Ten Years Gone

I started this blog ten years ago today, on 31st May 2004.

In those days I used an external web-hosting service and an Open Source weblog product called Pivot. I replaced that with a WordPress install running on my own web server a couple of years ago and have only imported a handful of posts from the old blog, so not all of those old pieces are online here – but I did publish most of them as an e-book on Amazon a while ago, called A Satellite View (I wouldn’t bother).

Sincere thanks to all my readers for dipping in occasionally. I don’t post as often as I intended to, but I hope this little niche corner of the World Wide Web will still be here in 2024.

happy-birthday-10th

Since my first post in 2004 I’ve had five different jobs, moved house from Derby to NW Leicestershire and got married. I shouldn’t think the next ten years will be as memorable.

But who knows?

 

 

 

The 2014 Local Elections

I’m typing this in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 England local elections. In a nutshell, what happened was this: Labour’s performance was lacklustre. They gained only 32% of the popular vote, two percentage points ahead of the Conservative Party who also performed relatively poorly. The Lib Dems remain unpopular with the electors. But Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party performed spectacularly well – at the cost both of Labour and the Conservatives, but more substantially the latter.

It seems that UKIP are riding a wave of cynicism and discontent among the public, disaffected with traditional politics in general but dissatisfied with the traditional parties’ policies with respect to Europe and immigration especially. They have gained 161 council seats – a staggering achievement for an organisation more usually considered a pressure group than a political party.

farage_ukip

I was pleased to see that the voters had disregarded the laughable, frightened squeals and scaremongering smears of the Left and their useful idiots on Twitter and Facebook, who had in the weeks leading up to the election attempted to portray UKIP and their supporters as fascists and racists. And I am especially encouraged to see strong support for the two centre-right parties – some 46% of the electors voted Conservative or UKIP.

However, there is a huge and obvious danger here. The next General Election is only a year away. If large numbers of voters who would otherwise vote Conservative were to give their support instead to UKIP, the end result may actually be that Labour will slime under the door of Number Ten, and into power. A Conservative government would be considerably more sympathetic to the aspirations and interests of UKIP supporters than would a Labour administration, yet a vote for UKIP might well, in practice, amount to a vote for Ed Miliband.

For this reason, I think it critically important that the two right-thinking parties of the Right form some sort of electoral accord, to maximise the electoral chances of the Conservative Party and to afford UKIP some sort of limited power – perhaps in the form of guarantees on our relationship with Europe or immigration policy.

The Prime Minister has already appeared to rule out this possibility, and Nigel Farage also seems reluctant to entertain it. Yet such an accord would undeniably work in the best  interests of both parties; UKIP especially. It represents the only possibility for Farage and his followers to wield the slightest positive influence in government. Without it, the only influence they can offer is to help into power Labour, a party instinctively hostile to their principles and aspirations.

 

Tony Benn

The veteran former Labour minister and tireless socialist Tony Benn died today.

I went to hear him speak at Northampton Guildhall in 1984. I came away realising that he was more or less insane, but very impressed by the strength of his convictions and the articulate passion with which he spoke.

Unlike the ignorant, graceless union leader Bob Crow, who left our planet a cleaner place for his passing earlier this week and with whom he shared the same perverse, long-discredited hard-left politics, Tony Benn had a lot in common with Margaret Thatcher in some important respects – a similar integrity, stubborn courage and outspoken honesty.

tony_benn

What he sadly didn’t share was her wisdom and common sense. She was a visionary. He was myopic. History has humiliated him at every turn; reality was his arch-enemy. And where she was a winner, he was on the losing side of every cause he espoused; from Irish unity to nationalisation, from withdrawal from the EU to one-sided nuclear disarmament.

He assured us that Britain’s campaign to recover the Falkland Islands would fail. He maintained an unshakeable faith in the state’s capacity to run the nation’s business, long after nationalisation had made basket cases of Britain’s great industries, exporting millions of jobs abroad.

And he was convinced that Tony Blair’s modernisation of the Labour Party would backfire. “You don’t win votes by selling out”, he opined in 1994. Blair did just that of course, overturning eighteen years of Conservative rule and winning the next three General Elections with handsome majorities by jettisoning the core principles of his party, and of Tony Benn.

Benn was a profoundly misguided man. He lent enthusiastic support to some idiotic and wicked causes, from the Miners’ strike to terrorism in Northern Ireland. But he was instinctively honourable and driven by principle, there is no questioning that. As strange as it may seem, I’m sure he believed every ridiculous word he said. And he undoubtedly had the interests of ordinary people at heart, even though the philosophy he held dear has always failed them.

2013 In Review

The end of another year then, and a fairly eventful one for me, so I thought I’d take an opportunity to look back over its memorable moments.

In January, the firm I worked for closed its office in Coventry, which meant that I would work from home five days a week, for the foreseeable future. The twenty-six mile commute to and from Coventry had irritated me somewhat so I was pleased in that respect. It certainly meant a significant saving in time and petrol. And it was nice to be able to get out of bed at 08:45 and be at my desk ten minutes later, having visited the kitchen en route to pick up a coffee (I usually took a bath at lunchtime).

But even with regular contact with colleagues through email and Skype, working from home permanently is a curiously disconnecting, isolating experience. It feels a little like being unemployed, albeit considerably less stressful.

In February the University of Leicester confirmed that a skeleton found in the excavation of a car park carried out in 2012 was, beyond reasonable doubt, that of Richard III. I was particularly amused to note, while watching a documentary about the find, that the remains of the last King of England to die in battle were transported from his resting place of centuries in the back of a Citroen van.

The ineffectual Liberal Democrat minister Chris Huhne, better known during his time in government for small-minded detraction than for a constructive contribution of any sort, received a prison sentence for perverting the course of justice on the same day – so it was a very entertaining news day, all things considered.

In April, the world lost its greatest and most inspirational national leader. Margaret Thatcher, the remarkable woman who had so dramatically transformed Britain’s fortunes following decades of decline, consigning socialism to the dustbin of history, died on the 8th of that month, at the age of 87. She received a state funeral in all but name, and was cheered to the skies by grateful Britons lining the route.

margaret

Sadly but extremely predictably, many on the Left were unable to contain their bitterness and spite for the humilation they suffered at her hands in the 1980s. I’ll never forget the laughable spectacle of the wretched has-been actress-turned-MP Glenda Jackson, her haggard, unappealingly masculine features contorted into a sneering vision of malice, indulging a hysterical outpouring of bile from the benches of the Commons. Of course, simple jealousy better explains Glenda’s poisonous incoherence than a difference of ideology. She was never a successful politician. She was never an especially brilliant actress either, to be fair.

On the 19th of May, Sir Alex Ferguson, surely one of the greatest football managers of all time and certainly one of the most successful, led Manchester United onto the field of play for the final time. He had led United to Premier League title victory thirteen times in his twenty-seven years in charge, and won the Champions League twice. He was succeeded by David Moyes.

A few days later, following months of anticipation – indeed the tickets had gone on sale in May 2012 – Rush’s Clockwork Angels tour came to the UK.  I attended two memorable concerts at Manchester and Sheffield, and wrote about them at some length here.

One evening in late 1977, I was alarmed when one of my upper back teeth disintegrated, leaving a broken stump in my mouth. In May this year I noticed a small swelling on my gum at the same point. I consulted a dentist, who assured me that the swelling was a simple abscess, but insisted that the remains of the tooth, still there thirty-six years later, should finally be removed. I agreed. The offending truncated tooth was removed at a dental practice in Ashby, on the 12th of June this year. It only took about twenty minutes and wasn’t even a particularly painful operation. I left the surgery wishing I’d got round to having it extracted a few decades earlier.

Improbably, a British competitor won the Men’s Singles competition at Wimbledon in July, becoming the first Briton ever to win a singles title there in shorts.

Later in July my charming wife and I travelled by car to La Rochelle for our summer holiday. My parents used to drive me through France, usually en route to Spain when I was young and I had long wanted to repeat the experience for myself.

la_rochelle

I must admit that our journey didn’t really evoke the spirit of those childhood adventures in the 1970s. I delegated the navigation task to a SatNav, for one thing. And the motorways in France seem soulless now, stripped of the colourful advertising hoardings that I remember as a teenager. Still, we had fun taking the car under the Channel. We also had beautiful weather and a wonderful time in La Rochelle, and were able to visit friends in Dieppe whom I hadn’t seen for many years.

In August occurred possibly the most shameful episode I can remember in British Parliamentary history. Following compelling evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria had used chemical weapons against civilian targets among its own people, to massively lethal effect, our Prime Minister and other senior figures made an impassioned plea to the House of Commons for support for military action. Clearly, a powerful response was necessary. It was extremely important that crimes against humanity on such a scale did not go unanswered.

Instead, our Parliament preferred to send the message to the Syrian government that it had no problem at all with weapons of mass destruction being used against civilian population centres, and that President Assad should feel free to wreak chemical carnage among his populace at any time in the future if he so wished.

Happily, the British Parliament’s craven, weak-kneed cowardice was not the last word on the subject. A credible threat of action from the US government prompted the Syrians to commit to relinquish their chemical weapons, under international scrutiny.

One early morning in late September, I passed out in my bathroom. I was only unconscious for half a minute or so, but I decided later that morning to stop drinking. I haven’t touched a drop since. I must say I haven’t really missed it. I’ve enjoyed being alcohol-free. It’s by no means a permanent measure, but it is an indefinite one. I won’t drink again for a while.

Also in September, tired of working from home permanently, dissatisfied with my salary and feeling insufficiently stimulated by the nature of the work I was being called upon to do, I interviewed for a new role at a company based in Essex, with a satellite office in Castle Donington, roughly ten miles away from home.

I was offered the position the next day and my career there started on the 21st of October. I spent the first two weeks working from the head office in Chelmsford as an introduction to the company. It’s been a bit of a culture shock in some respects, but an enjoyable challenge.

In November, a report published by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales suggested that the UK economy is set to grow faster than that of any other Western nation, and that confidence in business is at its highest for ten years. The Office for National Statistics had already reported a “fairly strong” performance across all sectors of the economy.

ed_balls

That and other economic good news strongly vindicated our Conservative-led government’s strategy for recovering from the nightmare it inherited from the previous Labour administration – leaving egg all over the embarrassed collective face of Her Majesty’s Opposition, as Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls confirmed with a hilariously red-faced, spluttering and roundly mocked performance in the Commons on the occasion of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, to the great pleasure of the benches opposite him, and indeed to the general entertainment of the wider public.

Not a bad year, all things considered. Here’s to a successful 2014. I’m particularly looking forward to the death of the Scottish National Party in September.

 

Technology

An exhibition of World War Two equipment that I saw yesterday made me think about the way technology has changed in my lifetime. The remarkably quaint and primitive-looking military telephone that I saw there would have been something like state-of-the-art only twenty years before my first day at school.

I thought it might be interesting to compile a list here of the technological innovations that have made the biggest difference to me personally in my own lifetime. Of course nearly every aspect of everyday life has been influenced and changed by the creep of technological progress and the following are just tokens of that really.

Furthermore, none of them is really a single innovation; for example some depend on underlying technologies like the microchip, the LCD display and the transistor which were themselves dramatic and fascinating innovations in their own right.  But here they are anyway, in rough chronological order.

Colour TV

The television had been invented long before I was born, and what a marvel that must have been for the early adopters of that technology – even to stare at fuzzy moving monochrome images on a tiny curved screen must have been a thrill to people who could afford it in the 1940s.

I grew up with television. There were three TV channels in the ’70s, but we could only receive two on our black & white TV: BBC 1 and ITV. The day we got our first colour TV, one day in 1973, was possibly one of the happiest days of my life. I remember sitting down in front of it, awestruck. Colour television was hypnotic; almost hallucinogenic. Even so, most TV programmes were still shown in black & white, as I recall. The TV listings in the Radio Times would cleverly indicate which programmes were to be shown in colour by the inclusion of the word Colour in italics next to the title.

After Colour TV nothing was the same again.

Quartz Timekeeping

In the early ’70s, watches were strictly mechanical, and not particularly accurate. You wound your watch up in the morning, and set it every day or two by a time signal broadcast on the radio, or by the “speaking clock” service available via your telephone.

But in 1975, while watching an episode of Kojak, I was stunned to see Telly Savalas press a button on the side of his watch, thereby causing a row of glowing red numerals to appear upon its dark face. It was possibly the most desirable thing I’d ever seen. A year or two later I had my own LED digital watch, and I was very proud of it. But quite honestly they weren’t particularly practical. The battery would expire every few months, and you had to operate a button to tell the time.

It wasn’t until LCD became the display technology of choice that the digital watch truly came of age. I bought my first LCD watch in 1981 or so. By this time, many analogue watches were also powered by quartz movements. You could now keep your watch in a drawer for a few weeks without having to set the time on taking it out, and you could depend on it being accurate to within a few seconds a week, or better.

Seiko’s advertising at the time claimed that “one day, all watches will be made this way”. But interestingly, the old-fashioned mechanical watch didn’t die out completely. It is still popular with traditionalists, especially customers of more high-end brands like Hublot and Rolex.

A related innovation was the so-called radio-controlled (radio-synchronised, really) timepiece. These work by tuning into a time signal service sourced from an atomic clock and broadcast on shortwave transmitters, at regular intervals.

The first watches to use these were highly expensive and looked a little strange, with a conspicuous receiver module. These days they’re cheap, and look like ordinary watches.

I own four radio-controlled watches, and five radio-controlled clocks. They are accurate to within a small fraction of a second, all the time, and they adjust themselves when British Summer Time comes and goes.

HiFi

I first gained an appreciation of music from watching TV programmes like Top Of The Pops and from listening to my big brother’s records on his mono, portable record player. I must admit I still sometimes miss the smell of the valves warming up when listening to old Beatles songs.

But stereo music listening really was a revelation. My parents’ first stereo HiFi, a Sanyo as I recall, probably wasn’t really all that great. Actually it definitely wasn’t. But it certainly seemed a lot better than their old ‘radiogram’, or my brother’s old record player. I bought one for myself in 1980, a Sony – and that was the business.

The Pocket Calculator

My Dad occasionally brought home an electronic calculator from his place of work in the early ’70s. It was the size of a small typewriter, was powered by mains electricity and had a nixie tube display. I simply could not believe the speed at which it performed what, to me, seemed like complicated arithmetic calculations. You’d key in something like 16 x 23 and the very instant you hit the = key, the solution would be glowing on its display. It didn’t even seem to have to think about it.

By 1977, it was possible to manufacture electronic calculators that were small enough to be powered by a battery, and inexpensive enough to be purchased by anyone who needed to use one. I can’t remember what brand my first calculator was. The first ones had LED displays, like the digital watches of the time. But I do remember putting away my slide rule for good.

Calculators are quite interesting in one sense. I still own, and occasionally use a couple of calculators that I’ve had since the mid ’80s. They aren’t really much different from a calculator that you’d expect to find in a shop today. It seems that, like the shark and the wasp, the pocket calculator has long since reached its evolutionary potential.

The Video Recorder

My parents bought our first VCR in 1981, ushering in a revolution in the art of watching TV in our household. Important broadcasts could now be saved for posterity, and watched over and over again. You didn’t have to hope for a repeat. I recorded every episode of Blackadder II and The Young Ones and watched them repeatedly. Furthermore you didn’t have to miss a programme because another was on a different channel at the same time, or because you were out, or you’d gone to bed.

You could go out and rent, or buy feature films to watch at home. You could even now watch the sort of film that, let’s say, you’d be highly unlikely to see broadcast on one of the mainstream TV channels, in the comfort of your living room.

In the 21st century, video recorders record incoming programmes in original broadcast quality onto a hard drive. They know what time your favourite TV programmes are on, and they will record them for you automatically.

Joy.

The Microcomputer

Computers seemed impossibly complicated and esoteric to me as a young man, even though in many respects they were a fair bit less complicated than they are now. In the 1970s a computer seemed to be a huge thing, requiring its own room, maintained by boffins in white coats and festooned with tape reels and flashing lights. A large corporation or university might own perhaps as many as one of them. I couldn’t really imagine what “computer programming” might entail.

But by the early 1980s, advances in solid state technology and miniaturisation ushered in the age of the ‘microcomputer’ – and brought computing within the reach of ordinary people. My parents bought a Sinclair ZX81 – an impossibly primitive machine with a little touchpad keyboard and a tiny, one kilobyte memory that plugged into the TV. Later they bought a rather more usable 32K BBC Micro. I spent many hours playing computer games, but also learning to write programs in a simple language called BASIC – a pursuit that led to a degree in Computer Science, and a career as an IT specialist.

A lot of people did nothing more adventurous than  playing the games, of course. I must admit my happiest memories of our BBC Micro are of hours spent immersed in the space trading / shoot-em-up game Elite.

By now, most homes have at least one “microcomputer” – the term is redundant now that even the most powerful computers are physically small – and most workplaces have them scattered around their employees’ desks.

The Microwave Oven

To be honest, I don’t recall having been excited by our first microwave oven, acquired one day in 1985. In fact I was wary of it at first. I used to leave the room while it was switched on. But most of the food I eat these days is prepared in a microwave, and certainly it’s an awful lot more convenient than sticking things in saucepans. The microwaveable plastic container, first available in 1986 ushered in the era of the microwave ready meal, and was probably equally important.

Portable Audio

I never did have a Sony Walkman, the cassette player that wasn’t much bigger than a cassette, and allowed people to listen to music “on the go”. But I did buy a portable headphone AM/FM radio with a belt clip in 1984. I bought a smaller one ten years later when I lived in London, and it accompanied me everywhere – on the tube and train commuting to and from work, and walking around the West End on a Saturday. To this day it’s rare for me to leave the house without my portable radio if I’m likely to be walking or cycling for any appreciable duration. In the late ’90s I bought a MiniDisk player that allowed me to carry a few records around with me. I now have an MP3 player that contains more than 700 albums, with room to spare.

Digital Audio

The great enabling factor of portable audio is of course the possibility to represent music (or speech, or whatever) in a digital format that can be squeezed into an electronic storage medium. But it was in traditional, home music-listening that digital audio first made its mark – in the form of the Compact Disc. I bought my first CD player in 1992, although they had been available for a few years before that.

Compact Discs were physically smaller than vinyl records. They were a lot more tolerant of minor scratches, and they didn’t wear out. You could now skip from one track to another at the press of a button. You could play them in a car. And despite what some luddites will tell you, even to this day – they provided substantially better audio quality than vinyl as well.

Later came the MiniDisk and the MP3; formats using a compressed representation intended to allow music to be listened on portable devices. In recent years it has been possible to buy and download a music album in a matter of minutes, even in a lossless format, thanks to the ease with which digital information can be transferred over a network.

The Internet

This is the big one, for me. It’s just not possible to overstate its influence.

It’s probably instructive to think of it as having two phases. When I first sat down in front of an Internet-enabled workstation in the ’90s, relatively few people had access to the World Wide Web and email. As it became available to the public in general, no longer the domain of academics and technology professionals, most people who used it gained access via a slow, dialup connection.

Even in this early phase, the Internet was massive for me. Being able to communicate with people in different countries every day on messageboards or via email, browse websites dedicated to particular interests, look up information using an Internet search – this was all invaluable to me.

Later, as broadband Internet connections took over from dialup connections and computers became more powerful and capable, the Internet gained a new role as a multimedia platform – in the 21st century it became possible to listen to radio and TV programmes in high quality, or download films and music in large quantities.

These days I do most of my shopping online, on the Amazon site or at play.com. I do my banking online. I’m able to work from home thanks to my Internet connection. The company I work for, like many others, relies on the Internet to provide its services.

The really nice thing about the Internet is the number of services it provides access to that are free to use. Google Maps, Outlook Mail, file-sharing facilities like Dropbox. Operating Systems like Linux and FreeBSD can be downloaded free of charge. Thousands of videos of varying quality can be viewed at YouTube at no cost. Photos can be shared on free sites like Flickr. You can share information on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter for free. This blog and many others like it are, of course, free to read as well.

I don’t suppose there’ll be a technological innovation again in my lifetime that will make as much difference as the Internet did. But who knows?

The Mobile Phone

I first saw a mobile phone in 1987, on a train to Stevenage. It was being operated by a rather self-important-sounding managerial / executive person, issuing instructions to his minions back at the office. It was huge. It looked a bit like a walkie-talkie from a Vietnam war film.

By 1994 or so mobile phones had started to become relatively affordable, and small enough to carry around on a belt clip. I decided I had to have one by Christmas that year, and after an awful lot of deliberation and research, I bought one from the Orange shop at Liverpool Street Station. I didn’t actually think I needed it, but had decided that it would be a simply awesome gadget, or ‘toy’ if you prefer. My Nokia Orange 2140 was a primitive phone by today’s standards, certainly. It was actually considered a small phone at the time, about the size of two cigarette cartons, but it was too heavy to keep in a suit pocket. It didn’t last long before recharges. You could send text messages using its mono, character-only LCD screen, but only in upper case. It cost £250, in addition to the contract.

Sometime before every teenager seemed to have one, in the first few years of the 21st century, the mobile phone had lost its appeal as a professional status symbol. Now of course, a mobile phone can be a computer, Internet terminal, media player and camera as well as a telephone.

Digital Photography

I was a fairly keen photographer before I acquired my first digital camera in 2000. But it’s fair to say that my interest was transformed by it. Photography already had a long and distinguished history, yet I would argue that it only came of age on the day the first digital camera rolled off the production line.

In fact my first digital camera only had the necessary capacity to store about 70 photos on a 35MB memory card, only the equivalent of about two rolls of film. But I didn’t have to buy the film in the first place. More importantly I didn’t have to take my photos to a lab to have them processed. I could transfer them to my computer and see them immediately. I could tinker with the contrast, sharpen them, crop them, touch them up. And I could share them with friends and family anywhere in the world, or post them onto a public forum, within minutes. You can share your holiday photos while you’re still on holiday, using a laptop or even directly from a smartphone.

These days memory cards are cheap and hugely capacious. A 4GB card costing about £5 will hold about 1500 photos in my Pentax DSLR; that’s roughly the equivalent of 40 36-exposure rolls of film. And it can of course be used time and time again.

WiFi

The introduction of wireless network cards made using Internet-connected computers at home, and in some work environments, much easier. You didn’t have to worry about being close to an ethernet socket or dragging a long cable to your router or modem. In the present day, every laptop and smartphone has it built in so you can carry them around the house while connected. WiFi also allows Internet access to be provided easily in hotels, cafes and bars. Of course, if you haven’t set your router up properly it also allows your neighbours, and possibly even random passers-by to use your Internet connection. But it’s easy to prevent that if you know what you’re doing.

Flat Panel Monitors and TVs

Admittedly they don’t really do much different than their CRT ancestors, other than providing much higher resolution (thereby providing a medium for High Definition TV programmes and films). But they take up a lot less space even though they allow for much bigger screens, and they look nicer. A lot easier to carry around, as well, if you need to do that.

The present LCD technology which is used for these devices is an interim measure. Flat panel screens will come of age when technologies like AMOLED, which don’t require backlighting, can be used at an affordable cost.

Plasma screens don’t require backlighting of course, but let’s be honest – they don’t look that good either.

SatNav

I first bought a GPS receiver in the mid ’90s. It was a lot of fun to use, and actually quite useful for navigating around London – even though it had no built-in maps. It just told me how far away my destination was, and pointed the direction. I’d have to guess at which roads to take, but at least I never felt completely lost.

But satellite-guided navigation really came into its own with the advent of the SatNav – a GPS device that had two important additional features – a set of maps, and the logic to plan a route to your destination from your current position. I bought one of these three years ago for £99, and it has been absolutely invaluable for travelling by car. Gone are the days when you had to pore over a map to plan your route, or ask someone for directions after getting lost. Even when driving in France this year it provided clear and accurate navigation all the way from the English Channel to the Atlantic Coast.

Many smartphones and tablets have a GPS receiver built in, and the necessary maps and apps to provide SatNav functionality can often be found for free.

 

Rush Tour

I first attended a Rush concert when the band played Newcastle City Hall on their first UK tour in 1977, a few weeks before my 17th birthday. I was already a massive fan, and I’ve been to see them on each of their visits to the UK since then. The main purpose of going in recent years though has been to make sure I “have the set” of British tours, and that was my foremost thought when, in May last year, I bought a ticket to see the band on their 2013 tour, in Manchester.

But a few weeks after my ticket was ordered, the band released Clockwork Angels, by a huge distance their best album for at least twenty-five years, and probably thirty. I found myself looking forward to this tour with the sort of enthusiasm I hadn’t felt since the Signals tour in 1982, and bought a ticket for a second concert when a number of decent seats at Sheffield Arena became available a few months later. In the weeks leading up to the start of the tour, my Rush-conversant Facebook friends and I had built a remarkable sense of anticipation by discussing the forthcoming tour online endlessly. I’d run a sort of Rush tour ‘advent calendar’ by posting photos I’d taken from the front row on their 2011 Time Machine tour to count down each of the last twenty days before the Manchester show, the first night.

At 12:30pm on 22nd May, having eyed the clock excitedly all morning, I logged out of my computer, carried an overnight bag to the car then drove off in the direction of Greater Manchester. About eighty miles later I’d arrived in Altrincham, where I parked the car and bought a tram ticket to Manchester’s Victoria Station, a short distance from my hotel.

The ride into the city should have taken no longer than twenty minutes. Thanks to a signal failure requiring every driver on the route to ask permission to cross a red light, it took about forty. But I found the hotel quickly after arriving and it wasn’t long before I’d checked in, dumped my bag and set off in pursuit of a gathering of Rush chums at a pub on Deansgate.

manc02

The Moon Under Water holds one happy memory for me in particular – I first met my Finnish girlfriend Sari there at a similar gathering before a Rush concert in 2004 and I hadn’t been back there since, so it was quite a sentimental occasion for me. An assortment of friends from the Internet Rush community was already present as I arrived, so I ordered a beer and got stuck into the important business of discussing the merits of various Rush records and the inadequacies of certain other Rush fans of our mutual acquaintance, who weren’t of course present.

I’d also arranged to meet there my old school chum Barry, a fellow veteran of Rush gigs at Newcastle in the ’70s, and I was delighted to see him arrive an hour later. I hadn’t seen him since 1985, so we had quite a lot of catching up to do. I was pleased to find that age had not mellowed him and amused to discover that thirty years of living in Liverpool had furnished him with a pronounced Merseyside accent.

Shortly after 7pm, we left the cosy confines of the pub to stroll along to the venue, the Manchester Evening News Arena. I took my fourth row seat and spent a few minutes chatting and waving to familiar faces in the audience nearby. Finally the lights went down at around 7:40pm, the ridiculous intro film appeared, and the band took the stage.

A present-day Rush performance is a very different proposition than it was when I was first a fan. I used to loathe the American habit of using the word “show” to refer to a rock concert. But these days, certainly for Rush anyway, that’s exactly what it is.

A huge arena. Long and annoying comedy videos. Elaborate stage sets, animated screens, a massive light show. Instrumental passages, harmonies and backing vocals being performed by recordings; everything choreographed to nanosecond accuracy, synchronised to a click track. Members of the road crew appearing randomly on stage in bizarre costumes from time to time, in the relentless pursuit of entertainment. A rotating drum kit. And a string section!

It couldn’t really be more showbiz if Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers came on to tap dance during the encore and to be frank, it is not really the experience of a real band playing live music that it used to be a few decades ago. Nonetheless, they are still entirely capable of virtuoso performances of impressive energy for a three piece band with a collective age of 180.

manc01

The big surprise for me was the selection of songs, which was essentially a showcase of their ’80s material in the first set, and of their new album in the second. I enjoyed both sets very much. But their absolute best material from the apex of their career in the late ’70s was almost completely ignored. In fact it was fully THREE HOURS after the band took the stage before they played the one, solitary ’70s tune of the evening.

For one who attended stellar Rush concerts in the ’70s, that seemed a little sad. This was certainly not a concert for the connoisseur; frankly there’s no doubt at all that the setlist at my first Rush concert in 1977, when the three young Canadians had four studio albums from which to choose material, was stronger than this one, after nineteen. Of course Geddy struggles these days with the material they recorded in their twenties, with its famously energetic and improbably high-pitched vocal delivery. But La Villa Strangiato, the exquisite 1978 instrumental which has been a concert highlight throughout their career would have gone some way to restoring the balance; so would the R30 Overture – the instrumental medley of classic Rush tunes that the band prepared for its 30th anniversary tour in 2004. I suspect that they find it difficult these days to relate to their very best work, sadly. It felt a little like self-denial; almost an attempt to rewrite history.

Nonetheless the band has some brilliant post-’70s material in its canon without a doubt, and thanks to the strength of the new stuff in the second set, it was actually overall the most consistently strong Rush performance I’d seen since the Hold Your Fire tour in 1988. Songs from the new album really came to life in a live setting, powerfully supported by the Clockwork Angels String Ensemble, sawing away at their instruments with verve and gusto. I thought that The Anarchist and Clockwork Angels, enhanced by a powerful light show with moving screens, were especially stunning. A couple of crowd-pleasing classics, YYZ and The Spirit Of Radio were rolled out to finish off the second set, then after a rousing Tom Sawyer, the boys knocked out an energetic, yet somehow slightly perfunctory and certainly highly abbreviated rendition of 2112, their only nod to the first chapter of their career. Ah well – yay!

sheff01

It was, in the end, despite my reservations and a sense of an opportunity missed, a brilliant gig. I left the arena feeling content, and after chatting for a minute or two to a clutch of Rush pals I’d run into outside, walked back to the hotel. I’d had a thoroughly good time. And I’d ticked the box! Still got the set.

I encountered another pleasing selection of Rush comrades in the hotel bar, and chatted with them for half an hour or so, over a packet of crisps and a couple of Irish whiskies. I’m something of a legend in the Rush fan community – “Rush fan royalty” is the term I normally use – so it was rather nice for them, I thought, to be able to make a memorable evening just that little bit more special by meeting up with me. I was pleased for them.

I retired to my room, made use of the hotel’s rather stingy free half hour of WiFi to post a one-line review of the show to Facebook from my Android phone, then made the most of the disappointingly insubstantial quilt provided, and slept.

I rose earlier than I’d expected the next day, at about 09:15. I’d taken the whole day off work, so the world was my metaphorical oyster. Manchester city centre was, anyway. I checked out, wandered around a few shops then visited Starbucks for a very nice and very large coffee, accompanied by a croissant. I browsed the shops for another hour or so, then hopped on a tram to Altrincham, where I was reunited with my car. I arrived home in Leicestershire at about 1:30pm.

Later that afternoon, as I shared a few more reflections on the events of the previous evening and sorted through the many photographs I’d taken at the show, some of which are shown here – I realised that I had been overcome by a certain “job done” feeling. I had a tenth row ticket for another date on the tour at Sheffield, in a few days’ time, but I just didn’t really feel a need to go. Having already spent a small fortune on the Manchester ticket, the hotel and overnight parking in Altrincham, I thought I’d call it quits and recoup some of my expenses. I put my second ticket up for sale that night, and by the following morning (Friday), it was in the post to a Rush pal.

By Sunday though, I had started to feel a bit of remorse. An excellent fourth row ticket was offered that afternoon by a fan who couldn’t now make the Sheffield gig. I jumped on it. In the end, my indecision had rewarded me with a better seat.

So it was that at 5pm on Tuesday 28th May, I leaped into my car and aimed it up the M1 in the direction of South Yorkshire. It was a rainy day and the traffic was heavy in places, but I arrived at Sheffield Motorpoint Arena about eighty minutes later. I parked the car there and set off in pursuit of a person called Chris, from whom I had arranged by text message to pick up the ticket.

I met him at Nando’s, a short walk from the venue. He was a pleasant young man, dressed in t-shirt and shorts. He asked if I’d seen Rush before. I told him that I had, many times, the first being in 1977. “I wish I’d been born then!”, he exclaimed.

I replied that in some ways, I wished I hadn’t. I thanked him and headed for the pub which seemed to have been nominated, slightly uncertainly, as the pre-concert meeting place of the Rush fan community. On arriving there though, I found only one fellow Rush fan, a gentleman named Andy. We had never met before, but recognised each other from photographs posted at various times on the website we both frequent.

This was undoubtedly the oddest episode of the whole UK Rush tour story, for me. We had often crossed swords, and occasionally punctured each other with them – and I knew him as one of the most remarkably precious, deliberately antagonistic and unapologetically hostile individuals I had ever encountered on the World Wide Web. Yet in real life, he was thoroughly pleasant – quite honestly as disarmingly charming and personally warm as any Rush fan I’ve ever met. Some people seem to maintain a persona online which is markedly different from their real personality. I don’t really understand it – but each to their own, and I had no doubt after having a drink or two with him that Andy’s pleasant in-person demeanour was genuine.

And so the appointed time came, and we made the ten minute walk to the arena. I stopped to chat to a few Rush chums outside, then made my way inside where I encountered a few more. When I got to my seat I was pleased to see yet more familiar faces around me. We chatted, or waved at each other in the distance. Everyone was in great spirits, and I was glad that I’d had a change of heart and made the effort to do a second show.

sheff02

The concert itself was of course essentially the same as the Manchester show, but with a couple of changes to the setlist. The same emphasis on ’80s material was evident but I was delighted to hear two tunes in particular that hadn’t been played at Manchester – The Body Electric, from the 1984 Grace Under Pressure album, and Manhattan Project, from 1985′s Power Windows. The band played with a little more fire and energy this time. More importantly though there was an atmosphere in the audience that hadn’t been evident at Manchester – a certain shared sense of joy reminiscent of a Rush concert in September 1979 that turned in a sort of quasi-religious experience.. the people raise their hands .. as if to fly! A young lady a couple of rows in front of me was wearing angel wings and flying goggles, in keeping with the Clockwork Angels theme. She was dancing, extending her arms, living and breathing every second of the show. Her obvious joy and enthusiasm made the experience a bit more special, whenever she caught my eye.

It was over all too soon.

I had a feeling during the concert I attended in Newcastle on the 2011 tour that I might be seeing my favourite band for the last time, and I remember thinking that it would be a good way to bow out of my Rush concert-going career – in the town where I first saw them as a teenager. But I could never have anticipated that they would release an album as strong as Clockwork Angels a year later, and I’m glad to have had a chance to see them again, not once but twice, thirty-six years after that memorable night in 1977.

And who knows? Perhaps it won’t be the last.

Farewell

It’s the last day of the 2012-13 Premier League football season, and I thought I’d take an opportunity here to mark the passing of a number of prominent figures who have decided to bring down the curtain on their career.  Father Time has taken a heavy toll this year.

 

fergie

Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United for twenty-seven years; widely regarded as one of the greatest football managers of all time and certainly one of the most successful. He won the Premier League title thirteen times, and the Champions League twice. He will lead Manchester United onto the field of play for the final time, this afternoon.

 

Paul Scholes

Paul Scholes, the midfielder who spent his entire career with Manchester United and gained sixty-six England caps. His enviable record includes eleven Premier League titles, two Champions League trophies and three FA Cups. Today marks his final appearance for his club, and in professional football.

 

owen

Michael Owen, who made his name as a striker at Liverpool but went on to play for two of the world’s great clubs, Real Madrid and Manchester United. He played for England eighty-nine times, memorably scoring a hat-trick against Germany in 2001. He will make his final appearance as a professional footballer this afternoon, for Stoke City.

 

carragher

Jamie Carragher, the defender who joined Liverpool FC in 1990 and spent his entire career there. His career honours include two FA Cup wins and the Champions League. He made thirty-eight appearances for England before retiring from international football for the second time and will play his final game for Liverpool today.

 

> at Old Trafford on May 24, 2011 in Manchester, England.

David Beckham, the iconic figure who made his first team debut for Manchester United at the age of seventeen. He went on to play for Real Madrid, LA Galaxy, AC Milan and finally Paris St Germain, where he brought an emotional close to his career as a player last night. Beckham played for his country one-hundred and fifteen times, a record for an outfield player. He was England’s captain in fifty-eight of those games.

 

Boston

Horrible scenes in the news yesterday, when two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring many more.

I’ve visited Boston myself – it’s a beautiful place in some ways, with leafy open spaces and a bit more sense of history and tradition than most American cities. What you may not know is that it’s also a city with a rather unfortunate historical association with terrorism.

The Provisional IRA raised substantial amounts of money for their campaign of violence there for years. Some of the bars in the city used to help out during the “troubles” by selling drinks called “Car Bomb” and “Kill A Brit”.

boston_bomb

In June 1981, the Massachusetts House of Representatives even adopted a resolution calling for the withdrawal of British Consul General Philip McKearney from Boston unless his government gave in to the five demands of republican terrorist convicts on hunger strike in British prisons.

Perhaps one or two of the Bostonians who used to casually toss coins into a collection tin for the Provos during the ’70s and ’80s might have seen some of the images on the news, and reflected on the error of their ways.

Terrorism. Not quite so funny on your own doorstep, eh?

Margaret Thatcher, 1925 – 2013

A sad day for the people of Britain and indeed for those who celebrate freedom and democracy the world over. Baroness Margaret Thatcher died this morning at the age of 87.

It is impossible to overstate her influence or her impact on the fortunes of these islands. She was a shopkeeper’s daughter from Grantham who became the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the age of 53, in May 1979.

When Mrs Thatcher came to power, Great Britain was, famously, the sick man of Europe, a country on its knees. Militant trade unionism and a world-owes-me-a-living culture engendered by socialism and the welfare state had devastated British manufacturing and exported jobs abroad in their millions. Public services turned into inefficient state monopolies by Labour were losing money hand over fist. Inflation was in double figures. A British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, had been reduced to begging for a loan at the feet of the International Monetary Fund. By February 1979, the infamous Winter of Discontent, the unions were holding government to ransom by orchestrating strikes in essential services, literally allowing rubbish to pile up in the streets. The dead were going unburied in Liverpool and Greater Manchester.

margaret

She was the Prime Minister who had the determination and courage to bring to an end decades of decline following the war. She set free the nationalised industries, making them viable and efficient enterprises. She defended the right of the people’s democratically elected government to govern, where leaders before her of both political complexions had surrendered to the trade union barons.

When a foreign power presumed to raise its flag on British territory, the Falkland Islands, in 1982, she led our armed forces to victory against them, ensuring that Argentina’s piracy was defeated. When Irish republican terrorists went on hunger strike in British prisons, she was happy to allow them to kill themselves rather than give in to their demands.

But for me the engagement which most defines her time in power occurred in March 1984, when Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers picked a fight with her government. The militant trade unions had been accustomed to having their own interests take precedence over the policies of democratically elected governments for years, but Mrs Thatcher decided that it was time for the British people to win for once. Her government had, after all, won a General Election by a landslide only eight months earlier. Scargill by contrast had not even dared to ballot his own members.

A year later the people had indeed won, and the political landscape was transformed. The hard left unions had been neutered. Their corrosive capacity to disrupt British industry and send jobs abroad, as they had done to such devastating effect in the ’60s and ’70s, was greatly diminished. And they had forever lost their power to superimpose their own hard left agenda over the people’s choice of government. As Norman Tebbit put it so well, “we didn’t just break the strike – we broke the spell”.

Thatcher has often been described as a “divisive” figure, but that badly misses the point. The British Left’s opposition to her, aided and abetted by a broadcast media largely sympathetic and supportive to them, was bitter and vitriolic. Her great crime from their point of view was her success. She had proved them wrong, consigned socialism in this country to the dustbin of history, made ours a society in which we could take pride, once again. How could the Left forgive that? She was the architect of the proud, economically prosperous and self-reliant Britain that arose from the ashes of the industrial nation destroyed by the Labour movement. In a real sense, she was the Mother of our Nation.

It’s true to say that there was no great consensus for the course she planned, but had she waited for that, she could never have wrought the dramatic transformation in the fortunes of our country that she did. She was a conviction politician, not a consensus politician, as she famously declared herself.

But she won the three General Elections that she fought by decisive majorities. Her convictions always carried the weight of a democratic mandate, and she always made it count – because she was a winner. She defeated Labour in three successive General Elections. She defeated the republican hunger strikers, the Argentines, the GLC and the NUM. She won her battle over the economy in the early ’80s. She even played a large part in facing down the Soviet Union and bringing to an end the Cold War.

Perhaps the definitive mark of her precious legacy is that the first Labour government following her time in power, having already abandoned Clause 4 of its constitution in opposition, adopted a programme of privatisation of its own.

Each of us who considers him or herself proud to be British owes her a debt of gratitude we can never repay. She was and will remain a massive inspiration to me personally, for her vision and her singularity of purpose. I have never heard a serious criticism of her that wasn’t essentially clueless or spiteful. Perhaps our present Prime Minister, David Cameron, has put it best:

“She didn’t just lead our country, she saved our country”.

The Daily Mail and the Welfare State

The Daily Mail ran a particularly lurid headline this morning, concerning the case of Mick Philpott, the Derby man who was yesterday found guilty of the manslaughter of six of his children, who died in a fire.

mail_page

The essential problem with the Mail’s front page of course is that the children’s deaths and the circumstances that caused them are not actually a product of the welfare state.

But without a doubt, the spectacle of a man like Philpott being able to father seventeen kids by five women and send the bill to the taxpayers without doing a day’s work himself is, in its own right, an important and indeed topical news piece.

Nonetheless the newspaper has drawn shrieks of indignation on Twitter, as it always does. It seems to me that, unedifyingly sensationalist though it undoubtedly is, the Daily Mail provides a useful public service. It is a sort of social media idiot magnet, that draws out of the woodwork people who will happily become apologists for any cause, no matter how vile, in order to align themselves against the publication they love to hate.

My own view is that the British welfare state is probably the single greatest crime perpetrated by a nation state against the totality of its people. Apart from being a black hole for taxpayers’ money, it contributed in no small part to the world-owes-me-a-living culture which did so much to export our jobs and industries abroad in the ’60s and ’70s. More importantly in the present day, it has created and sustains a self-perpetuating benefits underclass which is a reservoir for crime and anti-social behaviour.

The Mail has at least provoked public debate about that, at the very time the government has embarked on a mission to set things right.