Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Justice or the climate, which would you choose?

So the Lima talks have apparently ended in 'success'.

If so you have to ask how much more 'success' the planet can take.

Twenty two years after the Rio Earth Summit you really would have hoped that we would have achieved agreement on rather more than an accounting system for greenhouse gas emissions because, whatever way you measure it, we are not doing anything like enough.

Lima also contains another, potentially very worrying, development.

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol  split the world in two. There were Annex One nations who emitted the
most CO2 and who had a commitment to cut down, but only slightly, and then there were the developing countries who got a pass, for now.

The seventeen years since then have muddied this distinction a bit. China and Brazil have raced ahead economically and are now big polluters in their own right, but the fundamental divide between big emitters and small remains.

It's a crude distinction, but there is a certain amount of justice in it. Those who have benefited most from Greenhouse gas emissions should be the first to change. Those who have polluted most should pay first.

The new agreement does away with that. Instead everyone has to cut down and everyone has to pay.

How much has not been agreed. There could be a fair and equitable dividing up of responsibility in Paris, there could be no deal at all, or there could be an agreement that puts the burden of solving the Climate Change problem on those who have contributed least to making it.

You can almost rationalise such a move. Countries with little already infrastructure could perhaps more easily skip the fossil fuel stage of development, places with lots of sunshine could go solar quicker and populations with very little to do could be made to do environmentally beneficial work.

The only problem is that this would require the rich countries to invest heavily in poor ones, and Lima made it clear that's not going to happen.

Instead there remain the possibility that the big polluters will simply shaft the poorer ones.

International trade deals works on the principle that rich countries can put up trade barriers, but poor ones can't and international law works on the principle that tin pot dictators who use torture end up in court, but not US Presidents. So it doesn't require a lot of imagination to envisage a climate deal that sees poor countries making cuts whilst rich ones get richer.

If so, what should an environmentalists do?

Accept the deal? After all, we can make utopia tomorrow, but if we don't sort out Climate Change their won't be a tomorrow?

Maybe, but if there's one thing that we should have learnt in more than two decades of climate inaction it's that bad deals are often worse than no deal.

Believe it or not, back in 1992, the year of Rio, Al Gore and a raft of big conservation groups were trying to persuade us to accept NAFTA. Never mind the effect on jobs, this was going to save the environment. Well, it didn't. NAFTA has been a disaster for the environment, and a whole load of other people.

Then, after Kyoto, it was free market solutions that would save the day. Europe reluctantly agree to a
Carbon Trading scheme which the USA had suggested, and then backed out of. It was (and still is) a disaster.

And so on.

So if someone tells me in Paris next December that's it either justice or the climate I will choose justice, because only climate justice can give us lasting change. It will be bad enough having to spend my old age watching the world turn to dust without also having to live with the thought that I compromised my values for nothing.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Is Shell's 'sustainability' sustainable?

Shell executives yesterday looked out of their office window to see a rather familiar banner hanging off a railway bridge. 

However whilst they may have recognised the corporate colours it certainly wasn't the company's message. Greenpeace had paid them a visit.

One of those dangling off the bridge, Phil Ball, had this time last year been in a Murmansk prison, detained along with 27 other activists and 2 journalists after Russian paramilitaries seized the ship Arctic Sunrise in the Barents Sea.

Their target then had been a rig belonging to Russian state owned oil company Gazprom that was exploring for oil. The Russian state is a key player in the Arctic, but Gazprom have a partner on whom they are even more dependent; Shell.

Shell and Gazprom appear to be doing a 'Good Cop, Bad Cop' routine in the Arctic. Shell are the caring modern company which gets nominated for sustainability awards. By contrast Gazprom seem to be happy to play the role of the thug. However Shell and Gazprom are actually closely allied in the quest for Arctic oil, and Gazprom could not operate without access to Shells' technology. 

Shell have been front runner in the field of 'sustainability' for nearly two decades. It all started in 1995 when in the space of a few months they first received a bloody nose from Greenpeace over their plans to dump the Brent Spar in the North Sea and then the scorn of the whole world when they were implicated in the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other Nigerian activists.

Shell spent $20 million on its counter strategy, which may be a lot in ordinary terms but was a fraction of what it would cost to clean up the Niger Delta. They adopted a strategy of 'openness and dialogue', published a set of business principles including 'honesty, integrity and respect for people'. They launched a global advertising campaign and produced a glossy report entitled "Profit and Principles; Does there have to be a choice?"

The big coup was that the NGO SustainAbility Ltd, previously critics of Shell, were now on board and wrote part of the report. Entitled 'a personal view' their contribution contains the line (on page 52) "a sustainable oil company is a contradiction in terms", a statement of the obvious that Shell made sure didn't appear in any future reports.


Christian Aid responded with a report entitle "Behind the Mask" in which it revealed that Shell's clean up efforts in Nigeria were failing and that many of their community projects were ineffective and divisive. Unfortunately they didn't have $20 million budget to promote it, so nobody took any notice. Shell's reputation amongst 'key opinion formers' recovered.

The company moved into Canadian tar sands, adding another dirty fuel to its portfolio, and then started to tentatively explore the Arctic. Meanwhile in the Niger Delta the gas flaring continues and the local people live their lives in extreme poverty amongst the mess. 

'Key opinion formers' may have forgiven Shell, but in September 2011, in a test of a proposed Law of Ecocide, the United Kingdom Supreme Courts of Justice heard a mock trial of a pair of oil executives of a company not unlike Shell, which had polluted a country not unlike Nigeria, and found them guilty.

Greenpeace meanwhile continued its campaigns. When Putin banged up the Arctic 30 the gloves came off. Activists targeted Shell wherever their logo appeared. Just before 2013 ended the pressure worked and the Arctic 30 were released and Phil was reunited with his MG TF.

In the New Year Greenpeace's changed to Lego, a company whose interpretation of Corporate Social Responsibility actually does seem to mean taking the word 'sustainability' literally. Rather reluctantly they were persuaded to drop a £65 million deal with Shell.

The question now is what can Shell do next? It's hard to think that business people, who may be blinded by greed but are not actually stupid, actually believed Shell had become 'sustainable', but they clearly believed Shell had a strategy to see off the hippies. Whether they still think that may now be open to question.

Money usually triumphs over principles, and spin over facts, but the truth has a habit of coming out eventually. Fellow 'sustainable' oil company BP now has a reputation that is slightly lower than Gazprom's. Are Shell about to follow them down?



Friday, 7 November 2014

Five Songs About Cold War Eastern Europe

It is now 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. A great victory for freedom, Capitalism ... and rock music.

Rock music? Well, sort of.

In the run up to that historic day rock concerts in the West Berlin had helped to stoke resentment against the Communist authorities in East Germany.

In 1987 police had to use truncheons and electric stun guns to stop east Berliners listening to gigs across the wall by David Bowie, The Eurythmics and Genesis. Despite this Ossies appeared to enjoy the music, but then thanks to the Communists they'd not heard the real Genesis with Peter Gabriel.

In 1988 thousands of Stasi were deployed to stop them enjoying Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson, presumably because the ordinary police missed Roger Waters or thought Bad was a pale imitation of Thriller.

In an attempt to defuse the situation the authorities organised gigs in the east by Bob Dylan, Depeche Mode, Bryan Adams, Joe Cocker and Bruce Springsteen. The latter led to thousands of previously good communists singing "Born in the USA".

Then in August 1989 the Russians organised the Moscow Peace Festival. The Soviets clearly decided soft rock wasn't enough and instead booked a line up of the best Glam Metal acts in the world including Jon Bon Jovi, The Scorpions, Motley Crue and Ozzy Osborne.

All this meant that it seemed to people stuck in Eastern Europe that every in the West, and even the Russians, were having more fun than them.

This set the scene for the events that shook the world. (Hmm, so maybe Greece wasn't the only place where rock music changed things) When the wall eventually fell many present described the atmosphere as "a rock-concert" buzz.

Eight months later another rock concert, by Pink Floyd with ex-member Roger Waters, celebrated these events by playing an extended version of their Prog Rock album The Wall. The Wall was never really about the Berlin Wall. In fact I'm not entirely sure what it is about, and I don't think Roger Waters is either.

So here is my list of the top five rock songs that really were inspired by the Iron Curtain that divided Europe for 44 years.

(Click the title to listen to the song)

1. Vienna by Ultravox (1981)

 

But Vienna wasn't in Eastern Europe, I hear you say.

Well, you're sort of right. However for five centuries, as the base of the Hapsberg Emperors and as the capital of first the Holy Roman Empire and then the Austrian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, it effectively ruled Eastern Europe.

Then in 1945 it was occupied jointly by the British, Americans, French and Russians whilst the Allies tried to figure out if the country of Hitler's birth was an occupied nation or Axis power.

This the time in which Carol Reed's classic film of Graham Green's book The Third Man is set.

Ultravox pretty much remade the film to produce their seminal video for this song. Half of it was actually filmed in London, with the rest of it done on the cheap on a quick trip to the real Vienna.

The city continued to be occupied until 1955. Then the Russians left on condition that Austria didn't join NATO and all British, French and American forces left the country. This they all did, apart from my dad's unit of the Intelligence Corps which got left behind in Gratz, or that's what he tells me.

The Austrians then sat out the rest of the Cold War enjoying their grand palaces and entertaining the world with an annual New Year's Day concert played by a Nazi orchestra.

Child in Time by Deep Purple (1970)


Not many Deep Purple songs can claim to be about anything much. Indeed lyrics such as "Black night is not right, I don't feel too bright" are usually as meaningful as they get. There's Smoke on the Water, admittedly, which is about something that did actually happen, but apart from that there is ...errr.....Child in Time.

The song is probably more interesting for its layered composition which allows each member of the band to show off what they can do. Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord try to out do each other with extended guitar and keyboard solos, whilst Ian Gillan turns it up to eleven with banshee like screams. He can't hit those high notes now, so Steve Morse's guitar does the job in live concerts.

The lyrics though hint at a range of Cold War themes, including the Vietnam War that was then still on at the time. The song just sneaks into this list though thanks to "You'll see the line, The line that's drawn between good and bad".  Whether or not you believed this literally, this is how it always came across at the time.

The term Iron Curtain was first used for the barrier that came down across Europe by Winston Churchill in his Sinews of Peace speech in Fulton, Missouri. The symbolic barrier very rapidly became a physical one with mines, barbed wire and armed patrols. In the north the soldiers were on the eastern side, but in Greece it was the West that militarised the border.

Toxica by The Plastic People of the Universe (1974)


The story of rock music in Eastern Europe though isn't just about western bands.

Under totalitarian regimes where even listening to music was difficult, forming your own band was never going to be easy, but some people managed it. Perhaps the most influential group on the far side of the Iron Curtain was Czechoslovakia's Plastic People of the Universe.

The band was formed in the immediate aftermath of the Prague spring, when Soviet tanks crushed a reforming government. The name of the band came from a track by Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention but their main influences was the New York psychedelic scene of the late sixties, in particular The Velvet Underground.

They lasted about a year before their musician's license was revoked, after which concerts were clandestine. In 1976 they were arrested and charged with "organized disturbance of the peace". Band members received between eight to eighteen months in prison. however this didn't stop them and despite regular interrogations and beatings from the police the band continued.

Like the rest of Eastern Europe they were stuck in a bit of a time warp and still sounded like a Woodstock support act when the Iron Curtain came down. Their influence though has been huge and the peaceful revolution that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia became know as the Velvet Revolution after the band that had inspired them.

Budapest by Jethro Tull (1987)


By the 1980s though the Cold War was starting to thaw and rock music became a bit more acceptable in the east. With local talent having been suppressed it was up to western bands too old or unfashionable to play the big venues in the West to cross the Iron Curtain. Jethro Tull were one such group.

Whilst touring Hungary the band, by then all comfortably in The Middle Age, were startled by an attractive young woman serving drinks back stage without her trousers, inspiring this song which appeared on their next album, Crest of a Knave.

Hungary has a special place in the story of Eastern Europe. Twelve years before they crushed the Prague Spring, Russian tanks put down another revolt in Hungary. In Budapest, the majestic second capital of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, they met fierce opposition and the parliament building still showed the damage when I visited in 1993.

By the late 1980s though Hungary was ahead of the rest of the Eastern Bloc in adopting mild progressive reforms. However not all the anti-communists in Hungary were nice social democrats. Hungary's right wing government had allied with the Axis powers in the Second World War and following the Credit Crunch the country has taken an increasingly conservative direction, with Jews, Roma and homosexuals getting the blame.

Rather like the Ukrainian fascists helping the democratically elected government fight the current Russian invasion this a reminder that your enemy's enemy is not necessarily your friend.

Born to Die in Berlin by The Ramones (1995)


I could easily have done a Top Twenty just about Berlin, or even a Top Five of Marlene Dietrich songs about Berlin.

The divided city came to symbolise the entire Cold War, but Berlin has always been a bit of an anomaly.

Hitler couldn't stand the place and spent as much time as he could elsewhere.

The Communist didn't seem to like the place much more. Their arrival in 1945 was heralded by the slaughter and mass rape of civilians, a crime made all the worse for the victims because the world thought they deserved it.

To many outside of Germany Berlin was a defiant two fingers (or whatever the German equivalent is) to Communism. However to Germans Berlin was a strange demi-monde (or whatever the German expression is) that was neither in the German Democratic Republic, nor properly part of the Federal Republic. It was where a young person could get out of National Service and divide his time equally between radical politics and wild partying.

The most influential Berlin band was Ton Steine Scherben. They played in squats to crowds of New Left students in the sixties, and to anarchists and Red Army terrorists in the seventies. To radicals like Ton Steine Scherben the problem with the GDR was that it wasn't socialist enough.

It's no surprise then that the Ramones felt at home in the city. In the end they survived several visits to the place, although all the original members have now expired in different parts of the world. However they are remembered in the city by the only Ramones museum in the world.

The legacy of Berlin's radical culture is rather harder to find. Although Ton Steine Scherben wound up in 1985, their radical fans were in the vanguard in pulling the wall down. Their dream was a united Germany combining Western freedoms with Eastern socialism.

It never happened.

Freedom they got, but also a form of Capitalism not only more ruthless than the Social Democracy which had won the Cold War, but also less sustainable. Germany, it's true, isn't doing too badly, but across the rest of Europe Capitalism now seems as broken as the Berlin Wall.

Since the credit crunch the number of billionaires in the world has doubled whilst unemployment in some parts of the EU is running at 40% and millions are surviving on food banks. The Cold War may have ended, but many people are still wondering when we will really be free.

Anti-Capitalism demonstration, Berlin, October 2011

Friday, 24 October 2014

Top Ten Things To Do Whilst You're In England

Hadrians Wall and Win Sill (Rod Edwards)
Dear visitor to our shores,

Our country doesn't always come across terribly well to outsiders.

We've carried on invading people long after everyone else dropped out of the Empire building game, and if we don't send our tanks our football fans can be just as unwelcome abroad. At home we neglect our elderly but protect our Bankers.

Oh dear.

2012 London Olympics (wikicommons)
But there is another side to England, the polyglot country of Celt and Vikings and Anglo-Saxon and Norman and many, many others, that had trial by jury and habeas corpus before the Middle Ages were done, that killed its King one hundred and fifty years before the French Revolution, that voluntarily abandoned slavery, that welcomed refugee Jews and Huguenots and revolutionary Russians, that spent the accumulated fortune of a century on defeating fascism and then celebrated by founding the Welfare State and giving away the largest Empire the world has ever seen, which faced down the spectre of racial conflict and instead opted for tolerance and diversity and which, when it welcomed the world to the 2012 Olympics, decided to showcase the National Health Service and rock music.

So please come and see us some time.

But whilst you're here, what should you do? Here are my suggestions.

1. See what we've stolen off you


Lord Elgin's chess set
Before you all came to see us, we came to see you. Unfortunately some of these early tourists came away from your countries with a little bit more than just memories.

The Elgin Marbles are the most famous, but there's a lot more. Fortunately, not only can you can see most of this stuff for free whilst you're here, but we've also built some pretty impressive museums to house it all in.

The Natural History Museum is the most impressive building. You almost expect Professor Challenger to come marching up the stairs with the Pterodactyl he's just caught in the Lost World. The British Museum must be next best, with its new dome making an interesting blend of classical and modern.

Natural History Museum by Raymond Choo, My Shot
Of course, not all the stuff on show is loot. From dinosaur skeletons to Roman remains, a lot is genuinely ours. You can see the Sutton Hoo treasure in the British Museum or - even better in my opinion - see some of it where it was found in Suffolk.

It's also not just ancient junk. In Manchester you can look at a replica of the 1966 World Cup in the Manchester in the National Football Museum, pretend to be Eric Cantona at Old Trafford or learn about the Peterloo Massacre in the People's History Museum.

And there's plenty more to see. Just don't ask if you can take any of it back home with you.

2. Eat fish and chips on the beach


Fish and Chips in Staithes, North Yorkshire (AH McKay)
We English are more famous for our sense of humour than our food. However, I did know a foreign lady once who was very fond of the traditional offal dishes I prepared for her. She enjoyed my kidneys in red wine and oxtail in beer, but her favourite was my Tongue in Cider.

Oh dear, a double entendre appears to have inserted itself into this blog. If I find another I'll whip it out...

Okay, maybe we should forget the jokes as well and stick to what we know; bland food.

Fish and chips is a product of the Industrial Revolution, when railways allowed fresh fish to be brought to the big cities and Working Class people could afford to eat out for the first time. Once the
Fish and chip in Hunstanton, 1973
Trade Unions had managed to get the employers to agree to Bank Holidays the same trains took the workers to the seaside. Where better to enjoy your fish and chips?

Now looking at the seas off these islands you could be forgiven for thinking that the fish isn't likely to be very fresh even when it's alive, but don't worry, once it's been deep fried and drowned in vinegar you won't notice. Preferably it should be fried in beef dripping, but that's rare outside of Yorkshire, and then served with mushy peas, although they are often confused for avocado dip in these more cosmopolitan times.

Abroad the beach may mean sun, sand and sex, but in cold, wet and repressed England it means fish and chips. As I said, it's best when we stick to what we know.

3. Drink a pint warm beer


Real ale at the Guy Fawkes Inn, York, North Yorkshire
The English drunk is not a pretty sight.

Whilst the ritual of knocking back as much as you can in the last ten minutes before the bar shuts at eleven is mostly a thing of the past, I would strenuously recommend you avoid the sort of places where that sort of behaviour still goes on. You can usually spot these places by the trendy music and trendier clientèle.

Instead head off to somewhere a little more rustic. Our milds and bitters may be a bit of an acquired taste, but there is real art in some of those ales. Watch out for the Big Brand nitro-keg ales that are a poor substitute for the real thing and go for the ones with the weird names by companies you've never heard of.

And don't worry if you're a lady, women drink pints as well now.

4. Walk in the hills


Kinder Scout, Derbyshire (M Porter)
Look at a map of England and you will see that half of the country is north of the Humber estuary. This may come as a surprise to many people, including the BBC and most of our politicians.

This forgotten half of the country is mainly famous for grim cities with great football teams, but in reality most of it is hills. We really can't pass them off as mountains, not to people who know the Peloponnese or the Pyrenees or the Alps, but they aren't bad. The Lake District is the really pretty bit, but that makes it busy and some of the 'hills' can be hard work to climb.

High Cup Nick, Cumbria (M Porter)
Running up the centre of the country are the Pennines, which includes some of the most the most gob-smacking beautiful - and peaceful - countryside in England.

The Pennine Way runs from Kinder Scout above Glossop, famous for the Mass Trespass that opened up the hills to ordinary folk, over Black Hill towards the Yorkshire Dales and lovely Malham Cove, ascends Pen y Ghent and on to Cauldron Snout and High Cup Nick before coming up against Win Sill.

This a ridge running the width of the country that provides fine views towards Scotland. Some Italian visitors a couple of thousand years ago adorned it with a long wall and some attendant forts, which makes walking it even more interesting. Kevin Costner even called by once.

The weather up here can be foul, but it can also be divine, and being England it is never too cold, or too warm, for a walk.

5. Attend a ritual at a stone circle


2014 Summer Solstice at Stonehenge (Paul Townsend)
Wild nature is all very well, but the urge to adorn it is only human.

Given that England is a country where the idea of cafes that open after 6PM is still a novelty, it may seem strange to claim we were ever amongst the more civilised nations in Europe, but four thousand years ago we might have been. Before even the Egyptians were building pyramids, we were constructing giant astronomical temples in the landscape.

Handfasting at Avebury (Wikicommons)
Everyone has heard of Stonehenge, but this is just one of over one thousand stone circles that once covered these islands. Most are now gone, but a hundred or so still stand. What's more, thanks to a revival of Paganism over the last few decades, they are mostly still in use. I've even helped to add a new one myself.

Modern Druidism has its origins in eighteenth century Welsh nationalism. These days though it's open to all and part of a Druid ritual actually made it into the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympics.

Along with Wicca - the only religion England has ever given the world - these modern Pagans can often be seen in stone circles taking part in rituals either public or private. Contrary to rumours, we tend to keep our clothes on.

Mostly.

Avebury Stone Circle at night copyright (Mystical Crafts & Gifts)
Since the national disgrace that was the visitors centre has now been replaced it's worth visiting Stonehenge again. To get the authentic experience you need to go on one of the Quarter Days when the stones are opened up for giant Pagan party. Midsummer is the big one, although midwinter is the celebration the stones were actually built for. The days when these gatherings ended with a charge by the riot police are thankfully long gone and it's a party atmosphere now.

If you prefer your ancient relics free and open to everyone all year round then nearby Avebury is the biggest stone circle in the country and the rituals there are smaller and more spontaneous. For a more spiritual experience though, head away from where the crowds are. A visit to smaller circle on the moors under a full moon is a profound experience.

6. Visit a romantic castle


Bamburgh Castle alias Le Joyous Gard
In 1066 some less welcome foreign tourists dropped by in England. They killed our King, wiped out a significant proportion of the population and nicked all the best land. And the damn thing is they've still got most of it, but that's another story.

However the upside of these skivers coming over here and opting for an easy life living off the backs of ordinary, hard working families is that they had to build some really quite wonderful castles in order to stop the common people lynching them.

Or rather they made the common people build them some wonderful castles.

Alnwick Castle alias Hogwarts
In due a course efforts were made to tame the excesses of this psychopathic 1% and so chivalry was born. Rather like the good folk to try to make evil corporations do the right thing, the effort was mostly worthless, although there were some fine exceptions.

Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort D'Arthur  is probably the finest testament to Chivalry. You have to flick through to the good bits, and most of the stories were nicked off the Welsh, but there is some decent stuff in there, and once you are in true Romantic mode you can view these castles as they really aren't.

Knights of the Damned (M Porter)
The finest castle in England, as far as Malory was concerned, was Sir Lancelot's Joyeus Garde. This was almost certainly based on Bamburgh castle in Northumbria which Malory besieged during one of
our less-than-romantic civil wars. As it's built on the beach and looks out over the Abbey of Lindesfarne, castles don't come much more romantic than this.

But whilst all our great castles are wonderful when it is just you and your imagination, to get the authentic sight, sound and unfortunately smell of the Age of Chivalry, you need to go to a re-enactment. Whether it is a noble joust or a massive brawl, we do these things quite well now and a really big event is a spectacle not to missed.

7. Picnic in the grounds of a stately home


Chatsworth House
Fast forward a few hundred and the aristos still live a life of comfort and ease whilst the workers toiled in the factories to pay for it all. However by 1913 the proles are getting a bit restless and the only reason we don't have a Class War was that we had a World War instead.

The legacy of this era is some of the finest domestic architecture in Europe and, thanks to a century of Death Duties, most of it is open to the public. The houses can be magnificent, but sometimes the grounds are in are even more spectacular. Under the guidance of landscape architects like 'Capability' Brown and Joseph Paxton, armies of labourers demolished peasant hovels, levelled hills and planted trees with the aim of creating "nature perfected".

To enjoy them just pack the cucumber sandwiches and the champaign, or the Scotch eggs and cider, or the pie and the bottle of ale or....well, you get the idea. As long as you don't forget the umbrella and the mac.

8. Watch a cricket match


Cricket at Ashford-on-the-Water (Mick Garratt)
Another reasons given for why we never had that revolution is that the aristocrats did at least play games with peasants they were oppressing.

When it comes to international sports we English invented most of them, although in the spirit of true sportsmanship we now let other people win.

The most English of sports is surely cricket. With the white clothes, rituals and traditional use of willow, cork and leather I'd love to claim that this is some legacy of the ancient druids, but the truth is the game was probably invented by the French.

Test Match cricket is clearly the top of the tree, County Cricket is for the serious fan only and 20/20 Cricket is for people who would really rather be watching football, but village cricket is for the Romantic. Here's one misty eyed description of village cricket, from a court judgement of all places:
In summertime village cricket is the delight of everyone. Nearly every village has its own cricket field where the young men play and the old men watch. In the village of Lintz in County Durham they have their own ground, where they have played these last 70 years. They tend it well. The wicket area is well rolled and mown. The outfield is kept short. It has a good club house for the players and seats for the onlookers. The village team play there on Saturdays and Sundays. They belong to a league, competing with the neighbouring villages. On other evenings after work they practise while the light lasts.
Dad takes a catch (M Porter)
This was the late Lord Denning, a poetic judge, but also a part of the Establishment. He kept the Birmingham Six in prison, even though he knew they were innocent, as to let them go would make the system look bad. The Establishment has always liked cricket.

A game of subtlety that requires patience and concentration to enjoy, cricket also lasts long enough to have a picnic and get gloriously drunk, although maybe not quite long enough for you to learn all its fiendishly complexities.

However the best games of cricket are those you play with your family, perhaps after your picnic or on the beach before you eat your fish and chips.

9. Go to a music festival


Metallica Glastonbury 2014 (BBC)
But if cricket is a bit dull for you, then perhaps music is more your thing. The days when we could claim English music ruled the world ended with the demise of Britpop, if not the Beatles, but our festivals are still pretty good.

Your modern music festival has its origins in the USA with Monterey, although the Beaulieu Jazz Festivals that started in the mid-fifties blazed a bit of a trail.

The ideal British music festival aims for an atmosphere somewhere between Lord of the Rings and Woodstock, but thanks to our weather often ends up a cross between Waterworld and Passchendaele.

Glastonbury is the big one, although as everyone knows it isn't as good as it used to be and never was. Then there's Cambridge for the folkies, Donnington (alias Download) for the metal heads, Hawkfest for the ageing hippies, Beautiful Days, for those who remember Glasto as it used to be etc etc.

My favourite though takes place in a field in Oxfordshire the second weekend of August.

10.  Visit the neighbours


The Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland (Wikicommons)
England is not alone in the world, although some of its residents seem to think it is, and one of the best things about living here is our wonderful neighbours. They might not think it's so wonderful having us next door, but that's a different matter.

Wales is but a short drive from most of the country, Scotland a longer but much more interesting drive, and Ireland and Northern Ireland are only a short ferry journey away.

All are nations in their own right, except for Northern Ireland which hangs in a sort of legal limbo and so is known as 'The Province', and all are custodians of a Celtic heritage that used to be England's as well.

Bron-Yr-Aur, Machynlleth, Wales (M.Porter)
The scenery is amazing, the culture fantastic and you'll receive a really warm welcome, especially once they realise you're not English.

From Northern Ireland's Causeway Coast, where Led Zeppelin got the cover of Houses of the Holy, to the little cottage in Wales where Led Zeppelin recorded part of their third album, you'll find plenty to surprise and delight.

I haven't space to tell you everything about them unfortunately, and anyway this is a blog about England, my England, a place I love but not so much that I don't want to change it, and a place I hope you will visit soon.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Guns 'n' Roses versus Metallica

It was 1987, when I more-or-less simultaneously discovered beer, girls and rock music.

The first band I ever saw was Motorhead, at Southport Arts Centre in 1987. This was the tail end of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) and the era of Hair Metal, but mostly I listened to the dinosaur rock bands of the previous decade; Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple and its spin-offs and Hawkwind.

However there were two contemporary bands I was aware who were neither spandex wearing Glam Rockers nor older than I was; Guns 'n' Roses and Metallica. They are both still with us, and both have been candidates for Biggest Rock Band in the World at different times, but their career paths have been a little different. 

Round One: 1987


Metallica formed in Los Angeles in 1981, one of several bands to emerge from the city's Hardcore Punk scene. However as I was eleven and living in Merseyside at the time I wasn't listening to too much Hardcore Punk at the time.

Guns 'n' Roses came along four years later, formed from the merger of two other bands.

Then in 1986 Metallica released Master of Puppets, probably the best Thrash Metal album of all time. All the songs are great, but it's the title track that sticks in the memory. It is seven minutes of head-banging that is scored like a symphony, and made Metallica a band that even people like me, who looked down on Thrash, admired. Few people usually read the lyrics of Thrash songs, but in Metallica's case it was worth making the effort, and the album includes songs inspired by H P Lovecraft's Shadow Over Innsmouth, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and, in the case of the title track, cocaine addiction.

Guns 'n' Roses in 1987
The next year though was when Guns 'n' Roses came out with one of the most amazing debut albums of all time, up there with The Doors and Never Mind The Bollocks. Appetite for Destruction doesn't have a bad track on it and three of the songs; Welcome to the Jungle, Paradise City and Sweet Child O'Mine are amongst the best Hard Rock numbers of all time. They were so good they even got played in the trendy discos that girls went to, which was a bonus.

There was also controversy in the form of a robotic rapist in the front cover, which perhaps should have raised a few concerns amongst liberal listeners like me, but which we largely passed up at the time.

Metallica in 1986
Metallica always came across as bunch of ordinary blokes who, apart from now wearing better trainers, appeared to be completely unchanged from their days of playing dodgy clubs in LA. G'n'R by contrast were something else. Front man Axel Rose and lead guitarist Slash came from dysfunctional families and had difficult childhoods. Rose was forced to attend Pentecostal church eight times a week whilst Slash had to live in Stoke-on-Trent. A decade earlier they would have made prototypical punks.

At the time I dressed rather more like Metallica - at least until I discovered paisley shirts. However if I'd had a top hat and the guts to wear a man-skirt that's what I would have been doing, because without a doubt their look made them the coolest thing in the world in the eyes of seventeen year old me.

So it's a strong start for both bands, but on balance you'd have to say G'n'R take this, but only by a small margin. So lets put the scores at this point as:

Metallica 2 Guns 'n' Roses 3

 

Round Two: 1988

Liberals took a bit more notice the year after Appetite for Destruction though when G'n'R released their EP Guns 'n' Roses Lies. As well as the track Patience, which showed they were also the master of the Power ballad, it contained - against the advice of the rest of the band - Roses' song One In A Million in which he lets loose at a variety of things he hates, includes black people, immigrants and homosexuals. He also had a go at the police for good measure, but G'n'R were now sounding less like rebels and more like my parents.

Metallica meanwhile released And Justice For All. Not quite as good as Master of Puppets, it did contain One, a song about the First World War that manages to be both heavy and meaningful and is one of the best things they ever did. Lyrically the album dealt with themes on ecological destruction (Blackened), corruption (...And Justice For All) and discrimination (The Shortest Straw).

By this time I was running a rock disco at the university in Leicester which, thanks to a low admission price and cheap beer, attracted every rock fan in the city. It was still Paradise City and Sweet Child O'Mine that filled the dance floor, but Metallica had escaped from the Thrash Hour and were getting regular plays later in the evening. So this round is both a musical and moral victory for the Thrashers, a clear two-nil win. The aggregate score is now:

Metallica 4 Guns 'n' Roses 3

 

Round Three: 1991

Metallica were on a high. Along with Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeath they were one of the 'big four' of Thrash, but they were getting ready to transcend the genre that had spawned them.

Their fifth album, released in 1990, cost a million dollars and three marriages, but is one the greatest rock albums of all time. It was marketed in a jet black cover a la Spinal Tap and lacked an actual name, a la Led Zep IV.

Like Appetite, there wasn't a bad track on it. Of Wolf and Man is a classic Thrash track, Wherever I May Roam is a well constructed song by band that tours more than most and The Unforgiven is an angry song about the struggle to remain an individual in a repressive society. However the two songs that stand out are Enter Sandman and Nothing Else Matters. The first is a Thrash track with a rif so catchy and commercial it sounds made for MTV whilst the latter is their entry into the Power Ballad category and another candidate for The Best Thing They've Ever Done.

Guns 'n' Roses meanwhile came out with two albums released simultaneously; Use Your Illusion I and II. The albums certainly contained some of their best material. There were excellent cover versions of Live and Let Die and Knockin' On Heaven's Door, the surprisingly poignant anti-war song Civil War and You Could Be Mine ,which was used to great effect in the film Terminator II. Best of all there were two fantastic Power Ballads in Don't Cry and November Rain. The video to the latter was almost a major motion picture in itself, but it deserved the Hollywood treatment being, in my opinion, there best ever song.

However in between there was an awful lot of crap. An awful lot. G'n'R were seemingly incapable of telling the difference between a classic and something they should have left on the studio floor. At this time I was still listening to them on vinyl, so not only was I pissed off that I'd had to pay twice, but also because lifting the needle up when pissed was always a but dangerous so I had to listen to the shit songs to get to the good stuff.

In this Battle of the Bands then less is definitely more, and so I award a two-one win to Metallica, making the scores:

Metallica 6 Guns 'n' Roses 4

 

Round Four: 1999

The paths of the two bands were now to cross literally. In August 1992 they collaborated on joint stadium tour. Nirvana had refused to be the warm up so Faith No More got the gig. Things went well until Montreal, when Metallica front man James Hetfield accidentally walked into a twelve foot pyrotechnic flame, suffering Third Degree burns, which cut the set short. Guns 'n' Roses came on earlier than planned, but the sound was off and Rose had a sore throat. Disgruntled fans took out their frustrations by rioting.

Both bands decided to follow up there last albums with sequels made up of cover versions. G'n'R managed to take songs such as Since I Don't Have You by The Skyliners and Ain't It Fun by the Dead Boys and rehash them so well they felt like original compositions. However they also decided to add as an unlisted 'Easter Egg' a cover of a Charles Manson song. Not only is the song pointless and tasteless, not to mention rubbish, the whole thing seemed like such a manufactured controversy that I suspected some music industry exec was behind it.

In fact it was all Axel Rose's doing and, like with One In A Million, he pissed of the rest of the band in the process. He also pissed off a lot of the fans with some pretty offensive language and behaviour on the stage, and relationships within the G'n'R fell apart.

The band did make another awesome cover version, this time of the Rolling Stones' Sympathy For The Devil for the film Interview With Vampire. A brilliant song brilliantly used in the film, as it meant they didn't need to ruin Interview by making The Vampire Lestatt. (Or maybe not...)


However things had now gone too far between Rose and Slash, and the latter quit. He was followed by a series of replacement axemen, including one who would only play with a KFC bucket on his head. 

Metallica meanwhile toured and toured. Their album Garage Inc was interesting rather than spectacular. But as it was in effect a tribute to the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal bands that had inspired them, they are to be thanked for remembering a genre that by this time was on its last legs. So for doing this, keeping going and not behaving like complete idiots, I award Metallica a one-nil win.

The scores now are:

Metallica 7 Guns 'n' Roses 4

 

Round Five: 2008

By 2008 Metallica had played virtually everywhere you can play, including our own Monsters of Rock festival four times, and have continued to release albums that, although not up to the best of their back catalogue, are still interesting.

Guns 'n' Roses meanwhile have been in the studio apparently since the last century with all sorts of rumours flying around about what the guitarist was up to. In fact a lot of the time we weren't even sure who actually was their guitarist. The resulting album, Chinese Democracy, must rank as one of the most over-produced and over-promoted in rock history. It's not rubbish, but it is totally forgettable.

One-nil to Metallica then.

Metallica 8 Guns 'n' Roses 4 

 

Round Six: 2014

2014 and Metallica play the Glastonbury Festival for the first time, inflicting Thrash classics on the various rich kids and slumming accountants that make up the Glasto audience these days. A whiff of controversy preceded them thanks to Hetfield narrating a documentary about bear shooting in Alaska. However as far as I'm concerned he could shoot unicorns, Metallica were deservedly the Biggest Rock Band in the World.

Guns 'n' Roses meanwhile, having lost every original member apart from Rose, started a residency at The Joint in Las Vegas. With Rose having let himself go a bit since the days he was married to supermodel Stephanie Seymour it seemed they were headed down the Elvis route to Living Legend status.

I think I'd have to award this a two-one win to Metallica giving the final scores as:

Metallica 10 Guns 'n' Roses 5

 

A clear win but...

....if I wanted a Hard Rock/Metal song that could be played to a mainstream audience I'd go for Sweet Child O' Mine over Enter Sandman, if I wanted a Power Ballad I'd opt for November Rain over Nothing Else Matters and if I wanted to air guitar I'd go for Paradise City rather than Master of Puppets.

They may have gone from the Baddest Band in the World to one of the Saddest, but G'n'R will always have a special place in rock history, and my history.