Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Holy Bible II: this time it's (even) more personal...



“Come and walk down memory lane...”
So cosily nostalgic an offer may sound inviting yet jarring enough to hear it from the Manic Street Preachers, let alone from their infamously forbidding The Holy Bible LP, let alone from a song about the Holocaust, let alone one named for good measure “Mausoleum”.
And yet, to adapt the chorus of a track two songs along said album: “I close my eyes - and this is yesterday...”
Ah, almost - or else, if only. The jagged and harrowing edge of the former, and deceptively gentle wistfulness of the latter, were among the many highlights of Monday evening’s first London leg of the band’s 20th anniversary Holy Bible tour.
The whole of that almost-literally-blistering LP is being played live in full each night this bleak midwinter, to rave reviews and ecstatic audiences that may have felt inconceivable when the album first landed amid Britpop’s first dawn 20 long summers ago. Let alone at a set-trashing Astoria performance in December 1994 which has gone down in Manic fans’ folklore, not least for it being Richey Edwards’ last live concert.
His “presence” here at the Roundhouse - video setting for “A Design For Life”, the group’s traumatised yet defiant comeback single as a threepiece in 1996 - amount to several awe-ful while knockabout namechecks and a spotlight empty space to singer James Dean Bradfield’s right. That is, when the frontman was not Tiggerishly bounding too far astray from his own centre-spot.
Bug-ridden James may have brought a certain hoarseness to the album’s existing, ominous sparseness, frequently apologising for his condition while lavishing the singalonga audience with praise and thanks.
Initially it seemed some of the lines he opted not to voice might have some inner significance - in eviscerating opener “Yes”, he managed “Can’t shout, can’t scream” but not “I hurt myself to get pain out”.
Similarly, perhaps intriguingly, he then followed up with “Just an ambulance, at the bottom” but left out the “of a cliff” - emotional resonance, considering speculation about what ultimately became of bandmate Richey? 
Then again, also missing was the album’s very last line, from crunchily powerpoppy “PCP”: “Pass the Prozac - designer amnesia-a-a-a-a-a-ac...”
Such sardonic comfort could suitably remain unspoken from the stage, mind - and not just because a raucous 3,300-strong audience was hollering along to every densely-crammed word anyway.
Much modern relevance still resounds - leaps out, even - from these 20-year-old tracks, whether the political correctness/corporate homegeneity exasperation of “PCP” or the racial tensions of “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruth..." (“vital stats, how white was his skin - unimportant, just another inner-city drive-by thing”) or just how lethally clay-footed world leaders/dictators remain while yet remaining blithely untouched (“Who’s responsible? You f***ing are...”)
Yet for its formidably ferocious reputation, the splintered edges, the splenetic calls to shredded arms and the unforgiving self-loathing/self-knowing, The Holy Bible is still such a bleakly beautiful - if beautifully bleak - work of art, work of wall-scrawling poetry and aggressively passive (im)passion.
Those tightly-packed lyrics do not only cast interminably-jaundiced eyes over but also confront, mourn and protest many of the 20th century’s most gruesome atrocities, whether committed by famous-name autocrats or infamous-name serial killer criminals.
Such un/healthy preoccupations with, say, concentration camps, gulags and by implication future inexorable nightmares never seem to cheapen the victims of all such allusions, while also defending against potential allegations of such self-indulgence elsewhere.
“Self-disgust is self-obsession, honey, and I do as I please,” James boasts Rotten-ly on “Faster” - “such beautiful dignity in self-abuse” his defiant anorexic narrator pleads in “4st 7lb”.
Such defiance in the embrace of defeat - and yet sardonic knowingness nudges in, as well, in that offhand (self-)laceration, of “Of Walking Abortion”, of: “Fucked-up, don’t know why - you poor little boy...”
The personal is political, the political is personal, and behind it all the personal is invariably, excruciatingly even more personal. Whoever that person is. However hail-worthy many of Richey’s heartfelt lyrics come across, there are some that hit their mark smudgingly - their specific references and meaning clearest only to him, in that moment, while powerful regardless.
And yet this vast crowd - some in 1994-vintage camouflage costumes, or sailor suits, or leopard-print tops, or glittery tiaras, others merely in jeans and paisley shirts, office M&S or weather-related Christmas jumpers - deliriously croons to some of the unlikeliest community chorales.
“Scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals” - “Wherever you go I will be carcass, whatever you see will be rotting flesh” - “Six million screaming souls - maybe misery, maybe nothing at all...”
Party. On.
Well, this is after all a band who - a few years on from their biblical epic - would somehow take to number one in the singles chart a song daring to be about the Spanish Civil War and bearing the name of “If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next”. And this in summer (1998), an’ all, succeeding the Spice Girls and Boyzone at the summit.
Acknowledging the, er, difficult of some of this evening’s refrains, Nicky Wire made the most of his non-singalongable microphone to introduce “Mausoleum” as “the singalong song of the winter” - before ostentatiously counting in, “1-2-3-4”, each under-lifting chorus of: “No birds, no birds - the sky is swollen black - no birds, no birds - holy mass of dead insects...”
The Manics do have a sense of humour, after all, it seems - why, many of Nicky’s most contentious remarks in the past seem borne more from mischief than bad taste for bad taste’s sake. And this mind dimly recalls first becoming more aware of them through a feature in a video games magazine, touting their second album while rhapsodising about the Sega Master System.
Another misconception back then, if not necessarily since, is that they could barely play their instruments - even slightly harsh on the Stuart Sutcliffe-ish Richey, but now demolished every time James breaks out another effortless arpeggio or discordant yet crystalline lick, Sean Moore boulders between militaristic pounding and ironic chugalug, Nicky gracefully yet propulsively as his 6ft 7in frame sends another McCartney-ish creative bassline juddering from stomach towards larynx.
At times at the Roundhouse the overall sound might have missed a certain something of the original LP’s caustic claustrophobia, an arena echo kicking in instead and even his cold not entirely explaining while the older-now James can’t always shriek the highest notes quite like way back when.
Yet the pathos passing much understanding endures - and envelops. Some of the bitterest lyrics ever committed to record by a major-league band get raucously called back and beyond by an army of thousands. While the inkling of a feeling hits that for many here such wound-stretchingly honest words not only connect to, say, student or teenage memories of admiring an album but feeling a connection and emotions too often felt unexpressed elsewhere, instead merely left festering within.
The insightful anorexic of “4st 7in”, the provocatively petulant “architect”/”butcher” of “Faster”, the sarcastic self-loather of “Of Walking Abortion” or the sickly failed lover/political student of “Revol” - all might find even the vaguest, while fulfilling, fellow-feeler.
Recent sad(sack) sentiments may have placed this listener among those to whom tears already spring a little too readily from crinkling, sprinkling eyes, while catching half-breaths and wondering just why, yet simultaneously finding fingers curling instinctively around long-fading yet remaining scarred arms.
One lesson from the Manics’ The Holy Bible, at least, is however not necessarily to celebrate yet at least recognise what depth of human emotions can and do flood both conscious and subconscious, well, living. Of sorts.
Between fleeting megalomania and floundering misery, many drab and dramatic moments come and go - whatever the surface, all feeling. And for all the pity or pain, the intensity remains something to cherish - on record, on stage or in life.
Some 20 sad and strange and sadder years on from such a notoriously cold and forbidding and personal LP, The Holy Bible on nights such as this reveals itself to have somehow become more or less warm and enduring and communal to an audience as well.
Every crowd, united in the occasion, comprising a multitude of potentially lonely souls, trying to stay a fixed ideal. And hopefully finding at least one of Richey’s lyrics does not quite ring true.
“Nothing turns out like you want it to”?
Yes. Definitely maybe, to quote an LP jarringly released the very same day.
Except, briefly, on an otherwise-bleak midwinter London evening two short decades along.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Oh, oh, oh, what a(n un)lovely war...

“I said we’ll both be home in a week or two,
Me and Albert and Lord Kitchener’ll teach the Hun a thing or two…
I’m sure to return –
After me, do not yearn
And we will waltz together all our lives through…”
So falls in chords the attempt at an uplifting farewell salute - before a subtly affecting lift in still-funereal cadences. So ends not a real-life tale (technically) but Ralph McTell’s plangent “Maginot Waltz”, released on an album even a few years after his defining/occluding “Streets Of London” hit a poptastic number two.

And yet, while the words and accompaniment feel heartaching, so much more so are so many letters to be found in newspaper archives, daily sent home from the First World War front from willing and unwilling troops struggling to make sense of their localised place in a world going to newly-globalised war.
Whether they went out at first with unfounded optimism or otherwise.
Letters returned, bringing stoic survival updates or brutal condolences.

Packages were sent out. Some lives were saved - even one "charmed life" from North London protected by a parcel. 

Yet so many many more were either ended or grievously damaged.

Just around the corner from home here in Woodside Park is Lodge Lane, where John Parr lived before somehow going off to fight aged 15 - and becoming the first British soldier killed in the First World War, just 17 days in, even if his family remained unaware for another ten months.
And only a little further away is Mill Hill East, three stations along on the Northern Line yet probably just as swift to run rather than depend on the occasional branch-line shuttle.

Rather more distant, mind, remain such experiences as those endured by Pte Parr, a Pte Boyd and other members of the Mill Hill-based Middlesex Regiment veteran - including, ex-Tottenham Hotspur footballer Walter Tull who would prove not only the first black player in top-flight English football but also a garlanded English soldier who died in action in France in March 1918.

Pte Boyd himself was described as enjoying that "charmed life” by a write-up in the Finchley Press on January 22 1915, though such “stuff” as luck back then was both relative and random…
LOCAL WAR ITEMS.
PERSONAL NARRATIVES, EPISODES AND INCIDENTS OF LOCAL INTEREST.
PRINCESS MARY’S GIFT BOX.
SAVES THE LIFE OF EAST FINCHLEY MAN.
WHO WON DISTINCTION IN SOUTH AFRICA.
The gift box sent by Princess Mary to Private Boyd, of the 4th Batt. Middlesex Regiment, has proved more than ordinarily acceptable. It saved Private Boyd’s life. A bullet went clean through it, but Private Boyd remained unhurt.
He has sent home the riddled gift box to his wife, who lives at 20 Elmfield-road, East Finchley.
Private Boyd is not seeing active service for the first time. He was in the 2nd Batt. Of the Middlesex Regiment through the South African War.
MENTIONED IN DISPATCHES.
He was mentioned in dispatches, and received the Distinguished Medal for Spion Kop.
At the time, it was stated that his coolness under fire gave the impression that he bore a charmed life.
“Which,” says his wife happily, “appears to hold good in this instance.”
Private Boyd, though he had finished his time in the Army, being a man of fifty or so, as soon as the call for men came on the outbreak of war, rejoined at Mill Hill.
For a time he was passing from one station to another in England. This did not satisfy him. He had not joined for this.
He petitioned to be sent to the front, and his petition was acceded to.
He has been busy in the trenches ever since. His last home communication came in the shape of the box that saved his life.
The bullet passed through the box diagonally at one corner. He had it in the pocket of his tunic at the time, and it gives the impression that the shot was fired from the hip, as has been stated to be the custom among the Germans. It is a clean-drilled hole through the tin.
In the Transvaal Private Boyd was wounded on one occasion by a shell, a fragment of which he brought home – in his leg.
Though actively engaged during the whole time he has been out, Private Boyd has not only escaped injury, but has maintained – or had until his last communication – the best of health, which goes to show that a man is not too old at fifty for active service if he has the “stuff” in him.
The war declared today 100 years ago ended not only with an estimated 9million dead – including a sadly-baffling 2,738 on the final morning, killed needlessly in the hours between a truce being agreed and its PR-timed announcement at 11:11 on 11/11 – but also nation states and empires fragmented.
The previously-imperious Austro-Hungarian dominion would end splintered, so many constituent parts of a once-mighty Mitteleuropa nowadays barely capturing wider attention but for occasional football finals appearances or summer flash-floods.
Iraq and Palestine as independent-ish entities have had [irony ahead] a fair few struggles since, while the Balkan ex-/im-plosions partly triggered by, well, Gavrilo Princip’s temperamental finger are only tentatively easing at least a little these days.
Scant comfort, and lessons, from such dim, distant conscription might be the reminder that – for all many people's many complaints about coalitions, oppositions and the way we live here now, Britain remains in a blessed place compared to so many others.
The trenches, the degradation, the deaths and the life-altering injuries are not quite entirely history – why, the hundreds upon thousands afflicted so in Iraq and Afghanistan are reminders that donkeys can still overweeningly lead prides of lions.
But the sickening scenes in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and too, too many others horrify while reminding how lucky such as us over here now are.
Why, like Pte Boyd - there but for fortune
Michael Gove may be no fan but many minds might still feel inclined to sympathise with the sardonic - while caustically-jaunty - sentiments of Joan Littlewood's Oh! What A Lovely War.
That crushing closing sequence still stands alone as a gorgeous, poignant, subtly and disgustedly acerbic requiem for lives laid to waste amid such illusory poppy fields.
Plus ca change, eh?
Some lessons from the misleadingly-labelled Great War have been learnt. Many others, not so much.
Not while war remains so seemingly needless, and yet still so inexorably inevitable.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Fifa and Brit execs embarrassed, embroiled in '£60m World Cup ticket-touting scam'



 
FIFA president Sepp Blatter and British executives have been dragged into a £60million World Cup ticket-touting scandal.
Sir Bobby Charlton’s former travel agent Ray Whelan was released on bail yesterday after being arrested at a luxury Rio hotel and accused of involvement in a major ticketing scam.
He was ordered to hand over £2,900 bond as well as his passport as detectives press ahead with their three-month investigation into alleged widespread World Cup touting.
But prosecutors condemned his release as ‘absurd’, describing him as their ‘prime suspect’ alleged to have masterminded a multi-million-pound ticketing scam.
The affair threatens to cause further embarrassment for beleaguered Fifa boss Mr Blatter, whose nephew Philippe runs a firm which jointly owns the company at the centre of the scandal.
Other ticketing agencies also embroiled - and yesterday barred from selling packages for remaining World Cup fixtures - include some who handled sales at the London 2012 Olympics.
Ticketing fraud experts warned the small, often-incestuous number of firms tending to monopolise contracts for major sporting events made abuse inevitable.
Whelan, 64, is an accommodation director of corporate hospitality providers Match Services - a key commercial partner for football’s world governing body Fifa and part of the Cheshire-based events firm Byrom Group.
He was arrested on Monday night at the five-star Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio, where he was staying alongside the likes of Mr Blatter, Prince Albert of Monaco and other senior Fifa and corporate executives.
Officers last week detained 11 people as part of a three-month probe called ‘Operation Jules Rimet’ - after the former Fifa president who gave his name to the first World Cup trophy.
The alleged ringleader of the latest ‘scam’ is a 57-year-old French-Algerian named Mohamadou Lamine Fofana – who was also staying at the Copacabana Palace.
His company Atlanta Sportif is accused of having secured tickets and packages from Match which they then illegally resold.
Police are now analysing calls they say they recorded between Whelan and Fofana, among about 50,000 taped phone conversations.
Fifa have tried to distance themselves from the scandal, praising police for their work and revealing their willingness to co-operate.
Whelan’s lawyer Fernando Fernandes yesterday described his arrest as ‘illegal and absurd’ and his employers said: ‘Match have complete faith that the facts will establish that he has not violated any laws.’
Rio prosecutor Mark Kac, however, called the release ‘absurd’, adding: ‘We are really upset with this decision.
‘This gang moved millions. Now the prime suspect is loose. He was released based on nothing.’
Match have, meanwhile, suspended corporate packages allocated to three secondary ticketing agencies: Reliance Industries, Pamodzi and former London 2012 contractors Jet Set Sports.
Match Hospitality were allocated 445,500 of the 3million-plus 2014 World Cup tickets made available.
Any unsold corporate hospitality tickets are meant to be returned to Fifa to make available to the public.
Reselling World Cup tickets for profit is both against Fifa rules and illegal in Brazil.
Match Hospitality and Match Services are two subsidiaries of the Cheadle, Cheshire-based Byrom Group, set up by two Mexican brothers and closely involved with Fifa since the 1986 World Cup.
Philippe Blatter is chief executive of sports marketing company Infront, another Fifa commercial partner and which also has a shareholding in Match Hospitality.
Infront yesterday issued a statement insisting they ‘only’ held five per cent of shares and Philippe Blatter had no operational involvement or personal stake in Match.
He is not the only relative of a senior Fifa official to find himself drawn into a ticketing controversy, however.
Humberto Grondona, son of Fifa senior vice-president Julio Grondona from Argentina, has been accused at this World Cup of selling tickets for profit.
Disgraced former Fifa vice-president Jack Warner and his son were found to have made £500,000 by selling 5,400 tickets acquired from Byrom for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Jet Set and sister company Cosports were among the ticketing agencies used by London 2012 organisers.
Cosports were at the centre of controversy two years ago when it emerged tickets they sold to some British customers - at a 20 per cent premium - were originally allocated to official sponsors and should not have been made available.
The suspended agency Pamodzi is run by Pape Massata Diack, son of the International Association of Athletics Federations’ Senegalese president Lamine Diack.
The IAAF president was disciplined by the IOC in 2011, along with Fifa vice-president Issa Hayatou, for receiving money from the now-defunct sports marketing company ISL in an alleged ‘kickbacks’ scandal.
Investigator Reg Walker, from the UK-based Iridium Consultancy, told Metro: ‘The ticketing for sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics needs to be much more open, competitive and transparent.
‘The lengthy contracts given by Fifa and the IOC give certain people incredible amount of power.
‘In the end the only people who suffer are the genuine fans without deep pockets and priced out of attending.’

Hundreds of Afghan translators who risked lives for Brits 'left abandoned to Taliban'


Afghan interpreters who face Taliban death threats for helping British forces are protesting at being made to wait more than a year for promised refuge - after only two were offered aid.

Translators who have sided with coalition troops in Helmand province were told 12 months ago they could receive five-year visas to live here.
 
 
And a legal challenge to the limited new offers is due to be heard at London’s High Court this summer.
 
Campaigners say lives are being put in danger in Afghanistan, where translators and their families face possible retribution from anti-Western militants.
 
Interpreters, who have proved crucial to local communications, have previously told Metro they and their families have faced death threats from the Taliban since siding with UK forces.
 
The government signalled last May translators who worked with British forces would be given five-year visas to live here as coalition forces withdraw - but only those employed since the start of 2012.
 
At least 21 translators working for Britain have died in Afghanistan since 2001.
 
Mohammed, an interpreter for the British army in Helmand between 2006 and 2009, told Metro he had not left his home in Kabul in months for fear of revenge attacks.
 
He also decided to keep his seven-year-old daughter home from school after she was handed a letter vowing to kill her ‘infidel’ father.
 
Another former interpreter, Faisal, told Metro: ‘We interpreters have worked so many years with British troops in Afghanistan in Helmand, which is the most dangerous province in Afghanistan.
 
‘We risked our lives and have worked with British troops shoulder to shoulder on the frontline and now they are turning back against us.’
 
Law firm Leigh Day is representing three interpreters legally challenging the proposals, saying they are less generous than that offered to counterparts during the Iraq war.
 
The Iraq staff were promised indefinite leave to live in Britain or one-off packages of financial aid.
 
Campaign groups Avaaz, British Future and Refugee Action fear the mooted packages will deny asylum to as many as three-quarters of the  interpreters who helped British troops in Afghanistan.
 
Government officials insist they have a separate ‘intimidation policy’ scheme to protect current and former staff - include interpreters - who fear for their safety.
 
The Foreign Office estimates about 600 staff are likely to be offered resettlement in Britain.
 
And Ministry of Defence data released last night showed two 'locally-engaged civilians' had been granted visas, with applications being processed for another 269 - and 600 in total expected.
 
The figures came to light following a written Parliamentary question from Conservative Defence Select Committee chairman Rory Stewart.
 
A Foreign Office spokeswoman told Metro: ‘We cannot predict accurately how long the processing of the first cases for relocation will take.
 
‘Realistically, it is unlikely that the first relocating Afghan former staff will arrive in UK with their families before the middle of this year.’

Monday, June 09, 2014

Alleged Adidas-led Fifa rebellion may leave Blatter 'a happy president' for some time yet


Adidas, the firm that gave Sepp Blatter to the world of football, is said by some to have now turned on him and Fifa over the – latest - World Cup scandal.
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. In fact, they and he may well remain in close agreement – as they largely have for more than three decades, one unfortunate time Blatter was suspected of wearing a Puma training top aside.
Adidas supremo Horst Dassler plucked Blatter from the marketing department of luxury Swiss watchmaker Longines, trained him up for several months in Landersheim offices then installed him on the first – if lofty - rung of the Fifa ladder.
‘He taught me the finer points of sports politics – an excellent education for me,’ Blatter later said of Dassler, who also provided useful instruction in how to best enjoy a good cigar.
Fifa and its now-president Blatter find themselves befogged by the Sunday Times’ fine investigative reporting on alleged backhanders shared among world football’s governing body to secure the 2022 World Cup for Qatar.
Today’s newspapers – including a Metro front-page, baffling subbing reference to ‘negative tenure’ and all – hail an apparent rebellion by Fifa’s main sponsors, long-loyal among Adidas among them.
And yet the sportswear giant’s supposedly-accusatory statement merely parrots what they little-committally said three years ago – with scant critical substance either.
Of course, they deplore the ‘negative tenor’ of current ‘public debate’ about Fifa, among supporters, the media and politicians both fair-minded and bandwagon-hopping alike.
Even Blatter himself might well go along with this, mind – not necessarily because he nor Adidas regrets how Fifa has behaved, but how they are being roundly condemned for apparently behaving. What really matters more, what the allegations suggest or simply that such allegations have been aired?
Back when Blatter became Fifa’s general secretary in May 1981, he was not only a Dassler protégé but also serving another key Adidas ally, Fifa president Joao Havelange.
In cahoots since the early 1970s, Dassler and Havelange had ruthlessly toppled Englishman Sir Stanley Rous as Fifa president in 1974.
They cannily and incessantly targeted and won over those federations and confederations across, say, Asia and Africa who felt legitimately alienated and under-represented by the Rous regime.
The vast expansion of what was and remains the world’s game, plus the wooing of blue-chip sponsors, has brought benefits however off-putting some Fifa-sanctioned practices may seem.
The organisation did spend $183million last year on football development, albeit still less than the $276million spent on itself and probably not quite convincingly enough to secure Sepp his dreamed-of Nobel Peace Prize.
And yet while the hand-in-glove relationship with Adidas helped accelerate perhaps-inevitable modernisation – and marketisation – it did also culminate in the eventual collapse of marketing arm ISL amid claims of mismanagement and backhanders.
Havelange ultimately paid some price following dogged investigations by a persistent few – British journalist Andrew Jennings leading among them – though resigned through ill health in 2013 before he could be expelled as honourary president.
His son-in-law Ricardo Teixeira’s long-tight grip on the Brazilian game was finally ended thanks to associated corruption allegations.
Other senior Fifa less-than-worthies who have ended up exiled and/or disgraced include South America’s Nicolas Leoz, Central America’s Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer and Africa’s Issa Hayatou and Jacques Anouma, leaving Blatter still reigning supreme.
Hayatou stood unsuccessfully against Blatter in 2002, as did nine years later the current man of the media-furore moment, Mohammed bin Hammam.
The Qatari was a friend and benefactor of Blatter’s ahead of his successful 1998 presidential run, allegedly lending the use of his own private aircraft, before opting to pay his own way towards power.
One of the issues now at keenly-contested dispute is whether his later Sunday largesse offered elsewhere was motivated more by personal Fifa ambitions or to secure 2022 for Qatar.
Blatter may have been the man opening the envelope and announcing the Middle East emirate as 2022 host, in what on technical and emotional grounds seems an even more mindboggling decision than Pulp being pipped to the 1994 Mercury Music Prize by M People.
General Fifa-smearing aside, however, the latest reports may not quite shift Blatter too far from his frequent self-proclamation of being ‘a happy president’.
(Admittedly such reflections have invariably come after being emphatically re-elected or basking in the gratitude of finding in Fifa reserves generous bonuses for member federations and confederations.)
Blatter has hardly been among the heartiest fans of a 2022 World Cup in Qatar – unlike, say, Uefa president and mooted 2015 challenger Michel Platini.
With bin Hammam already banned from football for life after Blazer broke ranks with bribery allegations in 2011 and thus already a busted flush, the Sunday Times stories may merely be adding – admittedly emphatic - insult to his own already-festering injury.
While also potentially firing a warning-shot across the bows of anyone else who may consider challenging Blatter, he of the folksy patter only occasionally turning tetchier. Ponder on, Platini?
Meanwhile, millions of pounds still pour through Fifa sponsors and customers in Fifa coffers, handily helped by demanding and winning tax exemption when occupying obliging host nations for a World Cup – and millions of fans will be genuinely transfixed once the actual football kicks off on Thursday.
Football and crude commerce have long known their mutual benefits.
Why, even the sainted Pele – exemplifying more than even any other Brazilian 'the beautiful game' – could play both games savvily.
He delayed the start of one 1970 World Cup tie to stoop and tie his laces – perhaps a genuine gesture, but also ensuring colour TV cameras zoomed in on his branded boots.
His footwear actually bore not three stripes but one apiece, after Adidas’s broken-family rivals Puma had broken a pact not to compete for Pele.
That incident features in business journalist Barbara Smit’s compelling while dispiriting investigative page-turner, aptly-titled ‘Pitch Invasion: Adidas, Puma And The Making Of Modern Sport’.
For modern sports fans to have faith restored in those who do serious business out of ‘only a game’, the game-changers do probably need to be national federations and/or corporate backers.
(Incidentally, the post-Salt Lake-purged International Olympic Committee might cock a snooty snook these days at their still-compromised football counterparts, yet a fair few officials with eyebrow-raising records remain in richly-expensed and influential roles.)
The English FA may have belatedly opposed Blatter and demanded better Fifa transparency, albeit in a rather transparent fit of pique ever since clumsy love-bombing failed to win the 2018 World Cup.
The prospect of many more nations rushing to munch on the Fifa hand that feeds them, though, feels unlikely – as does the sort of mass sponsor boycott that could really steer any FIFA World Cup off-course.
Adidas, like BP, like Visa, like Coca-Cola – all of which have faced their own personal PR embarrassments before - may finally be saying something, but their talk sounds nowhere near tough enough.
This alleged rebellion might encourage some fans desperate feel a little bit better about football off the field as well as on. And that those fields be in the best, most amenable locations.
And yet anyone optimistically expecting Adidas and others to follow up timid words with dramatic action may find the clock – or Longines watch – will tick for a long time yet.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sick and injured refugee children forced to flee Syria now forced to put lives in more danger by returning

The harrowing, heartaching tales told by those Syrian refugees who have managed to flee their homeland to relative safety across any border can at times at least be tinged with a little relief.

Those faint hopes of returning home one day, mind, may be optimistically expressed while with little realistic prospect of fulfilment for quite some time - especially as the West continues to stall and Bashar Assad to tease.
 
 
Which makes it all the more distressingly astounding that many families might be putting their already-fragile lives in danger by venturing back into Syria’s badlands – even, sometimes, several times a week.
 
Yet that is the case for so – and too – many of the estimated 1million-plus Syrian refugees finding at least some shelter in neighbouring Lebanon, as revealed today by Amnesty.
 
Sick and wounded Syrian children who managed to escape the civil war-torn country are being forced to return due to a lack of help elsewhere.
 
The influx of refugees into neighbouring Lebanon has now become so great that many hospitals are turning away those in need.
 
 
These include families with cancer-afflicted children, or those who have suffered severe burns, bullet wounds or kidney failure, Amnesty found.
 
Some are even shuttling back and forth, as often as twice a week, for continuing treatment such as kidney dialysis.
 
They are risking their lives in the face continuing bombardment of towns and cities by President Assad’s regime fighting rebel forces.
 
Amnesty International investigators found distressing cases such as that of 12-year-old Arif, suffering from severe burns and infections to his legs.
 
He only qualified for five days’ worth of treatment funded by the UN Refugee Agency, under UNHCR’s current guidelines - and still needs another 13 operation.
 
These cannot be carried out in Lebanon due to a shortage of specialist equipment, according to today’s 36-page report named ‘Agonising Choices’.
 
Other Syrian refugees pondering possible trips back to their homeland include cancer sufferers unable to afford - or find - the treatment they need in Lebanon.
 
More than 1million registered Syrian refugees are now living in 4million-population Lebanon, though aid agencies believe many more are there unknown to authorities and agencies.
 
The official tally is expected to reach 1.5million by the end of this year, loading more pressure on Lebanon’s undeveloped facilities.
 
The country’s health system is privatised and expensive, leaving many Syrians dependent on UNHCR help.
 
Yet while the United Nations has appealed for £1billion support for Lebanon this year, only 17 per cent of the necessary aid has been provided.
 
Even those refugees who meet the tight criteria for who receives hospital treatment still have to pay one-quarter of the costs themselves.
 
Some 11 per cent of 3,170 refugee families recently surveyed by UNHCR said they had returned to Syria for medical reasons.
 
One father told Amnesty he and his nine-year-old leukaemia suffered son have to pass through ten checkpoints between their Bekkaa valley refuge in Lebanon and a hospital in Syrian capital Damascus.
 
Amnesty International’s Audrey Gaughran said: ‘Hospital treatment and more specialised care for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is woefully insufficient.
 
‘Syrian refugees there are suffering as a direct result of the international community’s shameful failure to fully fund the UN relief programme.’
 
The UN is appealing overall for £4billion for the Syrian relief effort this year, having received only about 70 per cent of the £3.2billion deemed necessary in 2013.
 
 
The UK was last year’s third largest donor, offering £231.2million – almost £6million more than Germany, France and Spain combined, and behind only the US (£694.4million) and the European Commission (£356.2million).
 
Other major powers have been so stingy as to be laughable, were the situation not so grave – including Russia and China, resolute UN Security Council opponents of meaningful anti-Assad sanctions or aid access improvements.
 
Those two are now obstructing moves to refer the Syrian regime to the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes – having previously helped Assad play the West by appearing to make chemical weapon concessions, even as conventional rockets and bombs keep raining down.
 
Figures released earlier this week suggested at least 160,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad three years ago and his regime’s crackdown in response.
 
Some 9.3million people are thought to have lost their homes and be in urgent need, whether still stuck inside Syria or streaming into neighbouring nations – only now intermittently returning, it seems.
 
A country – no, a region – in chaos can perhaps seem too weighty and complex a problem to try solving, yet for all the mealy-mouthed words offered by the rest of the world a little more direct pressure and help might just be more welcomed.

By those inside or outside Syria, or somehow just about surviving adrift in-between.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty..."

“Well, I do feel that even beats Henry IV Part One…”

Ah, Hampstead (Theatre). Not only would such a critique be pretty unthinkable anywhere else.

Why, even unlikelier was its delivery as an exhilarated audience dusted red-white-and-blue ticker-tape from their sleeves and tottered out in a daze through auditorium doors.

Behind them echoed the last clanging chords from a finale greeted not by polite applause while settled in seats, but tottering to feet and rocking and jiving and whooping along in a feelgood evening ending to “Sunny Afternoon”.

That is, the newly-opened (and soon West End-shifting?) musical based on the songs of the Kinks, approved and overseen by often-crotchety Ray Davies and with a script by credible veteran Joe Penhall – a seeming safe pair of hands compared to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Queen-ly collaborator Ben Elton.

The Shakespeare comparison may, however, be a little too much of a stretch – even if the raw emotions of such sibling rivalry between Ray and Dave Davies might well have offered material enough for intense Jacobean tragedy.

There seems plenty to carp about, however, about this script.

Rave reviews have been won, from the Observer to the Mail, the Independent to the Express. And, yes, it is a real feelgood evening – as suggested by so many leaping aloft for the final scenes, to not only sing but swivel along.

This is a show that sounds great – well, how couldn’t it, being based on the music of the Kinks? And not only the hits, but later album tracks stealthily snuck in such as even the obscure first verse of "Maximum Consumption" when discussing mere meals? But all are performed with mighty power and finesse, by a squad-rotating band ("Ray's dad" leads a bravura "Dead End Street" before sitting down in the background and subtly finger-picking...)

That lesser-known one works well enough as a singalong-ish track performed showtune-style, but what struck this viewer – and keen Kinksian geek – was how many other non–hits got factored in on-stage.

Of course playgoers will expect – and duly receive and appreciate  – such obvious classics as "You Really Got Me", "Tired Of Waiting For You", "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion" and/or "Waterloo Sunset".

Yet a production seemingly so predicated on celebrating the London of the Swinging (mid-)Sixties not only made canny characterful use of later songs readjusted to earlier period scenes.

Well, it recognised just how ruefully judgmental of the Sixties were the Kinks’ songs of the Seventies.

The bitter LP Lola Versus Powerman… came out in 1970, only a few months after perennial favourite – if subversive – single “Lola” reached number two and made them appear more relevant than they had for several years.

That album failed to chart and even now has less of an approving hipster reputation than 1968’s (admittedly also-excellent) Village Green Preservation Society.

And yet its songs, with their strangely-specific finger-pointing over contracts or affectedly-blasé comments on how to get on Top Of The Pops, seem somehow topical while made central to this latest production.

And yet, despite replicating such ingenious music so viscerally well, one of the main problems of "Sunny Afternoon" at Hampstead Theatre is the actor playing Ray Davies.

Not that John Dagleish is no good. Quite the contrary – he is excellent, both singing and strumming. He just never convinces as, well, Ray Davies. More like the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner – at least, back in his Sixties-obsessed days, rather than with the Fifties quiff he currently sports.

Flat-capped and chippy is not sufficient to capture that character, mind, and the storyline the audience is invited to accept – that Ray is an insightful idealist, with a disturbing upbringing yet with ingenious insights always frustratedly bubbling under – seldom comes across when speaking, only ever when singing. Thanks to those ever-expressive songs themselves.

Why, at one point the poor actor playing Dave – otherwise raucously unrestrainedly – is forced to intone the words: “It used to be about the music…”

Presumably we should all feel grateful he never felt compelled to add something along the lines of: “Why don’t we put on the show right here?”

(Another potential cause for discomfort is the caricaturish Jewish agent they attract [though the same performer later does pummelling drumming duties], his R-rolling rhoticisms recalling to mind Ray’s exaggerated impression at the end of “Top Of The Pops” or else the opening lyric of the otherwise-brilliantly-witty “When I Turn Off The Living-Room Light”.)

George Maguire as Dave Davies, by contrast, completely convinces as that real-life, ever-(/too-)sincere figure, capturing that half-unhinged yet technically-brilliant personality.

The whole play could do better to explore further, and not only glancingly or belatedly, that love-hate relationship between those two brothers (albeit explored better already by Ray’s own 1966 song ‘Two Sisters’…)

Charismatically as Dave comes across, there feel obvious indications this is a Ray-ruled creation – exemplified by showing their first “You Really Got Me” recording with Ray not Dave shredding the amp with a knitting-needle for importantly-coarser effect. Despite all other reports to the contrary.

Fair enough, perhaps.

This is Ray’s show, and a good deal better than many musicals merely constructed around a big band’s hits.

For all the obvious Sixties stuff, most affecting are the Seventies reworkings – such as "Sitting In My Hotel" for Ray’s lonely touring duties, or "This  Time Tomorrow" for Ray’s lonely loneliness duties, or "The Money-Go-Round" for Ray’s lonely cash-counting fretting….

What the show does get across well is not merely how Ray was the brains of the band – and, yes, how emphatically this Ray Davies-promoted production makes just that point – but also how younger bro Dave could justly claim to be the heart, the soul and the, er, groin of the group.

Ray’s first wife, his teenage bride Rasa, plays a key part here – met at a gig in Bradford, her Yorkshire accent played for laughs while strikingly set alongside her parents’ expounded history fleeing Lithuania and the Nazis not that long beforehand.

Her most memorable contribution, however, approaches the end as the band haltingly work through a new R. D. Davies creation that would turn out to be 1967’s – hey, all-time’s – finest single, “Waterloo Sunset”.

“Ah, it makes me cry!”, Rasa cries, on hearing just the first few bars.

“Ah, it makes me cringe,” might think a few who hear such a cheesily-delivered riposte.

And then, and yet … the song itself starts. The bassline saunters down. The guitar lick kicks in.

And then, those lyrics. Allied with, well, that melody.

No matter the circumstances, such a song can never fail.

Ah, it makes me cry.

In a grand way, of course. Whether on-stage or on record, all day and all of the night.