Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Good Night Malaysian Three Seven Zero

It is the 39th day of not knowing what happened to MH370, the Malaysian airliner which disappeared on March 8, supposedly somewhere between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.

In those five weeks we have learned relatively little. In the beginning, we were told, the Boeing 777 could have ended up anywhere within an arc of numerous countries north-west of its point of origin – or an arc fanning out across the vast southern-reaches of the imponderably-deep Indian Ocean.

At one point the search was covering an area of 7.68 million sq km – which is roughly 1.5% of the surface of the Earth. Since then, the search has changed on numerous occasions as satellite images of flotsam and jetsam have caused excitement and then disappointment. To date, not a single piece of debris has been identified or recovered from MH370.

There have pieces of circumstantial information that might be related: that pilot Zaharie Ahmed Shah was close to a Malaysian political activist; that he may have had marital issues; that he had built a 777 simulator in his basement and that files had been deleted from it in the days before he took command of MH370. Then we learn – alarmingly belatedly – that a mobile phone belonging to the younger co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, connected with cell towers on the ground shortly into 370’s intended flight path, suggesting that the plane was, briefly, at a low enough altitude for the phone to ‘shake hands’ with the network before abruptly leaving it (consistent with a fast-moving jet passing through a cell).

We have been grasping at any straw that passes. 39 days of potentially relevant, possibly interesting things, but nothing anyone could or would call conclusive. For all we still know, the farcical notion that it landed at the remote US airbase on the British dependency of Diego Garcia could be true. Or that the area it is believed to have disappeared in is the polar opposite side of the planet to the Bermuda Triangle, and somehow the Boeing got sucked into that.

Such nonsense aside, the information vacuum surrounding MH370 has meant 239 families from Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Australia, the United States, Canada, India, France, New Zealand, Ukraine, Russia, Taiwan and the Netherlands still do not know what happened to their loved ones.

Even today, the focus is on retrieving the ‘black box’ flight recorder, rather than bodies, as it has become the sole hope of ever finding out what probably happened (and we will never know, I suspect, what actually happened).

Clearly the deployment of unmanned submarines, sonar buoys and oceanographic survey ships in one particular area of the Indian Ocean indicates that the search is most likely to be closing in on its quarry. But still, all that has happened is that the haystack has simply been reduced in size. The needle is still in there.

Despite frankly inappropriate grumbles in the media about the cost of the MH370 operation, I’m sure that, even with the flight recorders’ signal now completely faded, a breakthrough will come soon and we will at least know the plane’s final resting place, even if we don’t discover how it got there.

Perhaps as important – and, even, more important – is what happens next. No, I don’t necessarily mean a salvage operation (it’s likely that the plane is now at a depth that puts it beyond retrieval), but what happens next in the industry.

I’m writing this post at 35,000 feet above the Atlantic, strapped into an Air France Airbus A380 and wondering, what if I suffered the same fate as the passengers on board MH370?

ABIS Chris Beerens  © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence 
Air crash investigations are grisly affairs, but the fact that the international community has chipped in to support the hunt for 370 is as much to do with finding out what happened and preventing it from happening again as it is to provide closure to the victims of the crash itself.

What will be the lessons learned from MH370? Aggregated technology has already provided clues to 370’s fate, so it is not beyond imagination that technology could be improved further, if not to prevent whatever happened, but at least prevent the agony the families of 370’s passengers and crew have been through. How is it possible that we all carry devices in our pockets that can be traced and tracked, and yet a 209ft-long airliner can disappear into an ocean, seemingly lost forever? I know, two different scales, but you get the point.

What questions will the Malaysian authorities and indeed Malaysian Airlines have to answer? There has been much to criticise in the way they’ve handled this crisis. How does an airliner that big simply turn back on itself, fly fast and low over one of the most militarised regions in the world and not get noticed by at least some form of ground radar? Didn’t 9/11 teach the worlds of civil and military aviation anything?

The chapter on what happened to MH370 may be coming to a close. The chapter that follows will be its legacy...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Watt's application: Ben Watt - Hendra

Teenage years are, I suspect, for everyone a turgid mix of boredom, agitation, stress and abject horror. School, acne, sexual frustration and hair growing in “the fuzzy area” are enough, for starters, for any teenager to wish to seek solace in some form of opiate.

For me, music was the drug of choice, even though my teenage years coincided with the early 1980s, a period which has traditionally come in for revisionist scorn. There was some truly awful music around, not helped by pop music discovering over-production, the Simmons electric drum kit (yes, EastEnders theme tune, still...), chorused guitars and enough hairspray to burn its own hole on the ozone layer.

But amid the dross there was plenty to keep adolescent spirits alive, one highlight being Everything But The Girl's Eden. Bracketed - I thought unfairly - as part of the cod-jazz revival associated with Sade, The Style Council, Blue Rondo à la Turk and Matt Bianco, Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn’s debut album as a professional (and conjugal) couple was the perfect anecdote to the sugary, ra-ra skirt-wearing crap being peddled in the name of pop music in 1984.

Thorn's torch-song vocals and Watt's languid songwriting, Eden - and the brass riff that launched its opening track and standout hit Each And Everyone - helped deliver me from Keynsian economics, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Hamlet or whatever it was I was trying to grapple with on any given evening of O-level homework.

While EBTG ceased to be a working group in 2000, amazingly it is only now that Ben Watt is releasing Hendra, his first solo album since North Marine Drive 31 years ago. To say that it is an album rooted in the furthest reaches of Watt's vinyl collection might suggest something.

“The musical approach is a return to the folk-rock and electronic influences of my growing up,” he says, citing the era “when Neil Young and Brian Eno were new discoveries.”  There is indeed a little Young and hints of Eno, but the overall tone of Hendra is that of the cheesecloth-and-denim vibe of the LA canyons, with a few – for me in any case – delightful nods to John Martyn and Nick Drake, along with the guiltier pleasures of channeling David Gates, the musical accompaniment of the Liebfraumilch and cubed cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks so beloved of suburban house parties in the 1970s.

Hendra's title track plays the keynote, opening with analogue synth and acoustic guitar reminiscent of Pink Floyd's Is There Anybody Out There? on The Wall. However, such prog suggestion soon gives way to a gentle but reflective ballad on life.

For a few brief bars, Forget suggests another downbeat contemplation, before breaking into a glorious West Coast workout that, despite the Californian allusions of its electric piano and close harmonies, contains the beautiful line "The Sussex Downs after rainfall is as lovely as it gets". It also brings to the fore Watt's use throughout the album of Suede's Bernard Butler, whose lead guitar regularly adds textured bite to the softer coastal landscape, especially when he lets loose on Nathaniel with the six-stringed snap of Neil Young at his grungiest.

Watt has never been the strongest vocalist in the world - on Eden the tracks he sang on stood out against those of Thorn's - but on Spring its softness actually adds to the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter vibe, with its lyrically simple celebration of the season.

On Golden Ratio Watt is at his most John Martyn-like, doffing a cap to Solid Air with a beautiful rhythmic blend of acoustic guitar, Danny Thompson-like contrabass and electric piano. Like the Martyn's seminal track, it is spaciously infectious, deserving to be played loudly while taking an open-top drive up the Pacific Coast Highway.

Watt says the lyrics on Hendra are “very personal”, prompted in part by the creative process of writing a book about his parents, Romany and Tom, as well as by the death of his half-sister last year. But don't think this an album of cathartic wallowing.

Sure, there is a running theme of contemplative recollection, but much is projected thought. On Matthew Arnold's Field, with its stripped back arrangement of voice and electric piano, tells the story of a man walking through rural Oxfordshire to spread his wife's ashes. On The Gun, Watt comments on American gun control (or lack of) through the perspective of someone who has lost a loved one to the senselessness of a stray bullet in an unspecified gated community.

There's another subtle nod to John Martyn on The Levels, with its sound effects of the great outdoors (Martyn's Small Hours was recorded late at night in the countryside to capture the acoustic ambience). It is, simply, an exquisite track, intimate and yet expansive, relaxed and evocative, an expression of the sheer joy of breathing in fresh country air. Of note is the pedal steel guitar work of David Gilmour. Much hailed for the fluidity of his soloing on Pink Floyd's records and his own, Gilmour's cameo here highlights his virtuosity when adding dreamy textures simply by sliding a metal bar over strings.

Hendra is not an album to rock out to. That's not and, I suspect ever will be, Ben Watt's style anyway, at least this side of his alternative career as a DJ. Over the course of its ten songs, Hendra presents a spectrum of consideration of the middle part of one's life, without it becoming another fiftysomething pop star taking a downbeat view of the first act while making the transition into the second.

It could even be seen as the sequel to North Marine Drive, though Watt didn't envision it being so. What hasn't changed, and certainly hasn't diminished over more than 30 years, is the unpretentious subtlety of his songcraft. Like recent albums from John Mayer and Ethan Johns, it celebrates a certain kind of songwriting from the past ("a folk-rock record in an electronic age", Watt says), mixing it with modern themes and a quintessential Englishness that neither pretends too hard or leaps about saying "look at me". It does, however, say "listen to me". A joy from start to finish.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Time to sharpen the knife

Time to ‘fess up. In a post on this very blog I stated in January 2011 that Chelsea buying Fernando Torres for £50 million was good business. Which shows you how much I know about business.

Since then, Torres has lurched from teenage indifference to occasional bursts of interest and back again, but still his striking skills appear to be suffering from locked-in syndrome.

And so his career as a Chelsea striker reached its nadir on Wednesday night when José Mourinho didn’t even pick him – or any other recognised striker, for that matter – to start against Paris St. Germain in their Champions League quarter-final.

Torres’ lack of a future at Chelsea is probably now a given thing. The club’s patience has apparently reached breaking point and the word is that the Spaniard, currently on £175,000 a week, will leave in the summer, possibly in a cut-price fire-sale to Inter. Was he worth it? No. Should he have gone sooner? Well only if there would have been a club mad enough to take on this tragically broken player.

Before you think otherwise, however, Wednesday's 3-1 defeat in the Parc des Princes hasn’t prompted me to turn on Chelsea. Nor has last Saturday’s league loss to Crystal Palace, allowing Liverpool to leapfrog into the top spot. And if, as the case may be, we end the season without silverware, I won’t complain. Mourinho was right: Chelsea are, this term, still a small horse.

We should – or, at least, I am – be somewhat cautious about Mourinho’s poetic expectation management. When you can afford to lose a playmaker like Juan Mata because you have at your disposal Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian and André “Don’t Call Me” Schürrle, with Mohamed Salah brought in to boost the wing, things aren’t so bad. A brace of own goals aside, Chelsea still have one of football’s meanest defences, with Terry and Cahill together showing what England will be missing in the summer, and even César Azpilicueta converting to left back with apparent ease to displace Ashley Cole.

The return of Nemanja Matić to Chelsea in January finally (or at least hopefully) saw John Obi Mikel resigned to the bench. I’ve never understood what it was that Chelsea saw in him in the first place, or why they needed to gazump Manchester United to secure his signature. Matić has instantly demonstrated a classier approach to the holding midfield position, and unlike Mikel, doesn’t look like a red card waiting to happen.

So, the nucleus of a great side is there, and if we’re prepared to let this season lie fallow in terms of major honours, the Mourinhoisation of Chelsea in the summer will be very significant, indeed.

Out will most certainly go Torres, Cole and Mikel, with Ba and even Eto’o another possibility. Barcelona’s transfer ban might limit David Luiz’s escape possibilities – though if Mourinho could just get better discipline out of him he could be a very good attacking midfielder.

The club must also do something about its wage bill under UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, which might also see a judicious pruning of the ludicrous list of players out on loan – including the highly prized Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois, plus Marko Marin, Victor Moses and the English pair of Ryan Bertrand and Josh McEachran.

Another departure might be the forgotten Gäel Kakuta, the 22-year-old Frenchman whose transfer from Lens led to Chelsea being banned from transfers for a year in September 2009, the player receiving a Eur 780,000 fine for breaking his contract and a four-month ban from playing for his new club. Was it worth it, one might still ask.

Who goes is one thing - who comes in is another entirely. The starting appearance on Wednesday of winger Schürrle in the ‘Number 9’ centre-forward position merely served to highlight Chelsea’s total lack of striking power.

"I'm not happy with my strikers' performances, so I have to try things," Mourinho said of his decision to play the German up front against PSG. "With Andre at least I know we have one more player to have the ball, we have one more player to associate with the other players. "Football is also about scoring goals. That is for strikers, for real strikers. I had to try." Ouch.

This season Torres has again been mostly like a broken pencil – pointless; Eto’o has at least repaid some of the faith in his maturing potency, but he is never going to be a Chelsea lifer; and Demba Ba has continued to be the bit-part player he was, sadly, brought in to be.

If Chelsea can shed the surpluses within its squad and either sell or play its loanees, all effort must go into signing the one type of player Chelsea probably hasn’t had since Kerry Dixon’s days (and yes, I do remember Didier Drogba).

There are plenty Roman Abramovich’s wallet could stretch for - Monaco’s Radamel Falcao, Atletico’s Diego Costa, Corinthians' Pato, currently at Sao Paulo, Milan's exquisitely-bouffant Stephan El Shaarawy, the raving nutjob Mario Balotelli or even one of Chelsea's tormentors in Paris, PSG's Edinson Cavani.

Another option might be to return Lukaku to the fold, but with the Belgian apparently looking to either stay permanently at Everton or move to Tottenham, it's clear that his heart will never be at Chelsea. Which certainly looked the case when I last saw him in a Chelsea shirt.

However Chelsea spend their money, the need for a striker becomes ever more paramount as we reach the end of the season. In the Premier League, the lack of goals to boost both goal difference over the free-scoring Liverpool and Manchester City, and to compensate for any more accidents in front of their own goal, is starting to tell.

For the last four years there hasn't been a single Chelsea player to score more than 15 goals in a Premier League season, whereas in the 2009-10 run Drogba and Frank Lampard struck 29 and 22 times respectively. By comparison, Torres, Eto'o and Ba have just 25 between them in all competitions and just 11 in the Premier League campaign by itself.

Whichever direction Chelsea goes in to look for a new striker, they will be limited by UEFA financial restrictions. That will hopefully mean the Blues don't end up buying another money pit of a lemon as they did with Andriy Shevchenko. And Adrian Mutu. And Alexei Smertin. And Juan Sebastian Veron. And Hernán Crespo. And Nicolas Anelka. I won't go on...

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ahead of the curve - the Strat at 60

With the rock stars who defined rock stardom now entering their 70s, it is no longer news when one of them turns 60. But there is one particular new member of the sixtysomething club deserving of the sky being darkened by hats for its place in music history.

This is a rock star that has known the wildest excesses of the business, has been smashed to pieces on stage, been set light to with lighter fluid, and has seen age and misuse reduce its once pristine beauty to a defaced husk, all without losing its signature sound.

From the earliest outings of rock'n'roll though blues, punk, country, funk, new wave, prog - you name it, this icon has covered every genre.

This icon is the Fender Stratocaster. For those who play it, it is a guitar of extraordinary variety - a loud, scream one minute, a gentle, tender, jangle the next. It has a versatility like no other electric guitar, a versatility underscored by the ubiquity with which it has been part of the soundtrack of the last six decades, from Buddy Holly and The Crickets' That’ll Be the Day to Daft Punk's Get Lucky.

Not even Gibson's Les Paul can claim to be a defining symbol of as many artists as the Strat, and the artists it has, in turn, helped inspire.

Buddy Holly played a Strat and, thus, Hank Marvin had to have one, prompting David Gilmour, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler, to choose the Strat as well.

Throw into this cocktail the influential surf sound of Dick Dale (think Misirlou and you think of Pulp Fiction), Rory Gallagher's artfully battered number, Nile Rodgers' signature funk technique, modern day stoners like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers' John Frusciante and John Mayer,  Bob Dylan choosing the Strat for his electric 'conversion', and, perhaps, the most distinctive master of the Strat of all time, Jimi Hendrix, who probably demonstrated the guitar's versatility more than any other artist.

Eric Clapton's association with the guitar also led to Fender creating their first 'signature' series in his name. Today, it's hard to think of him playing any other electric guitar, an association Clapton which commenced in 1970 when he purchased six of the guitars for $100 each from Sho-Bud in Nashville, giving one to George Harrison, another to Steve Winwood and a third to Pete Townshend.

The remaining three came together to form the hybrid 'Blackie', which was later sold for a staggering £600,000 in a charity auction. "I’ve moved around with many guitars and tried many different things," Clapton has said. "but I’ve always come back to the Stratocaster."

So what is the secret of the Strat's success and, in particular, its stellar patronage? There are obvious and less obvious reasons. Guitarists can get ridiculously nerdy about their guitars. The fact that Eric Clapton put Blackie together from three separate Strats shows the ludicrous extent to which guitar players will go to get the perfect tone. To the uninitiated, the Strat already offers the perfect tone, but with a change of necks, a rewired electrics, or even a different weight of pick guard, a guitar's sound can be tuned to the player's personal tastes.

The Strat's versatility is probably it's most obvious attraction, but a near second is its design. When he introduced the Strat in 1954, Leo Fender effectively created the shape most people associate with the electric guitar, the 'double-horn' body allowing easy access to the upper reaches of the neck, while the  scalloped back accommodates even the most generous of guitarist girths.

Overall, though, the Stratocaster is a thing of beauty. Much has been said of its feminine curves, but that is only the start of its aesthetic appeal. It is a design classic, one which can be rightfully considered in the same league as Concorde, the Spitfire, the Porsche 911 or the relationship between Ferrari and Pininfarina, even the Kalishnikov AK47 rifle.

A simple but effective shape (and, like the 911 and AK47, barely modified in 60 years), immensely practical, but capable of creating a beautiful noise. In 1954, it evoked unlimited possibility, "Strato" being the prefix of choice in 1950s America (a year after the Stratocaster appeared, Boeing introduced the B-52 bomber, named "Stratofortress").

Like most guitarists, I've given different guitars a go, but I've come back to the Strat every time. I've now owned three - each of them immensely playable, all of them utterly satisfying.

I'm by no means anything other than one of those amateurs who has barely progressed on from posing in front of the bedroom mirror with a tennis racquet. And as much as I think I'm Clapton, Gilmour or Hendrix when I pick up my Strat, I know I'm not.

But that doesn't do anything to diminish the enjoyment of an instrument which sounds like none other with six strings, which looks like none other, and which gives such simple pleasure like none other.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An inverse sense of proportion: Editors at La Cigale, Paris

© 2014 Simon Poulter

For over 50 years we have blithely accepted the fact that Doctor Who's spaceship, the TARDIS, is bigger on the inside, and that a Metropolitan Police phone box from the early 1960s is capable of holding the equivalent floor space of a split-level penthouse apartment.

This Einstein-bothering concept is achievable, we are informed, only by the canny ability of yer Time Lord to bend space in much the same manner as one packs for flying with Ryanair.

However, I have news: Editors, for the past 12 years British guitar pop’s perennial future, appear to have a similar capability for inverting the laws of physics. For that is the only explanation I can come up with for how they managed to turn the diminutive La Cigalle theatre in the Pigalle district of Paris into a cavernous arena.

Nasal hair-singeing amplification and copious reverb are normally the main means for bands and their sound engineers to fit quarts into pint pots, and thus it appeared to be so on St. Patrick's Night as Editors unleashed their expansive, perfectly wrapped, 80s-style alt-rock like an escaping rare gas.

Editors are, apparently, much-maligned, and I really don't know why. Reviews of perfectly good albums (four to date) have met with sneering derision and gigs that have delighted the many have drawn barbs from the published few. Throughout their history, they have endured less than favourable comparison with the likes of Joy Division (and their offspring New Order), Echo & The Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave and mid-80s Aussies, The Church, all because singer Tom Smith sings in a baritone like Ian McCulloch, and bassist Russell Leetch plays with a bit of a thud. And there’s more – basically choose your reference, from The Killers to Kings of Leon - all queing up to be included in tired old comments about wannabe stadium rock giants.

Clearly Editors have thick skins, as they have ploughed on regardless. Their most recent album, The Weight Of Your Love - released last year - did offer a somewhat lighter fare than its predecessors, but with Monday's set opening with the pounding bass lines of Sugar from that album, from the outset it was clear that they were not about to go soft on their live audiences.

© 2014 Simon Poulter

This was a full-on lavishment of energy and relentlessness, the band bathed, for much of the night in the anonymity of backlit silhouetting - frequently rendering them like the ultimate close encounter between Richard Dreyfuss and the aliens.

Tracks from The Weight Of Your Love were sprinkled through the evening: the jiggable  Formaldehyde amped up to epic proportions, the plaintive Honesty and Nothing - included in the encore - given a raw energy not present on the album versions.

Noticeably, though, there was a heavy presence from The Back Room, their delightfully gloomy 2005 breakout album, with Someone Says and Munich appearing as early as the second and third song of the set, Smith hitching his guitar into its trademark, Nick Heywood-style armpit position, while Justin Lockey to his right clanging away with great gothic soundscapes on his low-hanging (and I mean Peter Hook low) Telecaster. Lights and Bullets later formed another back-to-back brace from The Back Room, their individual darkness made more absorbing by the breathless bombast of their live performance.

© 2014 Simon Poulter
If there was one niggle I could throw at Editors on Monday night it's that it took until the very last song - the radio hit Papillon from In This Light And On This Evening - before those who'd been sitting were on their feet and showing more vigorous signs of movement, beyond the obligatory clapalongs and air punching that had punctuated the night so far.

That, though, might suggest at an evening lacking animation. Anything but. Editors are a brilliant live act. True, this wasn't never going to be an epic, and Smith is not exactly Springsteen when it comes to audience orchestration. But there was nothing, I heard or saw that provided any reason for the negativity Editors have endured via the pages of certain magazines.

There have, though, been many times over the years - including when I was doing it for a living - that I've questioned the balance of live music reviews. Surely, a band that manages to get a crowd moving, nodding, foot-tapping or any one of a number of other means of showing engagement, must have achieved something.

And while, yes, their sound can be called derivative (and show me anyone since Elvis Presley who isn't), Editors engaged the tightly packed La Cigale crowd with a scything vigor that will always be welcome if you go out on a school night - even if it is St. Patrick's - looking for some proper rock and roll.

Monday, March 17, 2014

When managers lose it

In case you haven't noticed, we have entered that highly entertaining stage of the footballing year which everyone likes to refer to as "the business end of the season".

This is, keen fans of this very blog might recall (Cliche Corner), when football applies itself en masse to the most copious usage of hackneyed expressions such as "we’re going to take each game as it comes", "we're going to give it [insert mathematically impossible percentage] until it's out of our hands" and "every game is a cup final", amongst many others.

The Spring thaw is when the pressure tells. This is when the previously dismissed possibility of relegation becomes all-too real for those below each league's Mason-Dixon Line. It is when managerial positions become untenable even for the caretakers brought in during November's dismissal window, and for everyone else, either the dreaded Chairman's vote of confidence.

But most entertaining or all is that this is the time of year when managers start to lose it. It was, for example, in the closing, April stages of the 1995-96 term when Kevin Keegan, then in charge of Newcastle United, let rip at Sir Alex Ferguson with his famous "I will love it!" rant:

"When you do that with footballers like he said about Leeds, and when you do things like that about a man like Stuart Pearce - I've kept really quiet, but I'll tell you something, he went down in my estimation when he said that - we have not resorted to that. But I'll tell ya - you can tell him now if you're watching it - we're still fighting for this title, and he's got to go to Middlesbrough and get something, and... and I tell you honestly, I will love it if we beat them, love it!"
Kevin Keegan, keeping it together, after Newcastle had beaten Leeds on April 27, 1996
A couple of years later, Giovanni Trapattoni went one better with what is still considered today a high watermark for a public managerial eruption, going off like Vesuvius during a post-match press conference on March 10, 1998, while manager of Bayern Munich. In demonstrably bad German, Trap went somewhat Adolf by screaming about the attitude of Thomas Strunz and then comparing Mehmet Scholl and Mario Basler to empty bottles. This was no Steve McClaren attempt to affect the local tongue - this was a full-on, Nuremberg-grade firestorm that probably wouldn't be anywhere near as effective or funny in any other language (even if locals at the time wilfully pointed out that the Italian positively mullered their vernacular.

More recently we've had another Newcastle manager - Alan Pardew - allowing his blood pressure to sky north of widely accepted NHS guidelines. Generally regarded during his playing days as a somewhat genial individual, his seemingly placid nature in interviews appears to mask an incandescent flow of molten lava beneath the surface. Firstly, in January - neither the business end or whatever is the opposite end of the season - he let fly at Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini, charging the exquisitely bouffant Chilean with less than collegial language involving the bombs F and C. Well, it happens. And City were leading 2-0.

Less explainable is Pardew's frankly baffling physical contretemps the other week in which he attempted to speed proceedings along in Newcastle's meeting with Hull City by using his head. And not in the intellectual sense either. Despite his team being 3-1 up, Pardew took umbrage at Hull's David Meyler apparently pushing him out of the way while trying to get the ball for a throw-in, and pushed his head into Meyler's face.
"I did not mean any damage to the guy but I have moved my head forward," Pardew attempted to explain after the match, adding, helpfully, "I tried to push him away with my head." Normally, I believe that is known as a headbutt.

Along with his industrial engagement with Pellegrini, Pardew has other previous to be taken into account, such as his shove of linesman Peter Kirkup during an early season encounter with Spurs in 2012 which Newcastle won. "It was ridiculous" he later chirruped. Notably, this wasn't March but the warmth of August, when there is a whole season ahead. Clearly the apparently affable Pardew has some issues to work out.

José Mourinho, on the other hand, has had his issues worked out already. When he reappeared at Chelsea last summer he claimed to no longer be the high-maintenance, high-strung Special One, but the "Happy One". He has spent most of this season stock-still on the touchline, barely raising a fist pump when Chelsea score, hands thrust in the pockets of his puffa coat. No histrionics or paranoid delusions about refereeing conspiracies - no, just Nice Guy José. Older, wiser, relaxed. Even attempts by the press to bait Mourinho on Chelsea's title chances have been batted away with a semi-smiling shrug and bizarre comparisons with horses.

However, Mourinho finally succumbed to the inner beast on Saturday evening by losing it at Villa Park. Admittedly he'd seen Willian and Ramires sent off by Chris Foy (though the two-footed lunging nature of the latter's offence was a justifiable red card), and then got sent off himself in the ensuing melee. And so the cork popped: "We must be very, very unlucky to have another refereeing performance like this one," growled the more familiar fuming, conspiratorial Mourinho. "This is not about one mistake from a referee. This is about a performance from minute one to minute 94."

Chelsea are, today, four points clear of Liverpool and six points clear of Manchester City, who have a couple of games to spare. You could say the pressure is telling.

But what of other managers? Why no emotional breakdown yet from Arsène Wenger? Does he ever get emotional, for that matter? Why was Tim Sherwood simply just downbeat when he described his players as lacking "guts and character" after their 4-0 heaving to Chelsea a couple of weeks ago. And what about David Moyes? Surely if anyone's going to crack, Manchester United's continuing gravitational plunge must be pushing even the big Scot to some form of vexation. Perhaps the moment of no return is approaching....

Friday, March 14, 2014

Mr Benn: a childhood stalwart

My childhood took place in Britain in the 1970s. As a consequence, until the age of 15, I was mostly exposed to the colour grey. That's because the skies were permanently leaden, we only had a black and white television set for most of the decade, and the news on it was dominated by politicians and thundering trade unionists droning on about strikes and three-day weeks at factories building astonishingly poor cars.

Amid this lugubrious landscape strode Anthony Wedgwood Benn. With his bullet-hole dark eyes, angular skull and trademark pipe, coupled with old-school oratory and counter-cultural politics (born into privilege/ passionate socialist/renounced his hereditary peerage within 20 minutes of a law being passed allowing him to do so), he loomed enormously in my unconscious political upbringing, even if I had no idea what he was doing there.

Perhaps it had something to do with these attributes making him the ideal muse for newspaper cartoonists and TV impressionists. Either way, his death, announced this morning, has transported me back to my pre-adolescent gloom.

On reflection, however, it's clear to see how, compared to today's political so-called heavyweights, Benn was a colossus. Living outside of the UK for almost 15 years, I have watched British politics blandify. The current crop of party leaders - Cameron, Clegg and Miliband - could change places with each other and no-one would notice. Add Nigel Farage, UKIP's bug-eyed, crackpot Neil Young to this Crosby, Stills and Nash of politics and the picture doesn't improve (and by the way, what is Farage doing being only 49 years old but looking and behaving like a permanently enraged Daily Mail reader in his 70s?).

Benn, we must now conclude, was a politician of unquestioning conviction. Actually, let's just say he was a politician in the very best sense of the phrase. An MP for 50 years, he retired from politics in 2001 to, famously, "spend more time on politics". And thus he did - long into old age, maintaining his anti-war drumbeat, standing for a political left that may have become unfashionable and even irrelevant in the post-Thatcher, ad agency-groomed Blair era. But the point is, he stood for something. He spoke his mind. He made his point.

There has been no shortage of politicians of every persuasion lining up to pay tribute. David Cameron gave his customary, vacuous two penn'orth ("There was never a dull moment listening to him, even when you disagreed with everything he said."). Current Labour leader Ed Miliband had a more meaningful statement to make, pointing out that Benn "spoke his mind and spoke up for his values", adding, critically, that his strong views were "often at odds with his Party".

That made him a prominent member of the British Left's 'awkward squad'. But the former baronet, who changed his name from Anthony Wedgwood Benn to the more populist Tony Benn, took the view that democratic British politics needed a stronger role in shaping the country and preventing the excess of corporate, old school tie influence. "If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political system," he once argued, "they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum".

Latterly, he put forward an even stronger view, rubbishing the idea that politics is all about charisma and spin. "It is trust that matters". Amen to that.

I'm no political thinker and have, at best, a crude pub bore's view of politics. There were plenty of things that were wrong with the Labour Party Benn stood for, even more so when he lurched further to left to support Michael Foot, marginalising the movement and keeping them out of office. But no one should dismiss or deride his stance as foolhardiness.

The platitudes - even the thin ones - do hold consistency to the fact that, left or right, Tony Benn was a master parliamentarian. "Although he had passionate feelings he didn't let himself turn into a sour partisan like a lot of politics today," Dame Shirley Williams told the BBC today. "Look at Prime Minister's Questions and what you get is a kind of football terrace effect without much thought. Tony did think about things, you see he thought about them carefully. And if he disagreed he would lay out his reasons for disagreement."

Whether they wear a red rosette or a blue one, Britain could do with more politicians like Tony Benn. At least they wouldn't be grey.