Amy Winehouse has died

It is obvious, too much so indeed, to reach for the coincidence of the rock’s “27 Club”, and attach the name of the deceased Amy Winehouse to its list of passed talents. Winehouse was, almost from the start, a major British talent lost to the glare of a media world she wasn’t designed for.

When my former boss at work, a woman in her late 50s, first heard “Rehab” on BBC Radio 2, she genuinely believed the voice coming through her speakers was that of a 1960s Motown star. That voice – so distinct, tainted with lost hope, quite a lot of booze and a heck-load of attitude, can be heard still today in every female singer who has chosen to speak with pronounced Estuary English and a glint in the eye. Winehouse’s launchpad into the commercial world could have been the introduction to one of Britain’s most distinctive, long-lasting female talents; she was funny, bold, brave. Ultimately, most tragically, she was misguided and misdirected.

Her tragic death is tinged with dark irony. Her final live performances, caught on camera and shared across the world, are stumbling, incoherent messes; her mind seems completely overblown, her attention lost to the glare of lights, music, voices, crowd. What was there, still in the back of her mind, caught in the grip of booze and drugs? The younger Amy, the star she could have been, desperate to repair damage and carry on?

Amy was a tabloid journalist’s dream ticket. Potential megastar wrapped in scandal after scandal – snortable distractions, celebrity lifestyle, body image to mock. And as much as she ran away, she inevitably followed, cuckoo-like, the glare of each and every camera.

Her legacy will be those songs which showcase the woman who was, fleetingly, the biggest British star with the greatest soul voice for generations. What could have been – that perennial question for all rock’s lost young talents – will rest on the breeze for all our lives.

When Kurt Cobain was found dead, his generation mourned the loss of a singer and songwriter whose best work could have still made the radiowaves and stadium stages. Today, a new generation finds an icon similarly tortured by genius and drug addiction, and mourns her just the same.

She will be missed.

Norway – jumping to conclusions

Labour MP Tom Harris shook up the sensitive elements of Twitter with his reaction to Norway’s bombing and shooting tragedy. His two tweets in question, which kickstarted the keyboard warrioring across Left and Right were:

“Even after Oslo, we’ll still have the apologists for terrorism saying it was caused by “foreign policy” or by “disrespect to the Prophet”.

“If I have unfairly accused militant Islamists for Oslo attacks I apologise and hope it does not interfere with their ongoing charity work.”

It doesn’t take too many Google searches to find blogs where conclusions (and prejudices) are well and truly exposed:

“The Norwegian people need to get rid of their Leftist treasonous government and display some of that old viking blood. Appeasing Islamic aggression hasn’t work. It’s time for Norway to stand against Islamic Imperialism!”

It is easy to wander around messageboards, forums, chatrooms, to see the thought processes which initially linked the attacks to Islamist terrorists, or linked somehow to al Qaeda. It tapped into assumptions and prejudices many of us shared. When I read the details of the news, I couldn’t help but groan. To a Facebook status implying it was Islamic terrorists, I leapt into automatic world-view keyboard warrior. “It was carried out by someone pissed off at the West invading their country,” I posted, fresh with the anti-Libya rage I have held since the start of that particular adventure. On a politics forum I visit, the implied assumption of an Islmaic attack hung around every post.

The man accused of carrying out both attacks. Anders Behring Breivik, does not have the appearance of a radicalised convert. It could be, as more details are known, that he is a crazed, lone individual whose actions come from deep seated concerns of his own. Nationalism, perhaps, such as it might exist in Norway. Despite the assumption jumping, it does not hold too many hallmarks of what would be called a ‘typical’ attack in the Madrid or Bali or London models.

Have we been conditioned, since 9 September 2011, into this automatic unease, this discreet prejudice? Tom Harris, of course, was flamed by the usual suspects who read what they wanted to read; he did not blame “Muslims”, if he actually blamed anyone at all. That does not absolve us of every accusation. The easy and convenient labelling comes from years of conditioning by the media, from whom ‘divide and rule’ retains its news gathering charm.

The existing threat from extremists on all sides keeps us vigil, aware, and ultimately frames how our Governments decide the levels of civil rights and freedoms we can enjoy. We have this situation completely wrong. If Breivik turns out to have no connections to Islamist terrorism, how we reconcile our own beliefs is one thing; how our Governments conclude reconsiderations of civil liberty legislation will be quite another.

Mercury’s gold (doesn’t always shimmer)

Award ceremonies present quite the uncertain prospect for most observers; the general population either adore or ignore, tabloids subject the most meaningless to disproportionate hyperbole, broadsheets offer disproportionate analysis. It’s not just the self-promoting ridiculousness of them all (although, to paraphrase Sideshow Bob, there is not yet a trinket out there for attempted physics).

If ever there’s a gong show with contentious decisions written all the way across its history like a hipster’s arm, it’s the Mercury Prize for….well….best album? Greatest? Most beloved Alexis Petridis?

This year’s shortlist is the usual eclectic, eccentric muddle of commercial and deliberately obtuse leftfield choices (oooh, jazz, mmmm), makes the already difficult task of comparing different artists collections of work almost laughably impossible. There’s a reason why “What kind of music you into, then?” stops attracting meaningful responses after the age of 15. Unless you’re talking to your gran (Choice quote from my gran, now sadly deceased. “I like that ‘soul music’, but not his face”, she said of the Prodigy album “The Jilted Generation” upon seeing the album art and the words “sole CD” on the price sticker).

Mercury Prizes are subject to more chin-stroking than most because they have always posited the reputation as being above, higher, and somehow plainly more than commercially minded rivals. They are not the brash Brits, they are not the sell-out NME awards. In truth, natch, their position accurately moves around with the whim of the audience they court, one eye on a mature, world-wise audience (Jesus and Mary Chain nominated in 1992, Radiohead in 1997, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in 1996), and another on promotion and advertising kudos (Spice Girls in 1997, Mark Morrison in 1996, Sting in 1993, arguably every time post-1997 that Radiohead have ever been nominated.)

Famously, now, the judges considered M People’s “Elegant Slumming” over Blur (“Parklife”), the aforementioned Prodigy, and Paul Weller’s “Wild Wood”. Plainly bonkers – it’s not worth saying, really, that track-for-track, Blur kinda just sorta do beat Heather Small into a mush of smug self-help sludge, even accounting for “Trouble in the Message Centre”, which is awful.

Nobody explicitly awarded the Mercury’s with a high pedestal from which to sprinkle “indie” stardust on the chart albums below. Partly the responsibility of the panel itself, mostly due to the journalists it feeds so well, the value of its currency is somewhat euro like in its widely unsustainable level. It has blatantly turned to an unwritten rota from which awards are seen to be fairly handed out, such as occurred in right-on trendy comprehensives at sports days. One year, it’s an obscure winner (Talvin Singh’s “OK” in 1999, which I bought, incidentally), and then follow that up with something a bit more mainstream (2000 was Badly Drawn Boy, beating Leftfield themselves, ironically enough).

“Obscure, mainstream, obscure, mainstream” has turned out to be more of an obvious seating pattern than Tony Blair’s “gay, straight, gay, straight” Cabinet seating arrangements. Bloc Party or KT Tunstall count not win in 2005, for that was an obscure year. The xx triumphed last year, the year of the mainstream, which may seem like a rule proving exception were it not for Speech Debelle triumphing 12 months previously.

Assumption and half-remembered memory has not helped the Mercury’s laudable attempt to move away from being an unofficial badge of approval from ‘proper’ critics. It’s “indie” credentials only grew on the back of its inaugural winners and subsequent follow-up – had Primal Scream (worthy) and Suede (worthy) not succeeded, its value today would be less than a Greek stocktrader.

This year – the year of the Obscure Winner, betting folks – the commentariat have clucked their collective tongues at a somewhat uneven shortlist, from Adele and Elbow to Anna Calvi (and no, I was unable to whistle anything by Gwilym Simcock until I hit YouTube ). Betting money might be going on Adele (she’s no chance). I would suggest Katy B is where the money should be going (she’s the Speech Debelle voting option without the chance of a post-award strop two months later).

To leave, not a Mercury performance but from a nominee which still gets me giddy. Who needs a band? And, yes, Antony and the Johnsons beat her in 2005.

Press constraints/contrition

“Self-regulation is dead,” declares Greg Dyke, as the ongoing development of the News of the World, its closure, and hackgate, reverberates through the Establishment this week as hard as it did months ago. If David Cameron looks nervous, it’s genuine; the close relationship between his predecessors and certain elements of the media’s largest empires has reached the explosive conclusion everybody knew would detonate eventually. From here – the death of an iconic newspaper with over 7 million readers, arrests and enquiries, questions at the heart of Government as much as the corridors of ‘Fleet Street; – where exactly is traversed next?

At the sight of its iconic 1992 front-page – that of Kinnock as a lightbulb to be extinguished were Labour ever victorious at that year’s general election – the architects of New Labour realised their immediate future steps would be to the doors of News International, Rupert Murdoch, and every influential newspaper editor connected thereto. The creation of New Labour had right at the beginning the finger-click of Murdoch or his acolytes by way of permission. As the photograph shows, above, current Labour leader Ed Miliband trod up the path to the newsrooms of Britain’s soar-a-way NI titles. Press officers and communications directors crossed from one side of the Establishment to the other, making what has always been a difficult relationship (there has always been press barons, there has always been press officers willing to bend the rules) into something far dirtier, complex, malignant.

Cameron’s “we were all in this together” speech was the sound of a man having to excuse all his predecessor’s behaviour. From the very start of the NI invasion (“I always found it funny how easy it was to buy into British newspapers”, as the man Murdoch said himself over a generation ago), Prime Ministers and those behind them stood bewitched by the colour, language, attitude, and ultimately the power, of the new breed of newspaper industry growing in front of them. The consequence was a pact, unwritten, signed only by handshakes. Labour’s run of Home Secretaries, each more hardline than the last, effectively allowed their policy papers to be written by Sun journalists the night before. Sway became push, suggest became demand.

Above all the newspapers in this country (well, almost all), sits the ombudsman without much clout, the Press Complaints Commission. As anyone could tell you (including me in an earlier post around the Jan Moir débâcle), the PCC was the wrong body doing a terrible job, ineffectual and irresponsible. The ‘freedom of the press’ was always guaranteed when the overseeing group was self-appointed, self-serving. Richard Desmond withdrew his Express titles from the ”control” of the PCC system as easily as a teenager walking out of the house to avoid his parents.

In his speech, and in others by politicians and commentators since, David Cameron has spoken of the vital need of a ‘new’ PCC, one which is enabled to cope with events like hackgate and the behaviour of all British newspapers. The sound you could hear at the time was the loud tutting with newsrooms – whispers of ‘censorship’ and one side of the Establishment letting down the other. “You screwed us over with expenses stories,” crowed the MPs, “now we’re getting our revenge.”

It’s not necessarily so. Press freedom in the UK is amongst the best in the developed world, and is certainly amongst the most distinctive in the English-speaking press anywhere on earth. There is, largely because of the hands-off regulation approach, almost nowhere the press won’t go in search of a story. From dodgy vicars and unscrupulous business men, to the bedroom antics of pop-stars and royalty, the press provided the goods and the public bought it in its millions. Where we are today is the result – so much freedom, so much public interest, so what if mobile phones are hacked in the hunt of another headline, another scandal? The Telegraph’s exposé of MPs expenses came from the illicit sale of documents, and from there has been the jailing of former MPs and wholesale changes in the expenses system.

Cameron is right, as are all critics of the PCC, that self-regulation has to change. The PCC is not able to regulate the print media. However, “Ofprint” must not be the filter through which copy must go before the presses, nor should it be populated by the very media folk who ensure the extent to which each back is scratched. Rightly, such actions as the hacking of Milly Downer’s phone have been condemned by public and politicians alike – but what can the PCC do, and how does “Son of PCC” better them? To what extent do we demand a tighter press regulator?

The freedom of the press is central to any functioning democracy. We have all enjoyed, as consumers, the freedom of the British press; its foibles, the success stories and shocking line-crossing. We have all bought shares in the scandals and controversies. Rightly, we complain at any perceived bias – the BBC is too lefty, the BBC isn’t left enough, the Guardian is too liberal, the Guardian has forgotten its liberal routes, the Mail is an anti-everything rag. What should we demand from the watchdog for the printed press? How much bias? I wonder what we mean by our demands for a stronger PCC. When I complain about prejudice, I do so from a largely left-wing perspective; what do I want from “son of PCC”? I want fairness, the right to expression, the right to shine light on the dark corners of all the Establishment. Do I want it from a left-wing perspective? How strong should the fine be for a commentary piece dripping in right-wing bile? Or for that matter, oozing socialism with which I disagree as strongly?

We demand that the Internet is saved from censorship, control, governance. Towards the press, our attitudes are very different. With reason, given what has been happening. And from this will come, in a new form, possible censorship, control and governance of the print media we celebrate as free and fair and brilliant. My ideal world hands “son of PCC” enough power to counter the excesses of journalistic misbehaviour whilst allowing the right to expression which we expect from a democratic state. The phone-hacking scandal displayed in lurid colour the extreme behaviour of journalism’s hunt for the next big headlines. The consequences for the freedom of the printed press are only now being written; the “exclusive to all newspapers” story of that is a splash nobody thought would ever get to the presses.

news of the screws

When the on-line world exploded into hurried and manic hysteria over footballers and their unruly bedroom hopping, easily banded about words and phrases bounced around social media sites in a frenzy of keyboard tapping. “Freedom of speech,” said some. “Right to know!”.

Tabloid journalism has not always been so salacious or controversial. The British press changed, for good and for ever, around 1968 with Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the News of the World and, one year later, The Sun. The rest, as they say, is pretty much history. The more these red-tops and others like it became more sensational, scandalous, gossip-driven, an increased desire to read more stories like it grew amongst the general public. “Freedom of speech,” came back the reply whenever shocking content blared out from the newsagents shelves – photos of Princess Diana at the gym? Right to know. Readers like this sort of thing. We want to know. And, deep down, we all probably did.

After all, said the blokes down the Cricketers Arms, the tabloids are decent enough for the footie and some tits on Page 3, tomorrow’s chip-paper doesn’t have any lasting harm on those in the public eye. “Right to know!” cry us all when politicians are hauled up for their shortcomings, or one television celebrity is found cheating on another. One industry fuels another, and at massive profits for all sides, the chase for more and more headlines for increasing readers and advertising money is an insatiable rush. Drugs provide lesser hits than the journalists need for one more story above his colleagues and rivals.

Last night, the Guardian reported that News of the World journalists hacked into – and deleted messages from – the mobile phone of missing girl Milly Dowler . Condemnation has been, by and large, across the spectrum. To hack into the mobile phones of politicians, singers, footballers – that was something, one level of questionable behaviour, morally dubious, stupid behaviour for which resignations must follow. We all tutted and shook our heads.

This new revelation goes beyond “morally dubious”. If as true as reported, the acts of those involved are nigh-on depraved (and potentially perverting the course of justice). Milly Dowler’s parents took the removal of voicemail messages as a sign, however small, that their daughter was still alive. It is beyond all reasonable considerations for most sane, rounded individuals that anybody could consider the deleting of messages to be justified in the search of a story.

We are, let us admit and concede, all hungry for scandal, shock, something new in the ongoing storylines of life. When I blogged about the celebrity injunctions earlier this year, search terms “injunction footballer” and “footballer named on Have I Got News For You” landed people here in the desperate search for the identity of the man involved. Despite the outrage over paparazzi behaviour, the death of Diana, hounding of her children, sales for Royal Wedding special editions soared. The “public interest” excuse feeds the tabloids, and the tabloids feed us.

The Milly Dowler revelations reach far beyond anything connected with a journo’s desire for an exclusive. This may be the product of the twisted relationship between public and press, but that cannot be used as even fleeting justification. Plain wrong, from top to bottom, now would be a very good time for somebody with Government (Mssrs Hunt, Cameron, Cable, we look to you) to ensure News International are blocked from gaining any more ground on the UK’s media market. This episode was bleak enough; the stench of distaste should not permeate any further.

pies, chips, and anoraks

One regular column inside the Non-League weekly newspaper is called “Diary of a Groundhopper”. Written by different fans every week, its tales and regales follow the national football scene which exists beneath the 92 League teams, beneath even the Conference and its feeder divisions. From the website 50 Yards Wide, this one description of a groundhop should give you the idea of what is meant…

With our original plans thrown into disarray by the lack of a referee at Talysarn, it was a case of any port in a storm at 1-30pm on Saturday. Luckily, Llanllyfni is no more than a couple of miles from Talysarn and arriving at 1-40 it was good to see both teams out warming up for the 2pm KO.Ths is one of those grounds that you’d struggle to find if it wan’t a match day. The goals, pitch perimeter fence, dugouts & advertising boards (banners to be precise) all disappear once the game is over, leaving an open field behind the village hall. However, with everything set up, it feels very much like a proper venue, the only thing it lacks is cover.

Another site, now moved, called “Extreme Groundhopping” lists the grounds visited by the author so far – Arsenal’s Emirates and Bolton’s Reebok joined by Brantham Athletic (they play at a Social Club of the same name, and I’ve never heard of them), and Norwich United (played within the Ridgeons League Premier Division).

Everything in life collects its obsessives. Ale festivals are great for this, one table always reserved for the men of a certain vintage exchanging tour anecdotes like society-ball veterans transported from another age in anoraks and t-shirts. “Selbeh 92, ‘member that, eh? Nowt like that any more, Grimsby last year being an exception, of course!”

Train spotting, it almost goes without saying, has the same effect upon men (though, and this is absolutely true, on the train from Wigan one afternoon I spotted a man and woman sat around a picnic-table at the side of Platform 4. Romance, right there).

The groundhopper is distinctly, absolutely, completely British. It’s the very best of the eccentric and the obsessive, the man who makes lists, the woman who always puts clothes in order of colour. We’ve all heard of “doing the 92”, a creditable trophy to chase for any football fan, which requires the committed individuals involved to watch a full game at every one for the ninety-two League stadia. (There is a very good dedicated website, soon to be updated for the coming season). As it happens, there may be purists who are shaking their head at this slap-dash explanation. Just watch the game? What about having to buy a programme? What about doing it in alphabetical order? Of postcodes?

Despite being a hobby, ostensibly, the ”rules” pervade the whole groundhopping community. Ever heard of stamp collectors who tend not to accept British definitives or anything from WH Smith starterpacks? Then we’re in the same arena here.

The question on rules was asked on the Non League Matters forum. It’s worth only enjoying this reply in all its glory;

To watch a game, you should be there from start to end, including extra time if played. (Note, Should, not Must).

For example, different people have different ideas of what to do if they miss the start, maybe due to circumstances beyond their control. This is always a potential problem on long trips.

Some will not go without a programme, or without a pasty crimp or whatever.

Some make detailed accounts of players, goal scorers, even perhaps numbers of corners – others would not be able to tell you the score if you ask 7 days after the game.

I think everyone keeps some sort of record, although I know some that are trying to create records from memory, having not kept them from the start of their football watching. [I am lucky in that from the first time I watched a match and decided this was for me, I actually kept a list of the games seen – although some friendlies were not on the list, and a match at Barking which my grandfather had taken me to some years previously was not recorded]

So talk to other hoppers at games, exchange views on here – make up your own mind and then be true to yourself, (no one else is counting for you

Yes, that’s right, an earlier poster was concerned by the sale of pies or burgers for a groundhop to “count”. We’re in dangerous territory, folks.

(You would be, in very enjoyable territory as I understand it, if you watch a game at Devon where burgers are of such massive consistency that the use of excessive tomato ketchup is recommended as otherwise the mouth would almost run out of saliva).

Accusations of ‘not being proper fans’ are thrown at groundhops as though some of the mud will stick. It’s bizarre to think such finger-pointing could have any validity; there’s enough struggle to deal with the hypnotised SKY brigade, for whom football exists for glitz, glamour and the top 10 Premier League places. Groundhoppers may not have a single team of their own to follow, though why should this be considered a handicap? Hobbies breed snobs, true, and it’s true on both sides. It can lead to awkward conversations with potential future fathers-in-law. (“Don’t have a team, eh? Poofter, hmm? One of those give votes to black disabled lesbians, I suppose?”)

I have experienced two different extremes of the groundhop within the British Isles, from the extreme of walking 30 minutes down the road to Irongate (home of Bamber Bridge, which is not called the QED stadium for God’s sake…), right to the train-bus-Metro-unintended-overnight-stay-in-Newcastle weekend to watch the FA Cup Qualifier between Burscough and Howden. All fans should have at least one nightmare away trip story, after all.

The groundhop status taps into an argument right at the core of the non-league game. Notwithstanding notable exceptions – most Blue Square Premier sides, AFC Halifax, FC United of Manchester – crowd sizes can be very small, and rather quiet. Messageboards and forums hum to the sound of perennial questions – does non league football even count? How low down the pyramid is acceptable? What’s the widely held distinction between teams playing Sunday kickabouts on the park and Suffolk County games?

My opinion has always been open minded, perhaps over-romantacisesd. There is a moment of the Saturday afternoon, in my way of thinking, when hundreds of referees across the country blow whistles in unison, momentarily and fleetingly uniting all the levels of football as one, before the differences blossom again and all games return to their rightful place in the strata. At one broadbrush level, there’s little difference between the very highest and most low of games, though only somebody so deep in denial that they hold an Egyptian passport would argue that the playing fields genuinely are level. Sadly the anorak tendency within non league has allowed the inverse snobbery to build within otherwise genial fanbases. Yes, the ‘culture’ amongst some lower league sides is at the opposite side of the Premier League glitz and glamour. That perhaps is the whole point, and should not be the measure by which some fans decide validity of support amongst others.

For groundhopping, my rules are fairly straight forward. Enjoy yourself. It’s a game of football, the significance of which should not override the more important specifics, such as roundly criticising the rightback with the acceleration of a mobility scooter and suggesting the liner closest to you enjoys extra-curricular activities with someone other than his wife. Taking a month out of supporting your team – I don’t recommend this often – to take in five or six complete unknowns in new stadia could be just the break you need (that is, if you’re an Aston Villa fan not otherwise in need of education). If there’s any judgemental element to this, it’s unfortunate and it’s human nature. Different strengths can be found all over the stands and terraces, it’s unfortunate that the mud sticks strongest below the League line.

So let’s just shake off all the complexities here. There’s only a month before the season starts, and that means it’s time enough to plan fantasy football teams, train journeys to far-flung away games, and ensure everyone knows not to purchase pies from Altrincham….