Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: a year in music


​Let's start with some good news: there's a new Bowie album on the way. Let's improve on that with more good news: as it's not out until next week, I don't have to worry about it - as far as this review is concerned - for a whole 12 months.

For that I must thank the Jones family, once of Brixton, South London, who saw to it that the boy David was born on January 8, 1947, thus affording the latterday Dame the hook of his 66th birthday for the brilliant subterfuge of releasing Where Are We Now? without warning. Without anywhere near the same secrecy, his next - NEXT! - album, Blackstar, which will appear next Friday on the occasion of his 69th year mostly on this planet. And of what I've heard so far, I'm fairly confident that it will be a shoe-in for WWDBD?'s 2016 hall of fame. But that is, clearly, for another year.

And, so, 2015 - a year in which music, unwittingly, became a focal point for all the wrong reasons. It would, perhaps, be somewhat disproportionate to place the events of November 13 as the fulcrum of the last 12 months in music. After all, this has been a year, like many and in my case, most, in which gigs have been part of my normal routine.

In Paris, my adopted home for the past five years, it's part of everyone's social routine, which is what makes the attack on the Eagles Of Death Metal gig as well as the environs of Le Bataclan an act that continues to cast a pall over 2015's joie de vivre. Because as corny as it might sound to invoke "rock and roll forever" defiance, it had never been more correct.

But let's not overdwell. To do so only panders to the medieval deviants who made such defiance necessary to begin with. Instead, let's celebrate a year in which new music has come thick and fast. So thick and so fast that to do justice to a list of the year' best releases really should be more exhaustive than the 15 you see below. And while this list is more a representation of the new albums I've probably listened to more than any other, it inevitably lacks those which deserve an honorable mention - such as Keith Richards' Crosseyed Heart and Gary Clark Jr's long-awaited The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim.

But, a line must be drawn somewhere, and so, in Miss World order, here are What Would David Bowie Do?'s 2015 platters-that-matter.

I hope some, at least, have made your musical year as much as they have done mine.


15. Laura Marling - Short Movie: The minute someone is compared with John Martyn, I have a tendency to reel in my expectations. Because no one was and, I strongly suspect, will ever be anything like him. Laura Marling has, though, come pretty close, especially from a technical perspective. For this, her fifth album, she made the leap many folkies have done, by migrating from acoustic to electric. In so doing, she didn't look back, resulting in a superbly accomplished album, which ruminates on myriad themes with a varying topography of rock-pop styles.




14. The Church - Further Deeper: With a recent history of trouble and strife (band discord, drug abuse - usual rock'n'roll perils, TBH) the 80s Oz rockers returned with an album that both reflected their travails as well as reminded the world of what a brilliantly charismatic band they still are. Singer and principal songwriter Steve Kilbey's melifluous baritone may have lost some its rigidity, the result of well publicised demons, but it has taken on a Syd Barrett quality that fits perfectly with the band's trademark layers of chorused guitars. A comfortingly familiar album which manages to be far from predictable.



13. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit: Remaining in the southern hemisphere, we have 2015's debutant of the year. Strumming a Telecaster with the thumb of her left hand, the Sydney-born, Melbourne-based 28-year-old caught the eye and the ear with the stripped-down honesty of the EPs with which she made her recorded debut. With this first album, proper, Barnett drew together her gift for bedsit storytelling and festival-friendly grunge-lite, drawing valid comparisons to Lou Reed in the process.




12. Paul Weller - Saturns Pattern: It would be far too easy to compare Paul Weller and Bruce Springsteen through their shared blue collar backgrounds, but there is a stronger [solid] bond between them in terms of work ethic. Both seem incapable of slowing down. Weller, in particular, appears as restlessly creative as ever, finding yet another new direction to go down, with many more previously untapped influences from his youth to work into an album every bit as consistent as any in his impressive near-40 year recording career.




11. Blur - The Magic Whip: Partly written on tour and recorded on the fly in Hong Kong, Damon Albarn, OBE - another intensely restless creative force - together with Messrs Coxon, James and Roundtree delivered as their first collective effort in 13 years an album of subtle reflection on modern life, which still appears to be rubbish, and apparently dominated by technology. For those of us impartial to English melancholy, Blur gave us in The Magic Whip the sort of cold, autumnal evening of music we can't get enough of.





10. Tame Impala - Currents: While on a brief late-Spring trip to Devon I heard 6 Music's Radcliffe and Maconie play 'Cause I'm A Man and, much like Daft Punk's Get Lucky, I became hooked on a feel-good summer radio hit which made me impatient for the album it would appear on to be released. I wasn't disappointed. Kevin Parker's studio project had hitherto been more of a prog rock band in my view, and yet here was a gloriously bright piece of 80s pop, serving as a reminder that not all influences from that decade are necessarily bad, and in the right hands can actually be good. In Parker's hands, they're exceptional.





9. Foals - What Went Down: If, like me, you took up the guitar as a teenager, one of the first immensely gratifying experiences is playing your maiden power chord. So when your clumsy acoustic guitar gives way to your debut electric-and-amp combo, the power chord becomes the ultimate expression of teenage angst. Rock and roll is reborn. You become Paul Kossoff or Pete Townshend or Angus Young. Foals are hardly teenagers, and theirs is certainly not the music of a previous generation, but the thudding, rifftastic electricity of What Went Down took me back to the first time I heard the likes of Free and The Who. If I had a car, this would be the album I would have willingly spent 2015 driving to, with the volume up as high as it would go.


8. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Chasing Yesterday: Face facts, British pop stars, there are few amongst you who can hold a candle to Gallagher for being downright funny. Most pop stars are dour, self-regarding and so driven by angst that humour is unnecessary baggage. Not that Gallagher is merely the class clown: his second album with the High Flying Birds continued to hold him aloft as a supreme songwriter, naturally gifted in melodic ease and retaining just enough reverence for heritage to avoid being the tribute act so many detractors still moronically maintain he is.





7. Alabama Shakes - Sound And Colour: You all know that thing about second albums and difficulty, right? Well nobody informed the cavernously-voiced Brittany Howard and her bandmates, who followed up their truly remarkable debut Boys & Girls with an overwhelmingly good package of understated R&B. Live, they are a force of nature, and the combined material from their first and sophomore releases fuelled one of the gigs of, not only the year, but the decade when I saw them at July's Lucca Summer Festival in Tuscany, on a double-bill with Paolo Nutini.





6. Guy Garvey - Courting The Squall: Ask anyone - people who know him, people who've met him, and then everyone else - and no one has a bad thing to say about Guy Garvey. Not that we should have to find fault all the time, of course. But in any written or recorded interaction with the younger-than-he-looks Elbow frontman, two words crop up consistently: "loveable" and "bear". This does paint him as a hybrid of Phil Collins and Yogi, but if you reluctantly put Garvey's patent likeability to one side for a second, and consider the work he has put in with Elbow over, incredibly, the last 20 years, even the most cold-hearted cynic would have to concede, that theirs is a brand of intelligent pop that transcends festivals, bedsits and middle class dinner parties with delight and lack of offence in equal measure. On Courting The Squall, Garvey gathered up song ideas that had been gathering dust, brought in a few of his Salford muso mates and, with the application of a jazz sensibility, went experimental. And did so with wonderous effect.


5. Richard Hawley - Hollow Meadows: After the extravagant splurge of mesmerising psych-rock that was 2012's Standing On The Sky's Edge, Sheffield's bequiffed bard returned with something of a throwback to his earlier, loving recreation of '50s ballroom balladry. The result is a truly luscious collection of guitar-driven twang with a conscience, immediately accessible, but which draws you inexorably into Hawley's romantic take on the modern world, its ills and thrills included, and it does so more with honey than the vinegar of its predecessor.





4. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell: Going right back to when I first started buying the NME as a callow youth, I have both embraced what the music press has encouraged me to like and rejected it out of hand. Because that's how it should work. Music may be less of a subjective art as, say, comedy, but it can abruptly split opinion. Yes, I own early Coldplay albums, and I've even paid money to see Adele in concert, but nothing the former produces now interest me, and as for the latter, even my love of the gloomy won't stretch to joining the billions now in posession of 25. All of this is to say that Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell is an album the music press implored us to buy and, instead of repulsing it, on the stubborn grounds that I make my own taste, I took a punt. And I couldn't have been enamoured mor by the beauty Stevens created from apparent pain, charm from sadness, respect from raw honesty. An absolutely brilliant piece of work.


3. ​Steven Wilson - Hand Cannot Erase: It maddens me that with the consistent quality of songwriting and collective musicianship that the prolific, workaholic Wilson brings to his albums that he isn't a bigger star. Sure, it must be good to be regularly fêted by the prog world and his peers therein, but when the standard is as high as it was on this, his fourth solo album, it is bordering on the criminal that his reward wasn't more than the high chart placings and glowing reviews Hand Cannot Erase. And, as Wilson knows himself, he gets points from me just for the Dead Can Dance reference. A brilliant album combining a dark, somewhat macabre concept with 80s-influenced rock-pop sensibilities. His best yet.



2. Wilco - Star Wars: Just when you thought mainstream rock couldn't turn out something different and interesting, Wilco sneak out an album that makes you realise why you got into music to begin with. Here is the contrarianism that made me appreciate The Beatles'  white album, Bowie and prog rock as a teenager: convention and quirkiness combined in constant experimentation, pushing boundaries without busting them wide open. In a year in which the new Star Wars film seems to have been arriving forever, Wilco released its namesake by surprise online, stunningly underpinning its joyously capricious nature.






ALBUM OF THE YEAR


1. New Order - Music Complete: Rarely does a band return to whatever it was that made them great to begin with. That's life. Groups with the sort of history, longevity and endurance as New Order, not to mention the musical core that has sustained that reputation, will always end up, to varying degrees of severity, parodying the thing that heralded their arrival. Don't get me wrong - in many respects it's what we want, what we willingly hand over our hard-earned for. The Rolling Stones, I'll wager, are still the greatest rock and roll band in the world, and their latterday output - while obviously not to the same par as their heyday - is still as good, if not better, than most rivals. What made New Order's Music Complete so good, apart from a title that said it all, was how they had not forgotten, or tried to forget, their early essence, that careful balance of rock and dance that made them cool to frug to as cool to listen taking notes to. Here was some knowing reinvention. Actually, the word I'd use is "rejuvinated", reflecting the zest for the craft that they applied in an album that, with familiarity as only a foundation, set about reconnecting the audience with a band that is probably genuiney alone - and therefore unique - in doing what it does.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Special, but up to a point


The vaults of most news organisations contain the obituaries of public figures that are far from dead and, apart from all the normal odds about expiring through random bus/lightning/shark encounters, are unlikely to leave us any time soon.

Seeing as anyone of us could go at any time, these "obits" are written or recorded just in case, and updated as and when there is something notable. For the journalists preparing them for newspapers, television or radio, it is a fairly morbid task, countered by typical journalistic black humour (head over to YouTube and watch the entire episode of Drop The Dead Donkey devoted to GlobeLink updating their obituary library with inevitable calamity).

The reason I bring all this up is that it feels like I've been preparing for José Mourinho's second departure from Chelsea for months. Given the ease with which Roman Abramovich has dispensed with managerial staff for even looking at him the wrong way, Chelsea's relentless descent since the start of the season - from defending Premier League champions to relegation-threatened deadbeats - has carried an inevitability about Mourinho's firing that has gone almost frustratingly unfulfilled.

Amazingly, the Russian has shown restraint, and despite media gossip about how Abramovich couldn't afford to pay Mourinho off, or was too scared, the simple reality is that he has genuinely tried to give Mourinho every opportunity to turn it around. Monday's performance at Leicester City showed that it is beyond repair. If the dressing room relationship hadn't been broken before, it was now. If a moribund set of expensively compensated players were not going to reach deep and perform like they did in the first half of last season, and more pertinently, like they did against the most extraordinary of odds to win in Munich in May 2012, they weren't likely to do so anytime soon under Mourinho.

God knows who they will do it for now. Hiddink, Ramos, Ancelotti - all the usual suspects are being reeled off for an opening that seems all-too familiar: interim coach at Chelsea.

Journalists love a good car crash, and for all those pundits saying that Mourinho is good for business, with his soundbites and sometimes strangled-English quotes, Chelsea's season has been a 20-car pile-up in thick fog with the chief constable declaring it the worst he's ever seen in 30 years as a police officer.

Any motorway disaster needs its 'Patient Zero' - its initial moment of madness, the white van driver changing lanes without looking in his side mirror or the tailgating Belgian trucker behaving as if the rules of the local road don't apply to him. In the case of Chelsea's season, its hard to identify the trigger.

Was it the shattered bodies that returned from an all-too brief summer break? Was it the failure of the club to do any meaningful business in the summer transfer market? Was it the dismal pre-season tour? Was it Mourinho losing it unnecessarily over the medical staff on August 8, and then losing the dressing room with his treatment of Eva Carneiro, an event said to have weighed heavily on Eden Hazard, for one?

Perhaps it was all of these, with each calamity solidifying its predecessor, building up a toxic sediment around the club. It has been a disaster: the Carneiro incident should have been resolved on the spot and the pre-season lethargy should have been mitigated with a better use of the youth on offer (the under-18s beat Huddersfield 6-1 last night - don't tell me there is no hunger at Chelsea Football Club...!). These are things Mourinho himself could have fixed. But he didn't.

Earlier this week I wrote how managers carry the can too often for their players' failings. That is still true. But, as I've also written - ad nauseum - the malaise at Chelsea has been in the players' heads, not in their legs, even if those legs are still shattered from last season. If Chelsea's stars have been toiling, there has been no shortage of fresh young blood on the bench to relieve them with ambition. Mourinho, however, kept them on the bench, instead sticking with the failing Fàbregas, Hazard, Matic, Ivanovich and Costa, even adding to their woes by doing so.

Mourinho was a special one, and still is. He could, now, move to Manchester United and relieve them of that pompous clown van Gaal. We all wish José well. He was an extraordinary manager at Chelsea...when he was being extraordinary. When that expired, and his God complex kicked in, there was never a Plan B, just a rapidly unravelling Plan A. Which may not have been that special at all.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

It's beginning to look a lot like the nightmare before Christmas


Given the December temperatures, there was something decidedly incongruous about the three thousand or so visiting Chelsea supporters in the King Power Stadium last night invoking Bob Marley's Three Little Birds by singing "Baby, don't worry about a thing". The home crowd responded with "Championship, gonna be alright".

Leicester City's fans can more than afford to be cocky, and Chelsea fans should appreciate the gallows humour, if nothing else. Claudio Ranieri's team earned it: their unlikely reverse - relegation threatened at the end of last season - is every bit as remarkable as the position Chelsea now find themselves in. 16th place on the back of nine league defeats is relegation form, and from a team many pundits were expertly predicting back in August would retain the Barclays Premier League title as favourites.

Less than a week ago we were celebrating, sort of, Chelsea's comfortable win over Porto and their progression into the last 16 of the Champions League. Yesterday morning I was bemoaning the fact that UEFA's sticky balls had paired the Blues again with PSG. But, frankly, these are minor irritations.

The modest relief of being in the knockout stages of the Champions League - which, believe it or not, Chelsea's Jeckyll & Hyde act could go on to win - was severely undermined by not only the way they lost to Leicester (the remarkable Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez not withstanding) but by the abject, rancid mood that José Mourinho brought on his team in the aftermath, publicly berating Oscar, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa and talking of being "betrayed" that all his hard preparation had been ignored.

If Costa, in particular, had an issue with Mourinho, or if Hazard - whose early "injury" was another bizarre episode involving the Belgian (remember Swansea City on the first day of the season?) - is to be tempted to Paris or Madrid, then such managerial pychology will only add more risk to Mourinho's already precarious state.

I've now lost count of the times since August 8 that I've written how something in the minds of Chelsea's manager and players has to change. It still hasn't. When the fixture list came out in July, you would have put decent money on Chelsea winning at home to Norwich and Bournemouth, or away to Leicester. In fact, you should have put money on those being defeats - I shudder to think what odds you'd have received.

When a manager gets sacked, it's always too easy for the players to bleat about letting him down and "we should have done more". In Mourinho's case, I just wonder whether he's had the capability in that big, brilliant footballing brain of his to process his team's obvious physical and mental declines. Why hasn't he made more use of the youthful exuberence of players like Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek, along with the myriad others out on loan? Why has he laboured on with Fàbregas when anyone with resonable vision has been able to see that his passes don't connect anymore...and that was his main mission in life.

You could say that Leicester's win last night was simply in the script, that somehow the Gods of Football decreed that the team managed by the man Chelsea sacked in favour of the man Chelsea now have in charge again should win. Because that, like dodgy Champions League draws, makes for better headlines, better banter and better studio conversations.

The reality is that Ranieri has found the formula and the players. Mourinho has just lost it. It may be misfortune, or it maybe the result of poor choices made by the club, but despite my belief that managers often unfairly carry the blame, the only logical conclusion you can reach from Chelsea's inexplicable - and very real - drop into relegation danger is that it is down to one man, a man who last night said "all last season I did phenomenal work and brought them to a level more than they really are", who wanted to single out his defenders for their movement around Vardy, and even had the temerity to have a pop at Leicester's ball-boys as "a disgrace to the Premier League".

With the exception of notable efforts against Spurs away and Porto at home Chelsea have just not been good enough in almost every department. Asmir Begovic has made a fine stand-in for Thibaut Courtois in goal, but both have been let down by their defenders too many times; in the midfield, Matic has been half the holding player he was last season, and Fàbregas lacking in pace, passing and perserverence; up front, Costa has been out of position and often out of order, while Hazard and the permanently Bambi-like Oscar have clearly been wanting for confidence. Only Willian has at least shown, to quote Harold Shand, "a little bit more than an 'ot dog, know what I mean?".

Football today is too quick to point to the manager. Chelsea has, in its recent past, been too quick to fire theirs. José Mourinho, and his three-year plan, was intended to establish a "dynasty". Where is that now? After one season as "the little horse", the second as the front-runner, for the third Chelsea are now looking more like a lame donkey giving out-of-season rides on Blackpool beach.

Even I have been amazed by Roman Abramovich's restraint, and as much as I loathe football's propensity for sacking managers after only the slightest of dips, I don't see the Chelsea owner having any alternative now.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Yawn... Would it kill UEFA to have a bit of variety?

Barcelona meet Arsenal: round of 16 draw in full

So, midway through December and What Would David Bowie Do? has been abruptly woken from its pre-Crimbo slumber by, of all things, the draw for the last 16 of Champions League.

For, amongst the pairings - with Arsenal-v-Barcelona standing out as the tie of the round - Chelsea are once again matched with Paris Saint-Germain. Yup, couldn't make it up. Obviously there was always a one-in-eight chance of Chelsea drawing PSG, the team who knocked them out of last season's competition in a grumpy encounter at Stamford Bridge, in which PSG came from behind twice to win on away goals, one of them scored by former defender David Luiz.

Some suggest that Chelsea's malaise this season can be traced back to that match on March 11 - even though they went on to win the Premier League quite comprehensively two months later. Luiz had, of course, been part of the Chelsea team that had beaten PSG 2-0 at the Bridge in the quarter-final the season previously.

Playing PSG for a third consecutive season could, of course, be simply a mathematical inevitability when you're down to the last 16 and in Pot 1 of the draw. But at risk of 'doing a José', there's something suspicious about it, not helped by the stinking climate of mistrust that currently pervades football at its highest levels.

I've had a similar view of Chelsea's endless encounters with Liverpool in the Champions League over the last decade or so, especially in seasons where there have been FA Cup and League Cup ties, on top of the Premier League, pairing them like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals (the Blues and the Reds met eight times in the 2004-2005 season alone).

No doubt elsewhere in the blogosphere there is now a similar post from an Arsenal fan complaining about being drawn against reigning European Cup holders, Barcelona, who are currently in imperious form and 5/2 favourites to win the trophy again, and who beat Arsenal in the 2006 Final and again in the 2010 quarter-final (6-3 on aggregate...).

Of course, both Chelsea and Arsenal should be grateful not to be continuing their European adventures this season in unpronouncable Nordic climes on Thursday nights, and Chelsea fans, in particular, should be grateful that it is 'only' PSG.

Privately, I'm sure the clubs are looking forward to repeat business, and the obvious spice hasn't been lost on the clubs' respective social media teams. But as a fan, I'm not. Tempting as it is to think the Champions League draw is rigged, I do think there should be a better method of ensuring that the odds don't work in favour of predictability.

Arsenal-Barca and Chelsea-PSG, not to mention Roma-Real Madrid, Juventus-Bayern Munich, and Dynamo Kiev-Manchester City amongst the other highlights, might be good for TV ratings and UEFA's sponsors, but I'm sure that many fans would have preferred to see the last 16 mixed up much better. Why couldn't Chelsea face Juve, who are currently rolling back into the Serie A title race after an indifferent start to their fourth consecutive defence of the Scudetto. Why couldn't Arsenal encounter Roma, last-season's domestic runners-up in Italy and who've been showing the Milan teams a thing or two in recent seasons?

Something truly suggests that the drawing process for the Champions League is quite literally a load of balls.

Monday, November 30, 2015

COP 21: the bear necessities of life


It's a sobering, eye-swiveling thought when you consider that, out of the 3.5 billion years there has been life on our planet, the human race - in its anatomically modern form - has only been around for 200,000 years.

More sobering is that mankind's industrial interaction with the planet has only taken place over the last 250 years or so. Even more sobering still, then, when you consider the damage it has done in that relative blink of the eye of Earth's 4.5 billion-year existence.

Remarkably, as many as 99% of all the lifeforms believed to have existed have become extinct, the consequence, I suppose of natural events and natural selection over the last 3.5 billion years. So, as one tiny percentage of the one percent that has survived, our responsibility is huge. Or perhaps we are destined for extinction too?

Human development can be directly blamed for the loss of habit of thousands of species of animals, forcing some into extinction, while others have been pushed closer to inevitable encounters with mankind that they weren't designed for - be it the poor brown bear who, fatally, found himself in a Russian shopping mall last month, or the mountain lions of the American West which invariably come off worse as urban sprawl continues.

And then there is the secondary effect of human development: climate change. Deniers and ardent contrarians like to believe that climate change is a natural phenomena, that it has happened before, and that global warming is a cyclical event. We are, they say, currently in "upcycle".

Tell that, then, to the polar bear. The bear family evolved out of other mammalian species 38 million years ago, with divisions between the black and the polar breeds occurring more than four million years ago. And yet recent, measurable climate change and the erosion of the Arctic ice pack polar bears rely on for food outside hibernation months, could see these magnificent animals - the planet's largest land mammals - disappear for good in a matter of decades.

I know this sounds like tree hugging, hair-shirted environmentalist (with the emphasis on mentalist...) dogma, but the facts and the truth speak for themselves. For example, an exhaustive, five-year study by the US Geological Survey found that Alaska's Arctic shoreline has eroded at average rate of 1.4 meters per year since the mid-20th century, with the thawing permafrost and gradually warming waters believed to be the likely cause...and both animal and human life the likely victim.

Sea ice is disappearing from Arctic waters at an unprecedented rate — more rapidly than predicted by the most extreme projections in the most recent assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Indeed, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, with the ice that reflects 60% of the sun's rays disappearing, a vicious circle of rising sea levels and even less sea ice, adding further to global warming. The thickness of the Arctic icecap halved in the 30 years between 1980 and 2010, as well as shrunk by 30% in terms of area. That is not a change over the course of millennia - that's a disappearance measurable in terms of a portion of my lifetime.

"Boo-hoo", snark the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, sarcastically, as they make throwaway japes about how brer ursidae is not in the least bit their concern when arguing the benefits of diesel over petrol, or how quickly the latest Ferrari will get from 0-60. However, the Clarkson school of cynicism - that's his media persona, and it sells newspapers, magazines and television shows - is not the issue. We are, collectively. Our behaviour, and our tolerance of our governments' behaviour.

It's the proprietary interests that prevent natural, renewable energy sources from being invested in; it's the refusal to see energy efficiency as a meaningful condition to reverse climate change; it's about politicians putting money where their often sizeable mouths are.

It's about the staggering arrogance that any human has to assume its warped interpretation of "survival of the fittest" superiority over a species that has been around for millions of years longer than our own. A species with every right to stay around longer without human ignorance and all the things climate change can be blamed on being the cause of its demise.

Apex predators are magnificent beasts. The Great White Shark looks like a fighter jet, the lion and tiger are some of nature's most beautiful creations, and bears are, well just brilliant animals. None of these I would want to encounter close up, of course, but that doesn't mean that they should be denied their right to exist because of the inability, or unwillingness, or just plain stupidity of the planet's most intelligent species to do something about it. When clearly we can.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Rock and roll returns to Paris: Richard Hawley at the Alhambra

© Simon Poulter 2015
My God, this is what Paris needed. Screw that, this is what I needed.​ Not to get too overwrought, but the events of November 13 - and in particular, the slaughter at Le Bataclan - meant that any return to the normality Paris has sought in the last two weeks had to include getting back into the city's concert halls.

Although U2, Prince and the Foo Fighters, amongst others, cancelled scheduled gigs following the attacks, the defiance this city has shown from the beginning of the aftermath brought an unspoken poignancy to the Alhambra on Wednesday night.

And if Paris was still nervous, the 600 inside the former French railway workers' fun house, a 15-minute walk from Le Bataclan, didn't show it.

Indeed, the Alhambra may have been within reach of the now-fêted new bohemian districts and their youthful on-mode residents, but the Paris which came out to experience Hawley and his subtle brand of rock and roll, not to mention his gentle, dry South Yorkshire humour, represented a cross section of a city still in pain. This was a city looking for enjoyment, from children to elegantly-clad seniors. And it wasn't to be disappointed, either.

From the moment Hawley strode on stage to the tune of Jerry Reed's Guitar Man and bedecked in double-denim (probably the only man in the Western world in his late 40s able to get away with such a look), the Alhambra was held in the comforting embrace of his trademark glitterball ballads, swoonsome slow dances, chugging rockers and psychedelic tripouts.

It is seemingly impossible for anyone to write about Hawley without mentioning, in no specific order, quiffs, crooning, Sheffield and the 1950s. And while there is an obvious tread of retro through some of what he does, contemporary social commentary runs deep through his music, as well as the questions about life that all 48-year-olds - myself being one of them - ask.

From the outset, the storming Which Way set the tone. One of the more raucous tracks on this year's Hollow Meadows, which marked a return to the more late night fare of Hawley's earlier solo albums, the descending chords of Hawley and rhythm player Shez Sheridan's guitars warmed up the November-chilled crowd.

There was more of this grittier material to come with Standing At The Sky's Edge, drenched in Ennio Morricone-like forboding of the kind Johnny Cash would have made a brilliant cover out of on his latterday American Recordings releases. Here, though, Hawley and band built it up, providing mesmerising theatre to a song about Sheffield's urban blight, with a tribal drum segment added by Dean Beresford and bass player Colin Elliott on a side snare to enhances the dramatic tension.

Standing At The Sky's Edge was a stunning album, and the tracks taken from it in this set shone for their warmth and their anger. Leave Your Body Behind You exemplified the album's psych rock direction, and Don't Stare At The Sun provided a dreamier outlook on the world. On Down In The Woods, with its barely concealed contempt for the ruling political elite in Britain, the fire was channelled through Hawley and Sheridan's myriad effects pedals, not to mention the song's industrial rhythm, one which sounds like a slower version of Motorhead's Ace Of Spades. Playing an absolutely vibrant, fireglow-hued Rickenbacker on Time Will Bring You Winter, Hawley took things into Beatle territory - Colin Elliott even played a Hofner violin bass - an undercurrent of Tomorrow Never Knows giving the song a hypnotic feel.

The dark romance of Hawley's slower, old-style songs, which showcased both the rich timbre of his baritone as well as his gift as a uniquely melodic guitarist, provided the soothing blanket that this disturbed and, now, cold city desired. The luscious ballad I Still Want You draped a caring arm around the audience, while Open Up Your Door - which met with an almighty cheer - brought out the glitterball spirit of old fashioned entertainment. Ballads like these can, it must be said, sound schmaltzy on record, but in the expanse of a room like the Alhambra's, a fullsome energy came to the fore. On Sometimes I Feel, there was a Western tone, which bridged into a jangly segment driven by Sheridan's exquisite electric 12-string sound.

Parisian audiences can be annoyingly yappy, I've noticed, but when Hawley almost encouraged crowd chatter in his introduction to Tuesday PM - "the most miserable fucking song I've ever written" - the audience went respectfully quiet. "Let's play some rock and roll," Hawley then declared, defiantly, after some awkward audience banter, as the band launched into Heart Of Oak, which thundered on at a snappy clip.

As they headed into the encore, ​There's A Storm Comin' bound the crowd even closer. Given what happened just across the 10th arrondissement two weeks ago, the song's refrain "there's a storm comin', you'd better run,,," painted emotion onto the faces of couples who, as the song built to a grinding, thudding crescendo, held themselves even tighter.

After the briefest of exits, the Hawley and his band returned clutching glasses of red wine which they held aloft in tribute to Paris, and the Paris that had come out tonight to see them. It was a nice touch, a genuine and lovingly reciprocated gesture that set up Coles Corner, the near-ten year-old song here transformed into a Parisian lullaby, but with the weighted poignancy of lyrics such as "Cherish the light for us, don't let the shadows hold back the dawn", and the even more poignant, "I'm going downtown where there's music, I'm going downtown where there's people."

Well, here they were. And, with the shimmering finale of The Ocean, Hawley barely singing above a throaty drawl, an evening that Paris needed, an evening that Paris deserved, came to an end.

Paris didn't need the tragedy of the November 13th attrocities to enjoy Richard Hawley. Having seen him in 2012 at Le Cigale, I knew what a complete and hugely satisfying experience it would be. On Wednesday at the Alhambra, that satisfaction came back stronger than ever. Hail, hail, rock and roll.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

It's going to take Diego Costa more than a few kisses and cuddles


To anyone else, a 4-0 away win in the Champions League would be met with yelps of satisfaction and cup-runneth-over delight. But this is Chelsea. In this season.

Inevitably, then, the verdict of this result over Macabi Tel Aviv - which, on a comparable basis, was only one goal shy of Barcelona's 6-1 thumping of Roma on the same night - was branded by the press this morning as "unconvincing". A tad unfair? Well, maybe, but not a lot.

Former Chelsea defender Tal Ben Haim's sending off before half time, for a ludicrous kick at Diego Costa, should have tipped the balance in the Blues' favour, especially with them up 1-0 after Gary Cahill's 20th minute goal. But as so often is the case, losing a man can galvanise a team, and as happened with Stoke City, Tel Aviv came out of the traps in the second half.

It wasn't until the 72nd minute - and another superb Willian goal struck from a free kick - that Chelsea were able to make the game safe. This spoke further volumes about Chelsea's enduring inability to kill off games against stubborn opponents.

That strikes from Oscar and Zouma followed in the following 15 minutes were, perhaps, not a surprise, given that Tel Aviv were tiring with a man less and growing increasingly ill-disciplined. But the weaknesses that have plagued Chelsea since the start of the season were still there, despite José Mourinho's maintenance that confidence is returning to the side.

In fairness, overall it wasn't a bad performance by Chelsea, and a welcome back-to-back win after their result on Saturday over Norwich. In Hazard and Fabregas, something of their best is returning. But whatever improvements are in store throughout the team must still be to come. The defence still looks stretched at times - Peretz was a regular terror last night - with Terry and Cahill still straining more sinews than you would have expected were needed to keep danger away from the impressive Begovic in goal.

However, the area of greatest concern remains in front of the opposition goal. Apart from one thwarted bicycle kick that was almost on target, Diego Costa is still frustratingly profligate. A lack of confidence may seem an odd diagnosis for a player so seemingly ready for a scrap that he makes Dennis Wise look like Henry Kissinger. But what energy he has, he seems to channel all-too easily into niggly flair-ups that detract from his striking prowess.

It's a frustration that is shared by Mourinho, who was clearly agitated in the technical area during the first half with Costa apparently not following orders. For the rest of us watching, it is Costa's lack of real movement off the ball and positioning to slam passes into the net that is the most frustrating.

Something has ailed Costa all season. Despite discounting summer rumours that he was homesick in London, and then confessing that he'd returned from the summer break overweight due to a little too much home cooking in Brazil, there has been a discernable air of ill-ease around him since the start of the season.

Whether he is overthinking everything, or not thinking at all, Costa is still a problem for Mourinho, and in turn that creates other headaches, seeing as Falcao is out injured (and wasn't doing much beforehand, to be honest), and Loïc Remy is still not regarded as the first-choice target man.

"I was disappointed. I reacted and he reacted too," Mourinho said of Costa in the first half. "At half-time in the dressing room there were a few kisses and a few cuddles." Well I'm sure some TLC was appreciated by the Brazilian, but that still doesn't fix the underlying problem.

Costa can't be blamed for carrying all of Chelsea's weaknesses this season but he is obviously toiling. The solution, isn't, either, to buy in the January window. The Torres saga, not to mention the shotgun purchases of Mohammed Saleh and Juan Cuadrado, should warn them off that route.

It goes without saying that any striker worth their salt will not be on sale in the middle of the season. Which means that, unless Lionel Messi decides that London is where he wants to be for the second half of 2015-16, Mourinho needs to make use of what he's got. Specifically, Diego da Silva Costa. Because there won't be anything new coming along until next summer.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The week when FOBO stopped being an irrational fear


We all do it and we’ve all been victims of it. By now we must all know someone seemingly unable to go out for dinner without frantically checking their phones between mouthfuls.

Likewise, we've all been joined in the office lift by someone who, on entering, immediately starts thumbing through their e-mail, probably barely seconds since last doing so. And there are suburban railway stations where, every morning and like herds of animals at a water hole, massed ranks of commuters crane their necks over glowing LCD screens.

It has become the go-to reflex action when avoiding eye contact or, indeed, any kind of social interaction. Once, this was known as “phubbing” - a crude portmanteau of ‘phone’ and ‘snubbing’ - the habit of ignoring family members and friends through an unhealthy obsession with a smartphone. It has, however, been identified as more than just a bad habit, but an impact to relationships and even mental wellbeing, especially for those being phubbed, who see it as a sign of rejection and disinterest. And, yes, bloody rude.


But phubbing has now mutated into a syndrome of far greater import: FOBO - the fear of being offline, and its most damaging manifestation, the anxiety caused by disconnection from information, the compulsive checking of a phone even if an important communication isn’t expected.

If that’s you, then you’ll be prone to panic if you can’t remember where you last put your phone down, that you must have it in front of you at all times, that you switch it on the minute you’re allowed to on a plane, or that you even sneak a look halfway through a film - much to the dismay of those around you in the cinema, as the bright LCD glow gives you away.

A British study last year revealed that, on average, we look at our smarphones 221 times a day, which someone has worked out adds up to more than three hours each day hunched over these devices. Last year, the Iowa State University of Science and Technology found how "worried and nervous" people are if they are disconnected, or that their friends and family are unresponsive to digital messages. This even extended to the fear of a phone running out of battery power.

Another study found that 78% of French people spend more than 15 minutes before going to bed looking at their phones, and a similar percentage going straight back to them on waking. In the US, a Gallup stufy found that as many as 63% of smartphone owners kept theirs near them when they were asleep. No wonder phones have been attributed to sleeping disruption disorders.

Some places have resorted to extreme measures: restaurant customers now play the 'phone stacking' game, whereby in a group, everyone places their phones at the center of the table and the first who looks at it lands the bill. One Los Angeles restaurant even offers a 5% discount if phones are left at the entrance. Here in France, President Hollande is understood to have installed lockers outside his cabinet meeting room to, apparently deal with the "addictive behavior" of his ultra-connected ministers. That, though, may be amended in light of this last week’s events.

Most of us wouldn’t know how we coped before mobile devices came along, but when it comes to news, we are now light years away from relying only on neighbourhood gossip, daily newspapers, News At Ten or hourly bulletins on the radio. We’re also living busier lives.

In an interview in June with The Times, Dr. Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, told Barbara McMahon: "Everybody is attempting to do more things at the same time and everybody is checking in more often. From a psychological viewpoint, it looks like we all have a touch of OCD." The fact that one of our principle sources of information is now the smartphone, is, he says, a further example of our obsession. "The way we act out this obsession, which is the way people usually act out anxiety-based obsessions, is that we have to constantly check in to reassure ourselves."

Until this last week, I must admit, I've been as guilty as anyone of succumbing to FOBO. My justification has always been that working in corporate PR means being across the news as well as ensuring that I know what's going on around the world within my company. But I recognise that such behaviour is not that far removed from those constantly checking their phones in case World War Three has broken out or One Direction have broken up/reformed/gone to live on a kibbutz.

Events here in Paris in the last week have, more than ever, tested everyone's irrational concern of disconnectivity to the extreme. The attacks just over a week ago, and the continuous newscycle since, has made the need to be connected - for information and even comfort - understandably essential. News services, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and all the rest have, in various ways, provided vital lifelines to developments.


On the night of the 13th, Facebook’s Safety Check provided those of us in Paris with some means of reassurance that our local friends were OK. But not all: it was a WhatsApp message, from a phone down to its last few bars of battery power, that informed me that two of my Facebook friends, who’d been been inside Le Bataclan, were safe. 

The Paris attacks have occurred in a very different era of media consumption and digital social connectivity. 9/11, by comparison, occurred at a time when "the Internet" was a thing you did on a PC. The few ‘smartish’ phones available at the time were crude and clunky.

Still, it became hard to focus on anything else in the days and weeks after the hijackings, not knowing whether they were one-offs...or that there were further onslaughts to come. On the 11th itself, television was the primary information source. Stations abandoned their schedules to provide blanket coverage, for the first time introducing the ‘zip strip’ at the bottom of the screen to keep viewers up to date in realtime. In the process, television news stopped being just a newsreader, but a source of simultaneous, multiple points of information.

14 years on, near-ubiquitous mobile connectivity has had its upside - and its downside. In a blog post entitled "The truths, the half truths and the lies", Gregoire Lemarchand, the head of social media for the French news agency AFP, chronicled how the November 13 attacks in Paris unfolded as a digital timeline, unleashing “an unprecedented storm of rumour and speculation” on social media that even surpassed “the tidal wave that accompanied the Charlie Hebdo assaults in and around the French capital in January.”

But, Lemarchand pointed out, the multiple attacks in numerous locations meant that social media played a bigger part in accelerating the speed of misinformation. Significantly, though he made the following observation: "...there was less irresponsible content and less conspiracy theories than ten months earlier. It was as if lessons had been learned."

Still, though, the 'fog of war' principle applied. As the first tweets appeared, Lemarchand noted: "Some of the early information - like that there had been a shooting at the Bataclan - would end up being true. Other tweets much less so. People were tweeting that there had been shootings and explosions in the Halles neighbourhood - these never happened. But in those early hours it was impossible to separate the truths, the half truths and the lies."

As the Paris newscycle has continued, so the need to be connected has grown ever more obsessive and compulsive, feeding the beast in the process. The attacks - and the subsequent Saint-Denis raid - have generated so many minute-by-minute revelations, that increasingly hyper-competitive news organisations have been constantly trying trump each other with new information, new angles, new opinions, using social media relentlessly and even ruthlessly to build their audiences and even crow about their exclusives.

Television, my iPhone and iPad have conspired to feed the beast, but perhaps on this occasion, the obsessive, compulsive behaviour of needing to keep up in real time is justifiable. To be fair, though, when the city around you is under attack, no amount of obsession will be enough to know that people you care about are safe.

Friday, November 20, 2015

You never call, you never write...Bowie is back. Again.


So, nothing in ten years, and then, in the space of three, two new albums come along. Welcome, then, to the bonkers, enigmatic world of David Bowie, the changeling, cultural icon, artistic innovator, and many other things The Guardian will no doubt pour over at length in the weeks to come before Blackstar, the second of the two new - yes, I've used that word - albums is released.

The last one, The Next Day, was recorded with such stealth that even when Bowie was photographed outside New York's The Magic Shop studio, no one twigged that he was actually working on the record inside. This time, though, we've had fair warning. Three weeks ago came confirmation from Camp Dame that the album Blackstar would be released on January 8, Bowie's 69th birthday, copying the stupendously surprising appearance on the same day in 2013 of Where Are We Now?, the haunting prelude to The Next Day's eventual release that March.

Last night, Bowie released a ten-minute video single for Blackstar's title tracksetting in train an outbreak of chin-stroking and head-scratching at both the song and the video's meaning, which appears to be one of death and decay.

Where Are We Now? did much the same, especially as it was the first, proper, new Bowie material after a decade of musical silence, and its mournful, reflective mood immediately became interpreted as some form of denuement. As we now know, the album that followed represented anything but - a vibrant, reinvigorated Bowie with plenty to say.

Blackstar's meaning is yet to be revealed, leaving us all open to speculation. Personally, I doubt there's a particularly profound meaning to it all, and that Bowie is just messing with us. But the single - an edited version of which is being used for the Sky series The Last Panthers – will certainly instigate more bafflement, and confirm earlier media speculation that "Blackstar may be [Bowie's] oddest work yet".

Photograph: Johan Renck

But, first, let's get Johan Renck's Blackstar video out of the way: a gaunt Bowie, appearing first as a blind man, with facial bandages and David Lynch hair, a women with some sort of animal's tail, a seemingly permanently eclipsed sun, screaming scarecrows, a couple of half-naked young men with jerking bodies, and then a healthier, sighted Bowie, frugging to the song's funky mid-section in a manner similar to his Dancing In The Street dad-dancing horror with Mick Jagger.

Ending with Bowie holding up a battered book, the Blackstar motif on its cover (not exactly a design stretch - ★ ), it could all be about the Day of Judgement. Or it may have not been a promo at all, but the downloaded dream of someone who'd overdone the cheese during a particularly vigorous fondue evening.

Listening, however, to Blackstar, sans the visual madness, the real Bowie comes through. Sectioned into three parts, with the first and the third comprised of a Gregorian-like ambience, and an eliptical refrain (the Kings Of Leon's lyrical stock in trade) laid over an abrubt electronic drum pattern of the kind Bowie flirted with on the Earthling album. Out of and into these seemingly disjointed sections, the mood changes, like full daylight in between the dawn and twilight, melodically warming up with flourishes of saxophone, synths and jazz-funk experimentation.

In a way, it is essential Bowie, but whereas in the past the topography of his styles has varied over entire albums, or even entire eras of albums, Blackstar skillfully compresses this variety into one long song. In principle that sounds like an unworkable mess, but truly it isn't. Nor, does this melange of tempo and tone mean that Bowie has gone prog (he always was, in any case, but his version of the theatrical and avant garde has traditionally been accepted as higher art). 

It does, however, provide a fascinating taster for what the album Blackstar will bring in January. Producer Tony Visconti has already suggested that it will be far less conventional than The Next Day (adding how that had been intended to be "something new, but something old kept creeping in").

This bodes well for fans uncomfortable with - or just wary of - Bowie the pop star, hoping for a return or at least a reflection of the experiemental nature of the Berling trilogy, Low, Heroes and Lodger. More importantly, it demonstrates that Bowie is not only back, but as determined as ever to confound audiences, something he's done at every turn.

I'm constantly asked what it is that fascinates me about David Bowie, and - I promise - this blog's title isn't any sign of obsession (it was simply a throwaway comment that stuck in my head). Surprisingly, singalong hits and a canon of memorable pop-rock aren't my the primary focus.

What intrigues and excites me about Bowie's near-50 year recording career is that at every turn he has dared to be different every time, risking change for the sake of it. Few - if any - artists of his peer and age groups have been so varied and experimental, encompassing styles as diverse as vaudeville theatre, space rock, drum'n'bass, funk, metal, jazz...

In fact, is there any style he hasn't tried? On January 8, we will find out what else he has up his sleeve.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A moment of solidarité, but it may take more than that next summer

Football has had much to answer for over the years. In the aftermath of Heysel and Hillsborough it became a dirty word. Some might say that today, in the era of petulant millionaires playing it, and blatantly corrupt figures running it, it's not exactly fragrant.

But football is also a uniting force. This may be lost on my American friends, but after all, it is - by far - the world's most popular sport.

Last night at Wembley Stadium, the sight of the England and France teams, their managers, national administrators, an heir to the throne, and 71,000 fans, standing together, put some much-needed polish on the beautiful game.

Against the backdrop of Friday's terrorist attacks - which included three attempted suicide bombings during the France-Germany friendly at the Stade De France - yesterday evening's demonstration of la solidarité showed that could suspend the petty rivalries that make for semi-amusing in-game banter, and come together for something more altruistic.

The camaraderie of internationals and club teammates alike, the joint singing of Le Marseillaise by both sets of fans, and the impeccable observance of the minute's silence, will live on in the memory for years to come. And there was more poignancy in the game's 57th minute when France's Antoine Griezmann and Lassana Diarra came on as subsitutes. Diarra's cousin Asta Diakite was killed in the attacks, Griezmann's sister was caught up in the carnage, but escaped unharmed.

However, while liberté, egalité and fraternité flowed freely through north-west London last night, 500 miles away in Hannover there had been a stark reminder of the dangers ahead for football: a "concrete" - though now discounted - security threat at the HDI Arena forced the Germany-Netherlands friendly to be abandoned less than two hours before kickoff.

For the organisers of next summer's European championships in France, the country's status as a target for home-grown terrorists, not just imported from Belgium and Syria, will be now become an even bigger headache than previously imagined.

France has very publicly declared itself "at war" with those behind Friday's attacks, and the country remains under a state of emergency. Not surprisingly, however, UEFA and the French football authorities have been at pains to point out that security preparations for Euro 2016 have been ongoing for some time, with the kick-off just seven months away.

Already on Saturday, the president of the Euro 2016 organising committee, Jacques Lambert, said the tournament was now at "tangible risk", but added that the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January had upgraded the risk from being simply "theoretical".

"It doesn't probably change much for the security professionals regarding preparations of the event," he told French radio station RTL, "but you see that for everyone, public opinion, media, teams, it adds a special intensity."

No kidding. The fact that at least one of last Friday's bombers at the Stade de France had a ticket will be even more worrying. At the very least, it demonstrates the extent of the terrorists' planning and thinking, but at least investigators will have 79,000 ticket sales that could be useful.



Scanning the hundreds of thousands of tickets that will be sold for next summer's tournament will not be so easy. Indeed the provisions for security at all ten Euro 2016 stadia will come under increasing public scrutiny given the spread of arrests being made in France of terror suspects and their supporters.

Questions will be raised about the level of police and military presence in the host cities, security in the fanzones and the team hotels and training camps, how public transport is made safer without it grinding to a halt, and the issue which is already raging about border controls throughout the European Shengen Area.

Of course, this climate of fear is exactly what the jihadists will want: "Wondering whether Euro 2016 must be cancelled is playing the game of the terrorists," Lambert told RTL. "We will make the decisions we need to make so that the Euro finals can be held in the best security conditions." France, he said, had included the terror risk in their original bid to host the tournament, submitted in 2009. That, though, had obviously been in the context of a general threat. Since Friday, the threat has mutated to one in which extremists have deliberately targeted a football match on French soil.

Noël Le Graët, president of the French Football Federation, has admitted that Euro 2016 is now looking far more high-risk than it did before Friday. "You can see very clearly the terrorists can strike at any moment,” he said at the weekend. "There was already a concern. As of now, it is clearly even stronger."

Almost imediately after Friday night's attack, UEFA issued a statement - quite correctly - that Euro 2016 will go ahead as planned. More than 1.5 billion Euros have been invested in the stadia - the Stade de France and Parc des Princes in Paris, the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille, Stade des Lumières in Lyon, Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille, Matmut Atlantique in Bordeaux, Stadium Municipal in Toulouse, Stade Bollaert-Delelis in Lens, Allianz Riviera in Nice, and Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in Saint-Étienne. But, of course, you can't put a price on human safety.

During the London 2012 Olympics, much was made beforehand of mitigating the terror threat by installing anti-aircraft missile batteries on East End tower blocks, deploying Typhoon jets at Northholt Aerodrome, and placing a SAS team on alert within the British capital. And that was just for one main stadium and a handful of satellite venues.





Even with the French police and military, with battle-proven, state-of-the-art intelligence-gathering technology, being applied to combat ever-evolving and sophisticated terrorists, the risk heightening far beyond "significant" will weigh on the minds of the teams and fans already planning their summer of football in France.

Football fans are a resilient bunch, if a little rough around the edges. Without being flippant, they endure the ups and downs of their clubs and national teams, usually with good humour. The Portsmouth fans seen singing "Stand up if you hate ISIS" on Saturday were well meaning, if in possession of somewhat misplaced irony. However, dealing with the very real threat next summer will take more than shaven-headed bovver boys in Kappa rollnecks chanting "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough!".

It's going to take an unprecedented effort by governments, the intelligence services and the police to ensure that terrorists, to recall the IRA's chilling statement after the 1994 Brighton bomb, do not get "lucky" a second time. As they said, "You will have to be lucky always."


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The need to see for myself



A colleague of mine, who has been following my posts over the last three days, asked me yesterday why, on Saturday afternoon, I felt the need to break the unofficial curfew in Paris and visit the sites of the terror attacks the night before.

My honest answer was that I just didn't know. I just knew that I had to get out of the house and face up to whatever fear - real or perceived - the attackers had forced on this city. I had to defy their attempt to impose their murderous, backward doctrine on MY freedom. But that, I recognised afterwards, only partially answered her question: why did I need to visit some of the sites along that corridor of killing on the borders of the 10th and 11th arrondissements?

This triggered my memory of visiting New York in October 2001. October 10th, to be precise - almost a month to the day that terrorists murdered 2,606 people at the World Trade Center. Flying from San Francisco to New York on what was, effectively, the reverse route of United's Flight 93, the plane was so empty you couldn't just choose your seat, but the entire row for the five-hour duration.

From the taxi as I approached Manhattan, I became aware of what was missing on the city skyline: the Twin Towers. Obscurely, it reminded me of an old man minus his two front teeth. New York was understandably edgy, but one thing stood out: waiting to cross 6th Avenue, a fire engine raced by. New Yorkers - that most self-enclosed creature when out in public - stopped and rigorously applauded the passing fire crew. It was the first time I'd been genuinely close to tears throughout the entire awful saga.

By that time, Ground Zero had already become a shrine to the fallen. Some foreign colleagues visiting a trade show suggested going down to Church Street to pay our respects. I declined. It felt too much like rubbernecking, gawping at what felt like a mass grave. But a month later - returning to New York for Thanksgiving in a somewhat guileless attempt, admittedly, to 'give' something back to the greatest city in the world, I felt compelled to go down there.

I was still trying to process the attrocity, to empathise with the victims, even trying to get into the heads of those whose purest of evil had driven them to commit such an unimagineable act. I had to see for myself, partially to satisfy a morbid interest, where so much tragedy had been concentrated in the space of one, sunny Tuesday morning, 12 weeks previously.

Then, New York's Ground Zero encompassed a space of about 14 acres. On Friday night, the jihadists inside Paris itself murdered their way along a ribbon of just 2.2km long, more or less the stops of Oberkampf, Saint-Ambroise, Voltaire and Charonne on Line 9 of the Métro, a compressed itinerary that only occurred to me this morning when I looked up at the line map on my train to work.


On Saturday I had to trace these steps. I didn't need - or want - to see bullet holes and sawdust masking drying blood. I just needed some inside-out understanding of where it happened as much as what. Why it happened is another line of thinking altogether.

Of course, I wasn't alone. The pavements covered in flowers and candles in front of Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon, Café Bonne Bierre and Casa Nostra, and outside Le Bataclan and the Belle Equipe in Rue de Charonne, drew those wishing to pay their respects, to mourn and, perhaps, seek further comfort, that they, too, could have been in and outside these places in this fun, trendy and yet refreshingly unpretentious district of Paris.

It is easy to see this as rubbernecking, I know, but I'm certain that the vast majority were there to furnish affinity with their fellow Parisians, who died doing what Parisians - indeed residents of any city - do on a Friday night.

"It's my family who have been touched by this, musicians," violinist Anne Gouverneur told The Guardian outside Le Bataclan"It’s a small group of people. Everyone has friends who were among the injured and the dead. I feel very close to the victims." And she spoke for us all. Her family were musicians, my 'family' are music fans, restaurant patrons and bar regulars.

Four days on, Paris is starting to shift, delicately, from shock and mourning. Normality - which was, after all, what was happening on Friday night - recovers quicker than we might think in these situations, no matter how horrific.

A social media campaign is encouraging Parisians to return to how things were (before they became things that will never be the same again), by going to their restaurants, bistros and cafes, to not cower in fear. Unsurprisingly, it's a campaign that doesn't need much encouragement to flourish.

Paris is many things, but its culture and lifestyle are two things which define it the most. Paris IS its cafes and concert halls. "Culture is our biggest shield," the minister for culture, Fleur Pellerin, said yesterday. Getting back behind that shield will be easy, I'm sure. But it surely helped to see, up close, what it was that caused the shield to be raised to begin with.

Monday, November 16, 2015

In Paris it's not another manic Monday

© Simon Poulter 2015
​Monday morning. Paris has woken for another working week. The difference, this time, is that it follows a weekend no one will ever forget.

The bars, cafes and shops that closed on Saturday, and remained so yesterday, will reopen, slowly and gingerly. People will take the Métro, gather around office coffee machines, go out to lunch, and later go home, picking up bread and wine for the evening meal along the way. All the things Paris will have done on countless Mondays before. Except on this Monday, with a tangible solemnity.

Yesterday, unseasonably warm sunshine proved irresistable to locals and tourists alike. They came out of their homes and hotels to sit in the parks, a celebration of life in its own right.

As I walked through the Jardins du Trocadéro, across Pont d'Iéna in front of the Eiffel Tower and then along Port de la Bourdonnais, there was no obvious dimming of the crowds, or their mood.

This, I'm sure, would have been part relief, part compensation, and part determination to not let a weekend in Paris be ruined completely. No one had to say it, but people weren't going to let the bad guys achieve exactly what defines "terrorism".

Eventually circling back up the Champs-Élysées, there was, though, a decidedly more muted tone. As one of the few areas of Paris to allow shops to be open on a Sunday, many - if not most - were shut. Threading their way through the tourists, police with shotguns and sub-machine guns augmented the trios of soldiers who've patrolled this gaudy, over-commercialised avenue for some time now.

Inevitably, one felt comfort, but up to a point. Friday's attacks - well organised, well orchestrated and clearly well equipped - came without warning and with a force that would even question the effectivenes of armed officers posted in every doorway in the city.

Paris will heal. The mental scars of those drenched in the blood of others will not. It would be crass, stupid and bloody obvious to suggest, for journalistic effect, that the attacks have changed Paris irreparably. And, anyway, people said just that in January. Paris got back on with being Paris, which was exactly what Paris was doing on Friday night.

The French ambassador to London yesterday described Friday night's bloodshed as "France's 9/11". Thus the 7/7 attacks were London's 9/11, the Madrid rail bombings Spain's. These are worthy sentiments, projecting a sense of solidarity and membership of an ignominious club. But they are also just soundbites, soundbites which don't relieve the pain of losing loved ones simply enjoying a Friday night out. And they don't extinguish the fear that the nihlistic, narcisstic death cult responsible for sending eight young, brainwashed men to Paris will strike again. On another Friday night, on a Monday morning, at any time.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The danger's over, so let the danger begin

© Simon Poulter 2015
It is been the kind of Sunday morning that people who live in Paris feel better for, and visitors come to experience. The sky above the city has been cloudless and smogless, allowing the sun to shine from a panorama so consistently blue it could have been painted according to a Pantone colour reference.

If you hadn't been aware of Friday's news, you'd be looking out on this city with a self-satisfied "Yes!" in blindingly obvious recognition that you were in one of the most beautiful, vibrant and exciting cities in the world, one which intoxicates with its very brickwork.

But that's if you hadn't been aware of what happened on Friday. Yesterday, after being cooped up at home since getting in from work on Friday evening, and then being glued to the TV until mid-afternoon, I went out to get some perspective.

I took the Métro to Boulevard Voltaire and worked my way back towards Republique, past Le Bataclan, and then on up Boulevard Jules Ferry in the direction of the restaurants Le Carillon and Le Cambodge. At every grim waypoint in Friday night's slaughter, there were packs of television crews, their anchors reporting live to the world, over-rotating on every new scrap of information, pulling in locals and witnesses to fill in the blanks on what happened.

Outside Le Bataclan - and within the enormous perimeter established by the police - the Eagles Of Death Metal's tour bus was still parked there. It is still there this morning. A strange, solemn reminder of what happened on a Friday night at a rock concert.

In the streets around the venue, the paraphernalia of tragedy are still visible: disgarded surgical gloves, tubing from plasma drips and, inevitably, the smeared traces of blood left behind by the walking wounded and those dragged from what has been likened to a battlefield, suvivors stepping over the dead and dying to get away from the massacre.

A 15-minute walk away, on the corner of Rue du Faubourg du Temple and Rue de la Fontaine au Roi, flowers lay in front of the Café Bonne Bière. A piece of A4 paper has been placed under flickering candles, displaying - simply - the word "INNOCENT".

As you look up from the floor, you then see - with stark visibility - bullet holes in the restaurant's windows. They are at waist height, consistent with shots fired from a car window. Just up the street, La Casa Nostra, a pizza restaurant that had been packed when the killers drove further, firing their Kalishnikovs from a black Seat which has since been found abandoned in Montreuil...with even more Kalishnikovs stashed inside.

Paris, yesterday, was a city transformed. For what should have been a normal Saturday afternoon, shops, restaurants and bars all over the city were closed. At-risk places where tourists and expatriates regularly gather were shut. For a city normally so belligerent towards authority, where red traffic lights and no-parking instructions are considered mere suggestions, the call to stay barricaded indoors was being heeded.

But, now, the mood is already shifting to how France should itself stay barricaded indoors. Discourse is turning to how the attacks could have been prevented, and how they must be stopped from ever happing again. As details emerge of the attackers' identities - two are now known to have come from Syria via Greece, while another was a petty criminal from the Paris suburbs where resentment and radicalism run hand in hand - a predictable kneejerk reaction is building.

The intelligence services are being asked how they were caught unaware of attacks of this scale being planned. How could three groups of terrorists carry out coordinated attacks of near-military organisation without generating digital chatter? Was the date, Friday the 13th, the intention? Was the fact that the Eagles Of Death Metal, playing at Le Bataclan on Friday, are American no coincidence, either?

At first, people wondered whether the attacks were a jhadist reaction to the drone strike confirmed earlier on Friday and believed to have taken out Mohammed Emwazi, the so-called British-born 'Jihadi John'. But the fact that one of the suicide bombers at the Stade De France had a ticket for the France-Germany friendly inside the stadium is enough to suggest an attack long in the making.

Now, though, the debate will also expand to the topic of borders. François Hollande immediately and quite rightly closed France on Friday night, but surely the notion of a borderless Europe and the 'Schengen Area' must be now under threat.

A car with Belgian number plates is reported to have been involved in the attrocities, and yesterday police made arrests in Molenbeek, a western suburb of Brussels just a three-hour drive from Paris. A terror cell in Belgium was linked to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January; the attempted attack in August on the Thalys train between Amsterdam and Paris occured after Ayoub El-Khazzani boarded at Brussels with an AK47 and magazines containing 270 rounds, plus a bottle of petrol; more people from Belgium have travelled to Syria to take part in the jihadist conflict than from any other European country.

I could, right now, leave my Paris apartment and drive anywhere within an area of  4,312,099 square kilometres - and a population of 400 million people - and not have my passport checked once. The right-wing agenda on immigration will, sadly, be fuelled further by Friday's events, as evidence appears that two of the attackers may have arrived in Europe via Greece in the waves of immigrants escaping Syria.

And here is where the danger truly begins, before the blood has even been sponged from the streets of the 10th and 11th arrondissements and the bullet hole-ridden bar windows repaired. Europe has been pushed closer to a paranoid, siege mentality. We shouldn't forget that the overwhelming majority of refugees are escaping the very brand of carnage that came to Paris on Friday night. The hundreds of thousands of now stateless individuals are more interested in finding shelter, food and clothing than wreaking bloodshed.

Those now struggling in refugee camps can only dream of the normality of a Friday evening out in a restaurant, a cafe, a concert or a football match. Wherever they now find themselves huddled, they're a world away from the boulevards of Paris. But they share the same expeirence as those caught up in Friday's senseless bloodshed, victims of a barbaric ideology.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Defiance

 © Simon Poulter 2015

I had every intention of getting up early this morning to go and see Spectre again. But, apart from the sheer insensitivity of indulgent entertainment, it just seemed plain wrong to be immersed in James Bond's latest fictional dual with a villainous, murderous global organisation. But, then, the numbness I and the rest of Paris is feeling this morning also cuts off the means to make rational choices about anything.

Paris is, instead, this morning curled up on its sofas, huddled under its duvets and gathered with its loved ones, just holding them. My street is empty. Usually on a Saturday morning it is bustling and busy, locals out buying their bread, groceries and flowers, collecting their dry cleaning. But not today. 

Almost exactly ten months ago I was out in a Paris street that was full to brimming. In a show of solidarity to the victims of attacks on a magazine and a supermarket, more than a million people walked from Place de la République to Nation in an enormous, slow-moving carpet of humanity. It took more than three hours just to walk from one end of Avenue de la République to the other.

The march was so huge, so insanely over-subscribed, that even one of the widest boulevards of Paris couldn't handle the volume. A splinter march broke off and went up Boulevard Voltaire before rejoining the main march near Père Lachaise Cemetery. On the way, it walked past Le Bataclan.

No one on that march was under any illusion that mass protest would do anything to stop more bloodshed in Paris, or any other city for that matter. But that wasn't the point. The Charlie Hebdo attack on January 7, and the attack and siege on the Hypercacher supermarket two days later, engendered a profound need for Parisians to come together, to protest - yes - but to also seek the comfort of collective expression. And, in the greatest of French traditions, show defiance.

In the wake of Hebdo, Paris locked itself down. Patrols of heavily armed soldiers would be seen all over the city. They'd been visible at major tourist attractions for years, but now they were outside Jewish schools and other institutions deemed potential follow-up targets. This show of strength - in which you would walk past an apparently anonymous doorway and a police sentry with an assault rifle would appear out of seemingly nowhere - was also meant to show defiance.

Clearly, though, Paris wasn't defiant enough. Because last night, eight young, apparently French-speaking men, brought even greater carnage to the city. But, this time, not to a magazine that had provocatively trodden on cultural sensitivities, but to 120 people in restaurants, cafes and bars of the 10th and 11th arrondissements, at Le Bataclan for a gig, and at the Stade De France for a football match. 120 people, slaughtered by radicalised young men who had been brainwashed by people of even greater evil.

There will be - and has been already - recriminations. Were France's open borders to blame? Well, of course: it is said you can buy an AK47 in France as easily as a copy of Le Figaro. I can't remember the last time I passed through any port of entry and had my passport looked at properly. Was French intelligence to blame for not picking up on the planning of last night's concerted attacks? Was an earlier bomb threat towards the German football team not heeded? Well, of course: but when guns, ammunition and, apparently, suicide vests, and those willing to pull the trigger, are in ready supply, what happened last night could have happened anywhere, and could, and even will, happen again.

Next summer France will host the 2016 European Football Championships, a tournament expected to attract more than a million fans to stadia throughout the country. Never has the phrase 'What if?' been more chilling.

© Simon Poulter 2015
A repeat of last night's attack doesn't bear thinking about. "It could have been you, it could have been me," said an eyewitness at Le Bataclan on French TV. 

I've spent many happy evenings in that venue - gigs by the likes of Paul Weller, Steven Wilson, Robert Plant, Manic Street Preachers, Kaiser Chiefs, Seasick Steve, Bombay Bicycle Club. It could have been me. Two very good friends of mine were there last night. Thank God they got out.

But this is the fear gripping Paris the most today. It could have been any one of us, doing what we do on a Friday evening out - a meal in a restaurant, a drink in a bar, a rock gig, a football match. 

We are the softest of targets. We are blameless in the warped agenda of those carrying out these attacks, and yet we bear the brunt of their brainwashed belief that life is cheap, and cold-bloodedly extinguishing people via AK47s and explosive belts will change the policies of the governments those doing the brainwashing want to impact.

So what's my point? I guess I don't have one. It is still too difficult to make any sense out of last night's bloodshed. It wasn't crime. It wasn't religion. It wasn't politics. And I won't accept anyone telling me that it happens every day in parts of the Middle East so why not in Paris on a Friday night. 

As I posted on Facebook, and I have no shame in saying again here, it shouldn't happen in Iraq. It shouldn't happen in Tunisia. It shouldn't happen in Beirut. It shouldn't happen in the sky over Egypt. And it shouldn't happen in Paris. 

It shouldn't happen.