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If music be the food of love…

One of the most striking things about the recent spate of rioting is that everything and anything has been blamed for it: weak policing, slack parenting, gang culture, racial tensions or just plain opportunism. While there is probably a degree of truth in all of these arguments, I chose to focus my previous post on public spending cuts, specifically those in youth services.

Having spent two full days navigating the spider’s web of articles on the riots, I discovered that I held a contentious opinion. A YouGov survey revealed that only 8% of Britons thought that the riots were the result of public spending cuts. 42% cited criminal behaviour as the cause. Whether or not you believe that criminal behaviour stems from socially unjust spending cuts is another debate for another day.

Some commentators suggested that the importance of youth centres was overrated and that young people interviewed in the video about Haringey youth service cuts were using their closure to justify violent disorder. I have always believed that youth centres can provide focus, motivation and belonging at a crucial time in a young person’s life, and by coincidence I had recently visited one in Knotty Ash, Liverpool.

“When I arrived 20 years ago,” explains youth worker John Bligh, “there was just a pool table, nothing else.” In 2009, a government creative industries drive led to it being redeveloped as a music centre with rehearsal and recording studios and today, the place is a hive of activity. In the last four months, 400 people have signed up for activities, one of which is tonight’s monthly event, The Platform, at which young people are given the chance to perform in front of an audience, singing, dancing, rapping or showcasing any other talent they might have, as a way of building character and confidence, but mainly having fun.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Since youth worker Phil Windever arrived four months ago, says John, the centre has come on in leaps and bounds. Phil’s creative influence has enabled the launch of new initiatives aimed at boosting the centre’s profile: jam sessions, guidance and counselling, employment and training support, networking with theatre groups and even a global exchange program, which has attracted youth groups from as far afield as Hong Kong. For Phil, the sky really is the limit.

The centre is also making its mark in the political spectrum. Last month, the Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey, visited the centre as part of a recent trip to Liverpool and was so impressed by what he encountered that he was moved to tweet that there was “inspirational work going on” there.

On my way out, I bump into club member Dean Welsh, practically a veteran at 25, and perhaps an example of what young people can achieve with the right help and support. He speaks breathlessly and with boundless enthusiasm about his film-making enterprise, his friends’ bands and the vocal training work he has been doing with a young singer Robyn Hinxman, who performed at tonight’s Platform event.

The people I met at Knotty Ash last week upheld my belief that the skills and talents of young people are worth nurturing. Be under no illusion: ring-fencing funding for youth services will not solve the country’s problems, but it’s a damn good place to start.


I predict a riot: should we not have seen this coming?

“There’ll be riots, man.” Then twice more, and with a resigned shake of the head, as if he could envisage no other possible outcome to the government’s recent decision to withdraw a staggering 75% of Haringey’s Youth Service funding (without a proper Youth Council consultation), “there’ll be riots.”

Chavez Campbell, the teenager interviewed last weekend in conjunction with The Guardian’s article about the Haringey cuts, will never make a more chillingly prophetic statement. Only a week later, rioting broke out in the same borough in response to the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan, who was well-known within the community. Predictably, the right-wing press hammered home Duggan’s criminal past, linking him to Jamaican gangs and various other unsavoury characters. On the left, the spotlight was on the shameful actions of the looters, who capitalised on Duggan’s death to furnish their own living rooms.

But what has the rioting got to do with public service cuts? The answer is: everything. If you take away the services on which people’s livelihoods depend, then their only options are submission or protest. History has taught us that violent protest often requires a catalyst event, but is rarely a direct or proportionate reaction to that event: the Tottenham riots were as much a response to the shooting of Mark Duggan as the 1965 LA riots were to the Rodney King incident or the 2005 riots in France to the deaths of two teenagers fleeing police. While there was initial outrage, in each case there were smouldering social problems of dire proportions.

Think of it this way: if you secretly pump toxic gas into a room full of people, they die a slow, agonising death, oblivious to their impending doom. Throw in a grenade, and all hell breaks loose. The killing of Mark Duggan had an incendiary effect on a disaffected community whose anger had been brewing for years. This was not revenge for the death of one man, this was revenge for what certain factions of the community saw as the sustained, systematic suppression of an entire generation.

The wanton violence of the last few days was abhorrent and completely unjustified, but one of the lessons must be that if we deny young people opportunities to prosper, they will simply prosper by illegal means. Removing 75% of funding for a much-needed service in one of London’s most deprived boroughs and without a consultation smacks of ignorance at best and abandonment at worst. Whitehall ministers’ justification for the cuts is that youth services are classed as ‘discretionary’, that is to say they are not bound by law to provide them and that cutting them will do less damage to the economic recovery than cutting those classed as ‘critical’. The shopkeepers, homeowners, car owners, community leaders and emergency services personnel who were all affected in some way by the London riots and those in Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Nottingham may beg to differ.

So much for the ConDem government’s early intervention policy. Is it any wonder people are angry?


Let’s go surfin’ now

Crowd-surfing is back with a vengeance, but 11 years on from Roskilde, is it really any safer?

Nothing, in my view, can match the intensity and unpredictability of a great rock show. As one of the thousands of sweaty bodies surging and pogoing in beer-fuelled unison, you wholeheartedly accept that for the next two hours, the fate of your personal possessions – money, camera, phone, fags, house keys and even your shoes are in the lap of the gods as you pile into the pit with no regard for your own safety.

But sometimes it’s not enough. As with many extreme pastimes, there are always ways of cranking up the danger meter. Urban climbers always look for a taller building, endurance athletes look for a more ridiculous race. Rock fans, well, they crowd-surf. Inevitably, such activities are not without risk.

The Roskilde tragedy in 2000, in which nine people died in a crush at a festival in Denmark, led to a Europe-wide ban on crowd-surfing. The powers that be decided that this could simply not happen again, but what happens when the ban is flouted? A recent show by Black Lips at Liverpool’s Masque Theatre was halted for five minutes after the band squared up to bouncers in solidarity with crowd-surfers who were being roughly treated. “DO NOT FUCK WITH THE BAND!” screamed basisst Jared Swilley at one of the Masque’s security team.

To those in attendance, Black Lips became heroes overnight. To the hired muscle at the front, they were a constant irritation and a threat to their authority. Taking such a hard line on the perpetrators simply enraged the mob, which could have eventually spelled bigger trouble had Black Lips not hastily departed after one last song.

If the Masque’s security team failed miserably, another venue appears to have got the balance bang on the money. Manchester’s Moho Live is Manchester’s most exciting new gig venue. Not because it gets the biggest bands – its capacity must be around the 400 mark – but because of its layout and crowd control policy. There is no barrier between stage and audience, which means that a certain degree of etiquette must be observed by those closest to the front.

A recent concert there by US melodic hardcore band Boysetsfire proved a tough test for the security team. The place was packed to the rafters and for the first half of the set, the punters were as good as gold. There was an air of camaraderie which was marred only by frontman Nathan Gray having to launch a well-timed kick at a male fan whose penchant for groping had started to wear a bit thin.

But as the beer flowed and the band loosened up, the crowd became more audacious. Crowd-surfing turned into stage-diving and Gray had to fend off a couple of drunken embraces, but eventually entered into the spirit of the event, diving into the throng on more than one occasion. All the while, the bouncers stood idly by, deciding that there was no threat to public safety and therefore no need to intervene. The result was that everyone left the gig happy, albeit sporting one or two bruises.

In Europe, the lessons of Roskilde have been all but forgotten. At the 2011 Groezrock festival in Meerhout, Belgium, crowd-surfers and stage-divers were rampant. At one point during No Trigger’s Sunday afternoon slot, there were more people on the stage than in the audience. Either the organisers had decided to allow crowd-surfing, or had simply treated the issue as an elephant in the room.

So crowd-surfing is making a comeback, it would seem. Medium-sized venues are perhaps realising that the policy is too difficult to implement without risking further violence. Relaxing the rules seems to have the approval of the majority of gig-goers, but is it another tragedy waiting to happen?


Liverpool Sound City 2011 – Friday

Tributes to dead wrestlers, indiscriminate spitting and and a stand-off between headliners and bouncers on the last night on earth…maybe.

“Do You Believe in Rapture?” inquired Sonic Youth in 2006. Our pal Old Rope also suggested that Debbie Harry might have been rapping about it in 1981 (but probably wasn’t). If those in attendance at this year’s Sound City festival have accepted that the apocalypse is indeed coming on 21st May, as was predicted by American religious fanatics earlier this week, they’ve chosen rather a good playlist for their journey to the Pearly Gates (or Lake of Fire, as the case may be).

A delectable mélange of local talent, established artists, and hotly-tipped acts on the bill has ensured that this year’s event could be the best yet.

Liverpool’s very own demons of surf EL TORO kick off by dedicating their entire set to 80s wrestler and cult figure Macho Man Randy Savage, who was killed in a car accident earlier that day. Guitarist Chris Luna’s trademark reverb effect echoes around the the Masque Theatre as he punctuates his guitar accents with some fancy footwork. Catchy garage jams ‘No Doctor’ and ‘Down To the River’ are now firm live favourites among their followers, as is new song and set closer ‘Shame’, which, sounding almost like a Blondie song, appears to signal a new pop direction for the band, but as they’re not the sorts to pander to the whims of the masses, we’re fairly sure it’s a one-off.

The evening’s tight schedule means we have to sprint like the clappers up Mount Pleasant to catch Toronto’s RURAL ALBERTA ADVANTAGE in the cavernous environs of the cathedral crypt. It’s an unusual choice of venue, but entirely appropriate for its acoustic effect; the sound booms off the masonry and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the apocalypse had come early. At least we’re in the right place.

The great thing about a festival like this is that if you’re prepared to hop from venue to venue, gambling on lesser-known acts, your faith is occasionally rewarded with something a little bit special. Today, Rural Alberta Advantage are it. Complete with Billy Corgan’s fragile vocal style, RAA strongly recall the Smashing Pumpkins’ short-lived side-project Zwan. Despite a set-up which comprises only drums, keyboards and acoustic guitar, they make a terrific noise. Their accomplished drummer Paul Banwatt takes four-to-the-floor rhythms and transforms them into galloping, rattling beasts and keyboardist Amy Cole hops around like an excitable child. We wheel away with the feeling that we’ve just been let in on a very exclusive secret and it makes the exhausting journey here seem somewhat insignificant.

We’re prepared to overlook the O2 Academy’s abominable drinks prices to catch a glimpse of Bay area skate-punkers SET YOUR GOALS. Not that the bar will take much on booze tonight – the average audience age is about 15. Energetic dual vocalists Matt Wilson and Jordan Brown instantly assert their command, whipping the kids into a frenzy and instigating circle pits simply by twirling an authoritative finger. Drawing from a range of influences across the contemporary punk spectrum, they play feel-good, positive punk pop from the school of Sum 41, New Found Glory et al, occasionally flecked with a more muscular hardcore sound to keep the punk purists happy.

Pressed for time and conscious of the boring trek into town, we scoot off back to the Masque to sneak a peek at the band everyone’s talking about at this year’s festival. Atlanta’s BLACK LIPS are renowned for courting controversy wherever they go; two members of the band were kicked out of school in the wake of the Columbine Massacre, their rebellious nature affording them the tag of ‘subculture danger’, and past live shows, which have included vomiting, live animals and wanton arson have been described by some as “just plain dangerous”.

They do not let us down. For all the mystique surrounding the band, they also boast some superb tunes. ‘Dirty Hands’ is self-deprecating, yet cockle-warming tale of childhood adventure and vulnerability, simple in arrangement, yet timeless in appeal. Their fusion of 60s garage, country and doo wop is all delivered with bags of big-hearted punk attitude. By the time they launch into the gang vocals of ‘Bad Kids’, enough beery missiles are flying around the Masque to make the security team more than a little edgy. The atmosphere sours as crowdsurfers are aggressively rebuffed by the neon-banded oafs, prompting guitarist Cole Alexander to barge past one of them and leap into the crowd to finish the song in a triumphant gesture of solidarity.

Despite instantly winning the hearts of every last audience member in the venue, Alexander’s bold display of gallantry only infuriates the Masque’s security team, who become locked in an angry stand-off with the band for several minutes. Bassist Jared Swilley taunts the nearest bouncer:

“What, are you gonna wait for me outside and kick my ass, IS THAT IT?!”

A cheer erupts and the band quickly perform one last song before a decision can be made on whether to pull the plug. Their notoriety is cemented and ensures that the finale to friday night is nothing short of heroic.


Union of Grief

I received an e-mail this morning informing me that at 12 noon, I would be observing a two-minute silence in memory of all those people who had died in their workplace. Not only that, but I would be remembering those who have “been seriously injured or made ill through their work.” Yeah, hankies out. I wracked my brains trying to think of someone I knew who had fallen into a recycling crusher, broken a finger, or at the very least, scalded themselves on the hot tap in the kitchen. Not a sausage. So instead, I sat there idly staring into space for two minutes, occasionally bowing my head in faux reverence.

There was something extremely unsavoury about the whole concept, I thought. I mean, why this? Why not Hideously Malformed Puppy Day, or Brits Falsely Imprisoned in Thai Jails Day? So I used the second of the two minutes to covertly Google ‘Workers’ Memorial Day’. As with most things, there was a reason behind it all.

The day marks the anniversary of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 in the USA, and also that of an industrial accident in Connecticut in which 28 people were killed on a building site. Since the 90s, trade unions have used the date as a historical reference point and a basis from which to lobby governments on health and safety issues. The day was formally recognised by the UK goverment last year, to the extent that someone saw fit to rob me of two minutes of my lunch break so I could solemnly acknowledge the deaths of people who failed to read safety instructions, the suicidal speculative bankers who lost everything and the people who didn’t quite die, but whose £120 a week incapacity benefit softens the blow somewhat.

Of course, people die at work due to systemic failures, and it’s incredibly sad when it happens, but we should do our grieving at the time of the event and, if we so wish, on future anniversaries. I am not part of the political process that underpins these tragedies, and resent being encouraged to grieve in order to further the agenda of political lobbyists, not to mention the fact that the queue at Subway is snaking round the block with every second that I spend staring blankly at my screen. Knowing my luck, it’ll be closed by the time I get there because a member of staff has been electrocuted by the toasting machine.


A Gray Day for Football

Finally it’s happened. For years I’ve secretly suspected that Andy Gray was a fool and a bigot who made a lot of money from talking a lot of rubbish. As a Liverpool fan whose team was constantly on the receiving end of his scathing comments, I’d have to admit to feeling a certain smugness at the news that he had lost his job for making sexist comments about a female assistant referee. I had to tread carefully; in damning him, I would run the risk of being labelled a gloating kopite (although the way Liverpool have been playing this season, I’ve all but lost the ability). I would also be up against a number of sporting figures to have come lunging out of the traps in his defence, not to mention the ‘PC-gone-mad’ crowd which invariably rears its ugly head every time the horrifying subject of equality is mentioned.

But damn him I shall, because bigotry of any sort in football needs to be given the boot, as it were. As a nation we pride ourselves on having built a free and fair society where minority social groups have perhaps more of a chance to prosper than in any other country in the world.

A quick gloss over the forums and news sites revealed that commentators on this story appear to fall into three categories:

1) those who think his comments were not sexist, but merely idle ‘banter’,

2) those who acknowledge the sexist language, but who think that the punishment was too severe,

3) those who believe his words were sexist and that sacking him was an appropriate response.

The first group is categorically wrong because they misunderstand the meaning of the word ‘banter’. Banter, in the truest sense of the word, is a jocular exchange of light-hearted insults in which all targets of said insults are present and during which no malice is intended or felt. This is the point: Sian Massey was not present and therefore unable to defend herself. That said, it’s worth pointing out that she was the only person in a 30,000-seater stadium to spot Wolves defender Ronald Zubar playing Raul Meireles onside in the build-up to Liverpool’s first goal, thereby ruthlessly dismantling Gray’s theory that she was unfamiliar with the rule.

Ergo the conversation between Gray and Richard Keys cannot accurately be termed ‘banter’. As far as malice goes, anyone who has listened to the recording of the conversation would have detected that this was no joke. Gray meant what he said and Keys had no hesitation in endorsing him.

One might say that the second group have a case: a suspension would have been appropriate. They are also wrong. Gray was already under investigation for making a lewd comment to an attractive co-worker only a month ago. This sort of behaviour, if left unchecked, will fester and ultimately bring the English game into disrepute. Footballers face serious repercussions for the same offence – why should this not be extended to the shop window of English football, Sky Sports?

The timing of these two recent revelations is curious. Was Andy Gray set up? If he was, it was a necessary sting. The question on everyone’s lips is the same one floating around when Ron Atkinson left ITV for making racist comments: “how long has it been going on behind closed doors?”

We are lucky enough to live in a country where people are judged on what they do, not on who they are. Any one in such a position of influence who cheapens these values has no place on our screens. Good riddance to bad rubbish.


How to be unemployed #1

It’s been three weeks and I’m still unemployed. I realised today that I might be overdoing the job-hunting because Carole at the job centre actually looked annoyed at having to cast her eye over so many ‘attempts to find work’ (26 in the last two weeks). She didn’t know where to start, so picked one at random:

“Have you heard back from…um…South Cheshire College?”
“No, they removed the vacancy the following day.”

She scans the second page (of three).

“Where’s Marrakesh?” She’s noticed the 2-week TEFL Trainer contract.
“You’ve applied for a job in Morocco? That’s a bit extreme isn’t it?!”

Well, I’d much rather work in a country where not only are my skills needed, but where I’m taxed 7% of my earnings, than a country where, for the last five years, I’ve pumped income tax into the government’s piggy little face at the rate of 22% only to be told at the end of those five years that the money’s run out and I should probably open a school.

“Yeah, that was just a joke.”

Carole harrumphed in a way only middle-aged women with four chins can harrumph.

“Sign here, please.”

All this bad noise is not productive. Being unemployed need not be as soul-destroying as I currently find it to be. I spent three weeks doing the textbook stuff: applying for jobs in the morning, then spending the rest of the day watching Jeremy Kyle, taking catnaps, eating peanut butter out of the jar, going for the occasional run. It what society expects.

Three weeks. It shouldn’t be like this. When I finally do find a job, I’ll regret not doing something more constructive with my free time.

Next week is about applying for ridiculous jobs, long walks in the countryside, learning magic tricks, writing a short story, searching for the perfect photograph, going on a night-time bike ride, making a scrap book.

The trouble with having a work/life balance is that when either one of them disappears, the other feels somewhat pointless.

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