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

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Top Five Fictional Road Protestors

The real anti-roads activists were a fairly colourful lot, and I expect the new lot will be just as cosmopolitan, so you wouldn't really think we needed to invent fiction ones, but that's what authors and screenwriters have been doing for the last thirty seven years.

There have been a surprisingly large number of them too.

I'm going to have to disqualify Bob Louis and David Briggs, alias The Detectives, as they were only undercover police pretending to be protestors. I'm also going to disqualify Laura, the heroine of Laura's Way, a middle aged woman disenchanted with her dead marriage and finds love up a tree house, on the grounds it's sub-Mills and Boon style tosh.

Besides, she doesn't practise safe sex in her treehouse. Everyone knows you need to clip on first.

However that still leaves a number of candidates in the running, so here we go for another highly subjective top five.

5. Geoffrey Lester from Gobble by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman (TV, 1997)

Lester (played by Geoffrey McGiven - the original Ford Prefect) was the unfortunate Minister for Agriculture who, in order to reassure a public concerned about Mad Turkey Disease, fed his daughter a Turkey sandwich only to have her keel over due to a hereditory heart condition.

He then dropped out of politics and took up residence at a local road protest camp. Pleging to "get this anarchy organised", he endeared himself to the protestors by unmasking one of them as an MI5 informer - who in turn outed another as a Daily Mail journalist.

This TV play by Hislop and Newman (he used to write for Spitting Image) is not particularly funny, but was at least slightly prescient. Not about the spying - everyone knew that was going on - but the real Geoffrey Lester, John Gummer, did turn into an eco-warrior of sorts and whilst he never, as far as I know, squatted a tree, but he did continue to turn up at conferences after the Tories had been booted out of office and on occassion had to sit with the Greenpeace delegates as no-one else would speak to him.

4. Kaz from Joining the Rainbow by Bel Mooney (book, 1997)

I don't know if Kaz, a fourteen year old girl from a nice middle class family who joins the protest against a new road running through Twybury Hill, can really count, as she isn't really fictional.

The book is by the Daily Mail journalist, and former wife of Jonathon Dimbleby, Bel Mooney and is based on her experience of the Batheaston protest.  It features thinly disguised versions of real people from the campaign whilst Kaz herself if Mooney's daughter Kitty.

You wonder what happened to Kaz. Probably not in a squat in Brixton living on cold baked beans and pot. Maybe working for a big environmental NGO like many of her Earth First! pals.

Or, like the real Kitty, married to soldier in a wedding featured her mum's paper and working for an ultra-respectable force's charity. Oh well.

3. Spider Nugent from Coronation Street (TV, 1997 to 2003)

In early 1997 Swampy and co. decended on Manchester to oppose the building of a second runway at its airport. Bizarrely he was a hit with the public and local schoolgirls and so perhaps it wasn't too surprising that there was a carry-over into Manchester's most famous soap, in the form of eco-warrior Spider Nugent, played by Martin Hancock.

Spider though didn't spend much time in the trees and instead moved in with his Aunt. One wonders where they got this idea of crusties hanging out with older ladies from. He did do a spot of protesting, trying to save the local park, but eventually sold out and worked for the Benefits Agency.

Hmm, becoming a bit of a theme here.

2. Blott from Blott on the Landscape by Tom Sharpe (book, 1975 and TV, 1985)

Great though the nineties were, everything we did then had been done before, and often better, in the seventies.

And when it comes to TV protests, Blott makes Spider look like the wimp he is.

A former German POW in the book - an accident Communist defector in the TV series - Blott, played by David Suchet, lives in the gatehouse of Handyman Hall.

The Hall, owned by a corrupt politician Sir Giles Lynchman, sits next to picturesque Cleene Gorge. When Sir Giles supports the building of a road over the gorge so he can claim compensation, Blott takes action.

Defending the countryside of his adopted nation with a passion that inspires the locals, he's not exactly fluffy. Concreting himself into his house is all very well, but when he launches a 'false flag' attack on his own gatehouse with guns and explosives he's gone a little beyond traditional None Violent Direct Action.

1. Arthur Dent from Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (radio, 1978; book 1979; TV, 1981; film, 2005)

Blott got his way and Handyman Hall is saved, but our winner had no such luck.

Not only did Arthur Dent get to witness his house being knocked down whilst he popped to the pub with is mate Ford Prefect, he also gets to see his planet being destroyed to make way for a Hyperspace Bypass.

Well, that's how it goes.

Everything I ever tried to stop ended up being built, with the exception of the Mottram-Tintwistkle bypass - and that's expected in 2015.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Top Five Rock Legal Disputes

Rockers are wild, spontaneous and care for nothing but wine, women and song, whilst lawyers are cautious, dull and obsessed with money.

So what do they have in common?

Well I suppose both will screw anyone, anywhere, anytime. But they are also regularly seen in court together.

You may think rock stars would like to solve disputes with a Crossroads style guitar duel, but in reality they call in the suits.

So along with his drug dealer and the team that recover cars from swimming pools, your average musico has his lawyer on speed dial.

So here is my list of the five best, or worst, rock legal disputes.

5. Lou Reed v RCA Records (allegedly)

A multi album deal is what most musicians dream of. But what happens if the relationship with the record label goes sour. Surely they can't force the artist to be creative?

This is what allegedly happened to Lou Reed three records in to a five album deal with RCA records. To fulfil contractual obligations he got "very stoned" and just sat his guitars in front of the amps and turned them up to eleven. The feedback vibrated the strings and the guitars effectively played themselves.

The resulting double album Metal Machine Music makes Slayer sound like Ralph Vaughan Williams.There is over an hour of this and Reed himself has said "anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am".

According to fans this isn't music, it's art. A German outfit has even produced an orchestral cover version.

Whatever the reason Reed was in more melodic form for his next album Coney Island Lover, a romantic album dedicated to his transsexual lover. His career has always been somewhat eclectic, but he has still never produced anything even remotely similar to Metal Machine Music since.

4. The Beatles v Themselves

In many ways bands are like groups of environmentalists. They start out all idealistic and the best of friends, but by the end they can't stand being in the same room together. The only difference being that eco-warriors usually manage to get on with each other when in court but fall out later, whereas bands are usually the other way round.

Take the Beatles for example.

They may have sung Back In The USSR, but they also wrote Taxman, a little ditty complaining about Harold Wilson's Supertax.

So once they started raking in the cash they formed Apple Corps as way to stop themselves having to pay it. Unfortunately everything went pear shaped for Apple when the band broke up two years later and John, Paul, George and Ringo all sued each other.

The eventual winner was Steve.

Steve Jobs that is, as Apple Corps had also fallen out with Apple Computers, but as the whole thing wasn't resolved until 2010, half the band were dead by then.

3. Matthew Fisher versus Gary Brooker

Revenge is a dish best served cold.

A Whiter Shade of Pale was a 1967 hit for British band Procol Harum. Pretty much their only hit.

Ten years later the band split up, and in the years since keyboard player Matthew Fisher must have held a simmering resentment that vocalist Gary Brooker was getting all the composing royalties from their hit when in fact most of the song was his Hammond organ.

In 2003 the band reunited for the second time and played the Cropredy Festival. I was there and all seemed friendly. Then two years later Fisher decided to get his money back.

The case was initially throw out on the grounds that waiting 38 years wasn't really fair. Fisher persisted and eventually the case became the first rock copyright battle to be heard before the House of Lords.

Brooker defended himself vigorously, arguing that he's written the song before Fisher had even joined the band, but he lost and the keyboardist now gets 40% of the royalties.

Not present in court was J.S. Bach, whose tune Fisher had nicked in the first place.

2. Fantasy Records v John Fogarty

Fogarty was the lead singer of Creedance Clearwater Revival, whose biggest hit, Bad Moon Rising, featured in An American Werewolf in London.

They also wrote A Run Through the Jungle about America's gun culture. When the band split in 1972 the song's rights went to Fantasy Records. Then, in 1985, as a solo artist Foggarty wrote The Old Man Down The Road.

Fantasy thought the two songs sounded rather similar and took Fogarty to court. In effect, suing him for sounding like himself.

Taking his guitar to court, Fogarty showed the judge that he did indeed sound like himself, but that the songs were different. However he had to pay his own costs and it took another hearing for him to get his money back.

1. Geffen Records v Neil Young 

Neil Young has had a fairly eclectic career. 

He's been acoustic and electric. He's been Country and he's been Folk. He's been a happy hippy and a broody misery guts.

Then in 1982 he went electronic and his record company put their foot down. We want rock 'n' roll, they said. Okay, replied Young, if that's what you, and he went Rockabilly.

This was too much for Geffen Records who promptly took him to court for releasing an album “musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous recordings.”

So whilst Fogarty had been sued for sounding like himself, Young was being sued for not sounding like himself.

His response, and it was a cool and calculated one, was to threaten to play Country music until Geffen backed down.

Faced with a threat as serious as that, they gave in.

And finally...

The Rolling Stones versus The Verve

In 1997 The Verve finally put the boot into Britpop with their seminal album Urban Hymns. The biggest hit on the album was Bitter Sweet Symphony, an immeidate smash hit. Unfortunately for The Verve they had sampled the track The Last Time by the Rolling Stones. The lawyers moved in. The Verve expected a 50/50 split in royalties but instead the court awarded Jagger and Richards 100% of the writing credits, giving them their biggest hit since Brown Suger twenty years earlier.

When asked by Q magazine how he felt about this Keith Richards replied "I'm out of whack here, this is serious lawyer shit. If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money."


Monday, 12 November 2012

Five Things Voyager Gave Us

Voyager 2
1977 and The Sex Pistols dominated the Queen's Jubilee, and Morecambe and Wise ruled Christmas.

Meanwhile NASA launched two remarkable space probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.

I can chart most of my life by the journey of these two spaceships.

Jupiter and red spot
When they blasted off I was in Primary School. As they flew past Jupiter I was in Juniors. As they passed Saturn it was the summer holidays before I started Secondary School. Voyager 2 passed Uranus whilst I was getting ready for my O Levels and by the time it reached Neptune I had been bitten by the astronomy bug and was studying for a Degree in Astrophysics.

By the time they cease transmitting I'll be pushing sixty and wondering when I'll be able to retire.

But apart from providing a measure of my life, what else did this mission give us?

1. The Grand Tour

The Voyager missions were made possible by the solving of the Three Body Problem.

Newton had figured out the Law of Gravity in the seventeenth century, but when you have a spaceship flying under the influence of two gravitational fields, such as the sun and a planet, the maths is far too tricky to do with a pen and paper.

However in 1965 mathematician Michael Minovitch figured out a way of using a computer to make an accurate guess. He needed a pretty big computer, and was allowed to use the IBM 7090, which weighed in at 275 tons and had a memory of 32 K.

This was actually very impressive for the early sixties and allowed Minovitch to solve a problem that had defied solution for nearly three hundred years. He was able to plot a variety of possible routes to the outer planets, and amongst them was a particularly smart way of getting to Neptune by hitching a lift off Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter. The Planetary Grand Tour.

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Voyager had to fly by 1979 at the latest as the next time such an opportunity would come along would be 2152.

2. Extra Terrestrial Volcanoes

Volcanos on Io
Picking the best of the Voyager pictures is tricky.

For pure artistic merit nothing beats the rings of Saturn. For colour and complexity it has to be Jupiter. For enigmatic beauty it has to be Uranus.

Then there are the moons with their wonderful Shakespearean and mythological names; Ganymede, titan, Miranda and the rest. All intriguing little worlds in their own right, especially Europa and Callisto which hint at having internal oceans.

But for the Wow! factor its Io gets the prize.

On March 9 1979 astronomer Linda Morabito saw something strange on a Voyager1 photo of the Jupiter moon. A strange lump was growing out of the side, which turned out to be a 170 mile high volcanic cloud.

Suddenly these were not dead world's any more.

3. The Message to the Stars

The Golden Record
The Voyager mission was to bring the planets back to earth, but it also took a bit of us out in to space.

The famous Golden Record may never be found, but it will most likely outlast our civilisation.

When we are no more, laid low by Climate Change, Nuclear War or all uploaded onto computers, a record - literally - of what we were in the late seventies will still be drifting through interstellar space.

There was a bit of concern in the 1980s when it was feared we might have accidentally sent to voice of a Nazi into outer space, but it turned out UN head Kurt Waldheim didn't actually do anything too bad.

What I really like about this is that far in the future, when MP3s are considered as old fashioned as stone clubs, there will still be a good old fashioned record out there, complete with stylus, so that if ET takes a fancy he can listen to Chuck Berry as God intended.

4. The Pale Blue Dot

The Solar Family Portrait
In the end only Voyager 2 made the full Grand Tour. For Voyager 1 the team had to decide between Pluto and Saturn's enigmatic moon Titan.

They went for Titan and found, to their disappointment, that the atmosphere was opaque and they saw nothing. It was a bit embarrassing, but if they'd gone to Pluto they'd have found that by the time they got there it was no longer a planet.

The Pale Blue Dot
Voyager 1 was now heading up, out of the Solar System. In due course it will become the first object made by people to leave the sun's protective heliosphere and enter Inter Stellar space. But there wouldn't be much to photograph on the way.

However its cameras were turned back on for one last picture, a shot of the whole solar family taken from 4 billion miles away.

The outer planets look pretty spectacular, but nearer the sun, barely noticeable next to the glare of the sun, is a pale blue dot.


It is a deeply humbling photo, as moving in its own way as the famous Apollo 17 Blue Marble photo.

Here is our planet. Tiny, fragile, almost utterly inconsequential in the universe, but possibly the only planet in the galaxy capable of making something as complex as Voyager.

5. Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan
The man who gave the Pale Blue Dot its name was Carl Sagan.

Sagan had worked for NASA from the beginning, but it was Voyager that gave him a world stage.

He was the face of Voyager, bringing his enthusiasm for the mission to the public via the press conferences and live TV broadcasts. This would be the first time most of us would hear his message of progress and scientific humanism.

In due course his books and TV series would turn may people onto science and astronomy, including me.

Just as the Golden Record was designed to make us feel like one planet, Sagan had a vision space exploration ultimately teaching us as much about ourselves as the universe.

As the two Voyagers head out into the depths of space, I hope they are emissionaries of the sort of species that will survive and thrive in the way Sagan hoped, and not the last will and testament of one that didn't.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Best Bogie

A century and a bit ago our great great grandfathers flocked into darkened theatres to view the new cinematograph and see such amazing sights as a train pulling into a station.

As J G Ballard has pointed out cinema today is largely back to where it was in those pioneering Victorian times. The spectacle is the thing. Today crowds go to the multiplexes to see CGI blockbusters in 3D with visual effects that are little short of magic.

Between then and now though was an era when movies were no longer novelties, but when technology largely kept the action in the studios and special effects were limited to the occasional ropey model shot.

During this brief, but glorious, period film makers had to sprinkle a different kind of angel dust on their productions. Unable to summon up armies of extra terrestrials, they instead explored the inner space of the human condition; love and betrayal, loyalty and intrigue, sex and death.

This was the age of the studio system, when eight companies pretty much had the world of cinema sown up. They employed their own actors, directors, set designers and the rest and turned out films by the truck load. Most were pants, but scattered amongst the slag was pure gold.

There were many stars in Hollywood at this time, but my personal favourite is Humphrey Boggart.

His early career was unremarkable and he claimed to have made more bad movies than anyone else - although he did have a bit part in excellent Angels With Dirty Faces - mostly playing villains.

Then, the wrong side of forty, he finally had a hit with John Huston's High Sierra. After that he had the cinematic Midas touch.

1. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Bogie plays Sam Spade, the fictional hard boiled detective invented by real life hard boiled detective Dashiell Hammett, as he searches for cinema's most famous McGuffin.

Directed by a young John Huston, it introduced a memorable villain in the "Fat Man", played by Sidney Greenstreet in his first cinema roll.

As a former Pinkerton's man Hammett knew a bit about the seedy side of life, and he based the character on Maundy Gregory, a shady Peter Mandelson character who sold honours for Lloyd George, probably helped forge the Zinoviev Letter and possibly helped bump off a ILP MP threatening to expose corruption in high places.

Bogie does all the things a film noir hero is supposed to do; he wears the trench coat, he flirts with the femme fatale (Mary Astor), gets sandbagged in an alleyway (thus missing all the crucial plot development) and engages is some sparkling double talk with the baddies.

 The stuff that dreams are made of.

2. Casablanca (1942)

Citizen Kane usually gets the critics vote for best movie ever. I've watched it once and, whilst I thought it was clever, I have no plans to see it again. But if Casablanca was on tomorrow I'd stay in to see it.

The film was almost a lesson in how not to make a movie. The producer and the studio boss were at loggerheads, the director abused the crew, the actors mostly hated each other, their was zero chemistry between Bergman and Bogie in real life, the ending was only agreed upon at the last moment and the final line dubbed on after shooting had finished.

However, despite all that, they produced a classic.

There was no auteur behind Casablanca, this was a collective effort. From the seven screenwriters who turned an unsuccessful play into the film, to the ensemble cast of characters actors and Jewish refugees, everyone did what they did best. The main players were mostly reprising familiar roles - all except Bergman who remained baffled by hers throughout.

Bizarrely Claude Rains, who played the Vichy Captain brilliantly, was a born and bred cockney.

For Bogie the film gave him the character he is best remembered for - the hard boiled cynic with a heart of gold.

Mostly though its the lines that get remembered. The last five minutes are a veritable assault of cinema classics. "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine", "We'll always have Paris",  "Round up the usual suspects", "Here's looking at you kid" and "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" (lets not read anything untoward into that please...).

Two scenes usually make me blub when watching it. Firstly the "duel of the songs" when the locals drown out Nazis singing by striking up La Marseilleuse. The song the Germans are singing is not actually a Nazi one at all. The film couldn't use the Horst Wessel song as it was under copywrite!

But mainly the manly tears come at the end.

The guy doesn't get The Girl but he does find a Cause.

Hey, it can happen.

3. To Have and Have Not (1944)

So what does a studio do after having a hit like Casablanca?

Well, you make the film again of course.

Just substitute Martinique for Morocco, put Hoagy Carmichael on the piano instead of Dooley Wilson and cast a nineteen year old Lauren Bacall in place of Ingrid Bergman and, voila! another classic.

And it really is too.

Partly this is down to performances like Walter Brennan's as Bogie's Korsakoff's Disease afflicted sidekick, but mostly this is down to the electric charge between Bogie and Bacall.

Considering he was older than I am at the time, this really should have been a great big yeuch! But it isn't. The lines are good, but it's the delivery that makes it. Bacall smoulders, Bogie plays it cool.

Bogie and Bergman were just acting, this is the real thing.

Classic cinema.

4. The Big Sleep (1946)

What's the Big Sleep all about? I don't know, and I don't care.

During filming the production team actually rang Raymond Chandler to ask who'd killed the chauffeur, and he admitted he didn't know either.

But that doesn't matter. Bogie plays Philip Marlow, lifting the stone to reveal what's really going on under the surface of polite California society. He does the hard boiled detective thing a bit, but mostly he just falls in love with Lauren Bacall.

Once again this is amazing cinema. The Hays Code meant everyone had to stay fully clothed, but that doesn't stop it being one of the most sexually charged films ever made. In To Have and Have Not they were clearly just flirting. Now they really get it on.

All told I think Marlow, a more moral sort of character than Sam Spade, is just too soft to be a real detective, but that doesn't matter either. This isn't a film about death, but love.

5. The African Queen (1951)

What, not Dark Passage, or Key Largo, or the Treasure of Sierra Madre?

Well, yes, those are probably better films, and if I had to take up a missionary position in the heart of Africa I'd go with Bergman or Bacall before Katharine Hepburn.

But The African Queen is such a part of the Bogie story you can't ignore it.

The tale of how the film got made is in many ways more interesting than the movie itself. Clint Eastwood has even made a film about it. They were in the middle of Africa, director John Huston was obsessed with shooting an elephant, Bacall washed Bogie's underpants for him and everyone got sick except for Bogie who didn't touch the water and only drank whisky.

The film is all right too, although the real story its based on is in many ways more amazing and less believable.

Bogie was 52 when he made it, and clearly showed he could still cut it as a leading man. But the partying was about to catch up with him. He's already founded the Rat Pack, but four years later he was dead.

His last words were reported to be "I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis"