Disco 2012

I went shopping today. Decided to hit the sales, and came back with a new suit and a deep fat fryer. Exciting, eh? No? Oh well. I’d taken Ellie with me, mainly because I’d promised her a day out and she’s not old enough yet to realise that when I promise a day out and actually take her shopping, she’s been had. On the way back, I had a CD playing in the car – some compilation CD that I’d bought from the “reduced to clear” rack back in the days when I still went into record shops. One of the songs was Disco 2000 by Pulp.

Well we were born within an hour of each other.
Our mothers said we could be sister and brother.
Your name is Deborah, Deborah.
It never suited you.

“Turn it up, daddy” said Ellie, “I like this song.” At least she has taste. And then, in her precocious five-year old music critic self, added “This song is about a girl called Deborah, isn’t it?”

“Yes”, I nodded. “At least, sort of. It’s more about regret, loss of innocence and the crushing sadness of unrequited love.”

“Don’t be silly, daddy” said Ellie. “It’s just a song about a girl called Deborah”. Life is simple when you’re only five, and so is music. Although her ability to pick up on the lyrics of songs reminds me to purge anything by Eminem from my in-car playlist, and make sure that it is the radio edit of American Idiot.

I said let’s all meet up in the year 2000.
Won’t it be strange when we’re all fully grown.
Be there at 2 o’clock by the fountain down the road.
I never knew that you’d get married.
I would be living down here on my own
On that damp and lonely Thursday years ago.

“Daddy, when is the year 2000?”

“It was before you were born. A long time before you were born, in fact”.

A long time. I meant that for Ellie’s benefit, since in her terms it is a long time. But it got me thinking. 2000 is a long time ago, even by my standards – eleven years is a significant fraction of my lifespan. 1995, when Pulp released the song, is even longer ago. In 1995, I’d only just discovered the Internet, and was still some time from earning a living from it. I still lived in a flat above a shop (echoes there of Common People), and had very little money (ditto). But the song doesn’t just remind me of 2000, or 1995, but when I first started to think the thoughts expressed by Jarvis Cocker. “What will it be like in the year 2000?” “Won’t it be strange when we’re all fully grown?” I can’t put a precise date on it, but my guess is that I was probably around 11 or 12 when I first gave it some serious thought.

Deborah do you recall?
Your house was very small,
with woodchip on the wall.
When I came around to call,
you didn’t notice me at all.

Jarvis Cocker is pretty much the same age as me – we were, so to speak, born within a year of each other – so this verse always makes me smile. I, too, can remember the fashion for woodchip wallpaper when I was a child. When, for that matter, I was wondering what life would be like when we were all fully grown.

I can remember how big a thing the millennium seemed before it happened. Of course, it’s just numbers on a calendar, with no intrinsic meaning – millennium or not, nothing changes on New Year’s Day, although any New year is a good excuse for a hug – but, still, the novelty of the year beginning with a 2 rather than a 1 somehow makes it feel different (which, of course, is why the pedants were always going to lose the argument that the new millennium started in 2001 rather than 2000).

I’ve taken it for granted, of course, that Ellie doesn’t remember the 20th century since she was born several years after it ended (by either the pedantic or popular measurement!). But she doesn’t yet have much of a concept of history at all. Unlike me, and unlike the narrative singer of Disco 2000.

Oh what are you doing Sunday baby,
Would you like to come and meet me maybe?
You can even bring your baby.
What are you doing Sunday baby,
Would you like to come and meet me maybe?
You can even bring your baby.

We don’t get introduced to Deborah’s baby until the last verse of the song, and, assuming that the song is, indeed set in the year 2000 (i.e, five years into the future when it was released) then that makes this baby either one of the first children of the new millennium or the last of the old (yes, I know, OK, I’ve adopted the populist definition here. So sue me). Either way, he or she will grow up with no memory of the 20th century. And so, in real life, will all the other babies born around the turn of the millennium. Some of them will be reaching their teens in 2012.

It doesn’t bother me that Ellie can’t remember the 20th century, because she’s still a small child. But, for some reason, the thought that there are – or soon will be – teenagers who don’t remember it, and never lived in it, does bother me. Because it won’t be long before there are adults who have no connection to the 20th century. And that makes me feel old. Happy New Year, everyone.

Heroes and Villains of 2011

I’m assuming, of course, that no-one will do anything particularly heroic or villainous over the next couple of days. But here, in no particular order, are my nominations for ten heroes and ten villains of 2011.

Heroes

  • George Monbiot. When the green lobby was lathering itself up in a state of self-induced hysteria over Fukushima, George Monbiot coolly and calmly skewered their pretensions with a simple look at the facts. It takes courage to admit that you’ve changed your mind because the evidence doesn’t support your previous position; it takes even more courage to do so when you know that nearly all of your (former?) acolytes will disagree with you.
  • Phil Bradley. I have no idea who Phil Bradley is, other than the fact that he’s a regular user of WhatDoTheyKnow.com. But it was his FOI request to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in October 2010 which provided the single largest piece of evidence yet of how the previous government was willing to let its policy on copyright, the Internet and filesharing be written by the media industry.
  • Dan Thompson and Sam Duckworth. Between them, Sam and Dan instigated the #riotcleanup Twitter meme that brought thousands of people onto the streets of London and other cities to help clean the place up following the looting and violence in August.
  • Wendi Deng. While there has to be some question as to her motives (“Tell me, Ms Deng, what was it that first attracted you to the septuagenarian billionaire Rupert Murdoch?”), Wendi Deng stood by her man in dramatic fashion when her husband was attacked during a hearing of the phone hacking Select Committee.
  • Professor Ian Hargreaves. Author of the eponymous Hargreaves Report on intellectual property which not only included recommendations for common-sense changes to copyright, such as an exemption for format-shifting and non-commercial data mining, but also exposed the extent to which policymaking in the past has lacked evidential support.
  • Gary Speed. Not a hero in the conventional sense, since suicide – unless your name is Captain Oates – is far more often tragic than heroic, and Speed’s death was certainly a tragedy. But the realisation that depression can strike even the seemingly happy and successful is a lesson well learned.
  • The England Cricket Team. Retaining the Ashes in style and comprehensively outplaying India makes England officially the best cricket team in the world. And that’s the first time in my lifetime that I’ve been able to say that.
  • His Honour Judge Birss QC. In a judgment handed down in April, Judge Birss confirmed what we really knew already: Disgraced solicitor Andrew Crossley and his firm, ACS:Law, were “amateurish and slipshod”, responsible for “a series of errors and questionable conduct”, were “plainly negligent”, engaged in “improper conduct” and “brought the legal profession into disrepute”. That, in essence, is legalese for “Andrew Crossley is a lying crook who couldn’t be trusted to run a whelk stall”. But it isn’t just Crossley who has suffered; the judgment pretty much pre-empts any attempt by any other law firm to try a similar speculative invoicing scam.
  • Alastair Good and David Toba. Two journalists from the Daily Telegraph who shot the footage showing that most OccupyLSX tents were unoccupied at night, and were threatened with violence for doing so.
  • The Military Wives Choir. For beating this year’s dross from Simon’s Karaoke Show to the coveted Christmas number one spot.

I’ve excluded politicians from the list of heroes, on the grounds that any politician who does something good is only doing his or her job properly anyway. But, had I included them, there would have been mentions for David Lammy, for his intelligent and insightful comments into the riots, and David Cameron, for being prepared to stick his foot down over Europe.

Villains

  • Johann Hari. It may be a bit late to cast Johann Hari as a villain of 2011, when the things which cemented his villainy were mostly perpetrated in previous years. But 2011 was the year in which his duplicity and lies were exposed, so it’s this year that he makes the list.
  • Jonathan May-Bowles. A failed comedian who decided to use a Select Committee hearing for a bit of self-publicity, and in the process not only generated sympathy for his perceived opponent but also ensured that, in future, it’s going to be harder than ever for members of the public to attend committee hearings.
  • Jody McIntyre. It wasn’t a good year for Independent columnists, what with Johann Hari being exposed as a plagiarist and Jody McIntyre being summarily dismissed after posting calls on his blog for more people to join in the riots. But McIntyre isn’t just a villain in himself; the lack of any legal action against him – despite posting a clear incitement to violence – only highlights the absurdity of the prosecution of Paul Chambers.
  • Paul McMullan. The former News of the World journalist claimed that “Privacy is for paedos” and that hacking Milly Dowler’s phone was a good thing. For that, he’s in the villain’s list, but if his evidence brings down the tabloid media house of cards then maybe next year we’ll call him a hero. At least he’s being honest about it.
  • Piers Morgan. Unlike Paul McMullan, Morgan is quick to deny any involvement in phone hacking, despite having previously boasted of hearing private voicemails and then later apparently trying to blame the victim for it.
  • Salman Butt, Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Asif and Mazhar Majeed. Three Pakistan international cricketers and their agent were jailed for their part in a match fixing conspiracy. It was a sour ending to what had otherwise been an excellent summer for the sport, at least from an English perspective.
  • Sepp Blatter. There’s something almost ironic about the fact that, despite presiding over an institutionally corrupt FIFA, the one thing that’s got up more people’s noses this year than anything else is Blatter’s laughable claim that football doesn’t have a problem with racism.
  • Julian Assange. The founder of Wikileaks was a hero, once. How times change. Accusations of rape and sexual molestation, an unauthorised autobiography which reveals him as a control freak who isn’t afraid of editing his own history for publicity purposes, a callous disregard for the lives of those exposed by the publication of intelligence material and, it seems, a petty and selfish destruction of material simply in order to spite former colleagues all add up to a rather unflattering portrait of someone who still thinks that he’s above the law. Incidentally, it’s beginning to look as though, far from Wikileaks simply being the recipient of material leaked by Bradley Manning, Assange actively incited Manning to obtain it and then turned his back on him after Manning was arrested. Bradley Manning has already suffered a catalogue of human rights violations, now we can add “being shafted by your inspirer and mentor” to them.
  • Cherith Hately. A self-proclaimed “IT Expert” who discovered that ISP-level filtering of porn and other undesirable things isn’t 100% reliable, and proceeded to make a fuss about it, resulting in some incredibly badly written news articles by uninformed journalists. Next year, Cherith will go on holiday in the woods and discover some stuff that looks suspiciously like bear excrement.
  • Simon Cowell. For doing what he always does.

My list of both heroes and villains is mostly focussed on the UK, with even the non-UK members having a UK connection. But, if I was looking at it from a more global perspective, the villains would also include President of Syria Bashar al-Assad and all the backers of the Stop Online Piracy Act.

Fairytale of New York

This is, quite simply, the best Christmas song ever recorded. I’ll explain why further down, but for now, just enjoy it.

So, what’s so good about this song? It stands some deconstruction, so let’s pull it apart a bit. Unusually for a (near) chart topper, it’s a narrative song – a form which is common in folk music, which is where Shane MacGowan’s songwriting is rooted, but less so in pop. Like all good poetry, there are multiple layers of meaning and several different ways of interpreting the song, but at it’s most basic it’s a simple tale of a relationship gone sour. In fact, it’s not really a Christmas song at all – it could just as easily have been set at any other festival (given the Irish American context, St Patrick’s Day would have worked) – but locating it at Christmas adds to the piquancy of the interaction between the two characters. It’s a romance in five acts that takes us through all the stages of a relationship: Despair, hope, celebration, conflict, disillusion and, at the end, just a hint of possible reconciliation.

The story takes place over a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the titular New York, and begins with MacGowan in “the drunk tank”. In the video, the policeman manhandling him there is a young Matt Dillon. The video, incidentally, is all part of the act, so to speak – although it follows a common pop video form of intercutting between an acted interpretation of the song and the band playing it on stage or in the studio, the band segment is just as fictional as the parts filmed on the streets of New York. In their smoky, featureless room, MacGowan is playing the piano as his opposite number, and love interest in the film, Kirsty MacColl, leans over it to address him in song. But, in reality, MacGowan doesn’t play the piano – the close-ups of “his” hands on the keys were actually those of the band’s real pianist, who wore MacGowan’s jacket and rings for that shot. So the band are part of the story, not merely telling it, and the couple singing to each other over the piano are the same couple embracing and fighting in the filmed section which acts as a kind of flashback narrative.

Back in the drunk tank, MacGowan is feeling sorry for himself:

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, “won’t see another one”
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

(The Rare Old Mountain Dew is a real song, and one that the Pogues have recorded themselves)

In verse two, though, things take a turn for the better – his luck changes, literally:

Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
I’ve got a feeling
This year’s for me and you
So happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

The lyrics here are almost mawkishly cliched, with MacGowan declaring his love for MacColl and talking of dreams coming true. The segment leads into a change of tempo in the song; the rest of the band kicks in and, for the first time, MacColl has something to say. The video shifts focus to the streets of New York and the next two stanzas celebrate a couple in love.

They’ve got cars big as bars
They’ve got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It’s no place for the old
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

And then on into the first rendition of the chorus followed by one of the song’s signature penny whistle riffs:

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing “Galway Bay”
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day

The song would still have been a great song even if it had continued in this joyful, up-tempo vein until the end. But it doesn’t. Without any warning at all, the happy couple of the previous verse are at each other’s throats:

You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

All through this verse, the music stays in its up-tempo, happy mode that’s now completely at odds with the lyrics. As listeners, we’re still reeling from the cognitive dissonance when the song crashes back into the chorus and then changes mood yet again. The music takes on a more melancholic feel, and we listen to the couple, now tired of fighting, voicing their regret. MacGowan starts off by taking a turn into self-pity

I could have been someone

but MacColl is having none of it. The “Happy Christmas your arse” line is her most famous from this song, but in the next couple she first skewers MacGowan’s pomposity and then blames him for her own plight:

Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you

You feel that, had she said this a verse ago, MacGowan would probably have slapped her for it. But the anger has drained from him now, and all he’s got left is regret. Whatever might have gone before, he knows – and has to admit that he knows – that he’s too reliant on MacColl to let her go:

I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can’t make it all alone
I’ve built my dreams around you

The sheer pathos of the last verse is – deliberately – almost heartbreaking. The comparison with the saccharine sweetness of the second verse, and the joyful third and fourth, reflect a relationship that is simultaneously beyond repair and beyond any further damage – a co-dependent, can’t live with you, can’t live without you existence that has lost the capacity to hate just as much as the capacity to love.

After a final chorus, the extended playout is accompanied on the video by alternating scenes of the band and a Christmas-themed New York, and ends with MacGowan and MacColl dancing alone in the room. Is that supposed to suggest that they get back together at the end? Maybe.

But the last word on this has to go to MacGowan himself – the real, songwriting MacGowan of the real-life Pogues, not the fictional, piano-playing MacGowan of the band on the video. Interviewed for yet another of the interminable “best Christmas songs ever” programmes that fill gaps in the TV schedules around this time of year, he was asked that very question – Can we assume from the song that the couple get back together?

“Well, they definitely won’t be sharing the turkey that year”, he said. “But after that? Who knows. The song doesn’t say. It deliberately doesn’t say.”

A lesser songwriter would have wanted to say. A lesser song would have said. To take us on the rollercoaster ride through the emotions of A Fairytale of New York and then leave them unresolved at the end is a hallmark of sheer genius. And that’s why this is the best Christmas song ever recorded.

Santa and FOI – it’s the silly season for news

A widely reported press release by the Local Government Association tells us of the “top unusual Freedom of Information (FoI) requests submitted to local authorities”. Here, for your delectation, is that very top 10:

1. How does the council plan to help the brave soldiers of our infantry if and when Napoleon and his marauding hordes invade the district? (West Devon District Council)

2. What preparations has the council made for an emergency landing of Santa’s sleigh this Christmas? Who would be responsible for rescuing Santa? Who would be responsible for rounding up the reindeer, and who would have to tidy the crash site? (Cheltenham Borough Council)

3. How many drawing pins are in the building and what percentage are currently stuck in a pin board? (Hampshire County Council)

4. What preparations has the council made for a zombie attack? (Bristol City Council and Leicester City Council)

5. What plans are in place to deal with an alien invasion (Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service)

6. How many holes in privacy walls between toilet cubicles have been found in public lavatories and within council buildings? (Cornwall Council)

7. How does the council manage to cope with the vagaries of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle? How does it function given the inherent unpredictability? (Wealden District Council)

8. How much money has been paid to exorcists over the past 12 months? (Cornwall Council)

9. Provide details of uniforms worn by Civil Enforcement Officers including descriptions of embroidered logos and markings, as well as any difference between summer winter wear. (Allerdale District Council)

10. What is the total number of cheques issued by the council in the past year, and how many did it receive? (Scarborough Borough Council)

The first thing to note here is that not all of these are stupid. The last one, about cheques, is entirely pertinent given the banks’ proposals to phase cheques out. Number 6, about holes in toilet cubicle walls, may seem rather strange until you discover that it’s actually a very real problem. And, while it may be somewhat arcane, if a local council is paying exorcists (number 8) then it’s entirely reasonable to ask how much they’ve spent doing so.

As a silly season story, this may seem rather harmless. Some of the questions are clearly intended as jokes, and in some cases the FOI office has responded in the same vein. But there is a serious side to this. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is unpopular in many sectors of officialdom and there are a lot of people who would like to roll the clock back to a culture of secrecy and lack of openness. And press releases such as this, which give the impression that public money is being wasted by frivolous requests, only serves to support that view. As one MP put it,

May we have a debate on the Freedom of Information Act? In my area, public bodies have been asked a range of questions, including on witches, werewolves, wizards, ghosts, vampires, zombies and demons. Even the star signs of local car thieves and the chief constable’s lottery choices have been asked for. It is a waste of time and money, and may we review it?

The reason this matters is that the Ministry of Justice has recently published a document titled, rather drily, “Post-Legislative Assessment of the Freedom of Information Act 2000” in which it looks at how effective the FOIA has been since it was introduced. The purpose of the review is to see whether or not the FOIA needs to be amended in the light of experience, and any proposals for change will follow on from this.

Now, there clearly are some flaws in the FOIA and its implementation, so a measured review is to be welcomed. There may well be some things which are currently subject to FOI that, in restrospect, should not be. And there are certainly things which ought to be that currently are not. Equally, it’s not unreasonable that some means of discouraging frivolous or vexatious requests should be considered. But the danger here is that the strongest opinions, and the loudest voices, will be those calling for the FOIA to be more restrictive than at present (or even abolished entirely).

Any changes to the FOIA which makes it more restrictive, other than clearly justifiable minor tweaks, would be a bad thing. The most important change the FOIA needs is to bring more authorities into its scope. We need more openness in public affairs, not less.

Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

Of all the people you might least expect to come up with a classic Christmas song, John Lennon is probably pretty high up in the list. Like Jona Lewie’s song from a couple of days ago, this was ostensibly a protest song – in this case, about the Vietnam war – but it’s taken on a life of its own as a seasonal standard. In 1980, re-released after Lennon’s murder earlier in the year, it was famously beaten to the Christmas Number One spot by St Winifred’s School Choir.

The original release of the song didn’t come with a video, what with it being the 70s and all that. But this is probably the closest there is to an official version. This is John and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band (to give them their full title), with Happy Xmas (War Is Over).

Last Christmas

OK, time for a bit of cheese. Not a lot to say about this one, really, other than the fact that it’s probably the best song Wham! ever did. Which isn’t necessarily saying much. But here it is anyway. Last Christmas.

Walking in the Air

This song is more often associated with Aled Jones, who sang on the most commercially successful single version and became a star on the back it it. But the singer on the original animation was Peter Auty, then a choirboy at St Paul’s Cathedral, and that’s the version here. From The Snowman, this is Walking in the Air.

Although he didn’t become as famous as Aled Jones, Peter Auty did go on to have a career as a professional singer. As well as appearing in opera and stage musicals, he was also the singing voice of the “Age of the Train” adverts fronted by Jimmy Savile. Bet you never knew that.

Stop the Cavalry

This wasn’t originally intended as a Christmas song, according to its composer – it was supposed to be a protest song – but the line “Wish I was at home for Christmas” and the brass band backing gave it a Christmas feel so, after a few more tweaks, it was released for the Christmas chart. Jona Lewie, Stop the Cavalry.

2000 Miles

Back to the music again. This is a classic Christmas song, but the video was clearly made on a budget! But never mind the cheesiness, the sight of Chrissie Hynde dressed up as a Salvation Army singer (complete with tambourine) is enough to turn anyone to religion. Here are The Pretenders, with 2000 Miles.

The bells of waiting Advent ring

John Betjeman
Time for a poem again. This is Christmas, by John Betjeman.

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hooker’s Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

I’ve always liked John Betjeman’s poetry. The older I get, the more I feel an affinity with his rather curmudgeonly attitude to progress – most famously expressed in his wish for friendly bombs to fall on Slough – although I wonder what he might have made of the Internet, the source of my own livelihood. Somehow, I don’t think he’d approve.

But Christmas is a more gentle, more uplifting poem, in which Betjeman seemingly tuts over “girls in slacks” and “oafish lads” in a manner closer to that of a kindly uncle than a disapproving patriarch. And, unlike Thomas Hardy who, in The Oxen, starts from a position of disbelief but allows himself to hope for truth, Betjeman here affirms his faith in the central tenets of Christianity while also admitting to his doubt. “Is it true?” he asks. Well, maybe. But you have to admit that if it is, he has a point.