Friday, December 30, 2005

Jah Wobble, 100 Club

Ah, Mr Wobble. Since his days as Johnny Lydon’s foil in the post-Pistols aftermath, Jah Wobble has cut a unique, diffident and always interesting figure in the world of just-successful-enough-to-keep-going musicians. With his unrepentant cockney roots, his self-taught, unconstrained musicality and his love of thudding basslines alongside warping echo he has cut a unfashionable, avant-gardeish path since he split from PiL after the seminal Metal Box LP. Widely recognised amongst those-that-know as an innovator, Wobble has survived on varieties of a fairly simple template – standard heavy sound-system bass and drums topped with, at different times, Arabic singing, tabla drumming, William Blake recitals and his own cockney ramblings. All of this, of course, long before anyone else you may have more recently heard of, (Timbaland or the Afro-Celts for example) had thought of it. His experimental attitude and individuality has drawn a host of music’s eclectics to his door, including Brian Eno, Bill Laswell, and Can’s Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebzeit. Wobble’s talent perhaps lies less in his virtuosity as in his knack for giving other musicians the space to express themselves within his parameters.

For this show Wobble is backed by the English Folk Band, who look suspiciously like his old backing band Deep Space, with a couple of new faces thrown in. So it seems that the topping du jour for his subwoofer-shaking adventures are plaintive English folk singing, some penny-whistling, a Frenchman playing apparently a party-box of oddly shaped pipes and a slightly reluctant-looking trumpeter. The Wobble rhythm section features his full, overbearing bass playing beside wah-wah, phaser and echo-drenched guitar, held together as tightly as close-stitching by the relentless, extraordinary drumming of Mark Sanders who, like all great drummers, appears to be doing the percussion work of three or four people.

For the most part things proceeded well enough, the songs varying in outlook or style but most of them eventually tending to meditative dub forays. Wobble, looking something like a lost member of Madness in cream suit and porkpie hat, sat to the side lazily fingering his bass, occasionally jumping up to direct the musicians in one direction or another. They vanished for a tea-break at one point – his words – and, on their return, built up to a nice crescendo. Then they disappeared again, before returning for an encore. Somehow, however, the second half seemed a bit short and it was too soon to ask for an encore, no matter how willing the crowd. Encores are an odd business at the best of times. I was left thinking ‘I’ve paid for the gig and now you want me to beg you to finish it’.

But finish it they did, slowing it down again, instead of aiming for another big climax. Which made me think, why stop at one, when you can have three or four, an attitude female readers may relate to. After George Clinton, of course, everyone else seems to be selling you a bit short. The other criticism, apart from a mix more suited to a casserole than a concert, was that Wobble and especially Sanders, rarely seemed to let up and allow the others to lead from the front occasionally. Especially with the delicacies of folk, it would have been nice to let the singers and players get heard a bit more.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Goodwill etc

I received my first charity Christmas present today. I missed out on the year of the goat, and my patron this year stretched as far as 100 school dinners for some African kids, courtesy of Oxfam. Although my initial reaction was disappointment at missing out on a book token, I was quick to bathe in the clear waters of self-righteousness. Only later did it dawn on me that effectively was has happened is that someone gave some money to charity and then told me about it. Far from the ingenious plan I’d been led to believe, for the recipient a charity gift seems like a bit of a double-loser. Not only do I not get a present, I don’t even get to feel good about giving my present away. Its hard to know exactly how to phrase a thank-you letter. “Dear Aunty, thanks very much for giving ten pounds to the poor.” Although, in fact, it has provided me with that most valuable gift at Christmas – an idea for what to get everyone else.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Oliver Twist

Polanski’s take on the Dickens stalwart rescues Fagin and Sykes from the music hall and returns them to the dark, stinking slums where they belong. At certain points in this tight, captivating film the pair genuinely appear to have been raised up from the depths of hell. Ben Kingsley so perfectly inhabits Fagin that it takes more than a while to remember that this is the same man who played Gandhi. A true character actor, he exposes the paucity of the talent which “graces” our screens most of the time. Of course he has the memory of Alec Guinness to contend with but of all today’s actors, probably only Kingsley could do it justice. Jamie Foreman, meanwhile, as Sykes, looking as pug-faced as his pitbull companion, provides a modern but effective take on the part and the film’s strengths are all on show when at one point he and the dog roam the countryside looking like a phantom apparition.

The beginning scenes are a little ponderous but everything comes together as soon as Oliver hits the city. Victorian London is portrayed in shabby magnificence, seemingly populated entirely by overly aged adults and thin children. The only person apparently between the ages of 15 and 60 is Sykes. The rest of the cast have a great time, laying on the cockney thicker than the mud on the London streets. But what starts out as an enjoyable romp soon veers off into darkness as the criminal screw slowly turns on Oliver.

Interesting, slightly luvvie, interview with Kingsley here.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


Somewhat belated review of Ricky Gervais’ summer sitcom, brought about by my spending a few days as an extra on the set of a Hollywood blockbuster whose name by confidentiality contract I am not allowed to disclose but which is the film of the book The Da Vinci Code.

What is a nice if inconsequential series gets far more credit once you actually do extra-work yourself. Within about three hours I had adopted Ricky Gervais’ resigned slumping manner and was plotting, much as he does, dubious ways to get myself on the screen. In contrast to Gervais, however, I did not mingle with any celebrities at all, let alone ones flagellating themselves to prove their credentials as good sports. Even the director was nowhere near the film set, the job being left to a second or even third unit to get the completely unimportant shots.

We started at 5am from Paddington on the bus and got to our base camp at about 7. They’d set up huge tents held up by hydraulic poles and we straight away got in a queue for a English breakfast from the caterers, dishing it out like school dinners as rained lashed down all the tents. After we ate we got kitted out in our costume. Then they drove us to the set at the cathedral. Then we waited around. At one point one of the assistant directors came over to us and said “sorry but some of you guys have been eating the toasties. The toasties are for crew only I’m afraid. You have your station, yeah there it is,” he said pointed at a table with some hot water and tea bags on it. “Yeah that’s your station, and please we haven’t catered for background for the toasties.”

I wanted to know how, with braces holding my trousers up and my whole body sandwiched between two tightly linked plates, how I was going to be able to have a shit. He thought about it. “You’ll have to buddy up,” he told me.

After a while it was time for lunch. After we ate lunch they hurried us into the cathedral and 50 of us stood in a line getting swords tied to us. As we waited in line, costume people would come along and smarten us up, although often one would finish with you before another rearranged you differently. Once I got the sword attached I suddenly felt more balanced and I sat down to wait on a chair in the cathedral, propped up by the sword touching the ground. There we waited for three hours. I drifted in and out of dozing, resigned to being uncomfortable in the costume.

Finally they called us to be filmed. They lined us up in a small hall and gave the cardinals some scrolls to hand to us off of silver platters. We were to take them and then bow as they blessed us. I was the first person in the line, but furthest from the camera. After a few minutes they decided that the priests would start dishing out the scrolls from half-way down the line. They took a few shots of that, went in for a few close ups and I was nowhere near being in any shot at all. Despite this the make-up people continued to dab my face from time to time and costume came along and tightened me up. It occurred to me that London Underground is not the only place in the world where people are paid a lot of money to stand around doing very little.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Modern Proverb #1

A friend of mine was once selling LSD in the West End, outside a club on a summer night, high on the acid himself. A man came and bought a few trips off him and went away. A few minutes later he returned, robbed my friend of all his acid, along with some weed, ecstasy and most of his money. My friend, bereft and feeling very edgy, walked down the street into the arms of several policemen who stuck him in the back of their van, searched him thoroughly but, finding nothing, were forced to let him go. So it is said that your guardian angel can take any form, even that of a thief who robs you in the night.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Run Come Rally

How they had got there was a blur. But now they were here, a large wood-panelled lecture room. People sprawled on tables along the walls of the room, while the centre, where hundreds of chairs were laid out in rows, was left alone.

He began shooting infiltrators. “You can tell who they are,” he announced to the room, “you just look into their eyes,” and it was true. The securitars had a sly, wicked look, their eyes had this dull sparkle which was quite obvious once you knew what to look for. A lot of them had these studded sleeves as well. He circled the room, looking in everyone’s eyes and shooting all the infiltrators. There was no protest. He shot them quick and gave them no time to react.

At one point he looked at four kids sat on a table, one with red hair, dressed like a devil, the others in green boiler suits, clown masks pushed up on the top of their heads. He whispered to the priest behind him, “what do you think?” The priest looked and said under his breath, “red hair.” Mendy quickly walked up and shot them all. As he did so the priest started to protest. “No, only the…” he said, but his voice drifted off.

Mendy had a TV handset in his pocket and suddenly thought of turning on the news. It seemed the thing to do. He had wondered what they were going to make of it. The pictures were from helicopters, showing the building’s brutal, concrete exterior. Words sat at the bottom of the screen. HOSTAGE CRISIS, they read. MANY HOSTAGES SHOT. He could see battalions of black-armed agents advancing towards the tower, like spilled coffee spreading across a carpet. Won’t be long, he thought.

Now, with all the infiltrators shot, slumped haplessly against the walls, the rest of the group began to patrol, waiting for it to happen. They shuffled around the room in a big circle. As they walked they passed bullets along the line, the bullets they had filched from the infiltrators. As he took a few from the person behind him, Mendy thought to himself, “we’re going to need a lot of bullets if we’re going to get out of here.”

Friday, September 23, 2005

Dolly Daggers, Asylum

21 September 2005

I’m standing around on Charlotte Street, after a underwhelming set from once-were-hopefuls Jade Fox waiting, with no great expectations, a short set from the all-new Daggers and then the welcome embrace of my duvet. From within suddenly I hear the set start, pacey drums, bass and a Rhodes keyboard being played (complete with wah-wah pedal) to sound like an electric guitar. Straight away, and I mean straight away, I rush downstairs into the seedy basement, awoken from ennui by the definite presence of that all too rare musical commodity – Electricity. Ladies and gentlemen, the Dolly Daggers have got something good.

On paper, and for all I know on vinyl as well, a three-piece playing pretty much a London take on the Strokes doesn’t sound spectacular. But take that template, basically fast, up-beat and most importantly short rock’n’roll pop songs, add a dash of the Beach Boys – mostly harmony singing rather than any sunny disposition – and sprinkle in some Bowie and whoever are the latest effeminate stars to borrow his mantle and you still only have half the Daggers’ recipe. To this concoction you have to add tidy musicianship, in writing and playing, great rock riffs, reminiscent thankfully of sixties rock (before they all forgot about the ‘n’roll bit) and effective, confident vocals. Finally, and essentially, zip it up in the blender with Alexis’ drumming, the first drummer I have seen for a long time (Keith Moon springs to mind) who looks like he’s actually trying to smash the drums up with his sticks, at the same time as trying to attain the world record for speed drumming. Then shake vigorously, which is what you’ll be doing when you hear them.

In a room full of musicians, the only noise louder than the band was the sound of a bar being raised. If I had to criticise, when they slowed down for ballads (showing good sense of the need for variety) the paucity of the lyrics showed through a bit. I won’t be asking any of these kids for advice on nothing soon, but if I want to dose up my evening with a jack of 1000 volts, I could look in a lot of worse places. They will be playing Asylum on Wednesday nights regularly and I advise you to get down there soon, before fame ruins them.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Pride and Prejudice

The new film starring Keira “Twice” Knightley and Matthew “Who?” Macfadyen is played with a straight bat by director Joe Wright, in his debut feature film, the first film adaptation of the novel for 65 years. Although never going surpass the definitive nineties BBC adaptation, the film is a fair, if unadventurous, stab at the classic period romance. The comedy is certainly handled well, a superlative Brenda Blethyn as Mrs. Bennett - apparently her last role before retirement - by far the best thing in it. Anchored by nice parts for Donald Sutherland, seemingly doing his best Michael Gambon impression, and Judi Dench, donning her well-worn regal air as the Duchess, the film proceeds at a brisk pace through the various turmoils and travails, reaching its destination with a certain inevitability, rather like a train pulling into a station.

I did wonder if I was being churlish, however, in sensing a definite lack at the centre of things; while Knightley is good at the comedy, the forthrightness and the being pretty aspects of the part there is an unfortunate sense that she doesn’t actually fancy Mr Darcy very much at all. At times, as they to-and-fro between despising and adoring each other, you find yourself wondering what she actually sees in him, a fairly major fault in such a definitive romance. Macfadyen, though he handles the acting requirements well enough, just doesn’t seem to have it in him to make her swoon. Very rarely do they occupy they same screen and I wondered whether when they filmed her doing sultry, they didn't have to stick a cardboard cut-out of someone else in front of her.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

George Clinton, Forum

Some critics seem to have written him off, but the star-child keeps rockin’ hard as ever. Old fans may have got blasé, but they have merely forgotten; no-one does it like this lot. It don’t matter; any style they want; soul, funk, rock, doo-wop, hip-hop, they put anyone to the test. Although known primarily for their late-seventies disco hits, Parliament-Funkadelic encompass so much more they practically have their own corner of music. Two of the band sported AC/DC t-shirts, clear evidence that good, hard, show-stopping rock’n’roll matters to these guys just as much as beautiful vocal harmonies, booty-shaking bass lines or multi-layered horn-lines. George, dressed in a patchwork silk dress-shirt and with his multi-coloured locks tied up to show a subtle union jack, still helms the proceedings, but they go on quite contently with or without him actually on the stage. With musical virtuosos like keyboardist Bernie Worrell and guitarist Michael Hampton and a host of absurdly talented youngsters, the sheer exuberance, as they ripped through a practically bottomless back-catalogue, was gobsmaking. No question, these guys show how it’s done.

Named Parliament-Funkadelic for the occasion, instead of the usual P-Funk All-Stars, (due to the presence of Bernie Worrell, the name’s copyright-holder) the extended band (10 members? 20? You can never tell) blasted Kentish Town for over three hours. Although the name change didn’t herald much change in the usual set, they’re still imaginative, a female violinist, for example, playing the classic Maggot Brain solo, note for screaming note. How much longer Clinton, 66 last Friday, sporting some serious bags under his eyes and looking occasionally like he might like to keel over, can continue is a fascinating question. On this evidence he’ll still be out there with zimmer frame and (atomic) guide dog, leading both band and crowd in a lesson in how to party y’all. Towards the end the band filled the stage with most of the prettiest girls from the crowd. They all vanished backstage where, in the hey-day, the party went on for days. George himself, though, looked more like he was going to bed.

Friday, July 22, 2005

A Night in Baghdad, Purcell Rooms

Not, fortunately, actually in Baghdad and neither was this part of the apparently on-going attempt to bring some Baghdad life to London via the medium of suicide bombers. Instead Iraqi ex-pat Ahmed Mukhtar, virtuoso musician, played the Oud, an eleven-string fretless lute. Wearing snazzy shoes and a suit that seemed to have been made out of Plaster of Paris, Mukhtar took at first to the stage alone. Once there, he conjured music from his instrument that, while neither especially hypnotic nor beautiful, seemed still to entrance me. I became aware of sudden shifts in my attention, almost as though I’d been smoking hashish. Despite arriving with a sore back, thoughts of pain, unhappiness and discontent were momentarily unable to intrude through the music’s comforting glaze. Mukhtar explained that many of the tunes were versions of songs dating back four or five thousand years. The tunes lay on you as softly as a feather; they were there, but you couldn’t pick them out. It was gently eye-opening, the plucked strings softly resonating within me. For a moment there was danger of an impending spirituality; it was only resisted when I considered the possibility that I was indulging in this effect to stop myself from getting bored.

Ah, the turmoils of the agnostic! I needn’t have feared, since Mukhtar seemed to have a sixth sense; each time I’d consider being bored he’d be about to finish the song he was playing. After a few songs, he introduced the first of his accompanying percussionists and there was no more chance of getting bored. This guy came out in full Ali Baba get-up and proceeded to tap and subtly jangle a tambourine in a way unfathomable if you’ve only ever seen the instrument as a sop to rock stars’ girlfriends. He was soon followed by Kurdish drummer, Hassain Zahawy, wearing a kind of Kurdish kung-fu suit with white shoes like a cow’s hoof. He proceeded to batter the daff, a Kurdish drum, his fingers somehow doing the work of three or four drummers. To round off the set a third came out, this one in full Arabian headdress. With his pale face and pencil moustache though he looked curiously like an impostor, though he played his drums well enough. The three drummers showed how syncopated rhythms should be done, displaying a control of both timing and touch that puts to shame the harsh, computerised fare we generally subsist on. They finished the half with a Sufi rhythm in 9/8. When there’s a drum’n’bass tune in 9/8, then we might be getting somewhere.

In the toilet at the interval the guy next to me said “I think Bill’s right, it has been rather thrown together.” Oops, I thought, as a critic I need to keep my wits about me, rather than drifting off into a dream. The second half confirmed that Bill was right, it was thrown together, but it seemed all the better for it, as the drummers showed an exceptional ability to keep complicated poly-rhythms while taking cues, sharing solos (at which Zahawy excelled, playing a big marching drum with what looked like an umbrella handle) and all the while complementing Mukhtar and his soft, gracious Oud-playing. In fact the three drummers appeared genuinely impressed with each other, lending an extra glow to an already grand performance.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, Tricycle Theatre

The Tricycle, currently vying for an unprecedented fifth year running as winner of the most uncomfortable theatre in London, plays host to this watchable blend of Amos Oz, Alan Bennett and Ready, Steady, Cook. An assortment of characters from both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict perform mainly monologues and some domestic scenes, interspersed with their favourite recipes. The gimmick is that they actually cook them live on stage, filling the theatre with smells of Middle East cuisine, while all the talk is of tear gas, gun shots and, of course, suicide bombings. The script is based on interviews with real people and casually drops in details of the appalling quality of life for all sides - but especially the Arabs - while you are struggling to remember their culinary secrets.

My own culinary prowess was exposed today when, after I put a watermelon in my fridge to chill, it came out tasting of my fridge.

The British Working Class, Channel 4

Michael Collins’ adaptation of his own polemic makes interesting, but frustrating, viewing. Following roughly the same course as the book, Collins aims to expose a new era of derision towards the white working class, exemplified by the rise of the ‘chav’, that social outcast providing the tabloids with so much of their fodder. Websites such as chavscum detail this particular sub-group with relish and Collins traces it back to the MacPherson inquiry into the Lawrence murder and the opprobrium heaped on the five accused, white working-class boys.

Beyond that, Collins investigates his family's life in Elephant and Castle in the last 150 years and turns up pretty much your average "gor blimey guvnor me rosy-tin'id specs are on and no mistake" view of the pre-sixties working-class.

Collins has a point, it does seem as though racism and prejudice sometimes becomes acceptable as long as its about the poor, white natives; its true that the working-class have always been down-trodden and remain ever more so, despite the best intentions of the do-gooders, city planners, demagogues, Thatcherites and whoever else has taken an interest. The demonisation of ‘chavs’ does make me uncomfortable. When I first came across the phrase, it was out of the mouths of people who were scared of youths I thought they should have smacked around a bit. But as the chavscum webmaster points out, the people most up in arms about ‘chavs’ are the people who have to live among them, ie. the ‘respectable’ working-class.

But in so many ways Collins wants to have his cake and eat it. For example the white working classes are both entitled to protest against enforced multiculturalism (and march for Enoch) and yet are the best racially integrated of all social strata. That these might be different people seems to have completely escaped him. And this sort of example shows precisely where Collins goes wrong, in his lazy and gratuitous lumping together of countless different types of people under essentially two banners – the salt-of-the-earth, misunderstood and downtrodden working-class and the pretentious, interfering, prejudiced and privileged middle-class.

Which raises a slightly ad hominem point - which of the two groups does a working-class born and bred yet now successful journalist and film-maker fit into? Much praise for this book from the likes of Julie Burchill, who's made much of her working-class roots despite never clocking on for work in her life.

Others have produced far better dissections of Collins’ book than me. Andrew Anthony, Mike Phillips and particularly Ed Barrett offer thorough and interesting rebuttals of the weak-points of his arguments while all agreeing that there is something to his complaint.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Irony Alert

Environmentalists today warned of an impending worldwide catastrophe brought about by the widespread overuse of irony.

“We’re using up irony at such a rate,” claimed Greenpeace spokesman, Pith Taka, “that very soon there won’t be any left for future generations.”

Fingers have been pointed especially at America, which produces irony-consuming statements at far above the worldwide rate. Mr Taka pointed to President Bush’s recent statement regarding the London bombs as a prime example of a wanton disregard for the potential irony shortage. Bush said, amongst other things, “On the one hand, we got people here who are working to alleviate poverty and to help rid the world of the pandemic of AIDS and that are working on ways to have a clean environment. And on the other hand, you've got people killing innocent people.”

Bush is well known for his belief that current reserves of irony are more than enough to maintain the US’s cavalier usage. And he is deeply sceptical about the well-researched claims that overuse of irony has devastating consequences for the political environment. It is generally accepted amongst scientists that overuse of irony will lead eventually to rising cynicism levels, more frequent and serious political storms and the endemic corruption of leading governments, also known as the Whitehouse Effect.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Taking the cannabiscuit

Something is awry in the cannabis world. The recent “down-grading” of cannabis from class B to class C (making possession no longer an arrestable offence, but perversely accompanied by increased penalties for trafficking) has barely been given a moment to get bedded in before a clamour has arisen. Cannabis, we are told, and especially a new potent, vigorous strain known as “skunk” is addling the minds of our youth, sending some mad and damaging the development of the brains of others. This sort of thing has been appearing in obvious places (the Daily Mail), less obvious (Trevor McDonald’s Tonight) and surprising (the New Statesmen), but it certainly suggests a co-ordinated campaign.

The relaxing of the cannabis laws was a typical New Labour fudge. It pleased absolutely no-one, with the possible exception of the police who got, in one fell swoop, both less work and more power. It left the government open to the charge of being soft on drugs without showing any signs of understanding the problems. In short they did the thing that was the least of all the things they could do, as though that would make any difference. All it has done is encourage the rabid anti-cannabis lobby to dust down any number of dubious scientific studies to get out the idea that cannabis is a deadly poison mind-mangling spirit – which it may be.

Some of what is being said has a grain of truth – there certainly are stronger strains of marijuana widely available nowadays and these strains are certainly implicated in mental distress for some people. Of course it has been known for many years that cannabis can complicate mental illness and should be, but often is not, avoided by sufferers. There is, however, a lot of hysteria being generated about “skunk weed” at present with some people even suggesting that crack addiction is preferable to habitual skunk consumption. But if anybody would seriously prefer their child to consume crack instead of skunk, then they need to learn more about crack.

The name “skunk” is a generic term for certain strains of marijuana with general but not essential characteristics in common. In actual fact “skunk” was one of the original hybrid strains successfully bred by growers in California but it is now an umbrella term for all marijuana engineered in this way. These hybrids differ somewhat from “traditional” cannabis. Firstly they are stronger in their effects, with the active chemical THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) present in higher proportions. Secondly they have frequently been bred to be ideal for indoor growing, under lights and often hydroponically – with water and chemicals instead of earth.

It is this indoor growing which has transformed the UK cannabis market. In the eighties UK-grown cannabis was poor quality and the market was dominated by North African hashish and African marijuana, alongside the better quality Indian hashish and Caribbean marijuana. The quality was variable and droughts were sporadic. Most of the marijuana which arrived here had been compressed into blocks to facilitate smuggling. Unless it was very high quality (known in the Caribbean as “sensimilla”) it would generally have been fertilised by the male cannabis plant and contain unsmokable seeds, which would have to be removed by hand. The hashish would frequently have been pressed and pressed again, allowing smugglers to add all manner of material to their produce to make it go further. This traditionally would include vast quantities of henna, the plant dye, but also even the less palatable motor oil could find its way into the bars. Quality marijuana and hashish were available, of course, but unreliably so.

At the start of the nineties developments in indoor growing technology allowed both huge warehouses and bedroom closets to be turned over to cannabis production. The cannabis produced – “skunk weed” – was not only reliably potent but more importantly reliably fresh and (due to the ease of the male plants being removed from the grow-chambers) unfertilised. For this reason almost all “skunk weed” is sensimilla.

Thus, the attraction of skunk was obvious and it rapidly over-ran the market. The staple poor quality Moroccan hash (“Rocky”) and African bush weed are still available but at absurdly low prices. In 1990 an ounce of Rocky would cost £80-£90. Nowadays it would be unlikely to fetch much more than £40. That there is still a market is in a large part due to the reluctance of many smokers to regularly use skunk, because although it has its attractions, it also has its problems.

When skunk was still very new I was told that some Jamaicans had taken to calling it “obeah weed”. “Obeah” is a term for the Jamaican occult, similar to Voodoo and was not being used as a compliment. Jamaicans could already access fresh sensimilla of traditional strains and were wary of this new-fangled variety. There was an important difference between the marijuana they were smoking and the marijuana produced by the skunk strains.

Cannabis is divided into two major varieties – sativa and indica. These varieties have different types of THC. Sativa has more THC and Indica more CBD (cannabidiol) and produce noticeably different types of cannabis. Indica strains generally produce cannabis with a heavier, physical effect compared with sativa’s lighter, more cerebral high. Cannabis indica also produces a more resinous plant and is the source of almost all the world’s hashish, grown in a swathe from southern India across Afghanistan, Pakistan, across the Middle East and into North Africa. Cannabis sativa does not produce enough resin to make large-scale hashish production feasible and so generally is processed as marijuana buds. Sativa grows across central and southern Africa, continental America, the Caribbean and also some parts of south-east Asia, notably Thailand.

Skunk weed, however, although grown, processed and sold like sativa, is never a 100% sativa strain. This is because only indica strains grow large enough and mature quickly enough to make indoor growing worthwhile. Over the years many strains have been developed with more sativa in their genes, because it is widely understood that sativa produces a more mellow high compared with indica, but almost never is a skunk strain less than 50% indica.

Over the years I have heard many cannabis smokers complain about the skunk weed which they consume. They say that it “mongs them out” and that, even in small doses, its strength is of a different order to ordinary marijuana. Often they also enjoy that increased strength. But they are forced into choosing skunk because high quality sensimilla is so hard to obtain in this country. Time and time again they have only a choice of skunk weed, poor quality “bush weed” or adulterated hashish. This skunk has frequently been grown in poor conditions, using fertiliser chemicals under unnatural lighting. The different effects all of this causes in the final product is very difficult to assess and differentiate from the increased potency of the indica strains. Street skunk weed is frequently known as “punk”, rhyming slang but also perhaps a comment on its quality.

Drug laws are not renowned for their rationality but the irony of anti-cannabis campaigners complaining about the potency of skunk is telling. It is the very drug laws they seek to reinforce which create the circumstances in which skunk weed is so prevalent.

Yet another irony is the call for more research into cannabis. Research is, of course, always welcome but there is evidence of the use of cannabis as an intoxicant stretching back at least 2000 years and countless research papers have been prepared on its effects – many suppressed after failing to come up with the desired negative results. Compare that with the widely prescribed Ritalin and consider whose youth are having their brain development damaged.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Mortal Luvbat

The sooner we recognise that we are all mortal, the better. I don't think one has to put a skull on one's desk as a memento mori as they did in the Middle Ages. But I've always felt there is no such thing as darkness: only the absence of light. There is no such thing as evil: only the absence of goodness. And one can accept death more easily if one doesn't think of it as an equal opposite but simply as no life.
Peter Brook

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Abdullah Ibrahim, RFH

The 70-year-old South African pianist comes to grace the RFH with his sublime playing. And grace is the right word, because everything he does is imbued with a permeating peacefulness. A true jazz master, only very occasionally did anything as base as a tune sully proceedings. But somehow I felt I could listen to his playing and understand precisely what the song was about. The drummer and young bass player provided excellent support, although at times I felt the drummer was a little too busy, almost flashy, for the auspicious atmosphere.

The problem for the critic, when reviewing such an established great, is that any criticisms he may have more about him than the criticised. Once an artist has been playing at this level for over 50 years, they become, more or less, beyond criticism – it’s a take it or leave it situation. But if I was to be honest, I’d say that it was perhaps too peaceful, and I may have dozed off towards the end. Luckily any residue of stillness I might have reserved was rapidly wiped away by a quick visit to the late showing of Star Wars : Revenge of the Utter Shite.

Saturday, June 04, 2005


The beautiful thing about writing is that you don’t need anything. In order to write, all you need is to write.

The writer continuously needs to say everything twice, to repeat himself, but say it differently the second time. This means he needs to have two phrases for everything he wishes to say, which is a pain, but it at least doubles the chance that he’ll be understood.

Writing, like most things, is an escape. Momentarily engaged with putting mind to pen to paper the writer loses touch with those torments which bedevil his ordinary existence, his doubts, worries, fears, pains and, for a brief moment of forgetfulness – of lost attention – he becomes as he is.

Of course worries and concerns are not imaginary and will therefore reinstitute themselves in due course, if they can. The writer gains relief from them, a moment to breathe fresh air, a reminder that the most pressing of problems has its limits, although he is not able to transcend them.

At least writing fills his time, gives him at least the illusion of a purpose. Aha, he looks up from the page – a few more minutes have been spent fitfully. Despite the fact that even the finest fruit will wither and rot, it is still considered better to be fruitful than to be barren. Fruit, of course, never outlives a tree – only the stone, the hard unyielding nut, has that chance. But just like a tree can be strangled by weeds, so can a writer choke on his own over-grown metaphor and resign to start afresh.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Degradiation Sickness

The "happy slapz" craze had barely scathed my consciousness until I came across this (zipped files of .3gp files - open them from QuickTime player) assortment of downloaded films which show that "happy slapz" are neither slaps, nor particularly happy. There is an odd fascination is watching them, but mostly it is incredibly depressing and quite a few border on the unwell, to my obviously ageing temperament. Be warned, the youth of today are by turns violent, sick, nasty and only occasionally very funny. And definitely not as funny as they think they are. Mostly it is run-of-the-mill teenager-on-teenager bullying and degredation but the mobile phone also takes us into a council estate world where drug dealers tie up and slap up their indebted customers and teenagers film their mates having sex on the stairwell.

On a related, and slightly more amusing theme armed police arrested a load of A Level media studies students filming a mock gun fight in Barkingside.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Semantics #2

Idiosyncronicity - when being wrong is too much of a coincidence.


"The great thing about family life is that it introduces you to people you'd otherwise never meet."
Christopher Hitchens

Sunday, May 29, 2005

18 Stones of Idiot, Channel 4

aka 60 Minutes of Shite.

Johnny Vegas' new show, a Chris Evans-produced rehash of "Don't Forget Your Toothbrush" (other possible names may have included "Don't Forget Why You Left TV") is hopeful but suffers on too many levels. Although sporadically funny, Johnny's new found TV confidence finds him in hectoring, arrogant mood - but if I wanted to see 18 Stones of Yelling Alcoholic I could pop down to any number of pubs. It strikes me that a morbidly obese Northerner, no matter how quick-witted, is always going to have a problem cast as an obnoxious cunt, but Johnny perseveres, casting off his previous sympathetic, somewhat downtrodden persona for a character modelled roughly on a cross between Julie Burchill and Vyvian out the Young Ones' with a massive pile of cocaine. At this point I'd tend to seek solace in the Bible, where I'm sure it says "let he who is without man-tits cast the first stone", but the trendy young do-as-they're-told audience lap it up. In fact, considering the diabolical stste of TV nowadays, the show was more than passable. Ray Winstone made a fairly uninspiring guest and getting some doofus off the shopping channel to act as foil for JV's rapier spittle was also uninspiring - so much so that I couldnt think of another word. "Celebrity Lock-in", where 80's b-list slebs - Rusty Lee (!), Roland out of Grange Hill - sat in 90s-uber-pub the Good Mixer showed that TV is the best at parodying itself, but also failed to live up even to its own half-arsed joke. And letting Neil Hamilton on was just cruel.

Overall, 50/50. Meaning I wouldn't turn it on, but I wouldn't turn it off.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

First Wanking, Now This

Viagra makes you blind

Whats next? Doggy Style? Blow jobs? Blindfolds?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Theatre of Blood, National Theatre

Lavish romp, based on seventies cult film, in which a deranged old ham murders a gaggle of critics after they murder his season of Shakespeare. Each murder is a twist on a famous Shakespearean death scene - Shylock gets his pound of flesh, Joan of Arc gets frizzled alive in a hairdressing salon, to mention just two. The subject matter obviously makes it hard for an uninhibited judgement, but luckily the play, and especially the performances, are spot on. Jim Broadbent, as the murderer is fantastic, spouting amateur-dramatic Shakespeare endlessly but still garnering sympathy. The critics are nicely judged in their seventies get up, each one's character faintly representing the paper they work for. The set, the proscenium arch of a delapidated theatre, sited in the austere Lyttleton, is a nice touch. Overall, its great fun and the added self-referential element - how the about-to-open National Theatre will ruin/save theatre - made it more involving than a straight black farce. That the point they may have been making was lost to those of us lacking theatrical pedigree, didnt matter.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Cannabis March

Surprised myself by stumbling upon this demo, gearing up in leafy Russell Square for a short trod to that concrete sun box, Trafalgar Square. The turnout wasn’t great and no-one I knew had heard about it either. The poor advertising was explained to me to be due to problems getting a licence to march from the authorities. Apparently the organisers had to stump up £1800 for the ‘security’ (presumably plod) and the licence wasn’t awarded until three weeks ago. The march was ostensibly about medical cannabis, presumably being the best route for the grievances to get a hearing and there were a few wheel-chaired bods about the place but it was mostly that studenty crowd that you’d expect. The march itself was OK, quite a bit of media around and samba drummers and pretty girls. Then everybody congregated in sunstroke hell under Nelson to listen to a variety of speakers including Caroline Coon, the lady who started Release. She started badly - "The campaign for the end of prohibition is often pejoratively stigmatised as silly, hippie, white and 'middle-class'" - and then got worse - choice out of context quotes include "Most dealers of cannabis are black" and "Black youth is drawn into the criminal gang culture because cannabis is a sellers market". You can read her somewhat controversial speech here. It is of course actually well-meaning and, listening closely, she may even have a point. But it somehow didnt seem right. Luckily the wind blew the sound all over the place.

I was thinking about how the government keeps drugs illegal because they can make more money out of them that way. The criminalisation of weed is such bad grace that only conspiracy theories really do it justice.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Ong Bak

Much hyped Thai contribution to the martial arts revival of late, involving extraordinary stunt-work from the lead Tony Jaa reminiscent of Jackie Chan in his heyday. He leaps over, under, around, between moving cars, vats of boiling oil, panes of glass and countless other people - in one shot he escapes a legion of baddies by jumping up and running from shoulder to shoulder over them. Tbe opening scene, featuring 20 Thai schoolkids fighting to be first to the top of a tree - up and down the tree - was fantastic and original. The fight scenes, where he employs Muay Thai against a variety of western and oriental opponents, were dramatic and believable. Unfortunately the film commits the common error of using up all its big fights too early, so that the finale is just more of the same. Also the realism of the Muay Thai is at the expense of the delight and variation seen in the Hong Kong flicks. By the final fights it had almost lost my unforgivably jaded attention.

The just

He said to me, “you’ll sleep like a baby”
I said, “yeah I will. Wake up every two hours and cry.”

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Henry IV Part 2

Shakespeare, according to popular wisdom, invented countless words we still use today. One word he should have invented is "superfluous", because it comes in handy summing up the dialogue in this drawn-out parade of insignifica. This play could well have been Kafka's inspiration for a labourious bureaucratic nightmare. It seems to me that if you are going to have to listen to three hours of esoteric verbal gerrymandering, you should at least get a few murders and a ghost, like in Scooby Doo. Watching this, in some vain attempt to up my cultural capacity, meant I turned down a ticket to see Arsenal. Luckily, they only won 7-0. Culture has not come out showered in glory.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Too Good To Be True

If something's too good to be true, they often say, it is. Alternatively, I have come to realise, it may just not be that good.

Saturday, April 16, 2005


Bill : He was murdered by a spurned lover
Nige : It could happen. Not to me, but it could happen.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Pope Idol

The new pope will be elected by votes from the cardinals. All the wannabes will have to do a turn or two. Could they televise it and call it "Pope Idol"? or maybe "The Cross Factor"

Friday, March 18, 2005

Dave Allen RIP

A great comedian whose enduring gags were those pointing up unnoticed absurdities in ordinary life. My personal favourite, which I remember watching as a very small boy, was one about a sign he had seen saying "Are you Illiterate? If you have trouble reading and writing, contact this address!" Others are here

In memorium, I'll offer my own. On the back of a credit card I saw a small notice saying "If your card is lost or stolen phone 0898xxxxxxxx". Handy, I suppose, if you've just stolen one.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Raison d'être

Within this life I find
that I'm craven
I could have been wine
but instead of that I'm
a raison

All of the time
I find I need a haven
I should have been wine
but I'm
a raison

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The good doctor

"In America, childhood is a disease. Spontaneity is a symptom."
Oliver Sacks

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Thinking is a Mindfield

Friday, March 04, 2005

Cheap Self-Help Phrase of the Week

"Your Wish Is Your Command"

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Drugs damage the capacity for reason

The drugs debate takes another of its ponderous turns with the reaction to the new Met Police chief’s ludicrous attack on middle-class drugs users. Ekow Eshun makes a few valid points, but misses (or denies) the truly glaring inconsistency in the argument that the moral middle-classes should forgo cocaine because of its connection to global terrorism and crime. If ever an argument begged the point this is the one – is it the affluent user who creates the crime with their demand or is it the ass of a law which puts the control into the hands of gangsters.

Eshun makes an interesting point about Pete Doherty, the shambolic pop star, whose pictures – looking decidedly worse for wear - graced the tabloids throughout the week and who spent the weekend in prison after allegedly assaulting a photographer and stealing his money. Doherty, Eshun says, is feted by the broadsheets whilst being condemned by the tabloids. He thinks it's because Doherty is from a middle-class family, but it strikes me that drug-crushing rock stars were always working-class in the old days and were feted just the same. Well, not quite the same, since Doherty was – extraordinarily - interviewed by Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark, but it's just a matter of degree. It’s easy to say that if Doherty was in a Burberry suit he’d be ignored but history disagrees. Talent will out, generally, given the chance. (This is not to express an opinion on Doherty's talent which I have yet to actually witness, despite occasionally trying to listen to the Libertines.)

In fact the point about the tabloids points up something else, which is the way that the working-class often have stricter morals than the middle-class (which the tabloids reflect with their lurid and condemnatory coverage). They need them, because they can end up so much worse than the poor rich kids. So the problem with middle-class drug users becomes that because they have the leisure, money and space in which to indulge their drug use they encourage society as a whole to accept drug use, the results of which are far worse once they become endemic on poor council estates amongst people with none of these luxuries.

But this is really an argument long overtaken by events. It seems to be a constant one step forward two steps back. A study comes out showing that heroin, removed from its criminal snare and simply prescribed to addicts is actually basically manageable and causes little strain on the addict’s body, certainly far less than alcohol. I remember reading a report of a Swiss study which showed this in the seventies. The reaction to this sensible study is entirely predictable – a cacophony of condemnation for suggesting that people can take heroin safely. The fact that it appears they can is lost. Again it comes down to the same old point. The drug laws create more problems than they solve.

Looking through newspaper reports this morning you see the same words coming up over and over again. “Feted”, “shambles”, “worse for wear”. Luckily I’ve managed to avoid using them myself.

Rather brilliant headline here ’I chased Pete Doherty with a claw hammer’ in the Telegraph of all places.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Tree tops

Space cadets. We sat at the corner of the park, waiting for the sun to go down far enough to make it too cold to sit there any more. The wind picked up and the light trailed across the grass in long, stalactite-like rays. The sun glistened at the top of the trees, like a diver waiting to plunge off a high board. The grass rustled in the wind, spelling out the wind’s impetus, as though two invisible people were having a wrestling match. We was high.

It was inevitable, nowadays, but in a car crash you’d prefer an airbag and so, living in a society of car crashes, I’d come to prefer a cushion or two. It blew up in my face, and smothered me, just as I was getting worried. Sometimes I worried that I couldn’t breathe, but that went away.

My friend, who was restless by nature, had gone off and was considering the higher branches of a tree. Mentally, of course, all things are possible. And as the mind and the body are one, that means that physically all things are possible. It is just a matter of bending physics to will, I suppose. Not necessarily to will, of course, but perhaps more to intention. These subtle differences meant nothing to me, but they provided us with a great deal of idle chat.

I looked up in time to see my friend skirting those same upper branches with the agility of a small monkey. “Its still warm up here,” he told me, as a blast of wind stung my face.

I turned around and looked at the tree, which seemed to be still growing out of the ground as I stared, a gigantic thing of constant motion, which I suppose it actually is. The trunk seemed to be straining to get away from the roots, just as the roots seemed to be snaking out of the ground. The intention of a tree is plain – to go upwards – but does it have a will?

Climbing a tree is as natural – perhaps more natural – than walking, but it requires a certain lack of attention, a forgetfulness, which is the forgetfulness of down. Your body carries you upwards quite happily, but your mind will remain on the ground if you let it, and constantly interfere. Only when you have to return to the ground do you appreciate what it was going on about.

We sat up in the branches, smoking weed and staring into the sun. Suddenly a wave of dissatisfaction came over me. “This is all very twee,” it said, “we want more about the car crashes.” I turned to look at my friend who had nestled between the branches like he was on a sofa, but his eyes were shut. I realised I was both in the tree and on the ground at the same time. If I made a wrong move, it occurred to me, something very wrong could happen. I could either fall out of the tree or, possibly, fall back into it.

The branches seemed to constrict me now, full of intention. I realised that my arms and legs were not in their usual place, that is somewhere to the left and right of me, but instead appeared to be all around me, in front, behind, above, in places in which you’d never think they’d get to. I stretched my leg out and began felt a long hard stab in my back which ran up my spine and past my head. Air rushed past my ears, whistling a favourite tune. Branches bounced off me, as though a whole gang of schoolkids were attacking me. I grabbed one as it went past and held on tight to it, hoping to use it as protection. It spoke to me.

It said, “Hold tight.” The other branches stopped hitting me and I dangled in the air listening to the movement of the tree. I thought I’d open my eyes at this point. When I did I realised that I was above my friend in the tree, and not below him, as I had thought I would be. This gave me a powerful shock as I realised the tree had actually been attacking me, instead of the whole thing being a cosy hallucination as I tumbled downwards.

Later on we repaired to my house and sat around staring at the ceiling.