Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Ilya Yashin: A True Human Rights Defender.

Its not every day that I get to meet and interview a chap like Ilya Yashin.

Ilya is a prominent Russian politician, who just happens to be a major opponent of Vladimir Putin.

After Boris Nemtsov was so brutally murdered outside the walls of the Kremlin, in 2015, it was Ilya who picked up the torch, and has been a thorn in the side of the Russian dictator ever since.

Of course, he has paid for this, with the occasional spell behind bars, and worse, and has been declared by Amnesty International to be a 'Prisoner of Conscience'.

Nice to see that there are, even in Russia, still men who are prepared to stand for freedom and democracy.


Saturday, 7 January 2017

Look out, Mr Putin; Rock n Roll is coming to Moscow!

The Evil Empire, aka the Soviet Union, really hated western popular culture.

There was a real fear in the Kremlin that if Russian youth (note: 'Russian' - the Kremlin didn't care less about any of the other 'Soviet Republics') were exposed to western culture than they might realise that they were living in a socio-economic hell-hole.

In the 1950s there was a particular fear about Rock 'n' Roll. The Politburo really did not get this at all. The idea that working class people could really lead a cultural revolution really spooked the geriatrics in charge in the Kremlin.

The  official line was that Rock 'n' Roll was an American plan to subvert the minds of the youth - and God forbid that black people could be involved!

Tommy Steele (right) with actor Richard Todd  (left)
It all started to go wrong for the Evil Empire when a young chap named Tommy Steele turned up in Russia. One of Britain's greatest recording stars of the 1950s, (and a major showbiz star to this day), he defied the KGB and managed to be photographed in Red Square.

Russians have their own take on everything.

Their church, which professes to be Christian, but which is in the hands of the security services, does not even recognise other churches as being Christian.

I remember, after 9/11, attending a lunch at the Russian Orthodox Church in Gunnersbury, West London, presided over by a priest who was later demoted after being exposed as a sexual predator, and being shocked by the statement by said priest that "Russians should not pray for the victims as they (the victims) were not Orthodox". 

Actually, a number of victims of the 9/11 attacks were members of the Orthodox Church.

But back to the music.

I am therefore delighted to learn that there is, currently, a terrific Rock 'n' Roll station broadcasting out of Moscow.

101.ru are playing great R'n'R, with a mix of western classics and Russian and other European versions. http://101.ru/radio/channel/89

To be truthful, there is no original R'n'R coming out of Russia, nor is there likely to be in the forseeable future (although Russia is particularly strong on Neo-Nazi skinhead music).

Otherwise, Russian popular music is about 50 shades below Dire. It's awful. It has not one single saving grace.

If you don't believe me, then listen to this garbage:


The perpetrator of this atrocity is Alla Pugacheva, (pictured right) one of Russia's most popular singers. I tried to watch this, and lost interest after 10 seconds. 'Nuff said.'

This, believe it or not, is about as good as Russian popular music gets.

But 101.ru have the balance just right... R'n'R, Rockabilly, DooWop, R'n'B... great tracks, some cover versions and some original, from all across Europe and beyond. This is serious R'n'R, and the chaps at 101 should be commended for this.

Perhaps, like before, proper western culture will awaken the proles to their fate...

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Deja Vu for the residents of Brussels....

 You see some strange things in Brussels - and how many times have I used that line?

I recently came across this interesting scene nearby St Katherine's, the old fish market.

As soon as I started to take photographs I was accosted by security guards demanding that I stop, as "taking photographs is not allowed - it is forbidden!"

"Forbidden by whom?" I asked.

"Forbidden by my boss", came the reply.

"Didn't he die in a bunker in Berlin in 1945?" I asked.

My sense of humour, combined with my total lack of respect for authority have often gotten me into trouble, and this was looking like becoming one of those moments. So I took my pics and faded into the background.

Although I really cannot say it for sure, I believe this was, in fact, a film set. Belgians, however, are very sensitive about Nazi imagery. Its a guilt thing.

Little history lesson: During WW2, a young Catholic politician, Leon Degrelle, realised that the only way Belgium could survive the occupation was to make itself useful to the Germans. He founded what was to become the Waloonian Division of the Waffen SS (although in reality it was no more than a single battalion), and went on to achieve great things on the Russian front.

Adolf Hitler once said of him "if I had a son, I would want him to be like Leon."  

I know a bit about this, as many years I wrote a paper on the subject.

So, this leads us to the real reason for Belgian's extreme sensitivity over this chapter in their history.

After the war Degrelle was given sanctuary by Franco in Spain. He was Europe's most wanted man for a while, but he actually offered to give himself up to the Allied authorities, albeit with one condition. He would only surrender himself if he was guaranteed a fair and open trial in Brussels.

Degrelle knew he was on safe ground as the last thing that the Belgian royal family wanted was an open debate on collaboration, and one being led by the man who knew exactly where the bodies were buried. That simply would not be allowed to happen.

It is worth mentioning that fact even today, whilst I can write this in London with impunity, to publish it in Belgium could cause me serious problems.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Cornwall: Dark Coastline, Dark History.

"Dark and brooding", is how somebody once described the Cornish coast (was it Guy de Maupassant? - he took a generally miserable approach to most things).

Mariners apparently prefer the expression "bloody lethal." There are reasons why the Cornish coastline is littered with shipwrecks, many going back centuries. It is a country of pirates and smugglers, of sailors and soldiers. 

Having spent numerous snowy Christmases in Brussels (one of which infamously lasted until March, resulting in a surge in the already high suicide rate) George and I decamped to soggy Oggie land for the festive break and a long overdue catch up with family, to enjoy the beautiful landscape, and to marvel each night at the totally unfettered view of the Milky Way, which never ceases to captivate us city-dwellers. And, of course, to consume too many Oggies (Cornish Pasties).

Despite a welcome on arrival from Storm Barbara (very mild by Cornish standards) the weather has been terrific, which is not what one normally expects from Cornwall, even in the height of summer.
This particular part of Cornwall, which I have enjoyed since I first saw it in, I think, 1973, was once the scene of a tragic event in English history. The spot at which I took this photo is about 200 yards to the east of Looe harbour.

In 1625 something dreadful happened here that has been largely forgotten. Forgotten, I wonder, or airbrushed out history for reasons of political correctness?

On a July Sunday morning, as the townfolk were at prayer, a ship appeared in the small fishing port. It had sailed from the Barbary coast, and the arrival of African sailors would have been something of a cultural shock to the folk of Looe, most of whom would never before have seen a black person.
It was to be even more of a shock - these were slave traders.

Around 80 men, women and children of Looe were taken away into captivity, most never to return, their ultimate fates never to be known. Only 2 were to find their way home. All in all, more than 200 were taken from the South-West coastal towns and villages in this one raid, with 27 ships being destroyed or taken away by the African pirates.

One English captive who did escape would later describe the corsairs as "ugly onhumayne cretures" who struck the fear of God into all who saw them. "With their heads shaved and their armes almost naked, [they] did teryfie me exceedingly." They were merciless in their treatment of their victims and captives. According to one eyewitness, 60 men, women and children were dragged from the church alone and carried back to the corsairs' ships.

At the same time, a second fleet of Barbary corsairs were sighted in the waters off the north Cornish coast. These Africans captured Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel and raised the flag of Islam. It temporarily became their  base, from which they attacked the unprotected villages of northern Cornwall. They had "seized diverse people about Padstow" and were threatening the town of Ilfracombe, on the North Devon coast.

By the end of the summer of 1625, the mayor of Plymouth reckoned that 1,000 villagers had been carried off to be sold into slavery in the markets of Morocco.

Even in Looe itself, with its many memorials to the fishermen of the historic town who have been lost at sea, and the grand war memorial which carries the names of the disproportionate numbers of men killed in two world wars, most who served in the Royal Navy, there is nothing to mark this atrocity.

I wonder why? I suspect I know the answer..... The slave trade, over which we British are expected to self-flagellate, was largely driven by Africans and Arabs themselves, and we were also victims. Perhaps we are not supposed to mention that.

Monday, 14 November 2016

94 Years on, Mencken has been proven right!

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. - H.L. Mencken, July 1920.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Abellio Greater Anglia have done it again!

Due to a broken down train, this morning all services on the Cambridge to London line were either delayed or cancelled.

The train broke down at 6.15 am, and as of the time that I left Bishop's Stortford station in despair at 8.15 it was still awaiting a train to come and shunt it out of the way so that services could be resumed.

I understand that services were eventually resumed, but too late for me - I had missed my connection in London and had to try to find another way of getting back to Brussels.

One has to wonder at the wisdom of running the Cambridge to London service (8 trains per hour at peak times) plus the London to Stansted express service through stations with only three tracks. On problem, and the whole network comes to a standstill for hours.

And why did it take so long to get a train to move the one that was broken out of the way? This is the line into Liverpool Street that serves the City of London.

And why was there only sketchy and inadequate information for passengers, and no staff on hand at the station to deal with the situation: the platforms become so crowded that would be passengers were at one point queueing on the footbridge to get to the platforms - a disaster waiting to happen.

Of course there are no staff, they were all made redundant to save costs and boost profits. In fact, the entire Abellio Greater Angia operation is clearly based on the idea of sucking out every penny of profit whilst providing the minimum level of service.

On most journeys passengers are forced to stand as there are not enough seats, a situation made worse by the lack of storage space for luggage, which on a line that serves a major airport is an absolute scandal.

The cause of this disgracefully inadequate service, and ticket prices are very high on this line, is of course privatisation. Reliable and safe service has been replaced by the desire for ever greater profit.

It saddens me to think that tourists and business travellers coming into the country through Stansted will have this as their first experience of the country.

I have managed to rearrange my journey, at great inconvenience and some additional expense. I have to be at Victoria Station at 2pm. It should be around one hour's journey, but in order to have any chance ofarriving on time I will allow myself three hours. It really is that bad.

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Monday, 31 October 2016

Fings Ain't Wot They Used To Be!

Yesterday, George and I did a bit of a whirlwind tour of the East End.

Sunday morning is exactly the time to do that - Petticoat Lane, Brick Lane, & Colombia Road Flower Markets - just wonderful.

George got to see where I was as a youngster. Also where my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, and so many others may have spent their Sunday mornings.

He also got to experience, for the first time, a Salt Beef Beigel in Brick Lane. Being somewhat fond of his food, he rather liked this. Jewish cuisine could never be described as 'subtle', but this is something really special. About half a pound of tender beef, pickles and mustard in a Beigel that just came out of the oven - mmmm.

I showed him where Jack the Ripper disemboweled his victims, and where Flanagan & Allen were inspired to write 'Underneath the Arches'.

We strolled up Vallance Road, hung out in Vallance Garden (just yards from where the Kray Twins were born, and were to go on to run the most vicious criminal empire in the history of London), and I saw ghosts of some old pals. The demographics have now changed, and Bethnal Green is now a Muslim district. Ronnie & Reggie would not recognise it now. Actually, neither do I.

Of course, much else has changed.

Brick Lane is now full of 'street food' stalls. The traditional Costermongers are largely gone. Instead of Cockneys doing the weekly shop, there are students with dreadlocks trying to look cool whilst drinking 'double skinny de-caffe lattes to go'. 

They don't look cool to me.

There are not so many stalls there now, and there is very little that is there could be called traditional. Petticoat Lane is now just an outlet for cheap stuff knocked out in eastern sweatshops.

Half of Romania is in Brick Lane selling counterfeit Marlboro Lights, as it seems to me. The Sclater Street bird market is long gone, which might not be such a bad thing, but it was something to see at the time.

Things change. But I do miss the Cockney traditions, and I just wonder where, whilst everybody else brings their culture to the East End, I might go to find my own culture....

Isn't England Beautiful?

I am very lucky, I guess. My work has always meant that from a very young age - I joined the military at the tender age of 16 - I have traveled rather a lot. I have seen many things.

Our world is a beautiful place, although we appear to be determined to destroy it.

Whilst I have yet to achieve my ambition of visiting a jungle (I once volunteered for a deployment to Northern Ireland in order to get out of a stint in Belize with the Harrier force on account of the fact that I heard that there were spiders the size of dinner plates out there- I hate spiders and crabs - never trust a chap who wears his skeleton on the outside!) I rather hope to do that one day. I saw a bit of a desert in North Africa once, but I am always thirsty, so that might not be the best environment for me.

I remain restless, but sometimes I see something like this and I just stand and stare, and I realise that wherever I may end up, I am lucky to have been born in the most beautiful country in the world. England.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Bobby Vee: The Passing of a Legend

I don't have precise details, but I learn that the great Bobby Vee has passed away this afternoon.

73 years old, and suffering from Alzheimer's, the last I heard he was working on a new album with his sons. Despite his difficulties, he could still play guitar and sing.

He was first picked up in February 1959, after Buddy Holly died. The organizers of the Winter Dance party tour needed to replace Buddy.

Bobby Vee was a local guy who had a similar sound, so he was hired, and the rest is Rock n Roll history.

His early recordings were similar in style to the early Crickets' sound, and to his fans it was always his ballads that caught us: but in the 1960s he developed a more contemporary style. The Night has a Thousand Eyes, and Rubber Ball sold millions of copies.

I suppose everybody has their favourite track, and for me, as always, it would have to be an epic ballad. Suzie Baby was one of the early recordings, (Bob Dylan covered the song in his early career) but as great as the original release was, I of course stumbled across an alternative take (on You Tube) which was too long and complicated for the commercial market, but so wonderful.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Go, Johnny, Go!

Chuck Berry is to release his first new album in more than 35 years. That is quite an achievement for a man who celebrates his 90th birthday today (Oct 18th). The album will, we are told, feature mostly original work, written by Berry, who is the sole producer.
I have seen him live so many times since I first saw him on stage at Wembley in 1972 (I was 10 years old!) that I feel that I have watched him growing old.

The last time I saw him was in 2008 at Cirque Royale in Brussels, with a great crowd including then MEP for the Eastern Region, Tom Wise, with who, coincidentally, I am having dinner tonight.
By then he had slowed down, and his set was punctuated with instrumentals and the odd joke to give him a breather. It was still a great gig though.

He never has a running order, and will not rehearse with his band before a gig. He plays what he wants to play, and the band is expected to follow. But never does an audience leave disappointed with what they have seen and heard.
That moment when the band's opening instrumental dies down, the house lights go off, and spotlights shine on the left side of the stage, and Berry duckwalks onto the stage whilst playing the opening riff of Johnny B Goode is just priceless.  I think I saw him do this live at least 20 times.
I look forward to hearing the album albeit in the almost certain knowledge that it will be his last. He has come out of retirement for this, so he clearly has something to say - one more gem to leave us.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Hey, Bo Diddley!

Now if I had a narrow boat, I think this is what I might have called it. Well, I don't, and anyway, somebody else got there first.

I spotted this whilst taking a stroll along the River Stort in Hertfordshire.

I actually saw Bo live only the once, at Camden Lock, in the 1980s. It was something of an experience, and it took some hours to regain my hearing. He was credited with influencing the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and the Clash.

Having began his career in 1955 he went on to perform alongside the Grateful Dead and countless others at the very top of the music industry.

He passed away in 2008, at the age of 79.

Nice to see this old barge navigating the peaceful waters of the Stort bearing his name.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Christian McBride Trio in Belgium

I've seen some pretty good gigs in my time. But possibly one of the tightest and most inspirational sets I have ever seen came in a small jazz club close to Antwerp last night.

The Christian McBride Trio, from New York City, exceeded even my high expectations of the evening. I wonder if three more talented and charismatic musicians have ever taken the stage together.

The repertoire was superb, the performance even more so. It is not possible to single out one member of the trio for the highest praise, each was equally impressive. A two hour set flew by, we could have easily sat through many more hours. Well done, chaps, and thank you for a wonderful experience.