now she presides over some of the nastiest policies ever devised in British politics. It started early this morning with the announcement on doctors. When I read this I didn’t expect it to be the least worrying policy pledge of the day:

That’s the Defence Secretary promising that in future military conflicts, British soldiers will no longer be subject to the European Convention on Human Rights. In theory this would mean they were less susceptible to investigations into battlefield behaviour and abuses. In other words, because they’re beautiful British troops, we should just trust that they’ll do the right thing and remove the external mechanism designed to hold them accountable (you know, the one that British lawyers helped to draft after the second world war). Thankfully, it seems that this policy is actually unworkable in practice, but it certainly kicked October 4th off nicely.

It warmed us up for Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May’s main announcement of the day:

Ok, let’s think about this. There are innumerable problems with this policy. To list a few:

  1. Setting a deadline by which foreign doctors must presumably leave (or be deported?) makes working in the NHS far less attractive for current and potential new foreign doctors. Given the NHS has a massive staffing shortage at present, the government wants to expand its services, and there is a rapidly ageing population, this is shortsighted.
  2. Setting a deadline by which foreign doctors must leave makes it far more likely that they will leave sooner. Why would you want to stay in a country that doesn’t want your highly prized skills? There are any number of other countries you could work in.
  3. Further numbers of home-grown doctors being trained is a great idea, but recruiting people is currently proving difficult. That seems to be mainly a response from students to chronic mismanagement and confrontational behaviour by, oh, the government. Things have got so bad that this year medical degrees went into clearing for the first time.
  4. Even if you can manage to train enough new British doctors, they will be just that: new. These foreign doctors have probably been here for a while, and if by some miracle they stay for another nine years, they’ll be very experienced. So the NHS will lose a lot of experience and institutional knowledge regardless, decreasing the quality of care for its patients.
  5. Finally, even if you replace all the foreign doctors with British ones, you’ll have the same number you started with, when the problem is that there’s a shortage. I need not explain this further, but for Jeremy Hunt’s benefit, if you have no more doctors at the end of the process than at the beginning, you have spent a lot of time and money on solving nothing.

You’ll notice I’ve left out the biggest problem with it. That is, naturally, that it is racist. There is no justification given for the policy other than their foreignness. That is simple racism. Explicitly discriminating against foreign doctors purely because they are foreign is unequivocally wrong.

Next up was Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary. She had a smart idea about cutting immigration too. Here it is:

In case you don’t know, providing education to international students is one of Britain’s most successful exports. Our universities make a ton of money from it. That money massively subsidises British students, keeping tuition fees lower and helping universities plan their financial future.

This policy achieves an impressive triple whammy:

  1. Telling international students they aren’t wanted – thereby reducing demand
  2. Telling universities they can’t be sure whether they’ll be able to recruit international students in future – throwing their plans into disarray
  3. Ensuring that tuition fees will almost certainly rise for British students

Another irony of this particular policy is that evidence suggests a vast majority of the public understand the difference between student immigration and employee immigration, and think people coming here to study for a short period is a great thing. But it’s probably simpler for Amber Rudd to pander to racists.

That certainly seems to be the case for her other policy, a requirement for… well, here’s the Times headline:

Firms must list foreign workers. And if they don’t employ enough British people, they will be ‘shamed’.

Can the Tories even hear themselves saying these things? Surely this runs counter to all their instincts. Even if we’re only talking about being pro-business – the most mercenary of all possible considerations – this is going to be a nightmare for everyone; enormous bureaucracy for no discernible purpose. Meanwhile a lot of the people who invest the most in our economy or have the best skills are foreigners – think of London’s tech industry, which is one of the world leaders.

But again, the real question for Amber Rudd and Theresa May is how they sleep at night. How do they live with themselves? This is bordering on fascism.

Speculation has raged since this announcement on how these pledges might be implemented. My money’s on yellow stars for the foreigners so they’re easy to spot. And for those unpatriotic firms with too many of the blighters, maybe the UK Border Force could smash their windows. I’m sure that would get the message across.

Last but not least in this parade of political putrescence comes our old friend, disgraced former minister Dr Liam Fox, who was forced to resign in disgrace until Theresa May graciously gave him a Cabinet role heading up all the non-existent trade deals we will try to strike after leaving the EU.

It was pretty difficult to identify the most egregious moment of this spectacular shitshow, but I think this statement by Fox takes the prize. We already knew that May’s government had not ruled out using EU citizens in the UK as a negotiating tool, but this particular description betrays how infantile these people are.

Fox really appears to feel hopeful about the tricky – to put it lightly – negotiation the government has to perform with 27 other EU member states. And one of the ‘main’ reasons for this hope is the number of EU foreigners living in the UK. And the reason Liam Fox is hopeful is that the British government will be able to threaten other countries about the future welfare of their citizens.

Consider that there are 3.2 million EU migrants in the UK at present, around 5% of the population. Let’s assume you know 100 people. 5% means you almost certainly know some of these people personally. They almost certainly go to the same school as your children. Depending on where in the country you’re from, there’s a not-insignificant chance you might be friends with them or your relatives might be married to them.

If what Liam Fox said does not disgust you, appal you, and make you sick to your stomach, then I don’t really want to know you.

Some final thoughts. I am angry. I want to do something to stop this awfulness from continuing and succeeding. I intend to use the minimal tools at my disposal to do so. That means campaigning for the Liberal Democrats, even from afar, and supporting all other ways I know of to fight this danger, including trade associations, independent (and sane) media, and online debate.

You might be wondering what Labour were doing all day. A lot of other people were too. Surely, on a day of such infamy and disgrace, they would stand up as the opposition the country needs? Especially after Jeremy Corbyn chose to defend immigration at their recent conference?

Eventually they tweeted this:

As a fellow Lib Dem on Twitter put it:

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

If you are anywhere near as angered by this litany of disgrace as I am, then please join the Liberal Democrats, today, and help us campaign. David Cameron’s resignation has caused a by-election in Witney on October 20th. A victory for the Liberal Democrats would send the loudest possible message to Theresa May and her pernicious ministers that this approach to Brexit and to government is completely unacceptable.

The symbolism of a passport 

Last night I had my first experience of the Sarajevo Film Festival. Now in its 22nd year, the event, started in the pain and confusion of a prolonged siege, continues to go from strength to strength. 

The showing at the Summer Screen was of a documentary called Sonita. The titular protagonist is a teenage Afghan refugee living in Iran illegally, who has an urge to become a rapper. 

It’s a very powerful film, by turns harrowing, disarming and uplifting. The direction of the story is clear but by no means certain; at one critical moment it appears that Sonita will be brought back to Herat and sold as a bride, just so that her brother can buy a wife for himself. Only the film-maker’s personal financial intervention can avoid this outcome. 

For me the most moving moment was when the young woman received her new passport. In a scene earlier in the documentary it had become apparent that she had no papers – neither from Iran nor Afghanistan. At a stroke, as she held the little blue book in her hands, she knew what it was to have a personhood partially restored. She suddenly had agency. 

It brought me to tears. 

In the UK there is currently a campaign going on to change the colour of our passports from dark red to dark blue. The Sun newspaper, our most widely read tabloid, made an oversize replica and took it to Parliament to lobby MPs. 

Needless to say, we also recently voted as a country to leave the EU so that we can make it harder for people to reach our land. Much of the anti-immigration feeling has been whipped up against people like Sonita. 

It brings me to tears. 

The Sunday Spotify: Take It To The Bridge

The bridge. The middle eight. Whatever you want to call it (and I know there’s a technical difference, but whatever), it’s the twist that can take a song into a different stratosphere. It’s the delicious pre-chorus that kicks you into a different gear, building anticipation for that frisson-filled final refrain. Or, sometimes, it’s the left turn that ensures a song will stick with you long after the last notes have stopped ringing.

The Beatles were probably the best exponents of the bridge in pop history. While the 1960s were the decade in which it was in its heyday, they understood its potential better than anyone. They have so many stellar middle eights that it’s difficult to narrow down to just one; I could easily have gone for track 1 from their debut album, “I Saw Her Standing There”, the downbeat Lennon intervention in “We Can Work It Out”, or the equally breezy McCartney bridge in “A Day in the Life”. But I think their best may be “No Reply”, a relatively unknown early cut with an almost mundane verse that takes off with an unusual bridge.

The instrumental bridge is also a cracking innovation. A fine early example is from Aretha Franklin’s definitive version of “Respect”. The brief sax solo leads back into a verse you didn’t think could top the energy with which the song began – but it does. “Badge”, by Cream, with its guitar arpeggios, achieves a similar effect before Clapton’s vocal and extended guitar solo threaten to develop into an extended outro.

The bridge in Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” is a comparable declaration of intent to Aretha’s from a very different musical era. Here the Queen B has to overcome Jay Z’s usual redundant, overlong intervention, and she does it in spades, soaring up to a spectacular high as the chorus hits back in.

Another way to use the bridge is to make a song more personal. Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” achieves this perfectly. The combination of the almost-weary lyric and the building piano work underneath is entirely captivating and pulls you headlong into the final choruses.

“Senses Working Overtime” by XTC is an example of a song that seems to be made up almost completely of bridges. It’s a perfect introduction to a band that always seems to cherish the unexpected. You never know where you’re ending up, but the ride, verging on chaotic, is always fascinating.

Meanwhile Squeeze’s “Up the Junction” is all verses, save for that driving, slightly-faster middle section that manages to move the narrative forward, achieve a key change and break back into the most triumphant moment song all at once. It’s a very sophisticated moment that shows off the band’s virtuosity at the same time as serving the storyline of the song’s powerful lyrics.

A lesser-spotted version of the bridge can be found in “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush. It’s a song that uses the same three chords throughout, using texture and changing instrumentation, including otherworldly backing vocals, to create difference. At 2:47 the galloping beat is suddenly matched by Bush’s urgent cry, “come on baby/come on darling/let me steal this moment from you now”, added to by equally visceral synth strings and a clatter of percussion. It’s the heart of the song.

Simon and Garfunkel’s finest example of a travelling song, “America”, would be stunning without its middle section. But what a beautiful moment it is: discursive, lyrical, and deeply wistful, leading back into that simple run-down chord sequence and the equally simple, disarming verse beginning ‘Toss me a cigarette/I think there’s one in my rain coat’. Here I’ve used the live version from the Concert in Central Park because the extended outro is stellar, with the purest of high harmonies from Garfunkel soaring into a memorable guitar solo before heading back into that chorus. It reminds me of long car journeys when I was growing up.

Next come two great rock bridges. The first is “Baby Blue” by Badfinger, a criminally underrated band whose songwriting was on a par with anyone’s. Here we get a contrasting middle section with a change into a more stilted, broken rhythm and some clanging minor chords, breaking into a tasteful guitar solo that carries us home into the final verse: “guess that’s all I have to say…”

Bob Dylan wasn’t a major exponent of the middle eight but there’s a run of four songs on Blonde on Blonde that show he could mix it with the best when he wanted to. Perhaps the best of the four is “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, here covered expertly by Jason and the Scorchers who use that bridge to great effect.

And finally, it would be remiss to leave off one of the greatest songwriters of the ’90s and ’00s, Elliott Smith. Waltz #2 has one of his most moving mid-sections, with the swooning strings and backing vocals creating a crushing sense of woe that still manages to create momentum. (Bonus: check out those swooping violin glissandos in the final chorus.)

The full playlist should appear below, but in case you can’t see it, it’s also accessible via this link.

So, what did I miss?

A Song for Saturday: The Connells – ’74-’75

I am an unabashed fan of this 1993 single by the little-known college rock band, The Connells. In the UK it was their only real hit.

It’s one of those songs that can sound so simple as to be trite, and it only yields up its pleasures if you really listen. There is a smoothness to the writing and a total lack of showmanship in the instrumentation that means it can just pass you by, which might explain its frequent appearances on easy listening radio.

But when you really listen, it comes alive. It embodies that feeling of a road left untravelled that every single one of us has. The lyrics are vague enough to allow everyone to identify with them, but the specific reference to a particular year (of high school, or so the video implies) in the chorus adds a personal edge.

I was the one who let you know

I was your sorry ever after

’74, ’75

Giving me more and I’ll define

Cos you’re really only after

’74, ’75

The music is also delicately judged. It has a distinct Celtic feel, but what really makes the song is how well it’s recorded. The acoustic guitars are so crisp, and the bass is so solid. And the lift into the chorus is just glorious: those foreboding low backing vocals and the thin, distant high harmony behind the main singer tip it from being passably affecting to deeply emotional, at least for me.

The way the song ends, as well, seems beautiful to me. It achieves the long, drawn-out sigh that the lyrics seem to imply, by having the instruments gradually take over and play it out. You can almost imagine the singer turning on his heel and walking away, shoulders bowed.

The video is equally simple and great.