Tuesday, 6 December 2011

A few thoughts

In general I don’t really do being angry. I did when I was younger but then I had a spat with a close friend and almost lost him forever, it made me realise how pointless it can be.

However last week something happened that brought that old almost forgotten feeling back to the forefront.

From one sentence uttered by another I nearly lost control, pure fury flashed through my mind, all I wanted to do was scream at my flatmate. Fortunately I don’t really like conflict either so I didn’t shout.

What had he said to set this quiet rebellion off inside me? He’d simply called Gary Speed a “Selfish fucker”.

It’s an opinion I have seen banded about far too much recently, not just in relation to him but then espoused as a way to look at those who choose to end their own lives.

“They’ve left behind a wife and family, how selfish of them, taking the easy way out” people say.

Fortunately for me I’ve never suffered from depression. I have bouts of melancholy, but everyone does. Life isn’t always perfect.

But I do know people who do suffer from it and I do like to try and find out what’s really going on in terms of such diseases I cannot truly understand.

To round off my view that it is a cruel, and unimaginable torment I’ve just finished reading ‘A Life Too Short, The Tragedy of Robert Enke’. A biography of an international footballer who, like Gary Speed, took his own life.

It’s written by a close friend, a man Enke had always said he wanted to write a book with once his career was over explaining his disease. Pieced together from personal interactions, interviews with people who knew Robert and his diaries it’s a quite extraordinary book.

The last section, describing the last few months of Robert’s life is almost an unbearable read. He’s managed to climb out of depression a few years earlier and survived the death of his first daughter. Just when everything was looking good what is described as his ‘black dog’ is back.

The point of this piece is not for me to lecture you on what depression does to someone. That would be quite frankly wrong of me. I have no experience of it, I have no expertise in it. All I can do is try and keep an open mind.

The purpose of this piece is to implore you to read Ronald Reng’s book on Robert Enke. There are several moments in it where he has consulted with experts and sufferers for explanations of the most desperate actions a person can take.

I also ask that before you call someone like Gary Speed a “selfish fucker” or jump to your own conclusions, that you bear one thing in mind. You’ve never been there, how on earth can you think you understand what was going on in his head when the best thing to do seemed to be to end it all there and then.

Of course you can look upon that as me being incredibly patronising. I’ve never been there either, what right do I have to tell you that? None I suppose.

Whatever you think of this give the book a read, whether you like sports or not, give some other stories of the disease a read, talk to anyone you know who has it.

I have no idea what went through the minds of Gary Speed, of Robert Enke, or even of Dale Roberts, the former Rushden and Diamonds keeper who killed himself last year. No one except they themselves do.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Open and shut

It’s time for a minute’s silence, please bow your heads in reverence, after a long fight with its demons the principle of open justice is dead.

Well, it is in Birmingham anyway. It must be, either that or they’ve redefined the word ‘public’ for the 21st century. No one told me though, one of you could have done.

It would have made my job a lot easier, I’d just not bother turning up to court anymore, we’ll just wait for the results via post court, might as well sack hundreds of journalists as well, would save a few pounds.

OK, this is overkill, but the battle for information inside courts and tribunals seems to be becoming harder by the day.

For no reason other than a raft of interesting cases I have spent quite a few days in the employment tribunals building in the country’s second city recently.

It is a completely unremarkable building from the outside, just another of Birmingham’s row after row of concrete monstrosities built in the 60s and 70s.

Inside the walls are partitions, grey, along with the carpets, as if to suck the last will to stay awake from your body.

Those inside it are there for some kind of justice, it’s easy to forget when inside that without this drab building those who are unfairly dealt with by companies bigger than themselves would have nowhere to make their case, no one to stand up for them.

The problems start when you dare to try and get some information out of anyone.

This is a place of law, a judge presides over all the hearings, it’s not some shady back room where lawyers haggle out a deal to keep everything hushed up.

So in reality you should be able to walk up to the clerk and get the information you need. I’m not asking much, just the names of those involved.

This is beyond the workers of the employment tribunals though.

The very idea of being told the first name of a judge is laughed at, “no, we don’t give that detail out” is the terse reply whenever you dare to ask the question.

A month or so ago I ventured into a tribunal where even the lawyers wouldn’t tell me their names. Even worse, the names of the witnesses were never mentioned.

“Can we have the next witness,” the judge said. Cue the lawyer for the respondent turning round, pointing at her client to go forward.

Off she trots up to the witness stand and is asked to give the oath and read her statement. Never is she asked to even confirm to the court who she is.

No check, just a quick “is that your statement and have you read it” from her lawyer, nothing from the judge. I could have been reading that for all that it seemed to matter.

My experiences that day led to the Sun, for who I was working that day, putting an official complaint in to the justice ministry, I didn’t ask them to, but they did and I’m very grateful.

This week I’ve been back, happily this time I was able to get the names of the lawyers and the judge even checked who was actually talking to him.

However that was all pretty irrelevant when I discovered I wasn’t even to hear the statements that the day was based around.

Normally in a tribunal the witnesses will read out what they have to say in a pre prepared statement. Both sets of lawyers have had this for a while and ask questions around this in examination and cross-examination.

But not this time.

The tribunal launches straight into examination, leaving three journalists sat in the middle of everyone completely lost as to what was going on.

Later on I asked one of the lawyers why this happened. “Most tribunals are starting to do this now, it gets things done faster,” is the reply.

“Can I have a copy of the statements and the skeleton argument then?” I ask, quite reasonably I thought.

“I’ll have to see about that, come back to me tomorrow and I’ll have an answer.”

So that was that, nothing has been forthcoming from either side or the court to actually tell any members of the public what was going on. For all I know there weren’t any statements to start with and the whole thing's a sham (I'm sure it's not).

To make matters worse this is a complex case, a pre tribunal hearing to work out if there is actually a case to answer.

Anyone without a copy of the ‘bundle’ (tribunal speak for the evidence), which is in this case made up of six huge folders of statements, regulations and investigations, has to try and work out what’s going on from the lines of questioning.

What’s wrong with that? Everything I say. How can you have open justice when no one knows what’s going on? How can the media keep an eye on it and report on what goes on when someone tries to stand in their way?

It’s not just confined to tribunals either. Magistrates court clerks and ushers seem increasingly unaware that by law they have to tell a reporter the name of the Magistrates.

“They’d rather not say, they don’t want it published” is a reply I’ve had more than once.

Fortunately I was taught media law at university. So while I don’t have a copy of the journalists law bible, McNae, available from all good bookstores, on me I can recite the law to them explaining that they have to.

It doesn’t always work though, and in the case of court clerks I’m talking about people trained heavily in the law to reach their position. Clerk's have a vital role in advising Magistrates if needed, they have to know what's going on.

I once ended up sat in my car phoning the reception and explaining the law to them before I could get a simple name I was entitled to know from Worcester Magistrates court.

How can it be that the very people we look to to make sure there is justice in this country don’t seem to know the most basic of laws?

The justice system in Britain is built on the concept of open justice. That the public can go along to see what's going on for themselves.

Increasingly this idea, central to everything in a court, seems be kicked to the corner.

Talk of introducing trials without juries behind closed doors for those cases containing sensitive information terrifies me, and should terrify you as well.

Next step away from that is a quick trip to Guantanamo bay with no chance of a trial by your piers or a summary execution soviet style, bye bye fair trials.

Who needs open justice? You do.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Short, sweet

So yesterday I forged on through two more albums, only 240 to go, Ben Folds Five’s 1997 album Whatever and Ever Amen and PJ Harvey’s 2000 million seller Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.

Both are new to me, PJ Harvey in terms of never having bothered to see what the fuss was all about before and BFF (as I shall not moniker them) out of complete ignorance. After a little struggle to find Whatever and Ever Amen, Spotify lists it as being by Ben Folds, I pressed play without looking into what kind of music I was about to listen to.

Not too sure how I can put my reaction, other than the fact that it made me grin. I love this record. It’s a beautifully woven piece of pop music set over a jazz piano background. It’s incredibly upbeat from the start, the hooks immediately sit nicely in the ear, never annoyingly catchy, just nice to listen to. It’s the upbeat songs that leave their mark, the ballads aren’t up to the same standard, other than the magnificent single Brick. 20 songs slipped by faster than anything so far on the list, I was hooked.

I loved it, the only way I can get across to you what it is is to tell you to go and listen to it. Now, no your work is less important than this, go listen.

As for PJ Harvey I’m sure if I give the album a few more tries it’ll worm its way into my brain, but after about 7 tracks I found myself wondering when it would end. I won’t rush back to have another listen I don’t really know how to describe it other than to say that in a one listen review it didn’t do enough to instantly grab me.

(couldn’t be bothered to write more)

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Racing to the road.

How can a multi-million pound fire snorting F1 car have any relevance to the Focus I step into every day? I doubt you’ve ever really asked yourself that, but it is the question that is plaguing those who run the sport at the moment.

It’s a question that could hold the key to the very future of the sport. Without relevance to road technology there is no benefit to the manufacturers in taking part other than publicity, they could get more PR for a lot less money.

Today’s tight rules have restricted the development of new technologies in F1. Previously it was the proving ground for all sorts of new technologies that are in the road cars of today. Traction control had its infancy in the early 90s, developed as a major part of Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost’s championship winning Williams cars. Carbon brakes, paddle shift gearboxes, ABS, power steering and a multitude of things you take for granted began in F1.

In 2013 the sport will have a new set of rules complete with a raft of ‘green’ technologies. On the surface they may seem to be merely a bow to the environmentalist lobby, but in reality it provides an important lure for the manufacturers that have run from F1 in recent years. Not just that, it could provide a fast development race for the technologies the car industry needs over the next decade.

In future you can expect these technologies to filter into every day cars. Energy recovery systems from Williams are already appearing in Porsches, Mercedes has its own. These and the new efficiencies needed to get 700bhp from a 1.6 litre engine will provide the ordinary motorist with cleaner, more efficient cars in the future. It may not seem so, but the new rule changes in a billionaire’s playground may be some of the most important in motoring history.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Part four: insert subtitle here

I must be nuts, don’t worry, I haven’t just realised this, I realised it when I first set out on this quest to listen to 250 albums. But hey, it’s actually kinda fun. So let’s move on to album 245 on our list: Norwegian duo Röyksopp’s début album from 2001 Melody AM.

I actually remember a few of Röyksopp’s songs fondly, which is almost a novelty so far in this list. The electronic pop they produce has been widely found on various BBC, Channel 4 and T-Mobile adverts as well as on the playlist of Radio 1. So I was interested to hear what they put out in album form.

It starts out in a very familiar way, the two singles So Easy and Eple. It’s spooky, ethereal music, ideal for the background to whatever else you have to do. Much of the album will prick up the ears as familiar, you know you’ve heard it somewhere before but can’t place it. Sometimes that can be a bad, frustrating thing, but in the case of Melody AM it just reminds you of some beautifully crafted bit of TV, designed to be nice on the eye. The album is a thing of beauty, never crashing into your consciousness, it’s there, just playing along, soothing your mind.

The calm is shattered slightly by the closing track 40 YearsBack/Come not because it suddenly goes all loud and in your face, but because it’s just plain eerie. It’s a chilling way to leave an album, but a very good song. The majority of the album seems a world away from having that many specific influences other than contemporaries like Goldfrapp. But at the end an 80s version of what you’ve been listening to enters your mind.

I like it, it’s intriguing, willing you to listen again, be relaxed all over again and let it just wash over you. Give it a go.

Next we move onto Anthony and the Johnsons’ 2005 Mercury Award winning I Am a Bird Now.

And to be honest, I said I’d say something for every album, so for this my review is: No. Just no, it’s all lovely and high pitched and gentle but just bored me. Sorry Anthony.

The album to grace my ears is KT Tunstall’s Eye To The Telescope. I’ve always liked what I’ve heard from the Scottish singer-songwriter, but, a bit like Röyksopp’s effort earlier it’s an album I’ve meant to listen to, but never gotten around to.

She’s exactly what she says on the tin, a girl with a guitar. Never a style I go for normally, but I find there’s something about her music that gets me. I think it’s because it’s more up-tempo than most. Her voice isn’t the whiny annoyance that the likes of Katy Melua sell records on the back of.

While some of the lyrics scream ‘oh why oh why did it happen to me’ the possible descent into Nora Jones territory is offset by the electric sounds that dominate the background. Vocals come from a voice you’d be happy to hear at any time while the tap along records are partnered by more acoustic sounds like the single Other Side of the World. On release The Guardian said: “Throughout, KT has enough rasp in her warm voice to give it character, and that alone provides an edge over the Joneses of the world.” I can’t help but agree.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Part the third, where I discover things I dislike, and things I like.

Here we go again, I took the weekend off from listening to albums as part of some mental whim (in other words I went and wrote something professionally on Saturday and watched football on Sunday). So today I must update on Friday’s listening. I left my last entry on the ominous possibility of having to listen to a Slipknot album due to a lack of availability of album at 248 in our list.

It took a few minutes to prepare myself for a first run through a Slipknot album in full. I brought up a picture of a kitten on screen, wore bright colours and switched all the lights on, just in case, and dove in headfirst. I have to say I was not disappointed, it did indeed terrify me for three-quarters of an hour. I’m not averse to the odd bit of Metal, Metallica and the old favourites like Iron Maiden are on my iPod. I even like two Slipknot songs. Unfortunately after listening to their eponymous debut my list remains stubbornly at two.

I’m afraid to say that being screamed at for a whole album just doesn’t do anything for me. If I have anger to get out I always find more punky sounds can help me get it out (or shouting at over-paid footballers). I struggle to get past the sheer anger that it gives off, which is the whole point of the record, and therefore never found myself relaxed enough for the music to not be a focus. Normally when I listen to music I’m doing something else, if I like it it melds into the background, I’m relaxed by it, enjoying it just being there. With this album I couldn’t help but keep noticing that it was on. It drills away at your skull like an angry wasp wearing a scary clown mask.

I can’t even pick out individual high points on the album, I’m afraid it’s just not for me. Of course what would Corey Taylor and the boys care? They’ve sold millions of records worldwide.

I move on to number 246 in our long list, Stankonia by Outkast. Described by the music press as a ‘masterstroke’ and ‘ambitious’ this is the duo’s fourth album. A fact that surprised me I have to say, before their obscenely popular Speakerboxxx/The Love Below I could only name one Outkast track, the Grammy Award winning Ms Jackson.

So it was with interest that I loaded Stankonia and pressed play (searched for it on Spotify and pressed enter). It’s ambitious, that’s for sure. The whole album attempts to fuse Rap with futuristic sounds. Synths and Beats dominate the album, giving the sound a very surreal effect. In a one-listen review it’s all a bit hard to take in. So much is thrown at you that I can only imagine it gets better with every listen, that you notice a new element to the mix that you didn’t the first time.

The stand out songs are the two big singles, B.O.B. and the already mentioned Ms Jackson. The first is based on a very drum ’n’ bass rhythm, differing from most of their previous output. But they pull it off well. The song even features a gospel choir in the chorus, a fact that draws listeners in almost every time. The hugely popular Ms Jackson is full of angst, with Andre rapping about the mother of his daughter, it’s full of regret about the problems a relationship can have, and the relationship between a man and his mother in law (a theme more common from Les Dawson than an American rapper).

I have to say it’s probably not for me, I’ll definitely give it at least one more listen, to see if I really can uncover some more of a very complex album. It’s definitely ambitious, and at times that ambition comes together to form some fantastic music. But for me it’s too skittish, never letting itself get much of a rhythm. There’s several ‘breakdowns’ that separate the album, but they don’t ever seem to come at logical points to me.

So we move on, and finally Sugar’s 1992 UK #10 Copper Blue is ready after it’s adventure in the world of downloads. We’re back to albums I’ve never had any connection to before again with album 248. Sugar were an American band that only graced us with its presence from 1992-95. A period in which I ranged from the ages of 5-8, so it’s no surprise they are a new discovery to me.

Their style is very much pop meats rock, and I like it. It’s very uptempo and feels shiny, which is a stark comparison to the previous albums I’ve listened to. But just below the surface it’s far from happy. Listening to it without thinking you don’t really notice anything but if you pay attention there’s much melancholy amongst the hooks and melodies. The album was picked as NME’s best album of 1992, and I can see why.

I liked it, however I sit here afterwards with not a lot to say about it. That might actually say something about how much I enjoyed it, or that after a few songs it began to merge into one. A trait I have no problem with on an album. I shall listen again, next time I might even come out with more to say about it.

Friday, 28 January 2011

250 mentalism, part 2

To continue this ridiculous musical quest Orbital followed Gomez yesterday, I just couldn’t be bothered to write again in the evening. Dance music and me don’t seem like an easy mix, I grew up listening to Green Day and Blink 182 and this still have a love of pop-punk overriding most of my other musical tastes. So the plunge into Orbital’s first record, Orbital, was one sort of into the unknown.

However, I’m not averse to a bit of electronica, the likes of Simian Moblie Disco have wormed their way into my brain over the years so it wasn’t with too much trepidation that I fired up Spotify. And, guess what, I liked it. Q’s description (Proved that hardcore electronica could be popular) seems to be correct, sure it’s a constant stream of electronic beats, but it’s very listenable. It’s an oddly gentle record, beeping away in the background while you work on whatever is important in your life.

I was a bit unsure when I saw the lengths of all the tracks, Desert Storm lasts an epic 12 minutes, but the time flew by leaving me amazed to suddenly find myself on the last track (perversely only 50 seconds long) after what seemed like no time at all.

There are two live tracks on the UK version of the record, including Orbital’s breakthrough song chime. As it’s a dance record it’s not like hearing a raw live rock record like Green Day’s Bullet In A Bible. It’s polished, but at the same time a different version than that you’d have heard back in the infancy of the 1990s.

So, to summing up I would recommend it to you. Hardened dance fans will probably be very familiar with it already, but those of you who’ve not ventured into the synthesised world of electronica will find this a great place to start.

Fun Fact: Opening track The Moebius samples the Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode “Time Squared”.

Next up would be Sugar’s 1992 album Copper Blue, however it’s not on Spotify so the wait for it to download delays its entry. So, with genuine terror I now move on to Slipknot’s self titled debut. Gulp.