Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hoard and lodging

Before my partner moved in, I was a champion hoarder. Every inch of storage space was consumed by the discarded and the decommissioned: junior school projects, my own magazine cuttings, concert programs, enough redundant electronics to restock Dixons, baseball caps, trade show passes, assorted pens, guitar parts, a veritable Russian doll of suitcases in every conceivable shape, size and configuration...the list, embarrassingly, goes on. It had to go.

Boxes that had moved from London to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to California, and California to Amsterdam before finding their final resting place in a now defunct former bathroom lay unopen, untouched, unbothered. Like that closing scene in an early X-Files episode, in which a potentially Earth-shattering dossier on alien abduction is unceremoniously buried in a cavernous government warehouse, stuff that had racked up more sea miles than Ellen Macarthur was doing nothing more than providing an extra layer of winter insulation.

Like a thrush bringing back increasing amounts of rubbish with which to line its abode, I'd become a hoarder, creating a human nest. I now discover that hoarding is on the list of recognised psychological disorders. Don't laugh, but hoarding impacts 4% of the population - folk who are unable to discard stuff, who can't stop acquiring it, make decisions about keeping it, or recognise its impact, especially on those who share the same living space. Scarier still, is that 'clinical hoarding' is an extreme of the condition, requiring counseling and medication, though presumably repeat prescriptions might not help the accrual of brown bottles.

In facing up to my own tendency to keep stuff long after it has exceeded its purpose or usefulness, I realise - without much need for an hour with Dr Freud - that my brand of hoarding is nothing more than emotional tethering. Sigmund and his tribe might say this symptomises unfulfilment or disillusionment, and maybe they'd be right. But at risk of applying Canute-like resistance to such couch trippery, I'd say that I was simply applying the addage of 'out of sight, out of mind': I moved in, found a home for a load of useless junk, and got on with my life without doing anything to jettison the material baggage that comes with not being more diligent about throwing crap out.

Even the most decluttered and simplified domestic goddess or god will acknowledge that most possessions carry emotional security. But there is a difference between a box of teenage love letters and having a drawer full of expired mobile phones which serve no purpose whatsoever. In my case, there were too many examples of possessions with no emotional or sentimental value at all. They had to go.

That process began a year ago, but there is still more to come, not just to reduce the clutter, but to embrace a simpler lifestyle. Call it cathartic, even call it a household colonic, but as I come to desire a cluuter-free domesticity, in a new dwelling without the nooks and crannies that swallow up the stuff you just don't need, it's time to reassess and revalue.

Some of it will disappear as fast as I can get it down the stairs and on to a better place (no, that won't mean landfill - I do have some environmental credentials to uphold you know); some will be the subject of personal turmoil and inner conflict; and some - I must warn the neighbours now - will be the source of heated argument (yes, Mr CD Collection, she's looking right at you...).

The truth is, tactile attachment not withstanding, much of the crap we line our homes with these days IS unnecessary. Soon, we will not need a collection of DVDs. That Apple TV box will become portal to the cloud that Blockbuster has disappeared into. Likewise, do I really need a thousand-plus CDs? You can hardly say that opening up a 12cm-square jewel case carries the same excitement us old heads used to derive from opening up that Hipgnosis-designed gatefold.

Yes, I did think that a wall of CDs indicated an erudite and groovy music fan, with eclectic taste and the odd surprise. But I'm not John Peel and, as impressive as his record collection was, with a house built into it, I'm sure that he rarely scratched the surface of most of it, albums by The Fall excepted. I'm now at peace with the notion of redigitised compressed music stored conveniently on a hard drive or a server somewhere; I'm even OK with sleeve notes accessible only by a mouse click (surpassing the frustrated fumbling of trying to extract a CD booklet from its jewel case).

Then, however, there are the books. Here I tread on sensitive soil, and with somewhat libricidal boots. There will be those, of a lofty and highbrow disposition, who consider books - the physical, bound encasement of the printed word - to hold intellectual sanctity; that to consider even giving up one book, which might at best provide toilet-side reading (where would the publishing industry be at Christmas without it?), would be to commit an act of terror on a par with the Nazi book-burning of 1933.

I admit to liking shelves laden with books and, unlike the digital music argument, I'm not yet ready to swap Waterstones 3-for-2 deals for an e-reader (well, maybe an iPad...). But I do think it's time that the read-once football biographies - replete with the now hardened sun tan lotion stains that date their single consumption - and other impulse buys need to wind up in the same proverbial skip as all the other clutter that really won't be needed in our clutter-free, spacious and open-plan next home. The one that won't scream "middle aged rock fan", "cod intellectual" or "unaware of the expression 'you can't take it with you when you're gone'".

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Living The American Dream

On the statue of John Lennon at Liverpool's John Lennon Airport there is the inscription: "Above us only sky". Beneath it, with almost blasphemous irreverence, some scallywag has added: "...and below us only Wolves and West Ham".

Local joves will have you believe this is the famous Scouse humour at work. Given the seemingly comical misfortunes of Liverpool Football Club you would have to give a royal 'hats off' to the wit behind the graffiti. What it masks, sadly, is just how pitiful 'the Mighty Reds' have become. And how much Liverpool fans are clinging on to their newest American saviour, John William Henry II.

With a name seemingly assigned by the Pilgrim Fathers themselves, John W Henry is the living embodiment of the American Dream: the son of Illinois farmers, he dropped out of college only to self-teach himself commodity brokerage, making millions in the process to end up buying himself a baseball team (the Boston Red Sox - a team so big, they don't even care about spelling). All somewhat clich├ęd, you might scoff.

However, owning large American "sports franchises" is somewhat old hat these days. So, when you've got a billion or two stuffed under the bed, the investment de la jour is to acquire an English Premier League football team. This was pretty much the same story as Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr who, until last Friday, were the previous owners of Liverpool.  Let's just hope Henry - now being hailed the new Mersey Messiah (following in the footsteps of Lennon, Kenny Dalglish, Cilla Black and "Dat Barry Grant from Brookie") - doesn't fall victim to the disillusionment that befell Tom Hicks' son, who allegedly sent a Liverpool fan an e-mail which poetically trilled: "Blow me, f**k face. Go to hell. I'm sick of you". Some people really miss the point about being in it to win it.

Henry has, without labouring the bleeding obvious, a huge task ahead: picking up one of the most famous properties in world football, he must invest to ensure the club's illustrious heritage can match the business environment of the modern era, when the likes of the Manchesters United and City, and their London rivals Chelsea, have the financial clout to keep them entrenched in the Top Four.

Let's keep some perspective, though: it wasn't that long ago Liverpool were ever-present in the upper reaches of the Premier League, even pushing Manchester United for the top spot at one point a couple of seasons back. They are, without any question, one of the most successful clubs in the history of association football, having earned an equal-record 18 league titles, seven FA Cups, seven League Cups and, of course a glittering tally on the European stage - five European Cups and three UEFA Cups, making them the most successful English club in European competition.

However, the collective Scouse moustache is justifiably adroop right now. The club is in the almost inconceivable position of third from bottom. On Sunday it travels across Stanley Park to re-engage Everton in one of the most enduring city derbies. Much is at stake. Defeat for Liverpool will almost certainly place Roy Hodgson's future in the Liverpool hot seat in serious doubt. This, I believe, would be grossly unfair, though, sadly, a fact of life that a manager is only as good as his last results...and Liverpool's have been abysmal.

In Hodgson, Liverpool has a very capable manager. By comparison with his predecessor, the emotionally volatile Rafa Benitez, Hodgson's honest, down-to-earth geniality and ability to do more with less, should see the club through the weeks to come and into a more respectable position by Christmas. That doesn't diminish the task, however, of picking up bruised and battered egos in the club, and bruised and battered egos amongst fans who deserve and expect better.

No club is big enough to be guaranteed Premier League status. Great names from the top flight past, like Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and Portsmouth now languish in the lower levels. Liverpool deserve no less exemption from the same fate and nor should they expect it. And nor should we really bank on it. To be in such a dire position by mid-October augurs badly for any hope of Liverpool returning to European contention for next season. Moreover, Hodgson - with Henry's money - must revive a squad demoralised by the Benitez era and defocused by the unsightly High Court squabble this week over club ownership.

I grew up in an era when Liverpool dominated world football. Their exploits in Europe turned the club into international currency. As a Chelsea fan, though, I have little love lost for them: but unlike the bland corporate behemoth that Manchester United has become, Liverpool represents the dated, anachronistic glamour that football should still have. Simply put, Liverpool is a great football club from one of the great footballing cities. That doesn't give it a right to anything, but if you love your football, you want to see great competition amongst the great competitive clubs.

Anfield - for as long as it exists - is still one of the most magical grounds to visit, and to hear the Kop in full voice singing You'll Never Walk Alone is an anthemic experience every bit as good as a Wembley rendition of the National Anthem shortly before 3pm on Cup Final Saturday. Liverpool fans deserve better. And in John W Henry, they may just have found it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Farewell to the King

It was close to three in the morning. I was struggling to stay awake. Solomon Burke had been on stage at the Stravinsky Auditorium since just after midnight and showed little sign of giving up. Heading back to the hotel seemed like an admission of failure. 'King' Solomon Burke was still going strong.

Today, however, that came to an end. On a flight arriving at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, Burke fell ill and passed away. He was aged 70, and had created a reputation for being one of the great showmen in soul and rhythm and blues. Sadly, though, not a household name, despite being the first of the major R'n'B stars to be generated by the legendary Atlantic Records label in the '60s. And, yet, mention his seminal hit, Everybody Needs Somebody To Love, and a wry smile of recognition will beam from anyone who has seen The Blues Brothers. Fans of The Wire might recall his cover of Van Morrison's Fast Train, or remember Cry To Me from Dirty Dancing. Some might even know that Otis Redding's Down In The Valley was written by Burke. In recent years he worked with the likes of Eric Clapton and had songs written for him by Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits.

Born in Philadelphia in March 1940, Burke was unlike so many of his peers who had come from the South, like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. But drawing on the same mixture of gospel (he was also a preacher), blues, soul and, most significantly, country music, he became one of the most inventive artists of his generation. His most recent albums showed little sign of that spirit waning, especially his final album Hold On Tight, which contains thirteen songs written by the Dutch band De Dijk. This might seem random, even a little obscure, but it shows the love of music that Burke held literally until his dying day (he was flying into Amsterdam for a performance of the album at the city's legendary Paradiso). Prophetically, he recently told the Daily Telegraph: "As long as I have breath to do it I’ll sing, with God’s help.”


Despite being known for uptempo soul stompers, Burke was a truly progressive performer. His first hit was a country cover, Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms), a surprising choice for a soul act, but not considering his love of crossover. The scene in The Blues Brothers in which the band persuade Bob, of Bob's Country Bunker, that a soul revue band was exactly who they'd booked for the night (and would fit perfectly into their music policy of "both kinds - Country and Western"), could so easily have been borrowed from Burke himself: he is believed to have once fooled the Ku Klux Klan into believing he was a white singer. They booked him for one of their charming get-togethers. Not only did he survive, but it is said that he even took requests.

Seeing him for myself in 2007 at the Montreux Jazz Festival, with Burke - then 67 -  booming for the entire three hours from a throne, underlined my feeling that I was watching a true legend, a true showman. And totally larger than life. His colossal size was matched by his colossal reputation, helped by the fact that, by his own admission, he had some 21 children who had in turn produced 90 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren. Several of his offspring have appeared on stage with him, administering to his profusely sweating brow with a never-ending supply of towels, or helping to the stage.

“The thing I most enjoy is the people, the audience, just the thrill of being out there making personal contact and having the deeply spiritual experience of sharing music with so many grateful fans,” Burke has said. It's an ethic which, like many of his peer group, has carried through until the end.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Saying "Nuts!" To Health And Safety

News, today, that the former British Trade and Industry secretary, Lord David Young of Graffham, has published recommendations to challenge local council decisions made on health and safety grounds will be music to the ears of those who think that the compensation culture has gone too far.

It's not often I find myself siding with the Daily Mail (after all, I no longer live in Middle England, I don't drive a Jaguar, I don't play golf, and I'm not interested any new aspects of Princess Diana's "tragic" life), but in their championing of the lunacy of 'Health And Safety Britain' we share common ground.

Some posts back I noted how no-one today seems able to leave the front door in Britain without donning a high visibility vest (even police horses have to wear them now). Earlier this week, BBC Breakfast ran a piece about schoolchildren learning to ride scooters in a playground and, lo and behold, each one of the mites were wearing junior-sized high-viz vests as they whizzed about the yard. Surely half the fun of being a kid is crashing into each other? I'm sure it's in their job description.

Under Lord Young's proposals, councils who ban events and activities on health and safety grounds without any meritable reason could face large compensation claims of their own. Speaking to the Daily Mail  - who else? - Young said that, in preparing his proposals, he'd uncovered pretty extraordinary examples of health and safety-gone-mad, including a local council that banned a traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake race because it was raining, and a restaurant that refused to offer toothpicks for fear of people injuring themselves. Presumably knives, forks, spoons and other hazardous culinary instruments fell under the same ban.

The workings of the somewhat Orwellian Health and Safety Executive in the UK has, for some time, been the fleshiest of meats for the media to growl about the British 'nanny state' which seemed to emerge during the Blair/Brown government. Created by the Health And Safety At Work Act in 1974, the HSE was somewhat dormant for much of the 70s and 80s, quietly going about its business in advising industry on practical measures to prevent factory and farming accidents. Its purpose was the application of safe working practices "when reasonably practical". But then, somehow and suddenly, it acquired a remit to nanny the life out of having fun, to end risk and common sense out of the mitigation of that risk. Kids could no longer enjoy conker fights without having to wear protective goggles, and ice cream parlours stopped adding nut toppings to ice creams in case they fell on the floor, causing an underfoot hazard. Nuts indeed.

No-one will deny the common sense of applying regulations to prevent factory and building site deaths. Some H&S rules do make sense. In France, for example, it's illegal to drive a car without having high visibility vests on board for all occupants. This is profoundly sensible when you have to abandon your car on the shoulder of an autoroute. It's the other aspects of health and safety madness, and the compensation culture that has come with it, which have gone too far. When 'no win, no fee' lawyers are taking on cases as trivial as a paper cut (no evidence of this, but I'm sure someone's thought about it), it's clearly time to reign in the excesses and embrace a little more risk without being told you can't by the high and mighty.