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


 © 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.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Mourinho: behind the mask of failure

Seven defeats out of 12 Premier League games. Just ponder on that for a second. That's relegation form, surely? Certainly not what you'd expect to see, three months to the day after the 2015-16 season began for the 2014-15 champions.

And, so, what next for Chelsea? José Mourinho has tried everything, including getting himself banned from being in the same stadium as his players in the hope that reverse psychology may be of benefit.

Yesterday's match against Stoke City did at least show glimpses of the Chelsea of last season: Eden Hazard almost back to his best - marauding, turning on a sixpence, confusing defenders. In front of defence, Nemanja Matic was almost back to his imperious control - stopping, gathering, delivering. And between the two, Willian didn't stop running, rushing, driving.

The trouble was, it was always almost. Lighting counter attacks failed to result in goals - Costa always just a yard short of a pass, Pedro hitting the post, sometimes no one at all being where they should have been to take advantage.

Stoke deserve all the credit for this. Mark Hughes had, typically, set his side up to frustrate - Jack Butland, who replaced Asmir Begovic when he moved to Chelsea, was, for the second time in two weeks, the difference between the two sides, stretching brilliantly to tip a shot from Ramires over the bar, and blocking a somewhat toothless Diego Costa. The thuggish Charlie Adam and his captain Ryan Shawcross kept Chelsea out with their shear physical belligerence.

At the other end, Chelsea's defence were undone by a familiar weakness: failure to close down their opponent. Marko Arnautovic's precision scissor-strike was taken as five blue shirts were on the other side of their goalkeeper.

At that, heads dropped. Chelsea's malaise this season has been typified by an apparent lack of confidence. In front of goal - theirs and their opponents'. Arnautovic's goal brought that confidence lower still. Even the arrival of Remy, Oscar and Fabregas failed to refresh the attack, with Chelsea making all the right approaches, but each time coming up against a wall of Stoke players. Only Remy came close to creating an equaliser, almost winning a late penalty when he hurdled Jack Butland's legs rather than allowed them to trip him. Again, almost.

Experienced football fans can be easily resigned to the fact that in some games, luck just doesn't go your way. "It's just one of those games," we'll say. That, however, is usually mere self-comfort. True, luck can play its part, but at the Britannia Stadium yesterday luck was only one of the factors, the other being Stoke's excellent organisation, and Chelsea's lack of cunning to unpick it.

So that's the rational view of events. Week in, week out, I've been posting about the irrational - the impact of José Mourinho's appalling behaviour, the negativity it has bred, and how it has long exceeded the idea of him drawing attention away from his players. Three months to the day when he let rip at his club doctor for doing her job, Mourinho's constant state of victimhood, his belief that the world is out to get him and the club, and his clear inability to show any degree of professional restraint, have cast an increasingly blacker cloud over his players and the club.

Sport, and sports people, like to project an image of sturdiness. Frailty is rarely countenanced. And so no one is likely to admit that the psychology at Chelsea is all wrong. Because sports people won't do that. But if the absence of Mourinho on the touchline was a factor in his players dropping their heads yesterday at Stoke, he only has himself to blame if that phone call comes from Bruce Buck, the club chairman, or even Roman Abramovic himself. Everyone has their limit, and in Abramovic's case, we have to assume that has long been exceeded.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

"Just when you thought it couldn't get worse"

So there it is, right there at the top of this page: the inevitable title of the inevitable book that will be written about this season for Chelsea. A horror, a nightmare, an unrelenting disaster - and we're still only at the beginning of November. And it WILL get worse, trust me. It already has.

On Saturday morning I added to my already lengthy list of posts about this season’s travails by recounting the defeat to the New York Red Bulls in pre-season, defeat to Arsenal in the Community Shield on August 2, a draw with Swansea on the season’s opening day and that ridiculous Eva Carneiro episode, five more defeats in the league, exit from the League Cup, fines, referee baiting and José Mourinho's increasing volatility, and last season’s lions fading before our very eyes this term, all resulting in the 2014-15 Premier League champions tailspinning into relegation form.

So that was the state of affairs on Saturday morning. Pretty much plenty to consume any other club for a whole season, let alone its first three months. By Saturday afternoon, it became still worse. A 3-1 defeat at home to Liverpool, having taken the lead early and with convincing intent. Cue more Mourinho petulance - sarcastically guffawing at Mark Clattenburg's infuriating decision not to give Lucas a deserved second yellow card, his “Yes, No” interview with BT Sport’s Des Kelly, and that bizarre gathering of his coaches after the game, like Mafia capos taunting the FBI watching them through binoculars.

London Evening Standard/Clive Rose/Getty Images

But all of that wasn't clearly enough: 48 hours hence and the now farcical collapse of Chelsea’s fortunes has seen two further lumps of stone fall from its crumbling masonry, with Mourinho receiving a £40,000 FA fine and a one-match stadium ban for making comments to referee Jon Moss during the West Ham defeat on October 24. But wait, there’s EVEN more - Mourinho will now be the subject of individual legal action from Carneiro, following her apparent demotion and his “naive” comments during that opening day draw with Swansea.

‘House of cards’ doesn’t even cover it. It’s hard to even think of any equivalent situation anywhere else. Not even Manchester United under David Moyes. Well, maybe.

Moyes didn't so much inherit a poisoned chalice when he was handpicked by Sir Alex Ferguson to succeed him, as one tainted by a squad that may have, themselves, just romped to the Premier League title in May 2013, but was rapidly ageing, perhaps as a result. Reinforcements supplied by United's new executive vice-chairman and defacto chief executive Ed Woodward were unforthcoming, with only Marouane Fellaini arriving for £27.5 million. Hardly fresh blood.

Things started well for Moyes, winning the Community Shield at Wembley with a 2–0 win over Wigan. The opening game of the season proper saw Moyes' United beating Swansea 4-1 (oh, how things might be different now if Chelsea had beaten Swansea 4-1 on the opening day of this season!). Then things started to turn - an unpalatable 4-1 defeat to the noisy neighbours, Manchester City, a 2–1 defeat at home to West Brom, home defeats to Everton and Newcastle United in the space of four days, the spiral just didn't seem to stop.

After Christmas they exited the FA Cup in the third round, lost to Sunderland in the semi-final of the League Cup, and then lost 3-0 twice in a row, to Liverpool and, again, Manchester City. By the time Moyes was sacked in April, he'd overseen 11 losses - including six at home - and just 17 wins from 34 matches. Significantly, United were seventh in the table.

Today, Chelsea lie in 15th. On November 3. As football people like to trot out, it's a long season. Chelsea will turn it around. Mourinho will turn it around. Let's rephrase that: Mourinho can turn it around. Or Mourinho could turn it around.

The Chelsea faithful have no doubts that he will. He is just too good a manager not to, surely. But the problem with everything about Chelsea this season - on the field, off the field, in the tunnel... - has been accumalitive. Football players, and indeed managers, will say that, when a club is undergoing a change of ownership, that their focus is on the next game, and that they don't pay attention to what happens in the boardroom.

But there cannot be a single employee of Chelsea FC - the staff at Stamford Bridge or at the training ground in Cobham - that will be immune to or unaware of the negativity surrounding the club right now. As a result, I've been convinced that mysery loves company, and that this unrelenting chain of events has in some way been connected, with the team's problematic performances more the result of pyschology that physiology.

And then I read a brilliant piece by Martin Samuel, consistently Fleet Street's best football writer, in which he argued that, perhaps, we've been looking at Chelsea's struggles over the last 12 weeks through the wrong prism.

Rather than gawping at how last season's Premier League winners had, under one of football's greatest coaches (fact: eight domestic titles and three European trophies from four clubs), suddenly dropped like a stone, Samuel argued that Chelsea may not have been as good as we all thought. Last season, he surmised, may have just been the result of a hurculean effort that took them across the line early, but burned them out in the process.

That does explain Eden Hazard's lethargy this term. Last season, the on-fire forward and deserved winner of player-of-the-year awards and comparisons with Messi; this season? Careworn and with all the confidence of a nervous teenager buying his first packet of Durex at Boots.

And John Terry: whatever opinions people have of him as a person, he has been without doubt one of the greatest-ever English centrebacks, whose on-field leadership at the base of Mourinho's famous Cech-Terry-Lampard-Drogba spine provided structure for both scoring goals and preventing them.

 © Simon Poulter 2015

But no more. Terry's effectiveness has visibly eroded. It happens to us all, but for most of us, not in the spotlight of 13 possible camera positions in a televised football match. Sadly, we must accept that the "Captain. Leader. Legend." will have to relinquish that role. Alongside him, Branislav Ivanovic. Last season as vital as ever on the right side, defending and creating. But before his injury this season, a liability. One doubts he will get back to his best.

On Terry's other side, Gary Cahill. Chelsea fans were delighted by the rare event of an English player being signed by the club, but he has become regularly exposed as a distinctly average central defender. And "Dave" - Cesar Azpiliqueta - a natural right back who moved into the left back slot vacated by Ashley Cole and never back-filled by his supposed heir, Ryan Bertrand. A decent defender, who had a good season last time, but as Liverpool cruelly exploited at the weekend, vulnerable.

Samuel also highlighted Cesc Fabregas' traditional mid-season retirement, one which occurred this season before the first leaves of Autumn had even fallen, along with Nemanja Matic who had a blinder of a 2014-15 in the holding position but, like his compatriot Ivanavoic, stunk the place out before being injured on international duty.

And, then, there is the Brazilian triumvirate of Oscar, Ramires and Willian, the former of which looks like a sulky teen reluctantly getting out of bed at Noon. Of the latter two, they have at least been box-to-box industrious, but Samuel argued that we have, perhaps, held too much reverance for these Brazilians. They may come from this planet's most naturally gifted footballing nation, but they were also a part of a national side ripped assunder on home turf by Germany. Could it be that they're not, really, all that?

 © Simon Poulter 2015
Tomorrow night, the nightmare could very easily continue. A home Champions League tie with Dynamo Kiev, a team with a so-so story so far in this season's competition. A year ago, you'd have said Chelsea would have beaten them solidly. But now? Such is our lack of confidence in the team, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone with any real conviction to predict a home win.

If Chelsea lose that, and then struggle away to Stoke on Saturday afternoon, it will be impossible for Roman Abramovich not to dispense with his manager. It would be a tragedy - seriously. The fact that Mourinho hasn't been sacked so far seems to underline the widely held belief that Abramovich was serious about building a dynasty under the Portuguese.

There is no better manager for Chelsea Football Club. There is also no one else available or likely to be persuaded to available, who could pick this team up, with its clear physical frailties, and deliver a season to be proud of. Containment may be all that is left. Which means that Abramovich will could have a very big decision to make in the coming days. Does he stick, or twist?

Monday, November 02, 2015

Heart meets sleeve: Guy Garvey's Courting The Squall

​Some people just can't catch a break. Take Phil Collins (and I already know the punchline to that proposition): last week he informed Rolling Stone that he will be coming out of retirement, prompting an instant spew of predictably ill-informed invective, much of it from people who, loving a bandwagon, have probably never stopped to think of why they dislike him so.

Of course, there was a time, in the mid-1980s, when his ubiquity was such that familiarity bred understandable contempt. Collins was everywhere - Top Of The Pops, your local arena, Live Aid (twice), your local cinema (both acting and singing), even an episode of Miami Vice. He even grew tired of himself, and it showed with the increasingly self-derivative nature of his solo musical output into the decade that followed.

To the mainstream media he was the rock star who'd forged his solo career out of one divorce, and fuelled it via the next two. The net effect is that he became regarded as a fey, middle-of-the-road Cliff Richard hate figure, loved by grannies and bland local radio stations in equal measure.

Which is a shame, as he is - or at least was, before a crippling spinal condition - one of rock’s most gifted drummers and stage performers, a highly underrated producer and, some of his schmaltz not withstanding, a brilliant pop songwriter. He has even been feted by the hip-hop community, which has often cited Face Value for its multiple influences on their sound.

I only attempt this defence of the near-indefensible because of Collins' predilection for intimate, heart-on-sleeve-honest lyrics, an attribute he shares with Guy Garvey. I'm not, by the way, making a direct musical comparison between the two, although at risk of being tenuous, they do have a common denominator in Peter Gabriel. Collins, of course, drummed behind Gabriel in Genesis, then took over as lead singer, worked with him on solo albums, and was even best man at his wedding. Garvey, on the other hand, has been a lifelong Gabriel fan, and even recorded with Elbow at Gabriel’s Real World Studios. As I said, no apologies for being tenuous.

There is, though, a more tangible link between Gabriel's idiosyncrasies and the way Garvey has gone about Courting The Squall, his brilliantly engaging new side project. Because it’s an album that weaves in and out of different textures in a varying topography of soundscaping and tempo. To one ear it's conventional pop, luxuriated by Garvey's vocals, sung in a register not that dissimilar to Gabriel's. To another, its a wonderful exploration of jazz-like avoidance of linear pop, all without signing up fully to the avant garde of music’s awkward squad.

Elbow have, on occasion, courted the same lighters-ahoy arena space that Coldplay still dominate, somewhat bafflingly, but here Garvey seems to be having the time of his life dipping into a much broader palette and being seemingly unrestrained as to what goes on the canvas. This may come from his collaborators, Pete Jobson from I Am Kloot and The Whip’s Nathan Sudders. As so often is the case with side projects - or even full-blown solo debuts - the protagonist will often appear refreshed from working with different faces.

As you will find on I Am Kloot and The Whip's records, and those of New Order, Doves, Johnny Marr - the list goes on - there is something about the music of Greater Manchester that is present here on Bury-born Garvey's record. It's a slight coldness, a grey-skied, slightly damp ambience. On Courting The Squall - Garvey, usually described by journalists as a lovable bear of a fella, adds the emotional warmth that has made Elbow so popular, amongst critics and the music-buying public, something lacking in Collins' relationship with his detractors.

The album’s lead-in single and first track, Angela’s Eyes, sets the quirky tone, bouncing like Tom Waits at his most vaudeville with retro guitars and a blasting synth solo, releasing a pent-up tension, perhaps from the ending of Garvey's relationship with writer Emma Jane Unsworth, which informs much of the album. "I'm a believer in a perfect girl in a world of brazen lies," he opines, later on concluding "In a house full of robbers and thieves, no sign from the zodiac. No. And I want my fucking money back - yeah!".

Two songs later, and Harder Edges continues this liberation, albeit with more bluesier brass. It's not quite the typical breakup album - far from it (but then again, Collins always maintains that Face Value had more to do with his new relationship that the first wife who'd run off with the decorator), as Unwind demonstrates with its delicate, smokey ambience and the plaintive question: "Can we find the trust we need just to unwind?".

English songwriters have often been accused of avoiding matters of the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, to quote WB Yeats. For Garvey, it's never been a problem. Thus, Belly Of The Whale, with its bonkers brass accompaniment, and narrative about a house, of all things, is as personal and as confessional as it is possible to be, but still doesn't resort to the maudlin and melancholic, like Harder Edges, using its funk-brass almost sub-consciously to make the personal nature of its words standout.

Further confession appears with Yesterday - a bold choice of song title for anyone coming out of the English north-west - in which Garvey's Bury accent coats a noirish Tom Waits-style of misbehaviour during the night before, followed by a hint of Catholic regret in the morning, a contemplation of the push and pull of romance.

There is little - if anything - to find wrong in Courting The Squall. If there is one misfire, it's Electricity. David Gilmour's recent Rattle That Lock album contained a cod lounge jazz number that, while earnest in its intention, just didn't seem right for the singer or the project. Similarly, Electricity- in which Garvey duets with American jazz/folk/blues singer Jolie Holland, faithfully recreates the bourbon-drenched atmosphere of a backstreet speakeasy, but doesn't seem to fit the rest of the album's enjoyable unevenness.

Where Garvey does venture successfully for the downbeat mood, it is Juggernaut, with its shimmering piano chords and the sense of a Sunday morning yet to fully come to life...perhaps before those windows are thrown wide. Moreover, it's a song, slap-bang in the middle of this ten-track album which anchors Garvey's emotion while providing flight from a relationship that just wasn't working.

We Brits aren't meant to wear our hearts on our sleeves, least of all big, burly Mancunians. Another burly Brit, my musical hero John Martyn, wore his to the extent that his ex-wife Beverley once said that he'd put so much emotion into his songwriting that there was nothing left for her.

Martyn and, yes, Phil Collins spent the denuement of their respective first marriages wallowing in drink and songwriting, leveraging emotional turmoil to produce some of their best work. Garvey, with Courting The Squall, has perhaps followed a similar course. The key difference is that this is an album that messes with your expectations. It is not one of whiney "I miss you ballads" or saxophone-encrusted slow dances. It is peculiarly English, particularly Mancunian, and a liberating joy.