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Sunday, 6 April 2014

Thinking with the wrong head

The comedian Eddie Izzard has come out in favour of Scotland staying in the United Kingdom. He said: "I'm proud to be British but I am also proud of Britain. I love the vibrant, tolerant, diverse, confident, country we have become."
He’s entitled to his view. We shouldn’t have a problem with a British citizen expressing an opinion on the potential break-up of the UK. That sort of thing can only be an issue for those of an absolutist state of mind, like –it seems- many in the Scottish arts fraternity (witness the recent furore over David Bowie’s remarks).

The latest to wade in to the debate is the actress and comedian Elaine C Smith. In responding to Izzard’s statement, she unwittingly provided further evidence of the intellectual complacency underpinning some of the 'Yes' campaign’s rhetoric.

She said: "I know he loves Scotland and I am sure he'll be very funny, but, to be serious, I think most of the media and London-centric elite need to understand what's going on here in Scotland. It seems to me that there's a huge number … who don't have an accurate view, and have no idea what Scotland is like since devolution and the progressive country we are and how we want to live. If Eddie was living here I'm sure he'd be voting 'Yes' because the independence movement encompasses all of his progressive ideals and his desire for a better and different society."

The fact that Eddie Izzard is as bien pensant as they come led Ms Smith to tread a little gently with her criticism; his ‘progressive’ credentials spared him from the flaying that others have suffered for daring to express the wrong opinion. The emollient language, however, failed to conceal the ugly essence of Ms Smith’s message, namely that Izzard had only expressed that opinion because he happens to live in the wrong place. If he lived up here, he’d have an ‘accurate view’ and wouldn’t be labouring under this false consciousness. Needless to say, anyone who doesn’t have the same views as Ms Smith clearly doesn’t want to live in a ‘better’ society.

This is weapons-grade arrogance, although I’m not sure that even that is a pejorative enough term to describe what we’re dealing with. Imagine, if you will, how Elaine C Smith would react if, say, Jeremy Clarkson had said something like this:

"She’s very funny, but, to be serious, I think most of the Scottish chattering classes need to understand what's going on down here in the south-east. If Elaine was living here, I'm sure she'd vote Conservative because she’d understand that the best way to achieve a better and different society is to move away from the corrosive, outdated and ruinous ‘tax and spend’ economic model. If she lived here, I’m sure she’d see things like that.”

You can rest assured that, before you could type the words ‘angry mob’, a fatwa would have been issued against Mr Clarkson.

Ms Smith has made it perfectly clear that she is incapable of understanding that another person might look at a situation and form opinions that don’t correspond with hers. Sadly, she’s far from being alone in that respect. She believes that Eddie Izzard -by all accounts an intelligent man- didn’t arrive at his views on the referendum through rational, independent thought; rather, he made the wrong call because he was not looking at it from the 'correct' position. If he lived in Scotland he would surely vote ‘yes’, because he’d see the world the way she does and would, perforce, come to the same conclusions.
This kind of ‘thinking’ isn’t just stupid; it’s pernicious and wicked and it shouldn’t get a free pass from anyone who cares about intellectual diversity. In essence, it’s about the denial of another person’s right to form a coherent opinion that would be deemed worthy of respect. When you ‘think’ like this, there is no real need to argue your case. The other person is always wrong, because guess what … they’re not using your head to think.

It was a favoured tactic of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century to pathologise dissent within their citizenry. 'If our citizens can’t see the world the way that we see it', the argument went, 'they must be suffering from some kind of cognitive dissonance'. Dissenters, by definition, were ‘wrong-headed’ in their thinking and probably mad; perhaps dangerously so. Corrective work, usually by way of imprisonment, was often required.

Elaine C Smith is an actress and comedian. Her views should carry about as much weight as the average taxi driver, plumber or shop assistant, but it so happens that her chosen profession allows her significant access to some major media outlets. But it could be worse; she could be a politician and actually in charge of stuff.

What a frightening thought. I’m tempted to paraphrase that old Carlsberg TV advert:

"Scottish showbiz ‘progressive’ types don’t make political regimes. But if they did, they’d probably be the nastiest regimes in the world."

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Making an album, part 3: The tyranny of choice

One of the things I think about during the recording sessions for my album is the question of just how far I should try to push the musical envelope.  By that, I mean: how much time should I devote to experimenting with the sounds?  My songs invariably start out as chords strummed on a guitar or vamped on a piano, but the recording studio is a creative space in which basic ideas can be re-imagined and transformed, given flight by the power of imagination and a degree of technical nous. The limp little caterpillar of your home demo might become a beautiful soaring butterfly once the studio witch doctor has worked his gadget-magic, evoking the software gods of sonic sheen and sparkle.  So why spend time, one might ask, making music that sounds a bit like some other music that folk will have heard a thousand times before?  Perhaps I should set my sights on creating something unique, something so idiosyncratic and personal that only I could have made it?

While it can be tempting to embrace the unusual or the outrĂ© in the belief that one is somehow expanding the boundaries of art, there is often a fine line between the interesting and the frivolous; one man’s bold experimentation might be another man’s self-indulgence.  One of the dangers of pursuing originality for the sake of it is that you may lose sight of the more important pursuit of excellence (I’ll get around to a definition of ‘excellence’ at some point).        

Many years ago, I read a piece about the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.  It focused on his unusual and experimental approach to composition, waxing lyrical about his pioneering ‘twelve-tone’ method (don’t ask) and his use of ‘hexachordal inversional combinatoriality’ (no, really … don’t ask).  Enthused by the article, I fell for the “challenging, revolutionary and experimental, your-life-will-not-be-complete-until-you-have-embraced-this-music” baloney and bought a copy of the composer’s Piano Concerto Op. 42.  I listened to it. Then I 'listened' to it. Then I really concentrated and listened some more.  I tried to convince myself that I was getting into it: "No, wait ... this little section here is quite good. Listen ... I can almost hear a tune trying to break out."

But it was no use.  I enjoy a bit of hexachordal inversional combinatoriality as much as the next man (particularly if it has a good beat and maybe a sexy female vocalist), but I had to give up on Schoenberg’s music.  Not because it was too 'difficult', although it probably was indeed 'challenging, revolutionary, experimental' etc.  I gave up because I thought it was dreadful. 

There are plenty of examples of music disappearing up its own backside in the pursuit of grandiosity or arch quirkiness; by the same token, I’ve heard plenty of stuff that is well constructed and beautifully recorded, but manages to lack any semblance of spark, energy or wit.  I’ve nothing against difficult or challenging music, but I don’t think it should get a critical free pass just because it is difficult or challenging.  Art works best when there is balance between content and form.  By all means try to be a pioneer, but your content must be able to cash the cheque written by the radical aspects of your chosen form. 

But challenging established notions of song-writing is not on my agenda; I’m too set in my ways to be radical. My preference is for well-structured songs that express ideas or emotions or tell an interesting story, but for any musician who is in the mood to push that musical envelope, the opportunities for studio experimentation are probably greater now than they have ever been.  
Before the advent of multi-tracking (i.e. the ability to layer sounds one on top of the other), engineers and musicians had to learn their parts and record them in a single take.  If they messed up, they had to do it again.  If they got a perfect take, but there was perhaps a rogue sound on one of the microphones, they either lived with the imperfection or recorded the entire thing again.  In those days, the role of the producer was to capture a performance, or series of performances, by musicians.  Multi-tracking changed the way that music was recorded, but more importantly, it changed the way that producers and musicians heard and imagined music.  You could argue that The Beatles and the Beach Boys picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Phil Spector and redefined the relationship between music and technology.  Now that we’re in the digital age, it is probably fair to say that the technological leap in the recording process during the last fifty years is equivalent to the difference between travelling on a push bike and travelling on a jumbo jet.

With the range of options available to studio musicians heading somewhere in the direction of the infinite, every decision now competes against a bewildering range of alternatives.  There is no sound that can’t be manipulated, fixed, imagined or executed; an editing task that once might have taken days to execute can now be managed with a few clicks of a mouse.  Recorded instruments can be layered, stacked and treated to an extent that was impossible in the days of analogue tape.  But with an arsenal of gadgetry and some very smart software at your disposal, you can easily end up chasing your tail in the chimerical pursuit of aural nirvana. 

Do you need a perfect valve amp sound for your guitar?  Just run it through this plug-in and there are 150 possible options.  And what if we chopped up that guitar chord, reversed it, arpeggiated it, then used it as a texture underneath the verse piano? Maybe we could make that piano sound like it was recorded in an old abandoned church?  While we’re at it, let’s try messing that vocal up so that it sounds like a cello being attacked by a chainsaw, underwater. 

Ed McArthur at Stealth, my co-producer on this album, is currently working with another artist who has a recorded a song with somewhere around 200 vocal takes and another couple of hundred instrumental tracks. That’s on one song.  They won’t be able to use all that information in the final mix, but they’ve given themselves a hell of a lot of options (and probably some sleepless nights).   
But having a million options isn’t necessarily a good thing, as anyone who has ever tried to exercise restraint in an ‘eat all you want’ Chinese buffet will testify.  On a bad day, that bewilderment of choice can lead to indecision and even inertia.  Just because it’s possible to have 200 instrumental alternatives on a track doesn’t mean that you should do it.    

As the album begins to take some kind of shape (in my head, at least), I find –once again- that I’m gravitating towards material that, to my ear, ticks some of the key boxes to do with construction, melody, depth of feeling and pleasing-on-the-ear chord changes.  I’m quite willing to manipulate sounds and play around with unusual instrumental textures, but the shape of the song, the integrity of the composition, has to remain intact.  I’ve got pretty clear ideas of where I want each of these tracks to go and I’m hopeful that I’ll know when it’s time to experiment and when it’s time to just nail the basic arrangement.       

The astute reader may have spotted by now that this essay is a thinly-veiled attempt to head off at the pass any criticism of my music for being safe, pedestrian and middle-of-the-road.  So, having started this piece by talking about experimentation, the link below will take you to a song -called 'I like your shoes'- that I realised pretty quickly wasn’t going to be messed round with or built up into a many-layered wonder. 

A couple of years ago, I saw a picture that had been taken at a big anti-capitalist demonstration in one of the major European cities.  It featured the striking image of a man, his face obscured behind a balaclava, about to throw a missile at some policemen.  The protestor was dressed in expensive designer gear and it struck me as odd –to say the least- that he was ‘protesting’ against a lifestyle that he appeared to endorse through his expensive choice of label wear.  I wondered if the guy had actually thought the thing through.  Maybe, like others I could name in the political sphere, he was merely operating a policy of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.  Or perhaps he just liked throwing stuff at policemen.  Once the subject matter was established (with the starting point being the focus on the protestor’s expensive trainers) the lyric almost wrote itself.  I wanted to keep it simple, in the spirit of old-style protest songs, the twist being that it’s a protest song about a protest.  It also seemed somehow appropriate for me to blag and then invert Gil Scott-Herron’s line about the revolution not being televised.

There is not much to this recording apart from some double-tracked acoustic guitar and piano, with a little bit of rudimentary percussion.  And yes, if I was true to my word I would have recorded it one take, just me and my battered old acoustic. 

But it’s my party and I’ll overdub if I want to.  


I like your shoes

Saturday, 15 March 2014

About that 'democratic deficit' ...

As the protagonists in the referendum debate paddle fractiously around the shallow end of the intellectual pool, so the need becomes greater for a civilised and less strident exchange of views, one focused on the real issues.
Like most people, my criterion for placing a 'yes' vote is simple – will an independent Scotland be a better place for my children and their children to live in? For the moment, I’ll put to one side the question about what exactly would make the country a better place in which to live.

It hardly needs pointing out that some people will never, under any circumstances, vote for an independent Scotland, while others will remain committed to independence no matter which arguments are presented to them. The result, therefore, will probably be determined by people sitting in the as-yet-undecided camp. From what I hear and read, a lot of folk are going to vote on the basis of gut feeling and emotion. There is nothing wrong with that, but it can occasionally get a bit silly. I heard a news item on Radio Scotland in which a member of the public said that the recent comments by David Bowie had "helped make up her mind" to vote yes. Without wishing to be too unkind, I’d suggest that if you place your vote on the basis of a throwaway remark by a pop star, you probably shouldn't be allowed out of the house without a ‘name and address’ tag on your jacket and someone holding your hand.
I do understand the emotional pull of a Yes vote, but if we’re going to set ourselves up as an independent first world nation, with responsibilities for the economic well-being of some five million people, my preference would be to spend a bit of time focusing on the arguments, the practicalities and the numbers. Accordingly, some of the flimsier arguments should be quietly dropped. One example would be the notion being put forward by the Yes campaign that Scotland has suffered from a ‘democratic deficit’. I think a brief examination of the facts renders that an extraordinarily feeble case to present.

In addition to having our own parliament (unlike other parts of the UK), Scotland is proportionally over-represented in Westminster. We have 8% of the UK population, but account for 9% of the seats in the House of Commons. By contrast, the London metropolitan area -to take one obvious example- is home to 21% of the UK population, but represented by only 11.2% of our MPs.
Scottish MPs at Westminster can vote on issues which do not affect Scotland, while MPs representing English, Welsh or Irish constituencies do not have a say in any of the business of the Scottish Parliament. On that basis alone, how is it possible to conclude anything other than that Scottish voters are getting a bigger bang for their electoral buck than any other part of the UK?

Where does this idea of a 'democratic deficit' come from? Is it a by-product of our passionate and oft-expressed desire for independence? Well … not really. As recently as 1959, the SNP could only muster 0.5% of the votes in a general election. By the mid-eighties, when Mrs Thatcher was in her pomp, they were polling around 12%. At the last general election, as the only explicitly separatist party, they got 19.9% of the popular vote. The combined vote of the unionist parties was around 78%, so Scotland can hardly claim to have been clamouring for independence. At the most recent Scottish parliamentary elections in 2011, the victorious SNP actually gathered fewer votes in Scotland than Margaret Thatcher’s hated Conservatives got in the 1979 general election. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

The way this ‘democratic deficit’ argument is presented, you’d think that Scotland has had to endure decades under the jackboot Reich of hard line, right-wing Tory administrations, but that’s far from being the truth. Since the end of the second world war, general elections in the UK have produced 35 years of Tory rule and 30 years of Labour rule, plus 4 years under the present coalition government. In democratic terms, that seems like a fairly reasonable split between what -on paper, at least- are opposing political ideologies. And if the vast majority of Scots invariably vote for unionist parties, what gives us any more right than the residents of Yorkshire, Cornwall or Suffolk to feel aggrieved by the vicissitudes of the electoral process?

When people say, in the context of this independence referendum, that there is a 'democratic deficit', I think what they mean is: “We don't want a Tory government.” There is nothing wrong with thinking or saying that, but to break up a successful political union just because the odd election doesn't go your way seems like rather a selfish impulse.
Blair Jenkins, the Chief Executive of Yes Scotland, has gone on record as saying that independence will mean "no more Tory governments, ever." That sentiment might appeal to a lot of people, but that doesn't make it right. For those of us who think that you can hardly get a fag paper between the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservatives as it is, this looks like a desire to narrow even further the choice available to voters. In that sense, the 'brave new Scotland' promised by the Yes campaign is already tainted by some profoundly illiberal impulses.

This might come as news to some folk, but democracy is not about getting what you want all of the time. It is about representing, as far as is possible, the current will of the people, which means that sometimes your favoured side will win and sometimes it won’t. The make-up of post-war British governments is remarkably evenly split and that is, arguably, one of the strengths of our current system. It’s not just that you can’t win every election; it’s that you shouldn’t be able to win every election.

And this is something that people who go on and on about that ‘democratic deficit’ should consider: the only countries in which it is possible for one grouping to win every election are countries in which most of us really wouldn’t want to live.

Monday, 10 March 2014

A criminal act?

Concern has been expressed in some quarters because the government has floated the idea that not paying the BBC licence fee could become a 'civil', as opposed to a 'criminal', offence. In 2012, 180,000 people in the UK were prosecuted for not paying the £145.50 fee; that accounted for an incredible one in ten of all criminal prosecutions that year. In the period between January 2011 and March 2013, 107 folk were actually jailed for non-payment.

For many folk, the subject of the licence fee invariably provokes a knee-jerk reaction. The BBC is either the greatest thing in the civilised world or it’s a festering hive occupied by metropolitan leftie propagandists. I’m somewhere in the middle ground on that topic, but I do think it’s obvious now that we need to have a debate about how the state broadcaster is funded. The imposition of what is, in effect, a broadcasting poll tax is, in the 21st century media landscape, utterly iniquitous.

The recent decision to relegate BBC 3 to an online-only channel got some folk worked up, but the argument dissolved into a tit-for-tat exchange about the perceived quality (or lack of quality) of its output. That’s not the most important aspect of the debate, but it has to be said that some of the trashier elements of BBC 3’s output are so spectacularly adrift of the Reithian desire to educate, inform and entertain that one could almost suspect that the corporation was being sabotaged from within.

Some time ago, I stumbled across a programme that was so stunningly awful, I thought it might have been a parody. It was a sitcom (with not much emphasis on the 'com') called Coming of Age. I’m going to tell you about it, but I’ll warn you now that readers of a nervous disposition might want to look away.

The show was described as “a frank look into the outrageous world of a group of sixth form students living in Abingdon as they enjoy a final romp with adolescence”. The 'plot’, such as it was, focused on a young man being talked into giving his girlfriend one 'up the botty' (which was, indeed, the name of the episode). His girlfriend persuaded him that the thrill of sampling the forbidden fruit of anal intercourse would be enhanced by performing the act in his mum’s bedroom. Hilarious consequences ensued as the girl lost control of her sphincter during the ‘up the botty’ activities and defecated on his mum's bed. Those crazy kids explained the mess by blaming it on the family dog, which was the cue for some grotesque canned laughter. Undeterred by events, the couple determined to have another go. During their second attempt (I hope you’re keeping up with the subtleties of the plot), the girlfriend suffered the same unfortunate accident. This time, they blamed the mess on the young man's invalid and senile grandfather. Cue that canned laughter track, again.
The narrative arc was completed once the 'up the botty' girl, having promised her boyfriend that everything would be just fine on their third attempt because she hadn't eaten for two days, defecated a third time during another rigorous bout of anal intercourse. Honest, I'm not making any of this up. I was watching this show in the same way that rubber-neckers watch car crash victims being treated at the side of the road by paramedics.

It was so staggeringly awful that I suspected one of four things was going on:

a) I was dreaming, or
b) My late night cup of cocoa had been laced with hallucinogenic drugs, or
c) The makers of the show had some kind of scam going on, similar to the plot of the Mel Brooks film 'The Producers', wherein two theatrical producers plan to get rich by selling shares in a Broadway flop, or
d) A parallel universe existed, in which someone could meet with a TV executive and present an 'idea' and a 'script' like that and the TV executive would think: "Yes, this seems like a good idea and really quite funny. Those jokes about anal intercourse really do push the boundaries a bit, like most ground-breaking art usually does. Yes, let’s make sure this gets on the telly.”

I suspect that (d) is the correct answer and, if anyone knows anyone who works in that parallel universe, please pass their contact details on to me, because I have a pile of very old rope that I'm keen to sell for hard cash.

Bawdy humour and vulgarity, in context, doesn't trouble me at all. The most troublesome thing about Coming of Age was the fact that people on the public dime had been paid to write, produce and perform material that was so entirely bereft of comedic talent, wit or charm. I don’t know if it represents a nadir for the BBC comedy department, but –to paraphrase Damon Runyon- it will do until one comes along.

But on second thoughts, maybe I’ve been a bit harsh. Maybe the writers were more subtle than I have given them credit for.

When you think about it, those 107 folk who were jailed for not paying the licence fee and the other 179,893 who were prosecuted would perhaps have viewed that ‘up the botty’ episode as a metaphor for their relationship with the state broadcaster.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

This is a job for … Synth-Rock Pedantic Man!

After many years of living a double life, I have decided that it is time for me to reveal my secret identity as one of the lesser-known super heroes. Just as Batman is obliged to respond whenever the authorities beam that big bat-sign up into the night skies of Gotham City, so it is my sacred duty as Synth-Rock Pedantic Man to respond whenever someone exhibits a sloppy recollection of pop trivia. For years I have watched over the planet, correcting minor factual errors whenever a friend, acquaintance or passing stranger has carelessly demonstrated a less-than-encyclopaedic knowledge of popular music.
In my relentless battle against the forces of inexactitude, I have lost count of the number of times that I have tackled misconceptions, slapdash inaccuracies, oversights and false assertions about which year such-and-such a song was a hit for so-and-so.

Let me explain how it works.

Whenever someone says something ridiculous like: "My favourite 80s track is 'Our friend’s electric' by Gary Newman", I am instantly transformed into Synth-Rock Pedantic Man and will fearlessly point out that:

"Actually, that track was released under the band name 'Tubeway Army'. And the title of the song is a question -the question being Are ‘friends’ electric?- because he’s singing about having a relationship with an artificial human. That’s why ‘friends’ is in inverted commas. And it's Gary 'Numan', not 'Newman'. And it’s not from the 1980s; the track actually came out in 1979."

The role of Synth-Rock Pedantic Man demands eternal vigilance because, in my world, danger is ever-present. You may find this hard to believe, but there are people who literally don’t know the difference between Depeche Mode and the Human League, or who are unaware that Ultravox -before Midge Ure joined the band- had released three excellent albums, the first two of which were credited to Ultravox! That exclamation mark, incidentally, was said to be a tribute to the German band Neu! It wasn’t that common at the time, but many other bands since then have used the exclamation mark in their name: Wham! The Go! Team and Panic! At the Disco, to name but three.

I will admit to having had some scary moments. I’ve lost count, for instance, of the number of times I’ve tangled with folk who didn’t know that Duran Duran were named after a character in a science-fiction film. I’ll wager that some among you couldn’t even name that film. It was, of course, ‘Barbarella’, the French-Italian kitsch classic from 1968, starring Jane Fonda and directed by her husband of the time, Roger Vadim. Although, strictly speaking, Duran Duran only based their name on the character; he was actually called ‘Durand Durand’ (and was played by the Irish actor Milo O’Shea).

It is impossible to predict when my super-powers might be called for. Only the other day, I over-heard this remark during a conversation between two ruffians on the train: "I quite like Craft Work. What was that one they sang about supermodels? And that other one … 'Here comes the rain again' … that was them wasn't it?"

My relentless pursuit of veracity trumps any trivial concerns I might have about my personal safety, so I leaned across the isle and said, calmly:

“I think you’ll find that ‘Here comes the rain again’ was by Eurythmics (often mistakenly called The Eurythmics, but the definite article doesn’t actually appear in their name). And it’s not Craft Work, but Kraftwerk, which is German for ‘power plant’ or ‘power station’. And the song in question was called ‘The Model’, which, curiously enough, was not actually a hit when the ‘Man Machine’ album (from which it came) was released in 1978. It was included as the b-side of the ‘Computer Love’ single in 1981, but it got so much radio play that the record company re-released it –against the wishes of the band- and it got to number one early in 1982, nearly four years after it first appeared on an album.”

I will not repeat the torrent of foul language I had to endure at that point; I’m not looking for your sympathy. As one of the lesser-known super-heroes, I have had to develop a flinty immunity to public scorn. It is enough for me to know, dear reader, that my work gets done and that the planet is safe from sloppiness, hazy recollection and terminological inexactitude. At least until the next time.

But alas, this unstinting devotion to duty comes at a heavy personal cost. Not only have I never been thanked for my work; I have not been invited to a social gathering of any kind since 1997. Nevertheless, I am resolved to carry on with my selfless task. Only when the curse of sloppiness of recollection has finally been eliminated will I have cause to celebrate.

And ‘Celebrate’, funnily enough, was a single released by the Simple Minds in 1980. The band got their name from a line in the David Bowie song ‘The Jean Genie’ (the title of which was said to have been a punning nod to the controversial French writer and political activist Jean Genet). In their early days, Simple Minds were known as Johnny and the Self-abusers.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Let's not fall out over this

On a night out in Glasgow a couple of months ago, a friend-of-a-friend threatened to hit me because he perceived that my views on Scottish independence were somewhat at odds with his own. By 'somewhat at odds' I mean that I told him that I was undecided about how to vote in the referendum and presented some aspects of what I would regard as the case against independence (there are, of course, good arguments in favour of it, but since this chap was already making some of them quite forcibly, I felt obliged to present an alternative view). Sadly, my equivocation on this matter seemed to offend his braveheart sensibilities to the extent that he felt the best way to ‘win’ the ‘debate’ was to threaten violence. Yes, I mean actual physical violence. And this was an educated man in his forties. I was reminded of that old PG Wodehouse line about it not being difficult to tell the difference between a little ray of sunshine and a Scotsman with a grievance.

Now, I understand that this fellow's reaction was more about his personal issues than about his politics, but I do find this episode depressingly symptomatic of some of the grislier aspects of the referendum debate. You’ll often get the same kind of response (albeit without the threat of physical violence) on internet discussion boards if you express doubts about some aspect or other of the post-referendum Utopia envisaged by Yes campaigners. It’s as if people don’t want to hear the counter arguments and would rather shut the debate down when the ball isn’t rolling their way. The debate, such as it is, appears to have taken on some of the characteristics one would normally associate with discussions about religious faith, where the most important thing is not to win the argument; the most important thing is to have faith, because your faith that Scotland will be better off after a 'yes' vote over-rides any questions or doubts.

The SNP’s white paper set out a vision for Scotland as a modern, low tax, small-government, business-friendly wee country. But at the same time, it said that we're also going to retire earlier, have bigger pensions and have a bigger welfare blanket within a public sector-driven economy. Nobody has satisfactorily explained how that can possibly work. Is it that unreasonable to ask how the new Scotland is going to be able to ignore economic rules that apply to every other country? All of those questions about passports, jobs, currency, embassies etc. have to be addressed. It simply isn’t good enough to expect us to vote first and worry about the details later.
The No campaign, by way of contrast, tends to fall back on the "we’re all doomed!" line of argument, which is just as abject. We won’t get into the EU! We won’t have a proper currency! We’ll go bankrupt once the oil runs out! Businesses will flee in droves! There would clearly be hurdles to overcome, but I find it hard to believe that an independent Scotland couldn’t be made to work, one way or another. But before I commit, I’d like to have a clearer picture of what kind of country I’ll be living in after a 'yes' vote. Will it be significantly different to the one we live in now? Will we better off? How do we quantify the ways in which we will be better off? Will my children and their children and their children’s children be better off?

The overall standard of debate has been poor and both sides really need to up their game, but there is one crucial difference between the Yes and No campaigns. The ballot paper will be quite clear; come September 18th, we’ll have the option of independence or the status quo. The Yes team makes a lot of noise about their opponents not having a plan, but the truth is that the No campaign doesn’t need a plan, beyond pointing out the various downsides of breaking a 300-year old arrangement. A 'no' vote (or an abstention) is a vote for the status quo. And, all things being equal, the status quo will prevail if people think that change might make them worse off than they are just now. The onus, therefore, is almost entirely on the Yes campaign to convince the electorate that Scotland will be better off making that change.

In some ways, Mr Salmond is as cunning as a fox wi’ two heids, but he does give the impression that not only does he want us to vote for independence, he’d also like a say in how the rest of the UK gets to respond to that vote. It would be more dignified to accept that, if Scotland votes to break up the union, we’ll have made our bed and what’s left of the UK will then make whichever decisions it thinks are in its best interests. That ‘reduced’ UK will have no requirement to take into account anything that Scotland would like or wish for. And why should it? Former members of a club don’t get to have a say on what goes on in that club once they have left. The Yes team should stop making accusations about bullying and just stick to answering the questions. Apart from anything else, do we really want our country to be led by the kind of people who cry ‘bully’ when arguments don’t go their way?
And yes, I know that voting for independence is not the same as voting to be governed by the SNP, but since Mr Salmond is the sine qua non of the Yes campaign, it is not unreasonable to focus on his pronouncements. He needs to be able to address -and not just deflect- concerns that his version of independence looks a bit like a teenager choosing to leave home, but reserving the right to go back to mum and dad’s for meals, to get some washing done and maybe also tell them what they can watch on the telly.

I hope that we can keep this referendum focused on ideas and not on emotions because, whatever the outcome of the vote, we’ll all still be here on the morning after. So let’s acknowledge that we all care about the kind of country our children and grandchildren grow up in. Let’s appreciate that two people can review the same information yet reach entirely different conclusions.

And let’s agree not to hit each other if we don’t see eye to eye about the best way forward for our country.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Football on the Radio



I don’t know if there was, or ever will be, a ‘golden age’ of radio football commentary, but having been an avid listener for more years than I care to remember, I’d be willing to posit the view that we are not living through it right now.  The continuous deployment of shrill hyperbole appears to be the industry standard among the commentating fraternity, while any analysis invariably has ‘triumph’ at one end and ‘disaster’ at the other, leaving little room for subtlety or nuance.  It could be that the sheer number of games being covered has led to a lowering of the qualification bar. Alternatively, we could be going through the kind of cultural decline that I’d be willing to expand upon, but only after another couple of drinks. 

Many commentators appear to think that shrieking at every goalmouth incident will convince listeners that something exciting is happening.  They will routinely describe events at a 2-2 draw between, let’s say, Motherwell and Kilmarnock as ‘astonishing’ or ‘incredible’.  In my book, ‘astonishing’ takes quite some doing, while a word like ‘incredible’ should only be used if, for example, Dundee United bring on a two-headed transsexual substitute who scores a late winner and then gets sent off for defecating in the centre circle.

Back when I was a lad (and it was all fields around here), there was not that much football on the radio, which somehow made it seem just a bit more special.  Commentary, even on big games, would not start until the second half; to get the midweek football results, you often had to wait until a brief ‘sports desk’ at 10.15pm.  By contrast, today’s wall-to-wall coverage leaves nothing to the imagination.  Every incident, however mundane, is analysed, picked apart and debated as the pundits (aided and abetted by their phone-in punters) take the same forensic approach to an offside decision at Easter Road that the Warren Commission took to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Amidst all this babble and burble, wherein every single incident is deemed to be ‘incredible’ or ‘sensational’, it becomes difficult to spot something that genuinely is incredible or sensational.      

In addition to the rationed coverage, one of the features of the old days of radio commentary was the frailty of the technical links, particularly when the game was being played abroad.  Nowadays everything is digitally pristine, to the extent that a commentator at a game in Uzbekistan will sound like he is broadcasting from your back garden.  That is probably a very good thing, but there was something thrilling about tuning into a crackly old analogue line that seemed liable to break down at any moment; the fact that the commentator was often just this side of legible made it all the more gripping.  A game from Eastern Europe (a.k.a. ‘behind the Iron Curtain’) sounded like it was being broadcast from the moon, but what mystery and excitement those precarious signals evoked. 

I recall once sneaking a transistor radio into school to listen to England losing 2-1 to Czechoslovakia in a European Championship qualifier.  I can’t remember why the game was being played in the middle of the afternoon; perhaps those Iron Curtain commies didn’t want to waste good socialist electricity on decadent westerners.  For a brief moment, I was the toast of an admittedly very small section of the geography class who gave a toss about whether or not England got a result in that tricky away tie.  It was quite a tough Glaswegian school, so I was taking a bit of a chance by volunteering to be the bearer of news.  My fellow pupils were delighted that the English had lost, but had I reported that they had won the game, there might have been a danger of them adopting a ‘shoot the messenger’ policy.  I could have found myself hung up on the school railings by the hood of my duffel coat.  Again.      

In spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that I was rubbish at playing it, I was a football nerd in my teens.  One of the reasons that I don’t complain about my kids playing computer games is that I have enough self-awareness to acknowledge that, had FIFA or Championship Manager been available when I was a lad, I would never have left my bedroom; my parents, in fact, would probably have had to feed me through a drip.  Tragically obsessed with football facts and figures to an extent that would nowadays invite a diagnosis of mild autism, my Saturday nights would occasionally be spent trying to tune into a German radio station, trying to ‘work out’ what was happening in the Bundesliga games.  I should point out here that I could not speak a single word of German. 
Now perhaps you’d like to pause for a moment to take in the enormity of that last statement.  

A boy who didn’t speak German trying to listen to a (very weak) radio signal from Germany, trying to interpret what was going on in a game between two German teams.  On a Saturday evening.  I think it is safe to say that that would have earned me quite a high score on the ‘you’ll never get a girlfriend-ometer’. 

My greatest triumph in interpreting-dodgy-radio-signals-in-German was when I ‘worked out’ that Bayern Munich had got an absolute pasting in a game against Kaiserslautern.  The commentator was going mental –in German, obviously- as goal after goal seemed to fly in.  As the very weak radio signal swirled about, hovering intermittently somewhere between German football and what sounded like the Belgian pop charts, I knew that Kaiserslautern (or maybe Bayern) were scoring a barrow load of goals in a short space of time; either that, or I was listening to a ‘highlights of the season’ show.  The internet hadn’t been invented yet, so I had to wait a day or two to have the amazing news confirmed: Bayern had indeed been roundly thrashed and I was –probably- one of the first schoolboys in Scotland to know about it, thanks to the miracle of crackly medium wave radio.  I still count that as one of my greatest achievements in life, right up there with the birth of my children and the time I almost got a nine-letter word on Countdown.         

Having started this piece by complaining about ‘shouty’ football commentators, I’m now going to eulogise about a ‘shouty’ bit of commentary.  When used sparingly, near-hysterical excitement is a legitimate weapon in the commentator’s arsenal.  In Star Trek, Captain Kirk and his crew had their phasers on stun most of the time and only switched to the full bhuna in exceptional circumstances.  I would recommend a similar approach for commentators.  My advice would be: don’t simulate noisy orgasm when Queen of the South equalise with three minutes to go in a Ramsden’s Cup tie against Partick Thistle.  If you behave like that when normal stuff happens in a normal game, where can you go once extraordinary stuff happens in an extraordinary game?              

This clip (using TV pictures, but with the radio commentary) features the Dutch radio commentator Jack van Gelder and provides a wonderful example of how to invest a description with the appropriate degree of awestruck wonder.  It is minimalist in terms of its vocabulary, but the context renders this entirely appropriate.  The occasion was the 1998 World Cup quarter-final between Holland and Argentina.  In the last minute of a tense game, Dennis Bergkamp scored a stunning goal to take Holland to the semi-finals.  It was remarkable enough that Frank de Boer could play the 80-yard pass that he did; it was remarkable enough that Bergkamp could control that pass, flick the ball past the defender and then place a shot, with the outside of his foot, beyond the goalkeeper and into the far corner of the net.  But to do all of that in the last minute of a World Cup Quarter Final?  Now that, my friends, is astonishing. 
It will take 38 seconds of your time to watch the clip.  In that time, you will hear the joy and wonder of the commentator, but you will also witness sporting excellence, incredible spatial awareness, geometrical precision, astonishing technique and breath-taking guile, all condensed into one incredible, poetic moment.  Jack van Gelder rightly judged that this extraordinary moment was beyond ordinary words.  In truth, the only thing left for him to say was: Dennis Bergkamp!  Dennis Bergkamp!!  DENNIS BERGKAMP!!!