Wednesday, 24 June 2009


Please, saviour, saviour, show us.
Hear me, I'm graphically yours.
Someone to claim us, someone to follow,
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo,
Someone to fool us, someone like you.
We want you, Big Brother, Big Brother.

David Bowie (Big Brother)

THERE ARE NOW OVER 30 CCTV cameras within a few hundred yards of the flat where George Orwell lived when he was writing 1984. I'm guessing that does not include the cameras on buses and in some other vehicles. Of course, there are cameras mounted outside buildings everywhere, and in shops. It must be increasingly difficult to get away with murder.

I recall a very few cameras in Hyde Park about 40 years ago which seemed to be quite obvious and intrusive. I don't notice the darn things now. There are a number of them here in Amble by the Sea which may, or may not, be switched on. A friend had his shop vandalised, a brick through the glass door, and a CCTV camera on a building directly opposite had no record of the crime. There is a sign in the window of one of the funeral parlours in Amble warning CCTV is in operation and that footage of any illegal activity will be passed along to the appropriate bodies. Bodies? All the buses seem to have cameras now; they look a bit like the HAL 9000 outlets.

In a bigger city, apparently, one might be recorded over 300 times a day. Something to think about if you're on a hot date and your wife doesn't know about it. Suddenly somebody commits a crime and you and your companion are taped witnesses and the Police are looking for you.

My youngest sister boasts that she and her son frequently climb over or under pay turnstiles to save a few pence. One day she'll be nicked when the authorities aren't watching possible terrorists and have to meet a quota.

There are now CCTV cameras that are manned full time by security officers who can, and do, speak to the people they are observing if necessary. "Would the chav in the tracksuit please pick up the cigarette packet she just dropped?"

I once applied for a job with a security company, to work nights monitoring a bank of TV screens and alarms. I lasted one trial night, it was a horrible experience. Boring beyond belief. I should mention that I was unable to communicate with anyone who appeared onscreen. If anything was dodgy, I was to telephone the Police or other emergency services. I believe I had only one event that night, an open window in a building that was supposed to be sealed shut.

In 2007 I watched Big Brother 8 UK on Channel 4 from time to time. I'd never watched one of those reality captive shows before and it was somehow compelling for a while. I actually remember a few of the contestants and the eventual winner, Pete, who was notable as he was a pleasant punk with Tourette's syndrome who twitched and ticked and screamed (usually Wankers!) a good deal. Pete was involved, in the Big Brother House, with a daft girl called Nikki. Nikki complained about everything and her shrieking was a match for Pete's outbursts. Both Pete and Nikki, whose attachment did not last after the series ended, continue to appear on the television as guest panellists and commentators.

Last year, 2008, the Big Brother Housemates were a dull and forgettable lot. The only thing I recall now is that a skinny and incredibly naive boy from, I think, Wigan, called Luke, was somehow paired with a large, slightly older woman with enormous boobs, which she often flashed at her fellow housemates and the Big Brother cameras (and those of us daft enough to be watching), called Rebecca (Becks for short). They both got voted out of the House within a few weeks of the show starting and I stopped watching. Luke and Becks did pop up as commentators on this year's show and they are, they say, still an item. Some things one doesn't like to picture…

Three weeks ago some 16 people ranging in age from 18 to just over 40 moved into the Big Brother compound. I don't know how many weeks these things run, but it will be through the summer. Of the 8 males, 3 admitted to being gay-bisexual; I believe at least two of the 8 females bat for the other team. I'm not sure that 5 out of 16 is statistically representative of the sexual preferences of people in Britain. It seems that this year the producers decided to go with camp.

Two contestants have been given the push and one simply walked out of her own volition. Another contestant didn't earn the right to be a Housemate. There are now 7 boys and 5 girls circling each other, plotting and trying to look appealing to the viewers who vote them in or out.

After three weeks, the Housemates are all horny and tetchy. Indian lad, Sree, is stalking the prettiest girl, Noirin, who clearly detests him. Kris is courting Dogface's huge knockers. (Dogface? She had to change her name to stay in the House. Another contestant is now called Halfwit.) Charlie, a former Mr Gay UK runner-up, is getting attention from the boys and girls (including those who are supposed to be straight). The youngest Housemate, Cairon, from Atlanta, Georgia, was evicted last week. He'd been very homophobic, and awfully immature. He then shoved a peeled banana up his arse on camera. Over 70% of the votes to evict went to him. He earned them!

There's no censorship on our Big Brother. Language has deteriorated rapidly, nudity is becoming common, and the snogging may soon lead to sex for the cameras if the show moves along like those in other years. The boy on boy action is prevalent this go round, even among the straight lads. Whatever gets you through the night?

All of the contestants this year have been quite attractive physically, though Dogface's breasts are a bit over-inflated (they are implants and she wants bigger ones, a mindset I cannot understand). I like only two of the Housemates enough to hope one of them might win.

Angel is a Russian girl in her 30s, a boxer, trainer, magician and would-be pop star. She's wonderful looking. Not beautiful, but wonderful, better somehow. Angel is fairly fragile for an athlete, when the House gets to be too much she heads for the garden with her jump rope. Angel breaks down and cries too, but offers a shoulder to the other Housemates. If I were 20 years younger…

Halfwit, whose real name is Freddie, is an upper-class twit, complete with a stately home and boarding school education. He wants to be a Tory politician. Halfwit has something fairly interesting to say about everything. The other Housemates, proles all, perhaps not surprisingly, detest him and keep nominating him for eviction. So far, Halfwit has survived because the other nominee has been less attractive to the viewers. He's a good-looking fellow, plays for both sides. He's English in a House that has mostly foreign types. I'd like Halfwit or Angel to win.

However, I believe the money is on Brazilian bisexual Rodrigo to take the title. He may turn out to be too boring as the weeks go by. Rodrigo is camp, but straight Siavash, an Iranian chap, is camper than a row of pup tents, and noisy with it.

As the weeks go by, I have no doubt that language, nudity and sex will decide the thing. The more graphic, the better the chance to overcome.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

I Love My Cat

I AM OLD ENOUGH to have bought Cat Stevens's albums the first time around, when Cat was a rather geeky-looking Greek who loved his dog. It pays to love your dog, it went well after that. Cat ditched the mod clothes and grew the trademark beard and hair.

A friend of mine attended a Cat Stevens concert in the USA in the early 1970s and was disappointed. Cat complained about audience noise and threatened to walk off. Frankly, I cannot fault a musician for that. A theatre full of tripping college students wouldn't be my ideal soundboard.

I'll admit I never liked a Cat Stevens album the first time I heard it, perhaps because every one was quite different. It was a bit like hearing a new artist twice a year.

Didn't everyone have the Tea for the Tillerman album? I recall buying copies of Numbers for quite a few friends who were wary of buying it. I listened the second time and was transported. I played Catch Bull at Four at the opening of a four-person art show which featured my work (I rarely paint now, in case you wondered). I played Foreigner over and over and bought the sheet music so a friend could have a go at the piano music in the Foreigner Suite. While sick as a dog, recovering from glandular fever, I managed to improve my mood with Izitso.

A friend with a guitar would serenade us with Into White, still one of my favourite tunes.

Cat Stevens had a difficult early career. Stoned, drunk and cold, as he put it in the song I Never Wanted to be a Star. He caught tuberculosis. He left Britain for Brazil. One day he was swimming out of his depth and was being carried out and under. He says that he prayed that if God would save him, he'd devote the rest of his life to God. A big wave came up behind him and pushed him suddenly ashore.

What next? He auctioned his guitars for charity and funded a school with his song royalties. He changed his name to Yusuf Islam. The Bible and Koran character Joseph (Yusuf) was a favourite of his. And Yusuf vanished pretty much until the fatwa issued for Salman Rushdie. At that time, Yusuf was asked his opinion on the fatwa and he said that the Koran called for such things. He didn't tell Muslims to go out and get Rushdie, though the Press decided that he had. Pretty soon people (particularly the US Government, which has been terrified of bearded men ever since Walt Whitman) decided he was a risk to national security. While being awarded a prize for promoting peace by Europeans, Yusuf was prevented from travelling to America.

A couple of years ago, Yusuf's son brought a guitar home and left it in the family living room. Yusuf saw it there and picked it up. Tempted, one might say. He plucked and strummed and found that even after 25 years he still knew the tunes.

I'd like to think a long night had ended. Not necessarily a bad night, because we all need sleep. Yusuf realised suddenly that making music need not be contrary to Islamic laws and culture. Perhaps the opposite.

The man once known as Cat Stevens has been making music again.

I bought Yusuf's album Roadsinger last week after seeing a preview on the television. The first time I listened to it I wasn't sure that I liked it. Some things don't change. The second time I played it I was over the moon.

The lyrics are peace and love, pictures are painted. Yusuf's voice is not quite Cat's voice, but it is remarkably close to it. The man is my age and he's not been on the road and in the studio for going on 30 years. The melodies and the working of the instruments are, I think, reminiscent of Mona Bone Jakon, Teaser and the Firecat and Tea for the Tillerman. Rather than Matthew and Son or Buddha and the Chocolate Box.

These are songs I'd love to have a friend play and sing to me in front of the fire on a cold winter's evening or in a balmy summer's twilight in the courtyard.

What should you do? Try and listen to the Roadsinger album by Yusuf, the man you might have known as Cat. Listen at least twice.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Double Feature

ANOTHER ELECTION DAY, and another miserable showing for Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party. Truth be told, I imagine most of the Prime Minister's parliamentary and party colleagues might just be thinking they'd rather not be associated with him and want to claim the Labour Party back for themselves.

Gordon Brown was not elected Prime Minister by the British people, he had been promised the post by outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair who had realised, after ten years, and feeling the points of the knives in his back, that his time was up.

I'd supported the first Blair Government, elected back in 1997. We needed something really different after all those years of Thatcher and Major, and Blair was not so much Old Labour as Moderate Conservative with a heart. Unfortunately, Tony Blair took us into Iraq after sexing up reports of weapons of mass destruction. At times he was not so much George Bush's poodle as his guide-dog, getting the clumsy President through sticky situations. It paid the Press to leave a mike on near the President. Watch his choice of words though, the Christian President could curse. The Christian Prime Minister Blair could cover for him.

Thus ended any admiration and hope I had for Tony Blair and his New Labour. Suddenly we had someone to hate in unison, much as we'd all despised Mrs Thatcher. Perhaps that is a good thing, bringing the country together like that. Try and get Blair out, though. The Conservatives had no viable alternative Prime Ministerial candidate for a start.

And Gordon Brown claimed the throne in 2007, and downhill we've gone. Brown says that he was not responsible for our problems (the Recession and the Members of Parliament Expenses Scandal). However, Brown was Blair's Chancellor for the ten years and seems to have failed to anticipate or hedge against anything like what we are going through. He'd promised, back in the day, the end of boom and bust economies, and then completely failed to even take the edge off the big bust of 2008-2009. Brown seems to say: "Not my fault!" so easily. He always claims to be candid and honest, but will not own up to anything or answer any question directly (and honestly). He will say, over and over, "I'm not arrogant." He's also saying, now, "I won't quit." Any CEO with his company so unprepared and so unsuccessful would have been removed by his Board and his Shareholders. Not our Gordon.

On Thursday morning this past week I popped into the Polling Station, conveniently located next door to my flat, even before I had breakfast. I was the second person to cast a vote in this district. I've voted wherever I could, when I could, since 1968, in both local and national elections. I believe that if one does not vote, one cannot complain about what one doesn't like about a government.

This week, in Northumberland, we only voted for the European Parliament. Don't get me started. I despise the EU and support the work of parties like the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to get us the heck out of Europe.

There was quite a long ballot with choices by party. One cannot choose a particular candidate by name. One "X" in a box next to the party you want to send its nominees to Brussels. Our big three parties (Labour, Conservative and Liberal-Democrat) were listed, and UKIP, and the British National Party which is anathema to most of us being racist and more. Then the Green Party, which most of us have heard of: I suppose they hug trees and save the whales, but do their leaders and supporters walk or pedal to their rallies, or drive? There were more parties and one had a rather long name that went something like this: "The Christian Party Proclaiming Christ's Lordship". And I wondered if that was some sort of Christian Taliban. I did not see "The United Party of Satanists", but I think one would know better what to expect from such a group. There's a good line in the film Chariots of Fire, spoken by a Scottish minister's character: "The Kingdom of God is not a democracy!" That's worth considering before you give Jesus a seat in Brussels.

The sign outside the Polling Station, with those two words on it, was on a piece of stiff cardboard tied with string into a prickly hedge. Arrows on pages, printed on somebody's computer, were stuck on the side of the building indicating that one must go around into the church hall to vote. The church's rather large (very nearly life-size) figure of Christ on his Cross loomed over the driveway. Vote for me!

By Friday night the county council election results were in, and Labour, our Government, had only 23% of the total vote, in third place after the Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats. Gordon Brown's Cabinet was breaking up, big names quit. He patched together a new one with unelected peers from the House of Lords (no Labour MPs seemed willing to join a Brown government) and gave a most irritating press conference on Friday evening. He said, I don't know how many times, "I'm not arrogant!" and stressed that he was the only person who could lead the country at this time.

A reporter asked Gordon Brown what he felt made him qualified to be our Prime Minister. You're thinking he's not arrogant. What Brown did not say speaks volumes. He did NOT say he loves this country, that he loves the people and represents them as a person, and that he is like them. He did not say he loves our parliamentary democracy. No affection was confessed for England's mountains green (of course, he is Scottish). Brown did not say that he wants to serve the nation so long as it wants him. No hand on heart for Queen and Country. No, no, no.

Tomorrow the European Election results will be published and estimates are that Gordon Brown's Labour Party will have done even worse in those than in the English county elections. I'm wondering if UKIP will bump Labour into fourth place. I'm hoping that the Labour Party finally faces up to what this country needs: an elected Prime Minister. I'm hoping they'll somehow get rid of Gordon Brown.

The Conservatives are better at ousting their unpopular or no longer capable leaders: think Churchill in the 1950s and Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher fought it for a couple of days, but then off she went into the wilderness in tears. Gordon Brown, however, has chained himself to this rock he won't confess to loving. It may take more than long knives; it may take sledge hammers and chisels.

I voted, so I'm complaining about Gordon Brown. He may not think to say he loves Britain, but I love it.

THIS AFTERNOON AFTER CAILEAN'S WALK, which a friend joined me on, the three of us came back and watched a 1979 movie on the telly called The Black Hole. This was not the Disney film of that name, which I've not seen (were there cute animals in that one? I have seen The Cat from Outer Space). The Black Hole on Channel Five this afternoon stars a number of now-dead or decrepit actors. The blurb in the Radio Times guide says: "Intriguing if rather unwieldy sci-fi epic in which the crew of a space ship encounter a disturbed scientist." Maximillian Schell plays the nutter on a large platform floating in space near a black hole. He's turned all his human crew into robots. Robert Forster leads a small crew studying the black hole from what looks like a cannibal's cooking pot without the broth. The crew float around suspended by wires, and the harnesses show. The strings holding the spaceship together start breaking, steam pipes burst, and they have to look around for a place to land. And Schell's space platform happens to be just around the next star.

Turns out that Schell and his crew (now humanoid robots) were supposed to have returned to Earth twenty years before, but Schell refused to leave his spot on the edge of the black hole. He's gone quite mad, and wants to fly right through it, never mind it will almost certainly destroy him and all those with him. A bit of a Gordon Brown.

Highlights of the film are the lame special effects and the incredibly clumsy floating in space. Ernest Borgnine is in the film and has a moustache. Yvette Mimieux looks like an American housewife. Anthony Perkins is attacked by a large red-eyed robot called Max that is more Waring Blender than humanoid … and it literally makes mincemeat of him.

My friend had to leave before the film ended, but I settled down to watch it till the bitter end. However, Cailean next to me, I fell fast asleep.

So I cannot tell you how The Black Hole ended, or, at this moment, whether Gordon Brown is still our unelected Prime Minister representing a party less than a quarter of Brits support.