My favourite things of 2017

Late, as usual, but here, finally, are my favourite things of an interesting 2017. Contrary to convention there are no star ratings, no marks out 10 and things are not listed in any particular order. Feel free to agree or disagree, or even to comment about your own favourite things.


Honourable mentions for John Moreland, Nadine Shah, The National, Jesca Hoop, The Horrors, Grandaddy, John Bramwell and for sheer weirdness, The Moonlandingz. For those interested in a bit of Dutch music, then check out emerging Dutch star ‘Luwten’ on YouTube.

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

With what first appears to be a sprawling album of mid-tempo piano ballads, Father John Misty seemingly belongs to a different era. But an album of melody packed songs assessing the modern world and the human condition is as cutting edge and up to date as they come. How can you not like an album that includes a song titled ‘Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution’ (see the attached video I shot from his Utrecht gig in November).

Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett – Lotta Sea Lice

Stoner Rock king Vile meets spiky Australian lyricist Barnett, and they complement each other perfectly to produce an album of dreamy, hazy Americana. Containing old songs, new songs and carefully chosen cover versions, it’s a Cd that becomes warmer and more satisfying with each listen. ‘Over Everything’ may the most delicious song recorded last year. In my eyes, Kurt Vile can do no wrong.

Jane Weaver – Modern Kosmology

A 20 year career on the margins, garnering critical acclaim but little else, may now be coming to an end for Weaver. Her 9th album is a beautiful patchwork of hypnotic electronica, psych and folk. As good an album as you’ll hear all year, it would be immensely satisfying if it lead to some long overdue success.

Aldous Harding – Party

Described as ‘gothic folk’ – whatever that means – Harding’s 2nd album showcases her arresting and sometimes haunting voice, a voice that sits over sparse instrumentation and sometimes positively scary lyrics. Dark, poignant and a great discovery for 2017. Definitely New Zealand’s premier ‘gothic folk’ star.

The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

The formula may have changed little since 2014’s ‘Lost in the Dream’, but if I could write songs this good I wouldn’t change a thing. Long, meandering guitar songs that keep the dial firmly on the border of the 70’s/80’s, it positively demands that you jump in the car, put this on the stereo and drive somewhere, anywhere, and if you don’t have car then buy one, it’s that good.

Slowdive – Slowdive

After waiting 20 years, being told that shoegazing pioneers Slowdive had reformed, and were recording new material, filled me with both excitement and trepidation. Thankfully my worries were misplaced as they’ve made a corker of an album. Containing opulent soundscapes and guitars, overlaid by breathy vocals, it’s a compelling argument for bands to re-form. Shoegazing as a genre may have been much mocked, but for introverts like me it may be the perfect genre.

Mark Lanegan – Gargoyle

With his grizzled baritone voice, Mark Lanegan has always been an acquired taste. His latest effort contains krautrock synths and rhythms, and baselines reminiscent of Joy Division. Darkness and brooding miserabilism at its best.


Yanis Varoufakis – And the Weak Suffer What They Must

Varoufakis’s consummate account of Europe’s economic rise and then spectacular fall during the financial crash of 2008, and how the weakest people in the weakest nations suffered the most. It’s real rage against the machine stuff, showing how the elites and the wealthy have been pissing all over the rest of us for far too long. He’s the current rock star of anti-austerity politics and economics and I’ll be devouring his latest 2 volumes shortly.

Graham Swift – Last Orders

My continuing attempts to catch up on Booker prize winners that I’ve missed, this year it was the turn of 1996 winner ‘Last Orders’. It’s a story dealing with how the immediate aftermath of someone’s death affects family and friends. It recounts the journey of the ashes of Jack Dodd through the eyes of his friends as they travel to Margate to scatter those ashes in the sea. A story of life and friendship that may have been a controversial winner in 1996, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Haruki Murakami – Men Without Women

Having always been partial to a well written short story, Muakami’s new collection, his first for more than a decade, details stories of men, who through a variety of circumstances find themselves alone, and their yearning to connect. Well written, accessible and a great introduction to Murakami’s work.


Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck returns to his hometown after his brother’s heart attack, forcing him to unexpectedly become guardian to his nephew. But it also forces him to confront a horrible and almost unmentionable mistake in his past, a mistake that drove him away many years previous. A film about loss and grief that is sometimes heartbreaking to watch, but a also about hope and redemption as Affleck sets about rebuilding his life through his rekindled relationship with his nephew. A slow burning masterpiece of a film.


Line of Duty

For the 3rd time in 4 years I’m banging on about the same show. Although there were slim pickings on the idiot lantern last year, this show would grace many a ‘best of’ list in any year. Series 4 of the police corruption drama contained more repugnant characters, more duplicitous behaviour and more back-stabbing than a Tory party leadership contest. Each series satisfyingly concludes the case in question, but leaves the possibility of it being part of much wider corruption hanging deliciously in the air. Even after four series of nervous exhaustion and shocking revelations, series 5 can’t come soon enough.


Tivoli Vredenburg

No, it isn’t the name of a Dutch band you’ve never heard of, but rather the name of a venue you’ve never heard of, in Utrecht. It deserves much wider recognition and is why, rather than choose an individual gig, I’ve chosen to nominate a venue for providing the gigs I’ve so enjoyed. It provides 5 concert halls of varying sizes in the same venue, most of which are full nearly every night of the week. On the night I saw Mogwai generate a huge wall of sound, the Dutch Philharmonic Orchestra played in the hall below, and African desert blues, courtesy of Songhoy Blues, played in the hall above. The roster of acts provides enough variety to satisfy the most eclectic of tastes.

This year I’ve seen superb gigs by Steve Mason; Lambchop; Israel Nash; Grizzly Bear (see attached video I shot at their Utrecht gig); Mogwai; Father John Misty; Fleet Foxes; Weyes Blood and John Bramwell. It’s a venue that has rightly won favour with both audiences and artists alike, and shows the arts are alive and kicking here. Utrecht, give yourself a large pat on the back.

So, overall, 2017 was another excellent year. Much peace and love to everybody for 2018.

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The View From Over Here

Anybody who watches British TV news, or consumes British media in general, would be forgiven for thinking that the world barely exists beyond the UK’s borders.

This trend has been noticeable for several years, but has accelerated rapidly in the last 12 months. Since the EU referendum June 2016, ‘Britain’ has become enclosed in its own little hothouse world. It is convinced that Europe is plotting against it, convinced that as long as we stop within our own borders and continue to call ourselves Great Britain then everything will be fine and dandy. 

A 52:48 vote to leave was hardly a massive mandate for the huge changes leaving the EU will entail; the people who voted to leave seem angry and irritable even in victory. The country becomes more divided with each passing month. 

Politicians have been happy to pitch one side against the other, while at the same time quietly giving leavers their full support in the hope of crushing the remainers. Egged on by a tabloid media whose anti EU hysteria knows no bounds, they denounce the ‘enemies of the people’, the ‘remoaners’ and ‘saboteurs’, and anybody else who stands in the way of the “will of the people”. 

Virtually everything since the referendum has been viewed through the prism of Brexit. It’s not enough to quietly (and sadly) accept the result. You have to actively and openly embrace it; shout in joy from the rooftops even. Not to do so is seen as a form of treason. Maybe we should just have done with it and order a job lot of ‘I❤Brexit’ t-shirts for the leavers to wear, making it easier to spot the traitors in our midst.

However, 12 months later we are no further on. It is pitiful that the Tory government has failed to elucidate what our Brexit strategy actually is. There is no vision for Britain after Brexit, one that identifies where jobs or growth or opportunities for young people will come from. Instead we get the relentless incantation of worthless platitudes such as “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it”. In other words we should implicitly trust the government to get the deal done. We needn’t worry our pretty little heads about it. 

The government continue to give the impression that the EU will give us exactly what we want, that they need us more than we need them that, in fact, we are actually doing Europe a favour. We’ll just skip over to Brussels for an agreeable chat, where rights will be respected, obligations met, and assets and liabilities will be divided. A dream deal for the UK will then be signed and we can all be home in time for tea. 

And to complicate matters further, the recent humiliating election ‘victory’ for Theresa May (easily our worst PM since, well, David Cameron) leaves her having to revisit the most basic Brexit questions without even having a mandate in her own cabinet office. They appear overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task facing them, uncertain and under-prepared at the worst possible time. 

The sheer size, complexity and risks of the negotiations to extract Britain from the EU in an orderly, constructive and economically-beneficial manner have not been discussed at all. Anyone in any doubt about the complex and daunting nature of the negotiations to come should read Ian Dunt’s superb book Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?.

I am reminded of the old builder’s maxim that clients always want a job that is good, quick and cheap. Builders are of the opinion you can only have 2 of those 3 things at any one time. Currently, due to the present Tory ‘hard’ Brexit approach, Britain is on course for a non-deal that will be expensive, damaging to the UK and slow to agree and implement.

But whilst Brexit may be bordering on a national obsession in Britain, the contrast here in the rest of Europe could not be more different. A reality that isn’t being reported in Britain at all. 

EU leaders and their citizens are still somewhat perplexed by the referendum result. Their surprise isn’t that our politicians could lie so brazenly to get what they wanted – that was to be expected. But rather their surprise came from the fact that the British public accepted those lies so readily, and on an issue of such importance. Lies that sadly went unchallenged.

Whilst Brexit impinges on almost every item in the British news, here in the Netherlands weeks can pass without any mention of Brexit. The Dutch and the other 26 member governments of the EU have domestic and international agendas that take priority over Brexit. For most of them, Brexit is an irritating sideshow.

All 27 EU countries happily and speedily agreed a common negotiating position, one from which there will be no deviation just to accommodate the bluster of ‘the English patient’. Britain on its own can’t shape Brexit. EU leaders want a deal, but believe they can insist on their terms, since not getting a trading agreement would damage Britain far more than it would the continent – something Britain’s current bellicose rhetoric seems in complete denial about. Tory Brexit ministers appear to believe their own rhetorical nonsense. They’ve been beating the patriotic drum about our trading expertise for so long, while insisting that leaving the EU would be easy, that any suggestion to the contrary is immediately rubbished. 

Even before the referendum, and particularly since, the EU have had an army of lawyers and trade experts planning and refining their negotiating strategy and their red lines. Elaborate contingency plans have been prepared in case talks fail. All have been heavily road tested for their likely consequences. They are happy with the preparations they have made. It is why they are calm, sanguine even, about what lies ahead. Not only do they have all their ducks in a row, but they have been waiting patiently in a row for some time.

British preparations seem based on an expectation that the EU will roll over and give in at the first sight of our British ‘bulldog’ spirit. But the EU is much tougher than most Brits believe. Witness the financial punishment beatings meted out to Greece, Portugal and Ireland in return for financial bailout packages. EU leaders won’t hesitate to kick you in the balls if they feel you deserve it. 

Our arguments also assume that the EU will only consider economic terms, which I think is a grave misjudgment. The remaining members feel they are fighting to secure the survival of the entire EU, a project that has provided peace and prosperity for 65 years. Politics will unquestionably upstage economics in these negotiations. 

Britain hasn’t even attempted a charm offensive with its existing friends in Europe. Despite a long and turbulent history, Britain and Ireland are not only each other’s closest neighbours but also each other’s closet friends. Our economies, citizens and histories are heavily intertwined, but the consequences and symbolism of a hard border between the north and south of Ireland seem to have barely been considered. 

And whilst we may not always want the same policies as the Netherlands, in terms of EU business we are very often of the same mind. The Netherlands may be small, but it is an influential EU member with a direct line to Berlin. But there hasn’t been a single visit by government officials to try and find common ground before talks begin. This door, and others, are now quietly closing all over the continent. The only advocates for Britain’s position is Britain.

If negotiations do fail then it will be spun as those dastardly Europeans not giving Britain what they want – and what they ‘deserve’. There will be no reflection on the fact that it would be the end result of a domestic process that Britain started voluntarily.

Once we can no longer scapegoat the EU for everything, the consequences of decades of poor UK policy making will be crystal clear.

None of this is to say that a deal can’t be negotiated, although the outcome will be markedly inferior to what we, as EU members, have now. But to do so Britain needs to be friendly and not belligerent, flexible and not intransigent, and to take the extra time necessary, several years even, to get the deal right, rather than rushing it just to satisfy the rabid desires of the tabloid press and the Brexiteer head-bangers in the Tory party. 

We are displaying none of these qualities at the moment. In 1624 British poet John Donne famously wrote that ‘no man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’. Britain’s current insularity and continued drive towards a hard, chaotic exit from the EU is in danger of proving him wrong

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The Unfinished Symphony

It is rare that Dutch politics ever makes the news in the UK. Compared to the adversarial bloodsport that is Westminster politics, the Dutch system of coalition and consensus can make for fairly stale viewing. But if politics is measured by what you achieve, then Dutch politics has been a great success when judged against the low-grade, childish squabbling that is the daily fare in Westminster.

But the anonymity of Dutch politics might be about to change. Dutch voters are gearing up for an election on 15th March and there is a wild card in the pack, somebody who is trying to usurp the established order. His name is Geert Wilders and he wants to be the new sheriff in town.

He’s part of the populist (whatever that over-used word now means) movement that is currently sweeping across the western world. He’s from the finger-jabbing, rabble-rousing, far right school of populism. Think Nigel Farage without the faux bonhomie and his pint-drinking-man-of-the-people bollocks, and mix it with the outrageous statements and belligerence of Donald Trump (and the same barber) and that’s Wilders. He seems a man who is permanently angry, the sort of person who gets out of bed irritated and goes to bed furious. But his Freedom Party (PVV) is currently heading the polls and could receive over 20% of the vote. After years of voting for rather dull, if competent, politicians, the idea of voting for somebody who says what he thinks and does what he says is beginning to appeal to increasing numbers of Dutch voters.

But his policies and ideas are abhorrent to many. Wilders’ party, the PVV, have produced a one page manifesto for the upcoming election, and it focuses on their long term concerns of immigration and de-Islamizing The Netherlands. Titled Make The Netherlands Ours Again, it states that Dutch people have had ‘enough of mass immigration, asylum, terror, violence and insecurity’ and proposes that ‘instead of financing the entire world and people we don’t want here, we’ll spend the money on ordinary Dutch citizens’. Its policies call for the closure of all mosques and Islamic schools, a ban on the Koran, a ban on Islamic headscarves in the public sector, no more immigration from Muslim countries, closing the borders, no more asylum seekers and the withdrawal of residence permits for asylum seekers already living here. These measures would, apparently, save the country €7.2 billion.

Wilders has long had form for disliking Islam and, only a few months ago, was tried for promising to reduce the number of Moroccans in the country. His trial was triggered by remarks he made during municipal-election campaigning in The Hague in 2014. At a rally he asked supporters whether they wanted “fewer or more Moroccans in your city and in the Netherlands”. When the crowd chanted back “Fewer! Fewer!” a smiling Mr Wilders responded: “We’re going to take care of that.” He was convicted of insulting a group and inciting discrimination.

But it’s not just Muslims he dislikes. Several years ago his party set up a website encouraging people to make complaints about Poles and other Eastern Europeans. I suspect he might be the sort of man who dislikes almost everybody and everything, particularly those who disagree with him. His own brother said that Wilders’ “doesn’t accept any opposition, whether family or not, and rules his world like an emperor”.

Other parts of his manifesto might help to explain his popularity. Alongside the Islamophobic hatespeak are: returning the retirement age to 65; lower rents for social housing; more money for defence and police; lower income tax and no more money for development aid, wind farms, art, innovation and broadcasting. The net cost of this manifesto magically being zero is a fairytale of which Hans Christian Andersen would be proud.

Wilders also wants to withdraw from the EU, despite the fact that 70% of Dutch exports go to other EU countries. Much of Dutch history and most of its economic prosperity has been derived from its openness to the rest of the world. They are a nation of traders and an export powerhouse. The crown jewel of the Dutch economy, the port of Rotterdam, is the gateway to the rest of the EU and is totally reliant on open borders and no trade barriers. It would seem self defeating to vote for someone whose policies might well jeopardize this economic prosperity, but politics is not currently following the usual script. At the present time, nationalism, economic or otherwise, rules! OK!

But if many of his views are so toxic, and his policies insular and economically damaging, then why is his party leading the opinion polls?

The fault lies squarely with established politicians. Contemptuously dismissing the concerns of some voters by either consistently telling them they were wrong, or worse, completely ignoring them, has left a large chunk of people felling completely unrepresented.

The void has been gleefully filled by characters like Wilders. Through expert use of social media to spread his outrageous statements, his ‘alternative facts’ and simple but very effective slogans, he has exploited their fears. He has succeeded in uniting these voters behind him by creating common enemies for them to despise, people who they can blame for all their problems. And the more outrageous he becomes, the more his supporters see it as evidence of his authenticity.

Predictably, current politicians have decided to combat him by lurching to the right themselves, rather than by using force-of-argument to rightly address these voters’ concerns (and their own failings). Current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, has talked of “hating” the idea of a multicultural society and, in an open letter to the Dutch media, said people should “act normal or leave”. None of them have realised that you won’t beat nationalism by pandering to nationalists. It only emboldens them. Overweening Tory supertit David Cameron pandered to UKIP, and the extremists in his own party, and that worked out well didn’t it?

All this has made for a very unpleasant atmosphere. Twitter used to be the forum where you could dump your racist, xenophobic, sexist turd, but the rise of populists like Wilders has emboldened his hardcore followers so much that these sentiments have spilled over into daily life. Many now think they can say what they like, to whom they like and whenever they like, all under the aegis of free speech. “I have the right to offend you” they say, but free speech also means you have the right not to offend me – an choice which is rarely exercised. Ignoring what is said is no longer an option, as these views are expressed with increasing frequency, with increasing volume and by increasing numbers of people. The PVV do believe in democracy, as long as democracy means getting your own way, and if you have the temerity to disagree with them they talk loud enough so that nobody else can be heard.

Alternative facts now upstage any form of hard evidence and persuading people otherwise is, apparently, futile. In a Europe-wide survey, all European nations grossly overestimated the size of their Muslim population. Dutch people thought 18% of the population was Muslim, when the true figure is 6%. When presented with the disparity, people tend to question the facts rather than their own assumptions. Combatting this mentality is currently proving all but impossible.

However, translating all those votes into power could be difficult. The Dutch coalition system requires cooperation, consensus and compromise to form a government – qualities that are an anathema to a party of bridge burners led by a man who is always right. Additionally, other parties have said they won’t work with the PVV. But we all know what a whiff of power can do to politicians’ principles. I’ve no doubt that if Wilders is shut out of the coalition, that hoary old cliché will be aired – namely that the will of the people has been denied.

The great irony in me writing about this election is that I have no vote, as I’m still a British national. But I’ve grown to love this country very much in the years I’ve lived here, so I think that gives me some stake in the outcome. This scapegoating of minorities, and the mix of bigotry, prejudice and intolerance being pushed by Wilders and his party is not reflective of the country I now call home.

But let’s finish on a positive note. Wilders and his party might be heading the polls, but 80% of Dutch voters are voting for candidates other than Wilders. Brexit, the election of Trump and the rise of Wilders, Le Pen and the Alternative für Deutschland have made it crystal clear what the current political direction of travel is. But it is up to all us, especially voters, to determine the distance to be covered. Starting here on 15th March.

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My favourite things of 2016

It’s extremely late but, here, finally, are my favourite things of an interesting – and not always for the right reasons – 2016. Contrary to convention there are no star ratings, no marks out 10 and things are not listed in any particular order. Feel free to agree or disagree, or even to comment about your own favourite things.


Honourable mentions for Angel Olson, Jamie T, Nick Cave and Iggy Pop amongst others.

Lambchop – FLOTUS

For a band steeped in alt-country the introduction of soft pulsing electronics, dance beats and lightly auto-tuned vocals on their new album FLOTUS suggests a radical new direction. But it manages to sound both startlingly new and yet unmistakably like the Lambchop. Most importantly it is as gorgeous as ever. Definitely my favourite band named after a foodstuff.

The Coral – Distance Inbetween

When one of your favourite bands announces a comeback album, it fills you with trepidation. Does it confirm the decline that led to their breakup or provide evidence of a band revitalised by a hiatus?

Thankfully, any fears I had have been assuaged with a release that is just as engaging as their first 2 albums. Darker and heavier, but not as genre bending as their earlier works, it contains chugging psychedelic guitar riffs and enough great hooks to satisfy even the most obsessive fisherman. It’s good to have you back boys.

Wilco- Schmilco 

They certainly won’t win any prizes for the originality of the album title, but the music’s great. It’s a one paced, mainly acoustic Americana record from one of my favourite bands. An album that bears repeated listening. Described by lead singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy as “joyously negative… I just had a lot of fun being sour about the things that upset me.” That’s absolutely fine by me and long may it continue.

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

My love affair with Radiohead has taken as many left turns as the band’s own eclectic and constantly changing career. An album of new songs, old songs and reworked songs, it is as both customarily dark and breathtakingly beautiful as their finest work. It is electronic, rhythmic and orchestral and topped off by Thom Yorke’s haunting voice. All these years my favourite album of their’s has always been The Bends, but maybe this storming effort even out-bends The Bends.

Teenage Fanclub – Here


The formula may not have changed, but I still anticipate any new Fannies release as eagerly as I did when I started buying their CD’s 25 years ago. It contains 4 songs each from 3 of the band members and combines power pop, jangly guitars and beautiful close harmony singing. Everything is, as always, impeccably crafted. Hold On, The First Sight and I Have Nothing More to Say are 3 of the loveliest songs you’ll hear all year. In fact it’s 45 minutes of loveliness and probably the CD I’ve played more than any other this year. They remain a criminally under-appreciated band. One of Scotland’s finest exports. 

Steve Mason – Meet the Humans

Now that ex-Beta Band frontman Mason is finally believing in his talent, rather then let it be crushed by his long term depression and anxiety, he’s produced an album full of warmth, hope and personal stories. Encompassing pop, folk, dub and dance and overlaid by his sumptuous voice, it’s a winning combination that may finally get Mason the public recognition he so richly deserves.

Kevin Morby – Singing Saw

After 2 rather jumbled solo albums Morby’s 3rd is a serene folk-rock record. It’s an album from someone who sounds like he’s finally found his musical and lyrical voice, containing much mystical imagery and even the sound of the album titled ‘singing saw’. Having seen him perform a rip roaring live show in August, his future looks very bright indeed.


Adrian Tempany – And the Sun Shines Now

This is not your average football book, and sometimes not even a football book at all. Written by Hillsborough survivor Tempany and underpinned by that disaster, this book is part memoir, part social history and part survivor’s tale. After reaching its nadir at Hillsborough it looks at the changes in the game and in society at large driven by that disaster. It’s a real ‘state of the nation’ book that shows how football went from being described as a slum sport for slum people to being repackaged into the ultimate consumer product for the 21st century, one that both influences and reflects the society around it. Essential reading for football and non-football fans alike.

Stuart Maconie – The Pie at Night

Following up his excellent Northern Britain travelogue ‘Pies and Prejudice’, Maconie now looks at the after hours leisure pursuits of his fellow northerners. As Maconie tells us, this is a book about ‘love and work and the debatable land between… the place where the two come together and have a good time.’ The tapestry of our culture, he says, is woven from play. He looks at where the northern clichés end and truth begins, and finds answers in the most unusual of places – The Lawnmower Museum in Southport anyone? He best sums up his affection for the north whilst stood amongst the crowds on the platform at Warrington train station and realises ‘these are my people. I’m at home here in raw northern light with these hardy folk’. I’ve lived in The Netherlands for many years now and it’s definitely the place I call home, but whenever I return to northern Britain I have the same feeling – these are definitely my people. It’s a book to warm the cockles of my northern heart. Funny? Yes. Warm? Yes. Chippy? Absolutely. It wouldn’t be a proper book about the north, by a northerner, without those attributes. 

Graeme Macrae Burnett – His Bloody Project

Essentially the fictional memoir of 17 year old Roderick Macrae, written in prison after his arrest for a gory triple murder in his home village of Culduie in 1869. The story masquerades as the author’s research into his family history, thus blurring the lines between fact and fiction, but leads you to believe that this is a factual account of a real crime. Being a novel about crime rather than a crime novel, it was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize, being easily the most readable novel to make it onto that list since 2008’s White Tiger.


I, Daniel Blake

This traces the story of the title character who, after a heart attack, is advised by his doctors he is unfit for work, but who according to government benefits advisors should be looking for work, thereby making him ineligible for the disabilty benefits that would aid his recovery. It’s traces his journey through the soul destroying, dehumanising modern UK welfare system. Like all Ken Loach’s best work it marries much warmth, compassion and humour in amongst the gritty drama, but overall the tone is heart breakingly sad. It should be beamed onto the side of the Department of Work and Pensions building 24 hours a day until somebody starts to take notice.


The Line of Duty

Series 3 of the police corruption drama was as tense and unrelenting as Series 1 and 2. Ostensibly about historic child sex abuse, it turned out to be part of a much deeper conspiracy, but ultimately it was about the chase to finally find corrupt copper ‘The Caddy’. Complex subplots, false leads and dead ends meant that each episode made your head spin. But it was so brilliantly executed that it all eventually made sense. The interrogation scenes were so claustrophobic that it felt like you were being personally grilled. It was buttock clenchingly exciting TV.


Having lived in Liverpool at the time of the Hillsborough disaster I’m only too aware of the pain, grief and anger that descended on the city in the aftermath of this tragedy. Indeed, one of our housemates attended the game, but in those pre-mobile phone days we endured an agonising wait till late in the evening before hearing our friend’s voice on the other end of the phone, reassuring us he was safe. This outstanding and indispensable one off documentary made for harrowing viewing as it reviewed not only how the day itself unfolded, but how in the immediate aftermath and over the following 27 years the friends, family and indeed the whole city of Liverpool was treated with complete contempt by the police, the government and the media as the entire establishment fought desperately and deviously to prevent the truth from emerging. It is a testament to the determination and dignity of those left behind that the truth has finally emerged. One can only hope that criminal prosecutions now follow.


John Grant

This year I’ve seen excellent performances from Father John Misty, Wilco, William Tyler, Kevin Morby, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Jonathan Wilson, but all of these were topped by John Grant. It’s so refreshing to see an artist touring for pleasure rather than just in support of a new album. He charmed the audience with his language skills as well as his beautiful music. The accompanying video was shot with my own fair hand – explaining the shonky camera work – but highlights perfectly the beauty of his voice and his performance.

So, overall, 2016 was another excellent year. Much peace and love to everybody for 2017.

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The Test

There is a quote, from a book I read several years ago, that piqued my interest as soon as I read it. The quote related to a particular group of people, but my immediate thought was that it was equally applicable to a completely different group. However, the thought was parked, as was the quote, until now . . . 

Whilst the idea behind my thoughts merited consideration, it is only in the last few months that the perfect subject has arisen to best illustrate it. 

The quote is as follows:

“These people are predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, sex and violence to control others and satisfy their own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse. What is missing, in other words, are the very qualities that allow a human being to live in social harmony.”

The quote is by renowned criminal psychologist Bob Hare and is culled from Jon Ronson’s superb book The Psychopath Test. Bob Hare developed the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a standard psychological assessment tool that uses a 20-item inventory of perceived personality traits and recorded behaviours to determine the psychopathic tendencies of any individual under observation.  

But what piqued my interest about the original quote, is that if I hadn’t told you it related to psychopaths would you have guessed? Probably not. My original thought was that if I that told you it related to politicians and not psychopaths would you have been overly surprised? Again, probably not.

But once you see the 20-item checklist, the overlap between the two groups becomes glaringly obvious:

  • glib and superficial charm
  • grandiose sense of self
  • need for stimulation
  • pathological lying
  • cunning and manipulative
  • lack of remorse or guilt
  • shallow emotions
  • callousness and lack of empathy
  • parasitic lifestyle
  • poor behavioural controls
  • sexual promiscuity
  • early behavioural problems
  • lack of realistic long-term goals
  • impulsivity
  • irresponsibility
  • failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • many short-term marital relationships
  • juvenile delinquency
  • revocation of conditional release
  • criminal or entrepreneurial versatility

Basically, if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck then it probably is a politician. 

Whilst many of these traits can be recognised in much of the population, and certainly in many politicians, it doesn’t mean that all of us, or all politicians, are psychopaths. Each item on the checklist is assigned a score of 0, 1 or 2, with 0 denoting the trait doesn’t apply and 2 denoting there is a good match to the person being assessed; giving a final score of between 0 and 40.

While few politicians may have developed into full blown psychopaths, many could certainly be labelled as high-functioning sociopaths. The tipping point between ‘psycho’ and ‘socio’ is probably debatable. Perhaps the decider is that sociopaths retain enough conscience to be aware of their anti-social behaviour, although not enough to stop it. 

The persistent anti social behaviour, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, uninhibited and egotistical traits, that are clearly visible in many leading politicians, have finally led to huge levels of popular disillusionment with political classes the world over.

But our problems may only be just beginning, as another quote from Ronson’s book suggests:

“Psychopaths and sociopaths don’t change. They don’t learn from punishment. The best you can hope for is that they’ll eventually get too old and lazy to be bothered to offend. And they can seem impressive. Charismatic. People are dazzled. So, yeah, the real trouble starts when one makes it big in mainstream society.” 

So step forward, depending on your point of view, either Public Enemy Number One or national hero: Donald Trump. It is a quote that could’ve been written personally about him. You could easily imagine him writing it about himself, confused and overcome by words like ‘charismatic’ and ‘dazzled’. He might just be the most perfect embodiment of a high-functioning sociopathic politician the world has ever seen. 

He is very successful (It helps to inherit vast wealth). But much of his success is built on the efforts of others, often at great cost to them. He claims the successes are his and his alone and the failures are, of course, due to the faults of others. He is superficially gracious, but with a win-at-all-costs mentality. He humiliates others with abandon but is unable to cope with even the slightest hint of ridicule or criticism. And while initially popular with the media for his straight talking (controversy sells), he is now reviled by all except extreme right-wing publications. The tick boxes on Ronson’s checklist are filling up rapidly.

Among his catalogue of insults are “rapists and drug dealers” (Mexicans), “terrorists” (Muslims), “thugs” ( African Americans), “bad hombres” (Latinos) and boasts about how he “grabs women by the pussy”. There is hardly a sector of society he hasn’t insulted, taunted or abused. 

His campaign exists in a world where facts and truth are considered dull and worthless, but where lies, insults, conspiracy theories and hyperbole are the order of the day. He has filled his campaign with meaningless slogans such as “we’re going bring the jobs back”, “we’re going to release the water”, “we’re going to send the bad guys back” and, most famously, “we’re going make America great again”. It may be meaningless, but it is resonating with enormous numbers of voters.

While making life miserable for the minorities he chooses to scapegoat, he promises to make life better for those he is whipping up into a campaign-trail frenzy. It’s a toxic mix, full of threats and promises that he can’t or won’t fulfil, if elected. 

There is a tiny part of me that understands why people are tempted to vote for characters like Trump. These are people whose jobs have disappeared overseas, whose incomes have stagnated, and who despair of the future under a system they experience as corrupt and remote, a system that has failed them and does nothing for them.

But to remedy these frustrations by supporting a post-truth moron, who perfectly embodies the establishment and system you think has screwed you, is pure folly. It is exactly that establishment and crooked system that allowed him to build his fortune and power. 

The poison he has unleashed in this campaign may just be a taste of things – and prospective leaders – to come. So called ‘anti-establishment’ candidates are on the rise all over the developed world. Be it Trump in the USA, Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in Holland or the Alternative für Deutschland, they are just channelling the feelings, prejudices and conspiracies that already exist within many people; whipping them up into an extreme toxic tornado.

That Hillary Clinton isn’t leading by a huge margin speaks volumes about her perceived untrustworthiness (oh how I wish Bernie Sanders had beaten Clinton). The campaign of name calling and personal barbs has seemed more like a Twitter spat being played out in real life than an informed debate. It’s definitely the first presidential campaign where one candidate has felt the need to reassure voters about the size of his manhood – maybe a sign of overcompensating to avoid a painful truth. 

Win, lose or draw, Trump will continue to lash out at his opponents on Twitter in the early hours. But, as the Financial Times pointed out, “only drunks and sociopaths tweet at 3 am”. Donald Trump is teetotal. 

By rights, a candidate like Trump shouldn’t get anywhere near being president. And yet, and yet. 

It’s been a strange year, particularly how the Brexit vote surprised both sides. So don’t underestimate the nativist populism that is currently sweeping all before it. By next week, a racist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic and highly sociopathic man could be elected ‘leader of the free world’. 

It’s just a thought, and scary one at that. Buckle up people, we could be in a for a bumpy ride

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Pants on fire….

Normally in Britain we’re very good at not talking about the elephant in the room. We aren’t ‘world class’ at many things anymore, but avoiding confrontation, burying out heads in the sand and hoping problems will magically dissolve is one area where we still lead the world. It’s one of our specialities. 

However, the current elephant in the room is now so big and behaving so unspeakably that we can’t not look at it and can’t not talk about it. In fact it’s all anyone can talk about at the moment. 

Britain’s vote to leave the EU has shone a very harsh and unflattering spotlight on its politicians and people in the last 5 months. It’s revealed the blunt and binary nature of referendum politics, the untrustworthiness and staggering self interest of our politicians, and it’s revealed the worst prejudices of the public at large. If this was an example of ‘representative democracy’ then count me out.   

It’s made people angry, anxious and confused, setting families and friends against each other, north against south, countryside against city, rich against poor. It’s even set the constituent parts of the UK against each other. For a country called the United Kingdom we have never been so disunited. 

The people may have spoken but did they know exactly what they were saying, or indeed the full extent of what they were voting for. The winning side only convinced people to vote leave by selling them a series of big fat lies. Led by liar in chief Boris Johnson, but ably supported by Michael Gove and Nigel Farage, they lied, lied again, and just to be sure they lied some more. Over 5 months they lied often enough that the lies and banal slogans like ‘Take back control’ overpowered rational argument.

We’ve become accustomed to the fundamental and underlying principle of public life is that you will, if necessary, lie to get what you want. But to lie so brazenly and over something so important and then row back on all the promises you made within hours of winning is staggeringly corrupt. This kind of performance in any other place of work would have you ejected from the building.

They spent weeks making promises about what would happen when we broke free from the EU straightjacket. We’ll have £350m a week extra to spend on the NHS, they said. Immigration will be lower, they said. They would immediately trigger Article 50, respecting the democratic will of voters, to begin our escape from the EU, they said. Nothing would change for EU nationals in the UK, or for UK nationals throughout the EU, they said. 

The £350m sent to Brussels each week was finally acknowledged as a lie, and the proposed investment in the NHS was now just a ‘possibility’. Immigration wouldn’t be radically reduced, there would only be a ‘measure of control’. Article 50 may be invoked next year but also may never be invoked. And in my own situation rather than nothing changing, nothing would change ‘for now’. In the weeks that have followed it has now become crystal clear that my rights and the rights of millions of others will be used as a bargaining chip in the UK’s exit negotiations.

Even economically deprived regions in Britain that are heavily dependent on EU funding gleefully voted leave, and then once the result was known immediately demanded those subsidies be continued at the same level by the government in Westminster. Good luck with that! 

But if you thought the referendum campaign was bad enough, then what has happened since has plumbed new depths. Farcical would be too kind a word. The leaders on both sides of the campaign have all left the building. 

David Cameron rightly paid the price for losing. It was a referendum he chose to have, on terms he dictated, on a date he selected, and due to his dreadful overweening confidence he lost. He resorted to a device that reduced a complex and technical issue to a crude yes or no. And rather than settling something – the Europe problem – it has actually unsettled everything.

Boris Johnson was measuring the curtains in Number 10 until he was suicide bombed by Michael Gove, who as a result ruined his own chances – although his smarmy unpleasantness would’ve have done for him in the end. And Nigel Farage, having caused carnage, retired to spend more time with his ego and hobnobbing with the establishment he supposedly despises.  

The motley collection of candidates to succeed Cameron included a man forced to resign from cabinet 5 years ago for allowing a friend to tout for business during ministerial trips abroad, a man who based his campaign on family values but who was found to be sexting someone else, Michael Gove and his weapons grade treachery, and a woman with a hankering for the past, an embellished CV and who seemed to think beginning every sentence with ‘As a mother’ somehow qualified her to be PM. 

The winner, Theresa May, calmly waited for the others to destroy themselves, stepped over the bodies in the street and then presented herself as the solution to all of our problems. And in an irony that has been dismissed as irrelevant, after leavers spent 4 months arguing about the democratic deficit in the EU, they hailed the appointment of a PM none of us voted for and who was chosen by only 199 fellow Tory MP’s. 

She has talked of leading ‘one nation’ where she will heal the nations divisions, help the least privileged and govern for all and not just the elites. Fine words maybe, but sadly we’ve heard it all before. Every leader since I’ve become interested in politics has made the same promises, and yet each time it turns out to be nothing more than fancy, soothing rhetoric. And I don’t fancy her chances of unifying the country when she can’t even unify her own party. 

Any hope that people had of a new beginning were dashed within a matter of hours when Theresa May appointed that bell-end Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. A man who has called Erdogan a ‘goat lover’ , Hilary Clinton a ‘sadistic nurse in a mental hospital’, Obama ‘not all American, part Kenyan with an ancestral dislike of Britain’, and likened Africans to ‘piccaninnies with water melon smiles’ is now our chief diplomat in the world. Wisecracking your way around the world whilst handing out the trays of Ferrero Rocher is an insult to all of us and all of those he deals with. 

May also said that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, but that is meaningless if no 2 people can agree what Brexit actually means. Some people see Brexit as turning us into a European version of Singapore, others want us to become more protectionist. Some see Brexit as a chance to be more internationalist, others want to be more isolationist. Some want a ‘hard’ Brexit that sees us leave the single market completely and stop immigration, others want a ‘soft’ Brexit that leaves us like Norway whereby very little will change. Squaring some or all of those circles may take years or may even prove impossible. It will be a herculean task to amicably extract Britain from the EU without damaging our economy or pissing off our neighbours even more. And the appointment of Eurosceptic David Davis as Minister for Brexit – known in his previous time as Europe minister as “Monsieur Non” – hardly signals a “quickie divorce” but rather a lengthy, painful and costly battle. 

And when the millions that the Brexiteers seduced to vote ‘leave’ discover that our exit deal will be nothing like promised, and will not be the miracle solution to the problems they face, it will leave the entire population brimming with anger. Especially as the authors who led the campaign will be entirely unaffected.

But where have the Labour Party been in all of this? Self destructing that’s where. Jeremy Corbyn being lukewarm about ‘remain’ caused unwarranted criticism and a leadership challenge, whereas Theresa May being lukewarm about ‘remain’ made her PM. In politics people mostly vote for their party and rarely just for the person leading it. But Jeremy Corbyn has achieved a feat that seldom occurs and made, and continues to make, a personal connection with hundreds of thousands of people, including the young, a group hasn’t been engaged in politics for years. Enthusing them with a genuine socialist, anti-austerity agenda has been one my few highlights in what has been a dismal political decade. He still has my full support. 

But for others in the Labour Party this is not enough. They see their way to electoral success as being a ‘Tory light’ version of the Conservative Party. They claim to be ‘socialists’ but seem to physically recoil at any mention of the word. They have used Jeremy Corbyn’s somewhat lacklustre EU campaigning as an excuse to challenge his leadership, revealing themselves to be just as ruthless, opportunistic and unprincipled as the Tories. It seems the rule in politics should be to love your enemies just in case your friends turn out to be bastards. And who the hell is challenger Owen Smith anyway? I have a healthy interest in politics but would struggle to tell you much about him.

So where does this leave most of us as voters? Precisely nowhere. Neither party is currently serving the country in any way at all. The populist tide that has surged across the country seems to have created an atmosphere where as long as you preface everything you say with ‘I love my country’ or ‘I love this party’, it currently allows you to behave as unscrupulously as you like. It is often said that we end up with the politicians we deserve. Well I’m damn sure that apart from some honourable exceptions we all deserve better than the venal, amoral bunch of halfwits and non-entities that we currently have. If they’re the best we’ve got then we’re doomed.  

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Apocalypse Now

The time is fast approaching when politics shuts down for the summer. Combined with the close season in football it leaves journalists with little to write about. It’s known as the ‘silly season’, or ‘komkommer tijd’ here in Holland (cucumber time, and no, it’s not what you think) and this year it can’t arrive soon enough.

Mercifully, the EU referendum is only 2 weeks away. What should have been a chance for a grown up, informed debate has sadly and, perhaps inevitably, been turned into an old Etonian Tory beauty contest. Pitching a PM against the man who wants his job – opportunistic, egotistical mop-top Boris Johnson. Although thankfully there is no swimsuit section in this beauty contest.

Or it could be likened to one of those grim reality TV shows. The sort where you think all the contestants are fuckwits, but you have to vote for one of them. Only this time the winner doesn’t get 15 fleeting minutes of fame, but rather the chance to run the country. 

I know it’s a polarising, binary decision, but did any of us expect anything as unedifying and dispiriting as this?

If we leave the EU then World War 3 is imminent, ISIS will land in Cornwall and, horror of horrors for the UK publics national obsession, house prices will crash. If we remain then the entire population of Turkey will immediately move to Britain and we will become part of Hitler inspired united Europe. So apparently it’s a choice between economic catastrophe or the Third Reich.

Each side’s every claim is utterly refuted by the other side, and is countered by something even more ludicrous, meaning both sides are rooted in the mentality that their statistics are facts and the other side’s facts are statistics. It is a battle from which there is no escape.

Voters rightly want to know the economic consequences of leaving, and here it is less a case of hard facts and more a case of projections, estimates and opinion. Even when reputable figures and organisations have attempted to explain these consequences, their attempts have been met with a combination of outrage and scorn by Brexiteers, leaving the public somewhat discombobulated.

Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, when questioned by a select committee of MP’s, warned that Brexit was the biggest threat to the stability of the economy and could lead to recession. Right wing Tories immediately called for him to be sacked.

Or how about the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), a think tank that gained huge credibility analysing each party’s manifesto before last years general election. Their assessment of leaving warned of lower growth, a £40bn black hole in the public finances and 2 further years of austerity. Village idiot Nigel Farage immediately dismissed the IFS as a “paid-up propaganda arm of the EU”, due to the fact the IFS receives 10% of its funding from the EU. Ironic really, given that Farage, as an MEP, has been 100% lavishly funded by the EU for the last 17 years. 

Tellingly though, they didn’t dispute the correctness of what either of these institutions said, but rather attacked them as part of an establishment stitch up. Conspiracy theories and paranoia abounds in the leave campaign.

Brexiteers also promise a bonfire of EU regulations if we leave, but as with other promises have been very vague on detail, and despite international studies repeatedly showing that the UK has one the least regulated product and labour markets in the western world. They repeatedly criticise regulations, only to desperately back pedal when trade associations say they find them helpful, road haulage being a prime example. Most of the costliest burdens such as tight planning controls, or quarterly tax reporting are home grown. And if we want to continue trading with the single market we would still have to observe most EU rules without having a say in them.

They also promise more spending on the NHS, education, transport, housing, research etc. from stopping our EU budget contribitions. Net, it amounts to £7bn per year (1/3 of what leavers claim), just 0.5% of our economy. That’s a lot of promises and you don’t need to be a financial expert to realise that money can only be spent once. And it’s some damascene conversion from the men promising it, men who have spent their entire public lives advocating a smaller state and reducing public spending. Now they’re trying to befriend the working man with false promises. 

But as each argument is lost, or gains no traction with the public, the leave campaign changes the argument. After losing the economic argument they tried sovereignty, but this proved to arcane a subject for most people, and security ended as a score draw, leaving only one subject to fight on – immigration. It is their ‘comfort blanket’, something to retreat back to if all their other arguments have been defeated. But if undecided voters think this is all you have to offer, then in the end it may not be enough to convince you to vote out. But what exactly are the Brexiteers offering?

Their latest wheeze is a points based immigration system where age, education, language skills and previous employment would be assessed before granting a visa. But we already have such a system for non EU nationals and they currently make up 60% of migration to the UK, meaning, crucially, the government is choosing not to reduce the immigration it can already control. And as a majority of EU migrants are young, university educated and already speak English they would pass for a visa anyway. Additionally, most countries that have such a system already in place have used it to increase levels of immigration. Imagine that then. You vote to leave and the government then implements a system that may even increase immigration. 

But the greatest weakness in the leave campaign is their failure to detail the alternative trading arrangements to the UK’s membership of the EU, arrangements that wouldn’t cause economic damage. The main players in the leave campaign are deeply divided on this issue. Do we join the European Economic Area with Norway, have a free trade agreement with the EU or leave the single market entirely? Despite this lack of detail, the chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign claims “we will be able to trade with the single market on free-trade terms, tariff free, without paying into the system or accepting freedom of movement”. Fine words, but with no explanation (and saying our deal will be great because we are great is laughably pompous) as to why the UK could strike such a unique deal, on such generous terms, terms that haven’t been offered to anybody else. It is all being falsely presented as a cost free, risk free, pain free solution, rather than as the start of potentially years of tortuous negotiations.

Most of the above obvious and very important truths haven’t been clearly presented to voters. Even where they have, Brexiteers only hear what they want to hear, or believe what they want to believe. Everything is true as long as they believe it to be true. For them it’s not just a determination to leave the EU, they want to amputate Britain from the EU, regardless of the cost. They talk about wanting their country back, wanting to make Britain great again, exactly the sentiments we so readily mock supporters of Donald Trump for having. All the leavers can offer us is a vague collection of sentiments wrapped up in the Union Jack, and where asking for more detail about the post Brexit future is, apparently, unpatriotic.  

Watching all this unfold from here in The Netherlands has been deeply unappetising. The image of Nigel Farage on the news, stood on an open topped double decker bus, dressed like Rupert the Bear, and conducting a mock orchestra to the theme of The Great Escape left viewers, both in the UK and abroad, in no doubt as to what sort of post Brexit country him and his supporters want. Dutch people and politicians, whilst having many issues with the EU themselves, do not want Britain to leave. But they are becoming increasingly exasperated with Britain’s constant bellyaching and complaining. Attitudes that if, in the event of voting to leave, were carried forward, would make the Dutch and other nations rightly play hardball in any post Brexit negotiations.  

I’m not blind to problems in the EU. It is meddlesome and overly bureaucratic. And the proposed TTIP trade deal with America is dreadful. But I also know if America offered a post Brexit Britain the same deal, the government would accept in a heartbeat. So walking off in a childish huff wouldn’t solve anything. 

All of you who read this blog will know that I’m for remain. Living and working here in The Netherlands, personal circumstances dictate that I’m for remain, as I would be if I still lived in the UK. What would Brexit mean for me and others living throughout the EU? It would introduce a huge and unwelcome element of uncertainty into our lives, but amidst all the childish squabbling, the actual practical implications for all us expats haven’t been addressed at all. Being breezily told I ‘have nothing to fear’ or to ‘have faith’ not only belittles my life here but also makes me furious. Absolutely fucking furious. Even more furious than having to vote with a PM and a governing party that I can’t stand. 

Who wins? I’ve no idea. It’s that close. Many of those wanting to leave would crawl through broken glass to vote, so it could all depend on the desire and willingness of those wanting to remain to do the same. And maybe in the end that’s all I can say. Don’t wake up on 24th June and have inadvertently handed power to Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Iain Duncan-Smith because you didn’t vote. If you’re in, then say you’re in. I’m for in. I’ve already voted. All I can do is urge you to do the same on 23rd June.

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