The metamorphosis of Chapel Club

Chapel Club at Birthdays, Dalston, London, August 2012


Chapel Club are hot right now, but not as hot as this club. It’s so hot in here that the air is thick with moisture, making the results of flash photography look the Victorians’ weird efforts to capture ghosts on film. Like a hotel maid, club staff lay a fresh towel alongside each musician’s instrument – cheaper than air con, I suppose.

Chapel Club have gone through something of a metamorphosis. Gone are the tight trousers, cropped haircuts, serious expressions and downbeat lyrics of their previous incarnation as post-Editors, Interpol-esque guitar-wranglers. Here at Birthdays the superheated crowd await the new sound that singer and lyricist Lewis Bowman has described as, in a candidate for Understatement of the Year, “pretty different”.

To whoops from the crowd come the opening strains of ‘Scared’ – gentle strands of echoing synth and filigree guitar spun together, a crescendo that drops with a bassline that is nothing short of a groove.

It’s a summer record, drenched in reverb and delicate synth lines that tumble like blossom in a heat haze. “When I was only young/To me the world was mine, in which to go have fun,” sings Bowman sweetly. “Now I am fully grown/I’m not saying I’m happy but/I’m not alone.” It’s not every day a pop group channels St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians. “I know that you might be feeling a little scared/But it’s nothing to be ashamed of”, he croons, striking a note with everyone in the room – old cynical gits, young idealistic fools, and all points in between.

Under the pitch bend and glissando bass of ‘Sleep Alone’ the skins are battered in the approximation of a hiphop beat while Bowman – whose vocal range is impressive – caterwauls over the top. ‘Jenny Baby’, a song apparently and inexplicably about Jennifer Lopez, is a wash of acid lines, throbbing bass and deep, dubby drums.

Versions of ‘Surfacing’ and ‘The Shore’ from their debut album follow, refashioned to be bigger, bassier, beatier and more danceable in keeping with the new material.

Bowman’s crew cut aside, synthmeister Michael Hibbert, Liam Arklie on bass, guitarist Alex Parry, and drummer Rich Mitchell now sport flowing locks, t-shirts and loose-fitting clothing. The sound is heavy, dubby, druggy, clubby. People are dancing, everyone is sweating. What have the band being doing in Los Angeles? If they could bottle it, they’d make a fortune. Everything’s got baggier. Were they locked in a room listening to Ultra Vivid Scene, Slowdive and the Happy Mondays?

Sometimes a band has tracks just made for opening or closing sets. Wrapping up tonight is ‘Good Together’, a fairly epic ten-minute drum and bass work out whose rising and falling arpeggios echo the sentiments of Bowman’s lyrics, as two people tumble in and out of love. Around the four minute mark it dissolves into an extended deep house instrumental broken up with snatched, echoing samples of Bowman’s voice. Blissed-out pop music with big rhythms. The lights come on, the crowd left wanting more.


Originally published at Clash Music, as were my photographs from the gig.

Paul Simon’s Graceland 25th anniversary concert @ Hard Rock Calling

Paul Simon at Hard Rock Calling. Credit: Andy Sturmey
Paul Simon at Hard Rock Calling.
Credit: Andy Sturmey

The big news is that it didn’t rain on Sunday. That the previous days and weeks had seen torrential downpours that required hundreds of tons of woodchip to shore up poor Hyde Park’s turf is a minor point – it was relatively quagmire-free as festivals go.

But there was never any doubt that the soaring sounds of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ on offer tonight would have lifted the dampest spirits.

Lurking mid-afternoon in the backstage hospitality area, refreshments came courtesy of Starwood Hotels’ impressively elegant (considering it was in a field) SPG VIP area, which among other things provided an opportunity to talk to two Russian ladies. Their initial friendliness was revealed to be an undercover marketing ruse, as their chat quickly turned to preferred brands of credit cards.

It’s a strange festival. Apart from the headliners – Paul Simon (age 71), Bruce Springsteen (62), the apparently ageless Iggy Pop (65), and Soundgarden – and a handful of others like Alison Krauss, the Guillemots, Big Country, The Mars Volta, – you’re left with a bill over three days of names that don’t resonate. Most seemed happy to pay only to hear Paul Simon, judging by the early evening rush at the gates.

With the crowd swelling Paul Simon came on a little early – perhaps in an effort to avoid a repeat of Saturday’s debacle in which Springsteen and Paul McCartney were abruptly cut off when they overran. Onstage Simon appeared a little like the lyrical travelling salesman of ‘That Was Your Mother’ in battered suit and hat – but while he was never a big man, his music still punches above his weight. Hits from the 1970s such as ‘Kodachrome’ seemed poignant looking back over a long career of many musical directions, while the crowd lapped up a sax-heavy rendition of ‘Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover’. Later ’80s singles like ‘The Obvious Child’ from South American-infused album ‘Rhythm of the Saints’ still sparkled, but was sung – jarringly, and inexplicably – without chorus. In a surprise guest spot, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff bounced spritely through ‘The Harder They Come’, and ‘Vietnam’ in a duet with Simon.

But the biggest cheer was reserved for the many members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo whose arrival with ‘Homeless’ signified a whistlestop tour of ‘Graceland’, taking in ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’, ‘Crazy Love vol II’, a positively transcendental rendition of ‘Graceland’ and the glorious, rousing opening accordion chords of ‘The Boy in the Bubble’. While it was not possible to reconvene ‘Graceland’s entire original musical ensemble (“some were unavoidably unable to take part in this reunion concert due to being dead”, as the Telegraph so elegantly put it), there was obvious delight on the faces of all the musicians, young and old, to be playing such joyous music again – not least because in the years since it was written and first played, apartheid had finally ended.

By now the sun had departed, and alone under stage lights Simon whispered ‘The Sound of Silence’, ‘The Boxer’ and finally ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’. They said it was crazy to make an album like ‘Graceland’, but Simon and the millions of listeners turned on to this wonderful music from Africa 25 years ago have proved them wrong.


Originally published at Clash Music, July 2012.

Psychedelic Furs @ Highbury Garage

Psychedelic Furs
Psychedelic Furs

“When did you first see them live?”
-“Sometime in the ’70s”
-“At Glastonbury about twenty years ago”

Tonight’s crowd at the Highbury Garage has been around a bit – watching the stage is a landscape of widow’s peaks and thick trunks. There are men in plaid, with beer bellies and thick necks, a man in a battered original Cure t-shirt, and scores of men and women with a free pass from their significant others to come and wallow in nostalgia for an evening.

The Psychedelic Furs, led by brothers Richard and Tim Butler, were formed in 1977 and released their eponymous debut album in 1980. They’ve been gigging, bar some years in the wilderness, for thirty-five years, and some fans here have probably been coming to watch them for as long.

They kick off with the clattering, motorised ‘Into You like a Train’ from their breakthrough second album, ‘Talk Talk Talk’. Their early sound is tight and bass-driven, claustrophobic with flanged guitars, shrieking sax and Richard’s hoarse, evidently British, atonal singing voice. It just works, a lesson in how to pull off that style, unlike modern pretenders (The Drums, I’m looking at you. Find a singer).

Richard is a sinuous, writhing, grinning golem, still with the gaunt cheeks of his youth. Replete in head-to-toe black, a waistcoat, and heavy black-rimmed spectacles he looks like a successful graphic design consultant. Tim stalks the stage with his bass from behind dark glasses looking for all the world like Andrew Eldritch after a few good meals, and still managing to conjure up a little of the menace from the Furs’ punkier days.

The crowd are more than willing, their flesh discovering strength perhaps forgotten. Better-known hits like ‘Mr Jones’ and ‘Pretty in Pink’ are met with roars of approval, while a hundred similarly bespectacled faces mouth words they didn’t realise they remembered.

The more synth-heavy art-rock sounds of their later albums still please, with ‘Love My Way’ and the sublime saxophone of ‘Heartbeat’ provoking men in their ‘50s to roar out the words alongside girls young enough to be their daughters. Furious renditions of ‘India’ and ‘President Gas’ set off widespread moshing down the front and brings the set to a close after a respectable 90 minutes.

What’s our problem with ageing rock stars? No one tells BB King, Fats Waller, or Dave Brubeck to stay at home and age gracefully. Perhaps it’s the words “rock” and “star” that are so inflexible, that allow so little leeway for age and maturity over youth and exuberance. In his fifty-seventh year, Richard may be nearly superannuated but remains super-animated, miming lyrics with constantly moving hands, clearly enjoying himself as he high-fives fans down the front. Mars Williams – besides Tim the only other member from the ’80s lineups – looks like an immaculate bluesman in suit and shades, his sax soaring. With youngsters in the crowd as well as first-time-arounders, it’s clear that not only can the Psychedelic Furs can still knock out a show, but that their post-punk heritage lives on in the countless revivalists of the last decade inspired by them and their ilk.

To hell with the naysayers. How do you want to earn a living in your later years? Maturity is for wine and cheese.


Originally published at Clash Music, July 2012.

My Tiger My Timing album launch @ The Lexington

Anna Vincent from My Tiger My Timing

It’s been a long road for My Tiger My Timing, the indefinable indie-synth-pop outfit from New Cross, from their first single ‘This Is Not the Fire’ back in 2009 to this celebration of their debut album ‘Celeste’ (which technically isn’t out until July).

Anna and James, the siblings that front the band’s boy-girl-boy vocal harmonies, think so too. “It’s taken a lot of our time because we’re totally DIY,” Anna says. The band self-manage, run their own label Snakes and Ladders on which their last two singles and first EP were released, and work day jobs in between time in the studio. “We’d work on some of the record, then run out of money. Make a bit more money, make a bit more record,” Anna explains. “You can’t really stick to schedules when you’re working like that.”

First up, Crawley three-piece Ornament Tournaments tear through four or five songs of no-nonsense straight-up guitar and drums, with singer Joseph Kent rocking the grunge-revivalist vibe in denim cut-offs and stripey socks. “The world is your oyster,” he yowls, “so swallow it down.”

The airless Lexington’s only ventilation is bursts of air expelled from bass bins as the drummers deliver a positively sadistic assault on their skins. It looks like it’s going to be a night for drummers – rarely do you see anyone at London gigs enjoying themselves as much as the drummer from second support Artifacts, who grins and gurns his way through the set, driving the train that carries his band mates’ noisy guitars embellished with synths struck like percussion.

And so to My Tiger My Timing, who bounce on stage with obvious relish and launch into album taster ‘Wasteland’, warm reverberating synths laced with a Kate Bush-esque vocal trill. Their songs incorporate a capital city of influences – a South London blend of sharp, off-kilter Jamaican dancehall rhythms, the bright, shimmering guitar of Mali, Kenya and the Congo, and new wave synths. They blend luxuriant Scandipop with up-front rhythms and the controlled weirdness of Talking Heads.

‘Written in Red’ follows, one of two unabashed pop songs to arrive last year alongside ‘Endless Summer’. “For us, pop is not a guilty pleasure,” Anna says. Filled out from the Spartan but beautiful demo heard last year, ‘On My Record Player’ is a highlight – a lush, exuberant ode to music’s power to console and confuse, Anna looks more confident than ever stepping out from behind her Korg to sing, shout, punch and prance about the stage.

The three-part vocal harmonies fit, Gary’s drumming is tight and Jamie’s basslines deliver through half a dozen new album tracks broken up by stalwarts like ‘Let Me Go’ and ‘The Distance’, and it seems finally that My Tiger My Timing control their instruments and not the other way round. Each song delivers infectious melodies and footwork rhythms, to which the inexplicably inert crowd here seem all but immune.

Closing to appreciative applause, ‘This is Not the Fire’ brings them full circle, still sounding as fresh as it did three years ago.


[Originally published on, May 2012]

Zagat: the 30 under 30 of London’s chefs

Friend and multi-award-winning features journo Claire Coleman was kind enough to put me in touch with Zagat when their 30-under-30 circus rolled into town. Having already scoured Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago for the cream of young and up-and-coming chefs, it was London’s turn.

While British food was once ridiculed, London now attracts some of the world’s most creative and resourceful chefs. All tastes and wallets are accounted for – from fine-dining formality to tasty street food, from alchemical cocktails to quintessentially British gastropubs, London’s restaurants and bars are alive with new ideas.

I spent several intriguing hours talking to each of them about their background, interest in cooking and where they’re headed. With the youngest only 19 years old and among them several head chefs running their own restaurants at only 25, there’s some formidable talent and ambition among them.

For a click-through slideshow of portraits and interviews, head to Zagat’s blog.

Chicago – a guide to the windy city

I spent two weeks in Chicago in January 2012 while loafing around the States. For me Chicago is a city I’d always wanted to visit. The vast industrial and slaughterhouse underbelly of the American Midwest, the tales of politics and prohibition-era hoodlums, home of the skyscraper.

But for me, it was mostly a musical pilgrimage to the home of Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard, Lil’ Louis and Ron Hardy: the home of house music.

I landed some work writing travel guides for Guidepal, a startup travel guide company that has seen many millions of it’s free smartphone app-based guides to 70+ cities downloaded in barely two years. For two weeks, I Couchsurfed my way around the city. From Greektown, to the Mexican heartland of Pilsen, to the golden onion domes of the Ukrainian Village, I found inspiration, dug out hot tips and found the low down from people I met in the bars and cafes, my wonderful Couchsurfing hosts, Time Out Chicago, Lucky Magazine and many other places. Braving the snow and -15 C temperatures, I spent an enjoyable fortnight (American readers: that means ‘two weeks’) heading out into the huge Chicago metro area, from the Lakeside, to the hipster paradises of Wicker Park, to the home of America’s favourite architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the suburbs, and even a couple of nights deep in Englewood, in tragically neglected, derelict south Chicago. My Airbnb hostess, Annie, swore vehemently that the police were wrong to say it was the ‘worst place in Chicago’.

“Can’t be anything worse than the third worst place in town,” she cackled, flashing her toothy grin.

At 8.5 million people, Chicago is a huge city best seen from the top of the John Hancock Center at dusk, where the lights of the city grid stretch off to the horizon in every direction. By foot or by bike or by the elevated L-train metro system, it’s a great city to explore, with over a hundred varied, characterful neighbourhoods. Chicagoans have a bluff, Midwest down-to-earthyness about them, a welcome relief from Los Angeles and New York City, where practically everyone you meet seems to think they’re the next big thing.

I loved it, and would move there tomorrow. If only winter wasn’t coming around again so soon…

You can find my guide to Chicago over at Guidepal.

Who’d work in (anti-) social work?

A big concern of those lined up against public sector cuts has been that the vulnerable will lose out on services that make a big difference to the quality of their lives, such as in the social care sector.

But what if some of these services are doing more harm than good?

There have been a number of well-read blogs written by police officers, ambulance paramedics, nurses, magistrates or teachers that give accounts of the often bizarre and chaotic nature of public service delivery. Winston Smith, the Orwellian pseudonym of a 37-year-old social care worker, appropriately won the Orwell Prize last year for his blog that has now been published as a book, Generation F, which gives an insight into the strange world of the youth social care system. Amid tales of terrible behaviour, baffling politically correct-speak and profligate spending, he argues that these services actually work against their stated aims – failing to socialise their residents leaving them unlikely to play a positive part in society, while squandering public money on layers of bureaucracy or in pandering to their unreasonable demands.

Now working in the north of England, the book condenses Smith’s five years experience working in half a dozen projects into the characters that populate a fictional supported housing project and a children’s care home, drawn from real life people and events. Written with dry humour in a perceptive, forthright style, the book veers from blackly funny to outright horrifying. Reviewed in the Daily Mail and Guardian, it generated a storm of responses from readers divided along partisan lines – with one decrying ‘broken Britain’ while the other lambastes the author for his lack of empathy.

Smith rejects the charges that because he refers to his residents’ worst excesses bluntly he is somehow a heartless reactionary. “It’s typical that critics focus on the language I use to describe the problems rather than the problems themselves,” he says. “A lot was written originally for the website within hours of coming off a shift when you’ve been shouted at and abused. They’re very negative places to work, and while I’m a paragon of professionalism at work, when I come home and blog then my feelings are going to come out in the language I use.”

Smith argues that the pervasive culture of political correctness which sees being ‘judgemental’ as unacceptable has meant errant youngsters are never properly chastised for their antisocial behaviour. The flats and communal areas get regularly damaged, verbal abuse is commonplace and even in the case of physical threats or violence, the process of eviction can be long and arduous.

“I think there needs to be a bit more tough love. I don’t believe children need to be seen and not heard, but they need to be led by strong adults who have an idea of who they are and where they’re going, and what values they need to impress upon that young person and not leave them to run wild. That is, after all, what a parent would do,” Smith says.

As a younger man, he experienced problems with drink, drugs and depression before pulling himself together and gaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Teetotal now for 10 years, he has experienced the same sort of mental health problems, destructive drink and drug use that plague those youngsters at the bottom of the pile – those who have also sometimes been abused or failed by their families, and who are now all too often failed by the state in loco parentis.

Smith says the culture that pervades the social care system bends over backwards to accommodate the ‘rights’ and whims of the often ill-educated, anti-social, violent minority while failing to provide firm, consistent guidance as to what is expected of them. Those who use the services without causing trouble suffer from sleepless nights, noise and aggression from those that do, and difficult teenagers and young adults leave with serious behavioural problems left unchecked.

He explains: “The actual support the young people are given doesn’t benefit any of them, beyond the fact they have a roof over their heads. You have a generic paperwork template that has to be adhered to for the funding to keep coming, into which everyone no matter how different has to be squeezed. The ones that have got jobs, that are in college, that are trying to make something of their lives will tell you openly: this is nonsense, I don’t need you to write down that I’m going to go to college or work. Of course I am, I only come here because you send me warnings if I don’t.

“On the other hand the ones that do need to sort their lives out never turn up to any meetings, receive loads of warnings and threats but nothing ever comes of it.”

By systematically failing to deliver consequences for negative behaviour – for example, not filling in a housing benefit form means no rent is paid, which leads to eviction – supported housing projects isolate their residents from reality rather than equip them for independent living, as is their aim.

“Housing in this country is so expensive even middle class people with degrees can’t afford to rent and are stuck living with their parents, so it’s difficult for people at the bottom end of the scale,” Smith adds. “So while a place to live is something anyone would agree with, I don’t agree with armies of support workers being complicit in this lie – because it is a lie that anyone needs support to get to the dole office – and it just increases the dependence on the state and erodes any sense of personal responsibility they have for themselves. “If you as an individual cannot even sort out the free money you get from the state, what hope is there for you in life?”

There is a sense in what Smith is saying that the care system has overreached itself by taking responsibility for our actions when it should not. In one case, a mother, who refused to sign the form that would allow her teenage daughter to move into the supported housing project, thinking it would only worsen her behaviour, was told by her daughter that the Connexions service could sign it for her – aiding and abetting parents in dumping their children into social care at the first sign of difficult teenage behaviour. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of supported housing projects almost doubled.

At the same time, the care system too often makes a poor job of it. Smith describes one teenager who had been taken into care age five following sexual abuse. “When she left at 18 she had a wide range of behavioural problems, personality disorders and was quite violent. Staff would say, ‘Oh isn’t it terrible how she is, but what can you expect?’ But we have to bear some responsibility for the person she has turned out to be. We have had 12 years of complicity in who she is, it’s not just down to her first five years.”

The social care system, from child protection to care for the elderly, is a regular target for criticism despite dealing with some of the most difficult people in society or taking on the roles we wish to offload. In the light of the Panorama exposure of cruelty at care homes last week, that scrutiny is bound to increase. But the problems here are not limited to the care system. While the welfare state bends to help anyone at the bottom, even when they‘re “the most feckless, irresponsible, antisocial people who blight the lives of anyone they come into contact with,” Smith says, “the higher echelons of our society get the same treatment. The bankers were rescued, and now perversely pay themselves bonuses at the taxpayer’s expense. Failure gets rewarded at the very top and very bottom, and everyone in the middle gets screwed.”

In an age of moral relativism and increasing divide between rich and poor, the care system’s troubles look more like a metaphor for those of society as a whole.

Generation F (Monday Books) is available now, £8.99

Radiation: what we do and do not know

Accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima expose how little we know about radiation

As the baton of nuclear disaster is handed after 25 years from Chernobyl to Fukushima, scientists still find themselves with more questions than answers on the effects of radiation on human health.

Vitalik Dashkevich is 18, has blonde hair and sparkling hazel eyes, but beneath his chin is the scar where doctors cut a tumour from his neck before his sixteenth birthday. He is among hundreds of children and teenagers the Chernobyl Children’s Project brings on respite holidays from contaminated areas of Belarus to Britain every year.

Despite being out of school for two years and spending months in the Minsk cancer hospital, he is not against nuclear power. “The old reactors were unsafe. The new generation of reactors are safer, it couldn’t happen again,” he says.

But it has. Tragically, 25 years almost to the month after Chernobyl, history threatens to repeat itself at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, where partial meltdowns in four reactors have yet to be brought under control after eight weeks.

Described as “apocalyptic” by Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, Fukushima was this month updated to a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Events Scale – the highest level, which it shares only with Chernobyl. Germany, where anti-nuclear feeling has always run high, looks likely to invest in renewable energy rather than nuclear power.

It remains a highly divisive issue. Talk of radiation provokes fear and hostility despite the presence of background radiation across the planet in rocks, soils, food, the air and in our bodies, and despite the undeniable benefits of radiotherapy, X-rays, CT scans, or power. Radiation is invisible and poorly understood by the public, but even in scientific circles there is still much that is debated.

Our understanding of ionizing radiation comes mostly from the Life Span Studies of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb survivors. The effects of large doses of radiation, especially when received in short periods of time, are generally agreed: radiation sickness occurs at around 1 sievert (Sv, the unit of radiological dose, equivalent to 1,000 millisieverts or mSv), severe radiation sickness after 2,000 mSv, and death is likely beyond 4,000 mSv. Background radiation in Britain is 2.7 millisieverts per year, of which man-made radiation makes up around 20 per cent, mostly from medical imaging.

By comparison, the radiation levels around the Fukushima nuclear plant are in the range of 0.03 mSv to 0.5 mSv per hour indicating that, at worst, spending five hours at the plant would be about the same as a year’s background dose in Britain.

The Linear No Threshold theory (LNT) adopted by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) holds that risk increases with radiation dose, with near-zero levels posing a near-zero risk, increasing in line with dose. So according to the models used to draw up safety codes, low levels of radiation below 1 mSv – considerably lower than the background radiation – pose a risk so small as to be statistically invisible. This is the model used by the industry and other government watchdogs such as Britain’s Health Protection Agency.

But a growing number of scientific studies claim to show the LNT theory is inaccurate and unscientific, although perhaps demonstrating the limits of our understanding of radiation, however, it is either more dangerous, or less dangerous than the LNT model represents depending on who you ask. Some even suggest a little radiation is good for you.

One problem is that we don’t understand the mechanism by which radiation affects the body. Former World Health Organisation radiation biologist Dr Keith Baverstock says: “We know that after a dose of radiation you can find chromosomal damage and cell mutations. Then there’s a big gap, and then cancer appears. But until we know how we’re on shaky ground making any claims.” With cancer already running as high as one in three people among some populations, this makes it difficult for studies to accurately identify additional cancers that may have been caused by radiation.

Some have taken the lack of coherent findings that are not contradicted by other studies as proof that radiation poses no danger below the high levels required to cause radiation sickness. The radiation hormesis theory suggests that, similar to a vaccine, small amounts of radiation stimulate the body’s natural defences, actually increasing health. Belle, Beneficial Effects of Low Level Exposures, was set up in 1990 to study such theories and gather evidence that demonstrates the hormesis effect. For example, one study of residents from an apartment block in Taiwan built with steel accidentally contaminated with radioactive cobalt-60, found that among the 10,000 residents who had lived there for nine or more years rates of cancer were much lower than the model predicted, despite the dose they had received.

However, other studies suggest that the LNT model is wrong because it fails to take into account the impact of radioactive particles absorbed by the body in food, water or air – so-called internal emitters – which potentially effect the body very differently to the strong, external radiation blast experienced by the atom bomb survivors on which the risk model is based. Independent radiological consultant Dr Ian Fairlie says even background radiation, while occurring naturally, is not benign. In fact radioactive radon gas, a by-product of natural uranium found in the earth, causes an estimated 21,000 lung cancers a year according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Strictly, the doses of radiation received by inhaling radon gas are not sufficient to cause harm under the model used by the ICRP. Yet while radon is the accepted cause, the same model rejects the idea that low doses from caesium, strontium and plutonium fallout from Chernobyl – and now Fukushima – is high enough to cause harm.

Fairlie says: “It has everything to do with the politics of nuclear power, and nothing to do with the science. It is a case of fitting the science around the policy. We all do it to an extent, but it is important to take the most unbiased approach possible, and not cherry-pick the evidence.”

The Committee Examining Radiological Risks of Internal Emitters, set up by the government and on which Fairlie sat, concluded in 2004 that the uncertainties surrounding internal doses were so large – differences of between two and ten times predictions – as to make the model’s estimates almost useless.

In 2008, the German KiKK study (Kinderkrebs in der Umgebung von KernKraftwerken, Childhood Cancer in the Vicinity of Nuclear Power Plants) examined data stretching back 10 years and found a regular pattern of childhood leukaemias that increased with proximity to nuclear plants. Similar studies had been carried out at Sellafield in the 1980s, which discovered no less than seven cases of childhood leukaemia in one village, Seascale, four miles from the plant.

“You have to be upfront and transparent about nuclear power. The government should have stated that in the worst instance we could expect a few deaths in the local population,” Fairlie says.

But is it reasonable to single out the dangers from nuclear power when the alternatives also come with risk attached? Fly ash released by coal-burning power stations contains radioactive uranium, thorium and radium – something known since at least a 1978 study of Tennessee and Alabama coal plants found doses of up to 1.8 mSv to those living within a mile – but without sparking the same media hysteria. That’s to say nothing of the tens hundreds of thousands of deaths from air pollution the world over, and the thousands of deaths in mines – 30 a year in the US; more than 2,000 a year in China alone. Even wind turbines have led to 69 deaths since the 1970s according to Caithness Windfarms Information Forum – comparable to those killed in nuclear accidents, but having produced a fraction of the power.

Modern society needs power, and it is prepared to accept a degree of risk in generating it but, says Baverstock, our approach to risk is not rational: “People will happily do things that are high risk like smoking. People are prepared to accept risk if they feel they’re getting a benefit from it, but perhaps don’t see nuclear power sustaining the electricity grid as benefit enough.

“We must be consistent,” he warns. “How are the public to make a decision if we tell them to avoid unnecessary CT scans because of the risk they pose, while at the same time telling us that radiation of a similar level radiation from power plants is harmless?”

Part one of this debate on nuclear power is here.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2011]


Chernobyl has taught us more about the industry and politics than radiation and health

Pripyat is still abandoned, and 25 years later the same mistakes are made and the same questions hang over the IAEA and nuclear industry.

A quarter century after the world’s worst nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Michael Parker finds a power generating industry happy to keep the public in the dark.

Old habits die hard. When reactor no. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine blew itself apart just before 1.30am on April 26 1986, it was natural for the Soviet government to deny it, even as the radioactive cloud swept far to the north and set Geiger counters shrieking in Finland and Sweden.

Denial, misinformation and cover-up were stock in trade for Soviet authorities, and a previous major accident – an exploding nuclear fuel dump at the Mayak processing site in 1957 – was not revealed until 1979. In the days after the Chernobyl disaster, Grigori Medvedev, the former deputy chief engineer at Chernobyl then working at the energy ministry, was put in charge of an investigation.

His 1991 book, The Truth about Chernobyl, lays bare the incompetence and negligence of staff who disabled safety systems, the lax safety culture, and the design flaws of the RBMK type reactors that were known but ignored. He records how the authorities issued no warnings to the population of Pripyat, the town which housed the plant’s workers barely two miles from the stricken reactor from which streamed radioactivity equivalent to 100 times that released from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. School children played outside and weddings took place.

When Pripyat’s 50,000 inhabitants were finally evacuated 36 hours later, the official line was that it was only for a few days – the town remains abandoned 25 years later. The official line still held on May 1, when Communist Party bigwigs came out to watch the parades knowing full well they, and all those marching, did so under the radioactive plume. There was even a show trial of senior managers, who were only freed from prison when the USSR collapsed.

The conniving did not stop there. Journalist and former politician Alla Yaroshinskaya dug out previously classified government documents which revealed how in the face of rising numbers of people diagnosed with acute radiation sickness, the ministry of health simply raised the safe acceptable radiation doses tenfold, redefining the sick as healthy. Without irony, the statement from May 8 1986 claims: “By these means the health safety of the public of all ages is guaranteed, even should the current radiation situation last for 25 years.” Doctors were banned from writing radiation-related causes on death certificates, and statistics were falsified.

However, since 1990 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Health Organisation (WHO), UN Scientific Committee on the Effects Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and other UN agencies have produced numerous reports on the accident. But despite the involvement of the democratic western nations, a sense that the whole picture is not being revealed remains.

The Chernobyl Forum, set up by the IAEA and including the WHO and other agencies, reported in 2005 the controversial claim that around 50 had died, and 9,000 could be expected to die from radiation-related causes following the accident.

Given the scale of the disaster – a complete reactor meltdown, a radioactive fire burning in the open air for 10 days, a radioactive cloud across the continent contaminating hundreds of thousands of square kilometres – many felt this played down the consequences. The press release that accompanied the report’s publication even used the figure of 4,000 deaths, when the body of the report concludes the total is 9,000. There were other complaints: the tone seemed overly final, when any figures are only vague estimates, the report only examined the effects on Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, and emphasised only cancer deaths, rather than the wide range of non-cancer effects such as heart disease, cataracts, nervous disorders and genetic genome instability reported from the former Soviet republics. It is very hard to accurately connect deaths among exposed populations to radiation – studies are inconclusive, data incomplete, possible other factors too numerous – but science demands an objective assessment.

Some scientists felt it was a familiar routine. Radiation biologist Dr Keith Baverstock headed the WHO’s European radiation protection programme, where in 1992 he investigated claims of high rates of thyroid cancer appearing in Belarus. “We were shown around 11 children, all having had recent thyroid operations,” he recalls. “Thyroid cancer is so rare there was no way it was possible to have that many cases in one hospital. “I had been put under pressure not to go, and when we published a letter of our findings, a senior WHO manager strongly suggested I withdraw the letter, which I refused.”

Thyroid cancers in Chernobyl-affected children stand around 7,000 and rising. Treatment is readily available and generally successful, but while only a handful have died, the standard treatment of removing the thyroid leaves the patient dependent on medicine for the rest of their lives. Scars from the operation are so common they have a name – the ‘Chernobyl necklace‘.

Ultimately funded by their member states, the IAEA, WHO and other UN organisations are inclined to ensure that governments hear what they want to hear, Baverstock says. The discovery that radioactive fallout from power stations could be dangerous would “not be welcome”. “The upper levels of UN organisations are not technically qualified people, and make decisions based on politics.”

Based on their findings, Baverstock and his colleagues drew up new safety guidelines that would ensure potassium-iodide capsules, which prevent the thyroid from absorbing cancer-inducing radioactive iodine-131, would be distributed at a radiation dose ten times lower than previously. On publication, the IAEA announced the guidelines were “draft”, and should be ignored.

“We were furious,” Baverstock says. “When we finally had a meeting it turned out there were no scientific objections to this, only financial ones – from France, who with reactors near so many large cities objected to the expense of all those capsules.”

Other organisations such as Greenpeace, Green Party-associated groups and environmentalists and scientists from the former Soviet Union issued their own reports, with death estimates ranging from 30,000 to one million. But if anti-nuclear groups could be said to have a vested interest in maximizing the Chernobyl bodycount, it must be said that the IAEA also has vested interests of a different nature. After all, this is a body set up to promote civil nuclear power, yet a 1959 agreement between it and the WHO gives it precedence in any nuclear-related matter – such as carrying out research to ascertain health risks of radiation and nuclear power. The conflict of interest is obvious, but Baverstock says in reality the agreement is irrelevant: the WHO and UN Development Programme sit on the UN Economic and Social Council, while IAEA with its role monitoring nuclear weapons sits on the more senior Security Council, and thus pulls rank.

Following the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, where partial meltdown in three reactors has yet to be brought under control after six weeks, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano stated the organisation is not the “nuclear watchdog” it is frequently described as. “Responsibility for nuclear safety lies with our member states. The IAEA acts as a hub for international cooperation, to establish safety standards and provide expert advice.” Applying and enforcing safety standards is up to national governments, he said.

Poor standards were to blame at Chernobyl, and perhaps also at Fukushima, where criticisms of the 40-year-old reactor design’s poor secondary containment – destroyed by the explosions last month – had been made since the 1970s, with recommended upgrades never rolled out. Tepco, the plant’s owner, was investigated for falsifying repair records in 2002.

Perhaps nuclear technology is incompatible with the profit motive? Not necessarily, Baverstock says. “What Fukushima has shown is that governments and the industry have not learned. There needs to be a watchdog with enforcement powers, perhaps even owning the plants,” he says.

“We still don’t fully understand radiation risks, and there is certainly irrational fear of radiation among the public. We are not always rational, but if there is incompetence and deception from the nuclear industry then that will, not unreasonably, colour the public’s view.”

At the birth of the atomic age nuclear power stations were the means to manufacture weapons-grade material for nuclear bombs. The industry grew up in an era of Cold War secrecy and the demands of the military over public interest. The state of the world has changed, but the institutional secrecy of the nuclear industry and the organisations created to excuse it remains.

The eventual acknowledgement of the link between iodine-131 and thyroid cancer meant Japanese authorities knew to act quickly and distribute potassium iodide capsules around Fukushima. This will have saved many lives and much suffering – yet were it not for the persistence of scientists like Baverstock and his colleagues, the link might never have been made. By trying so hard to fit the evidence to how they would prefer the world to appear, the industry’s cheerleaders run the risk of learning nothing from Chernobyl – and the accidents that will, and have, come after it.

Part two of the nuclear debate is here.

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, April 2011]


Independent record labels: born of love

Some of the independent record labels leading the scene

When EMI’s new boss announced that the firm was to axe its A&R talent scouts and hand control over to the suits in marketing, it seemed like a confirmation of what every musician always believed about the major labels putting sales above creativity. So was it because of or despite this that EMI this month sank into administration with £4bn debts?

The digital revolution of the past 10 years has hit the ‘big four’ major labels – Universal, Warner, EMI and Sony – hard. The ubiquity of the internet and communication channels such as MySpace, Facebook and off-the-shelf blogging platforms has given independent labels – and every bedroom DJ, musician, author or artist of any kind – the ability to reach audiences without relying on the established old media groups and methods of distribution.

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry reported in 2005 that independent labels generated 19 per cent of the world’s music sales, divided up between tens of thousands of small labels and a handful of large, established independents – for example, in Britain, Beggars Group, Domino, and Warp.

However, while the major labels account for almost 80 per cent of sales, those sales represent barely a fifth of releases. In other words, the independent sector is very busy selling not very many copies of a lot of records.

If that thriving independent sector and its music didn’t exist, would only the back catalogues of established artists, marketing-driven tie-ins with television franchises and slick pop or hip-hop acts remain? It is a chilling thought. With the existence of so much great music at stake, how do these mostly tiny labels survive? How do they cope with recording, distribution, marketing and booking? Does it pay, or is it just a labour of love?

“I’d say about 99 per cent of them are labours of love,” says Simon Singleton of Pure Groove, a label specialising in vinyl releases. “It’s about building the label into some kind of brand, something to attach to a gig night or blog to gain some recognition. It’s pretty rare to get to a point where you can make money just from selling records.”

There is certainly an element of luck: Australian label Modular Recordings’ first three releases were all hits, including The Avalanches’ award-winning album Since I Left You in 2000. Beggars Banquet, the largest UK independent, hit gold in 1979 with Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army and Are ‘Friends’ Electric? Stephen Bass, co-founder of Moshi Moshi Records, discovered Hot Chip – its first runaway success – after meeting band member Joe Goddard at work.

Singleton says: “If you can get in on a scene as it’s happening then you can beat the bigger labels to it and ride the wave. It’s much harder to take an artist and develop them into a big name.”

Stephen Pietrzykowski, of Tough Love Records, agrees: “You find that labels with a certain sound and aesthetic do better than those that don’t. It’s about a signature sound, something people can grasp,” he says. “That sort of specialisation by micro-independents is essentially doing the groundwork for larger independents, who are in turn doing it for the majors. It’s about getting the music heard. If a band plays a few shows, gets a record out, plays a festival, we’ve done our job.”

Pietrzykowski, who has released 40 records in five years and still has a day job, says up to a point contracts, fees and advances make no sense. “If you take on an artist and give them an advance, that’s a big responsibility. We make an agreement, put out a record, see how it does and split it down the middle between us,” he says. “It’s never been about the money,” he adds, “which is just as well.”

When margins are so tight – 500 vinyl singles might return £1.50 per record – a run of good releases can be affected by one that doesn’t sell, or an unforeseen event. “We nearly went under after a pressing plant went bust, taking our £1,500 with it,” Pietrzykowski recalls, ruefully. “We’ve lost money on most of our releases. We’re constantly on the brink of bankruptcy – or the next big thing.”

So, to keep afloat, labels have to not only offer the kind of personal service that the majors cannot, but to be creative in the way they generate cash from other sources.

Gigs and festivals are important, but so is providing band management or securing publishing rights to license. Moshi Moshi Records’ subscription scheme is an example: for £30, subscribers receive every single and album the label releases in a year. Building a recognisable sound is essential, says co-founder Michael McClatchey. “After all, you’re asking people to pay for singles they haven’t even heard yet,” he says. With a few hundred subscribers since November, it’s an idea to watch.

It was five years before McClatchey could quit his job in the music industry and work on the label full time. “Actually, it was a decision taken for me as I got made redundant,” he laughs. “It was an excuse to put out the stuff we couldn’t work with in our day jobs, but we’d taken it as far as we could by then as a hobby.”

Martin Brimicombe has a partner, children and a day job, but that hasn’t stopped him from running, and largely paying for, I Blame The Parents Records. Brimicombe started the label to release music by the band Extradition Order, whom he had seen live and was impressed with. “I had no idea, but there’s quite a punk, DIY way about it, it’s quite easy to find advice and get things done cheaply.” With no distribution deal, he takes records to independent record shops by hand, or sells them at gigs. Despite losing money on each of his 20-odd releases, he remains optimistic, if cautious. “After four years, I’d need to see some shift this year to carry on, but the bands I’m working with now are hard-working live acts that may do better,” he says.

At the other end of the scale is Beggars Group, which grew from a record shop in the early 1970s to the largest independent label in Europe. It is still owned and run by its founder, Martin Mills, who says: “It was done out of love then, and now, but it was much easier to sell records then.” Despite employing hundreds of staff in Britain and the US, Mills has never been the sort for spreadsheets. “We’ve never borrowed, and I’ve never really done business plans,” he says. “You have no idea how a record will do – you can only wait and see.”

For Mills, the music industry “ecology” means independents are as much a part of an artist’s success as the major that may eventually sign them. “Everyone starts on an independent, and to seem real to your fans you have to have come from somewhere and have grown organically,” he says. “It is a food chain, and it is important that food chain is supported top to bottom.”

He has no problem with staff running their own labels on the side, for example: “As labels fold or bigger independents get bought out, the sector needs to regenerate itself.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly Mills believes independents are the future, and predicts a resurgence of independent record shops whose fortunes are “bound up” with the less centralised, less corporate mechanisms of the independent music scene.

“Big labels will get smaller, and small labels bigger,” he says. “It will operate in a much smaller and more fragmented, but viable, way. It’s hard for musicians now, but you have to believe the industry will mature to encompass many ways of getting paid that don’t involve buying physical product.”

Perhaps Pietrzykowski puts it best as to why some are keeping the independent flame alive, even when all the signs are grim. “Being in music is great,” he says. “You meet interesting people and have great times. It might not be sustainable, but it’s something I love doing and one way or another it pays for itself. It doesn’t have to pay for itself in money.”

Jack London, 1903 and 2003

Whitechapel, 1902. Credit: Huntington Library, San Marino California

When we try to imagine the conditions of the British poor during the industrial revolution it is the words of Dickens, Owen or Engels that provide us with the imagery to convey the cramped squalor and terrible poverty they endured.

But as early as the mid-19th century, the new medium of photography was being used by journalists and social reformers to reveal the plight of the working classes.

In 1890 the Dutch journalist Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives, his photographs of New York’s Lower East Side slums where 340,000 people lived crammed into a single square mile. In 1902 the American author Jack London came to London and, spurred on by the socialist instincts his difficult upbringing had inspired in him, pursued a similar project.

Jack London and Bert, a cobbler, in 1902. Credit: Huntington Library, San Marino California

Posing in a common man’s clothes as a runaway American sailor, London spent six weeks in the slums of the East End, living with and suffering the same privations as her inhabitants. His experiences became The People of the Abyss, published in 1903, a searing journalistic portrayal of the conditions of the urban poor.

A Salvation Army breakfast: “A motley crowd of woebegone wretches who had spent
the night in the rain… the skin of their bodies showing red through the holes in their rags.”
Credit: Huntington Library, San Marino California

Less well known are the photographs London took of the workless, homeless poor – the workhouse, the doss-house, the Salvation Army barracks, or “carrying the banner”; tramping through the night half-starved looking for food or shelter, prevented by the police from stopping on the street, only to resume the futile search for work the following morning, whether or not sleep had been snatched in a doorway or park bench.

Green Park, 1902: “In Green Park, at one in the afternoon, I counted scores of the
ragged wretches asleep in the grass.” Credit:Huntington Library, San Marino California

The remarkable images show frankly and without sentiment the drawn faces of men queuing for a free meal, women huddled in all their clothes on park benches, or the pitiful sight of figures sprawled across Green Park, soaked to the skin and exhausted. They could be dismissed as images from a different age with different values, until one stops to consider that such sights are not uncommon today.

“On the benches was arrayed a mass of miserable and distorted humanity…
A chill, raw wind was blowing, and these creatures huddled there in their rags.”
Credit: Huntington Library, San Marino California

These and many photographs from London’s other travels have been hardly seen in a century, but are collected in Jack London: Photographer, published by the University of Georgia Press last month. One of the book’s authors, photographic archivist Philip Adam – a native of San Francisco like Jack London – experienced his own brush with homelessness after being laid off in 2003.

“They had hired me ‘without benefits’ – not as full-time staff, without the protections that provides,” Adam said. “There were homeless people sleeping in our doorway – you’d literally walk over bodies to get to work in the morning – so I started photographing the homeless people in San Francisco. I was a working professional without security, and I thought, there but for the grace of god go I, because there’s not much difference between someone working like that and someone homeless and down on their luck.”

Having lost his studio with the job, after 30 years in San Francisco Adam left town. “I’ve been homeless ever since, though friends and people who know me have been very generous, so I’ve not been out on the street,” he added.

In an effort to make San Francisco’s chronic homeless problem less visible, the city council are to criminalise loitering on park benches or doorsteps. With the echoes of the punitive measures taken against the poorest and most desperate members of society in 1903 still ringing in 2003, a century after London’s photographs were taken the precarious nature of work and the capricious attitude of governments toward the unfortunate remain powerful dividing forces between the haves and have-nots.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, November 2010]


Simon Pegg, Burke and Hare

Simon Pegg
Simon Pegg, as William Burke in Burke and Hare

Taking a break from his comic partnership with friend Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright that gave the world Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Simon Pegg has returned to being an actor in another director’s film, reading another writer’s script – rather than all three at once.

“It’s kind of like going on holiday,” says the 40-year-old from a Soho hotel. “I love doing my own stuff because I’m a control freak and it’s nice to be in control of everything. But it’s a weight taken off you.”

He admits to finding it hard to let go of the reins when it’s other actors working with his scripts. “Oh, I’m really precious,” he laughs. “I’ll always collaborate, but a lot of actors feel like they can change the script, and that’s not always good. I’d hate to be a writer for hire – I appreciate why things have to be edited, but sometimes it’s hard to see your work butchered,” he says mournfully. “It’s like they don’t get it.”

Burke and Hare is being hailed as a comeback for director John Landis, whose previous films include gems like National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London and Trading Places. His first major feature film in more than a decade, it brings together a generation-spanning cast of British acting and comedy royalty including Bill Bailey, Tim Curry, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Hynes, Stephen Merchant, Ronnie Corbett, Jenny Agutter and Christopher Lee.

Spiritually and technically – it was produced by Ealing Studios – Burke and Hare is an Ealing comedy, rich in black humour and farce. The film recounts the true story of two hard-up Northern Irishmen, William Burke (Pegg) and William Hare (Serkis) living in Edinburgh who in 1827 and 1828 murdered at least 17 people and sold their bodies for medical research to Dr Robert Knox, a private lecturer in anatomy.

“They weren’t serial killers, they were very sane – it was just supply and demand,” Pegg laughs. “There was other grave robbing going on at the time, but these guys certainly cornered the market for freshness.”

As is often the case, the film coming together at all was something of a happy coincidence. Landis and his wife, Deborah, a costume designer, were in England to prepare for an exhibition she is curating at the Victoria and Alberta Museum.

“She suggested John meet some people while they were here, because he can’t get a film made in Hollywood anymore. Hollywood is run by marketing people these days, not even by the studios themselves,” Pegg explains. “Video games outsell the film industry three to one, so it makes perfect sense to marketing people to make films out of video games. It’s basic maths, but terrible films.”

Out of one meeting at Ealing, Landis selected this to be his ‘comeback’ feature film.

And Pegg has thoroughly enjoyed playing a villain, albeit a comic one. ”Everything is against you in terms of getting sympathy from the audience, but you do end up rooting for them – you forget they’re murderers and worry they’ll get caught.”

And to compound the moral vagueness of the film, it’s more than likely that ‘anatomy murders’ such as these – which were common enough to prompt the Anatomy Act 1832 – had a real impact on medical science. “There is certainly an argument to say that if they hadn’t then medical science wouldn’t have progressed as fast as it did, and ultimately a lot more people would have died,” he says.

Pegg’s career began as a stand-up and regular in radio and television comedy programmes before co-creating Spaced with Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson) in 1999 – two series following the misadventures of a struggling artist and writer posing as a couple in order to rent a couple-only flat. Crammed with film and pop-culture references and wonderfully surreal moments, 10 years later it remains a stone-cold classic.

This will be the first time Pegg and Hynes have worked together since Spaced. “I love working with Jess because she makes me laugh so much. I could just sit and watch her and laugh, we crack each other up all the time.” Pegg says. But despite such talent, Pegg says the film industry still fails good comic actresses, here and in Hollywood.

“For example, Isla Fisher [who plays Hare’s mistress] is brilliant. She stole all those scenes in The Wedding Crashers and everyone said, whoah, let’s employ her. And so she ends up in Confessions of a Shopaholic,” Pegg muses.

“It’s really hard for women in comedy because it’s so male dominated,” he says.

“The female comic voice is quite fledgling in a way, because they’ve only recently been almost allowed to be funny. And in the initial stages it’s democratising and unifying, so there’s a lot of women’s issues which means it’s dismissed instantly by guys who say, oh it’s all about periods. It’s not, it’s about finding a voice. People like Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig from Saturday Night Live, Jessica – these are some of the funniest people on earth.”

Affable, good humoured, Pegg is the character you expect from his work, though without the sane-man-in-a-mad-world aspect that many of his film’s characters bear. But talking about film, it’s immediately apparent that the subject has been the sustenance for his whole life. His knowledge of films, actors, directors, scenes and even movie trivia and behind-the-scenes knowledge is huge. He even wrote his university dissertation on “Consent and Hegemonic Discourse in Fantasy Cinema”, which critiqued Star Wars in relation to its place in late 1970s America.

“A lot of those movies in the 70s and 80s all have to do with how bad America felt about itself,” he explains. After seeing American GIs killing civilians in Vietnam, Star Wars’ popularity has a lot to do with the fact that all the lines between good and bad were clearly drawn – people wanted to know who the good guys were and who the bad guys were.”

Unfortunately, a knock-on effect of its popularity was that, as Pegg puts it, “spectacle became the key selling point.”

“Before Star Wars, there was Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather – these are heavy films, but they were top 10 films. You wouldn’t get them made now, let alone top the box office charts. Suddenly it became bangs and flashes, and the small movie disappeared,” he says. So blame doesn’t lie at the feet of Spielberg or Lucas, as some claim? “I don’t think anyone set out to destroy the small film, but sadly it happened. Ultimately, it’s the audience that destroyed it, not filmmakers. The people took the road of least resistance.”

Pegg’s prodigious appetite for sci-fi, comic and fantasy culture informs a lot of what he does, but to look at his previous roles – Scotty in last year’s Star Trek remake, a cameo in George Romero’s zombie film, Johnny Alpha in the audio drama of legendary 2000AD comic strip Strontium Dog – you’d think he was on a tick-box mission to play every character and work with every director or on every series he’s ever loved.

He laughs: “It does seem like that sometimes. I recently watched a stand-up routine I’d done in 1989 and not seen since then in which I talk about being in love with Sigourney Weaver – who I worked with last year – and Spielberg – who I worked with last year – and all these other people I went on to work with. I’m the most tenacious slacker ever.

“Getting to be in Doctor Who, or working with Spielberg, or John Landis in this film – there has been a lot of wish fulfilment in my career so far. It’s not been my motivating force, but I count myself lucky to have been the nerd who made good.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, October 2010]


How art reaches the parts the prison service cannot

Ray and Violet Donovan, photo ©Mark Johnson -
Ray and Violet Donovan, photo ©Mark Johnson -

‘Art’ in prison constitutes more than just drawing five bar gates on walls, and in fact represents a major force for the rehabilitation of offenders.

The Koestler Trust, a charity, has spent nearly 50 years encouraging inmates’ artistic expression and emphasising to the public the beneficial role of art by holding an annual exhibition of prisoners’ artwork.

Each year thousands of works are submitted to the trust’s offices next to imposing Victorian edifice of HMP Wormwood Scrubs in West London by inmates from Britain’s prisons, young offenders’ institutes, asylum removal centres and secure psychiatric units. This year for the first time the offenders’ work has been curated by a seven strong team of members of the public who have been victims of crime, and The Big Issue found that the experience has had a profound impact on both.

Tim Robertson, the Koestler Trust’s chief executive, said that the exhibition sometimes caused raised eyebrows, with reports in the press claiming that celebrating prisoners’ art is “offensive” to victims of crime.

“It’s impossible to summarise what all victims of crime feel,” he replies. “They are all different, but no doubt some will feel very aggrieved and angry about what has happened to them.

“But I was mugged on the tube, and while I want to know they were eventually caught, the last thing I want to know is that prison brutalised them further. I want to hear they are now more sensitive to others, more aware of their actions, not less,” he says.

“Art, which is all about connecting with and communicating with an audience, is the best way of doing that.”

One artist, for example, now works for the trust. Married father-of-three Daniel Hogg spent two years in prison until this year after causing death by dangerous driving. His painting, Emptiness Does Not Exist, came to him after spending hours reading philosophy in his cell. He is now studying art at college.

Hogg believes art also provides a gateway to help inmates move toward improving their education, and so increasing their chances of reoffending. “Many people’s recollections of school might not be happy, so associating adult education with school is not helpful. Art can be a gateway, a great way to break down people’s resistance.”

Clockwise from top left: Diversity of Hope (Sizwe Dladla), Shout to the Top (anon), Winner (Rafal Boguszewski), Emotional Release (anon).
Clockwise from top left: Diversity of Hope (Sizwe Dladla), Shout to the Top (anon), Winner (Rafal Boguszewski), Emotional Release (anon).

Firsttine Pierre, from Croydon, began volunteering for a witness support service after her brother was attacked outside a club at Christmas 1999. He and his cousins had just tossed out a group of men making trouble, but as he turned to go inside one hit him with an iron bar. He was lucky to escape with his life – the blow would probably have killed him were it not for his thick dreadlocks piled up on his head to cushion the blow. He suffers damaged hearing, vision and memory loss.

Witness intimidation meant Firsttine, her brother and his family had to go into hiding. “It was the worst time in my life. I was so angry. I was like, hang ‘em all. It was a big step doing this, but I felt I needed to do it,” she says. “And you know, it has brought so much peace to me.”

“Once I’d seen this I was raring to go,” says Pierre, originally from Dominica, pointing to a tropical scene entitled Everglades, by an anonymous artist from Feltham Young Offenders Institute. “I remember when I was young my dad climbed up a tree like this to get me my first coconut. It reminds me of those days,” she says grinning in reverie, “It’s really makes my smile widen.”

Picking around 150 paintings from over 5,600 was an enormous task. “But it was uplifting,” the 49-year-old says. “I looked at the art for what it was, not the fact that it was made by an offender. And once I’d done that it opened up a lot of doors just looking at it.”

“We’re all victims in a way,” she adds. “I’m a victim of crime, but they’re victims of circumstance. We don’t know the circumstances behind their actions, only the facts.”

And perhaps in some way, she says, without having gone to prison the artists would not have found in themselves the skills that are now on display.

“I can’t believe where this had taken me emotionally, mentally, even physically,” she says. “I had so much hate in me. If this art is what rehabilitation does, then I’m happy to be part of it.”

Her involvement has helped her brother too. “It didn’t hit him what I’d done at first, but he asked me to explain it to him. I told him, the anger is keeping you in prison too,” she says.

Of the men that disabled and nearly killed her brother, she hopes prison has given them time to think about how their life could have been: “It’s not about proving they’re sorry to me, it’s about proving to themselves they are worthy of more to life than a cell and being told when to eat or wash, when to get up or go to sleep.”

Two curators, Ray and Violet Donovan, experienced every parent’s nightmare when in 2001 their sons, Christopher and Phillip, were randomly attacked by a group of teenagers. Christopher, just 18, was beaten and had his head kicked “as if taking a penalty” and after being knocked into the road was hit by a car whose driver said in court she thought he “was a bundle of old clothes”.

He died in hospital from brain injuries suffered during the attack, and one man and two teenagers were sentenced to life for his murder.

Ray and Violet, committed Christians who have forgiven their son’s murderers, now work with restorative justice project Sycamore Tree, which introduces serving criminals to victims of crime.

Ray says: “We come in and tell our story, but a lot of them say: we don’t have any victims, our crimes are victimless. And we tell them about the ripple effect.

“For example, one man says he only burgles warehouses – what about the manager? The company’s insurance premiums going up? What about employees laid off, their families, their children? The effects are much wider than they think.”

Clockwise from top left: The Long Walk Home (anon), The Big Blue Door (Claude Chain), Salvation (Thomas Shanks), Emptiness Does Not Exist (Daniel Hogg).
Clockwise from top left: The Long Walk Home (anon), The Big Blue Door (Claude Chain), Salvation (Thomas Shanks), Emptiness Does Not Exist (Daniel Hogg).

In one of the paintings Ray selected – Salvation, by Thomas Shanks of HMP Dovegate – he perceived something he recognises in prisoners. The pastel drawing shows a figure with his head in his hands at the bottom of a pit, seemingly oblivious or unwilling to grab the rope thrown down for him.

“I see this all the time. People like us come in and tell our stories, and they feel shame, guilt, they feel worthless, like they’re not worthy of forgiveness,” he said.

Some may find it surprising that inmates feel guilt toward their actions. “Oh definitely,” Ray says, gesturing at the painting. “They might put on an act on the landings, but when the cell door closes, they’re like that.”

Art, he said, could engender the most extraordinary changes in prisoners. “I’ve seen the most hardened, violent inmates become model prisoners after time spent with a paintbrush,” he says.

The couple have been in touch with one Christopher’s killers who expressed an interest in meeting, but later backed out. “He wrote to me, saying he’d never forgive himself for what he’d done,” says Ray. “The door’s always open for him to meet us. But I told him if he didn’t forgive himself, he’d never move on at all.”

Although hard statistical research is thin, prison-based art projects that have followed up their outcomes report dramatic results – often between 50 and 90 per cent reduction in reoffending rates – in Britain and the US. Robertson is confident the new government understands the importance of targeted and properly funded rehabilitation in stopping revolving-door offending, quoting prisons minister Crispin Blunt MP, who opened the exhibition by saying there were “two sides” to rehabilitating offenders: “Changing the behaviour of offenders so that they lead law-abiding lives, and helping society accept ex-offenders back into employment, family life, and communities – the opportunities that can help people turn their lives around for good.”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, October 2010]


Patrick Joyce, the eternal optimist

Patrick Joyce, photo by Chris Lucas -
Patrick Joyce, September 2010. Photo: Chris Lucas -

Patrick Joyce is happy. He’s got a beautiful wife, Kath, two boys – Rueben, eight and Elliot, three – and a baby girl, Nancy, who is a year old. Patrick has plans. Patrick is an optimist. Patrick has motor neurone disease.

The term probably brings to mind Professor Stephen Hawking, the astrophysicist who has lived with motor neurone disease for more than 45 years. But he is an isolated example at the extreme end of the tiny fraction of those who live with MND longer than a few years.

But Patrick, or Patrick the Optimist as he is styled as the face of the MND Association’s latest campaign, isn’t going to let the fact that his life has been cruelly curtailed aged just 41 get him down.

After seeing his doctor about weakness in hands in July 2007, it wasn’t until March 2008 that Joyce was diagnosed – by which time his own research led him to suspect what was coming.

“We were gutted,” he recalls. “But I got my head around it and knew that we just had to go on, so I wrote on a bit of paper ‘Hoping for the best, Planning for the worst’, and put down everything I needed to do for the family before I couldn’t do it any more, and some of thing things we wanted to do.”

He and Kathy made plans to be married straight away. “You don’t know how long you’ve got, I could have been dead in six months,” Joyce says, matter-of-factly. “Over time, we became reconciled to what was happening.”

A few months later Kath found out she was pregnant, with Nancy. “It was a very difficult decision. We knew she’d never know her dad,” he recalls. “But we wanted three kids not two and thought, why should we let MND stop us from doing what we wanted to do?

“I’m so glad we did – Kath was really chuffed it was a girl because she finally had someone to show how to knit, not that she won’t try with the boys too.”

A few weeks ago Nancy took her first steps. On his website, Joyce wrote: “Three faltering tiny steps, but a lovely, beautiful moment that I was alive to see. Life is good.”

Earlier this year, Joyce took on the role with the MND Association, setting himself a target of painting 100 portraits of “incurable optimists” in his life, and others suggested by the public. He has taken part in numerous cash-raising expeditions, including the Dusk to Dawn challenge in which he and his father, an amateur pilot, flew over and photographed all the major islands of the British Isles in a single day to raise £6,000.

He has also documented his life on video – life at home, flying over Britain with his father, or even attempting to get airborne on his motorised wheelchair at a skate park.

Any campaign featuring him was always going to be different, Joyce says: “Most stories about this kind of thing are sort of, oh dear, isn’t it sad this guy’s dying and he’s got kids. I was happy to do it but it has to be something that’s part of me. I’ve always thought you have to put the best face on things, because you only get one go. Life’s pretty short, and it’s pretty shit if you’re gloomy.”

It’s an attitude that visibly drives him on, squeezing in experiences while he’s able – a flight with his father from Norway out over the arctic circle, or taking part in a banger rally around Ireland – in between comparatively hum-drum campaign activities like visiting 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.

“I’ve got the rest of my life to live. It’s just I have to squeeze mine into a shorter space,” he says.

When he opens the door at home in Wells, Somerset, the artist, inventor, some-time plumber and now amateur neurologist is walking unsteadily with the aid of a frame. He makes a cup of tea but is too weak to lift the two pint bottle of milk. “I’m very close to not being able to walk in the house because my legs are so weak I might have a fall,” he says.

MND affects the nerves in the spinal cord and brain that control movement, causing muscles to waste away. Eventually the patient cannot feed or breathe without assistance. More than half of those diagnosed die within 14 months, while those with a slower onset can expect two live two to five years. There is no known cure.

“The speed of your progression is fairly smooth, it advances at a certain rate and it doesn’t stop. If you have a fast progression you will die quickly, and if you have a low progression then you will die slowly,” Joyce says. “Some people lose the ability to walk first, or use their hands, or speak.” One by one the little indignities catch you: “One day you can pull up your trousers after going to the loo, the next day you can’t.”

More than three years after discovering his first symptom, Joyce’s speech is a little slurred and he has grown weaker. But he is utterly determined to meet his challenge, designing various devices to help him carry on. For example, a headrest and armrest to support him while painting. Noticing a gap in the market, he’s also invented an umbrella for wheelchair users and is discussing having a prototype built.

“I’ve always had a taste for inventing gadgets,” he chuckles. “The forehead rest is the latest thing, because my neck got too weak. I’ve never made any money out of inventions, but there’s always something that might. You’re only really an inventor if you invent something that sells. It’s like being a ‘resting’ actor, or an author – you’re only an author if you’re published.”

When Joyce laughs it’s not the kind of physical, heaving laugh that you might expect – it’s too exhausting. Instead it’s a mostly silent but animated wrinkling of his face.

The internet, through which those with MND can communicate, research and stay in touch with doctors, has become a lifeline. Joyce has met – and painted – Sarah Ezekiel, a former MND Association campaign face, but also others nearby.

“I met someone last week who is 40 and lives just a few miles away,” says Joyce. “He’s got children same age as mine, he’s in the same position but only found out a month ago. It broke my heart talking to him because he’s still in that period of utter devastation of not really understanding what’s happening; one minute you’ve got a future with a young family and the next you haven’t.”

Inevitably, Joyce will make friends only to see those with a quicker progression die.

The UK is among the leaders of research into this rare and devastating disease, and Joyce is using experimental drugs. “The UK punches well above its weight, we’ve been involved in several major discoveries,” he says. “I’m fairly confident they will make a discovery. Even if it comes tomorrow, there won’t be a cure on the market in time to save my ass, but if I can help bring it closer for others even a little, that’s something.”

Despite his losses, Joyce can still see a positive side to his predicament. “MND has brought me a lot closer to my family, a lot closer, and in a way we do live every day as if it were the last one. Within reason,” he chuckles.

But most of all, what he wants to do and see, challenges and desires in life have been brought into sharp focus, realising that the time to do things is Now. “Few people are given the opportunity to see that,” he reasons.

“I’m quite lucky because I have a life in my mind – I have the book I’m writing, where technology can help me continue, like Stephen Hawking. But if your life revolves around football or cycling, you might have nothing left,” he says.

“I’m lucky that I am able to be an optimist. Whether I’m still positive in two years time, who can say.”

For more information or to make a donation, see


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, September 2010]


Gypsy woman and the road less travelled

Maggie Smith-Bendell, photo by Chris Lucas -

Italy have them rounded up and fingerprinted, France is to eject thousands, and more face discrimination and even violence in Eastern Europe or deep-seated prejudice in the West – the treatment of the Roma in Europe is still a black mark on a world that has largely changed for the better.

While Romani Gypsies have been present in Britain for 500 years and even longer in Europe, they have had little but the harshest of treatment. Henry VIII ordered them out on pain of death, hundreds of thousands died in the Holocaust, and now our bureaucratic rulers have tried a death by a thousand legislative cuts, making travelling life difficult in an effort to assimilate them. While in the Middle Ages the Romani were cast as witches, Satanists or child-snatchers, these days they’re more likely to be stereotyped as benefit scroungers or thieves – each equally wrong.

Maggie Smith-Bendell is a Romani Gypsy born in 1941 in a pea field in Somerset and raised in a horse-drawn wagon in the southwest. At the age of 69 she has written a memoir, Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two, recounting her upbringing in a way of life that has all but disappeared.

While Maggie’s story is filled with bucolic tales of country life, of fireside chats, frosty spring mornings, and rabbit stew, it relates no small amount of hardship, ignorance and prejudice, from the 1940s up to the present day. Only later did she realise the extent of the discrimination she faced, and in her efforts to counter it found herself the unofficial cheerleader for Travellers traversing the planning system in an effort to find a home.

Born the second of eight children to Lenard Smith and Defiance (known as Vie) Small, Maggie lost a brother and an aunt before she was 10, and would lose her dear elder brother Alfie at 46 and youngest sister Holly at just 25.

It’s notable how few dates the book contains except births, marriages and deaths. “We didn’t really live by time, only the seasons.” Maggie says. “In spring we started picking snowdrops and cowslips, then into the pea picking season, and then we’d travel up to Ledbury in Herefordshire for the hop picking. Dates didn’t really mean a thing to us.”

Following the seasons around the West Country she attended as many as 50 schools, in almost all of them meeting only with outright hostility from their classmates, teachers and parents.

“At every school we would end up in the corner with no pencil or paper because they knew we weren’t going to be there long,” she says from the front of her car in a hospital car park in Bristol, where she has brought her husband of nearly 50 years, Terry. In retrospect it seems less odd conducting an interview in a vehicle considering how little of her life has been spent in buildings.

“We knew we weren’t wanted, and we just wanted to run around in the fresh air,” she recalls. They already had an education of sorts: “We couldn’t read or write, but we could look after ourselves in the countryside, find our way around with needing signposts.”

The barriers between gypsy and ‘gorgie’ (the Romani word for house-dwellers) remained until she and Alfie attended a school in a tiny village near Newton Abbot.

Maggie recalls: “From the first day there we were integrated and part of the school. It sounds silly now, but at all the kids had dap bags, drawstring bags for their things, and they gave us one. Made us feel really included.”

But she grew accustomed to village children and non-travelling people. “The children used to follow us home to the moor, we could teach them games, show them things in hedges, and they’d invite us back to their homes for a birthday party.”

By the time she was old enough, she had already made her mind up not to marry a Traveller man. “They can be very controlling,” she says, recalling how her mum – defiant as ever – wore make up, causing raised eyebrows or worse. “I took after my mum and I was told by boys, I’ll take you to the pictures but you’ll have to take off that makeup and change your clothes, and I’d think, I’m not going anywhere with you.”

Maggie, then as now, is not one to be easily controlled. Her hair may have whitened from the black of her youth, but her eyes have lost none of their sparkle.

Maggie Smith-Bendell. Credit: Chris Lucas -
Maggie Smith-Bendell. Credit: Chris Lucas

In 1962 she married Terry, a gorgie, and soon converted him to her travelling ways, dividing their time between houses and the road. After her father’s death in 1998 they decided to settle on his land near Bridgwater, only to find the village – who had known her family for 25 years – suddenly up in arms against them. “It felt like the old life was put in a box when he died. We’ve not done any picking or scrap collecting since then. I took up a new life planning when I moved onto the land,” she says. “I hadn’t thought about it before, but I realised when we put in a planning application that we were treated like muck, put down and degraded. I couldn’t believe people could turn on you so quick.”

The villagers – who had spent decades buying Christmas trees from and selling scrap to her father – now raised £30,000 to buy her out, which she refused.

With the help of solicitor Brian Cox, she won planning permission for her land. “I should have been overjoyed, but what I had been through had taken its toll,” she writes. “I had been degraded in public, in the press and in my local area just for being born a Romani. It took a long time for me to get over it.”

Maggie and her brother Robert set up the Romani Gypsy Council to help other Travellers live on their own land. Their tools are a European court case, Buckley vs UK, which found in favour of a Romani evicted from her land on which she was living, and Circular 1/94, a Department of the Environment guidance note from 1994 which recommends councils encourage Travellers to provide for themselves on private land, are their tools.

Until it was repealed in 1994, the Caravan Sites Act 1968 required councils to provide sufficient sites, but few did so, leaving an estimated shortfall of 4,000 pitches. Those that exist usually adjoin industrial sites, motorway flyovers and rubbish tips. “Everywhere you’d never want to live,” Maggie states, “Concreted-over old cemeteries, even.” But asked to fend for themselves, 90 per cent of planning applications from Gypsies are rejected, compared to the norm of 20 per cent, so many now move onto their land first and apply – legally, albeit sometimes controversially – for retrospective planning permission.

This has found Maggie notoriety, described as “grandmother of the land grab” or “the name that strikes fear in to council officials.” She laughs: “That cracked me right up. For hundreds of years we’ve had to bow down and hide, and yes sir, no sir. Now I get out there and tick boxes, discuss planning issues and they call me names. If there’s a problem, we can sort it out. I won’t be pushed off.”

And in many areas, planning difficulties are not limited to Travellers. “Somerset is crying out for affordable housing, but when applications go up on the noticeboard, my god, you’d think there’d been a murder. Villagers or Travellers, it’s as if people think – I’ve got a home, bugger you and your children,” she says.

Will the Romani Gypsies ever settle for good? “I don’t think so. We are so steeped in tradition, in 100 years our homes will still be bases from which to travel. You can’t keep a duck from a pond, and you can’t keep a Traveller from the road.”

Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two is published by Abacus on September 19, at £5.99.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, September 2010]
…and here’s the other Gypsy Woman, because I can’t resist.


Red One: bomb disposal and PTSD

The Long Walk. Photo: Jim Hutchinson

Figures from the Ministry of Defence suggest more than 2,000 men and women have returned from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan suffering post traumatic stress disorder, but former officer Kevin Ivison says the true figure is far higher.

The son of a soldier who had grown up on bases in Germany, Ivison joined the army as a teenager and soon after decided to specialise in bomb disposal, becoming an ammunition technical officer, or ATO.

Ivison said: “The point of the army is to attack and defeat the enemy, but an ATO is to there to defend,” he said. “I don’t see myself as a warrior, never have done. Bomb disposal gives you all the excitement and adrenaline of soldiering, but your job is to save lives which I found much easier to reconcile.”

Speaking now, Ivison seems a typical former soldier: upright, smart, surely-spoken with the clipped tones of an officer, but barely a year ago was driven to the edge by PTSD.

After tours in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, Ivison was posted in 2005 to al-Amarah in British-held southern Iraq. He faced hostile locals, frequent insurgent attacks, and the constant threat from shrieking rocket attacks. “The first couple of months of my tour was thrilling,” Ivison recalls, “I loved the buzz of being around soldiers and making a positive difference. But I got ground down a lot by those rocket attacks – 77 in three months there.” Incredibly, the rockets claimed no lives but the noise, fear, and feeling of helplessness saw several soldiers withdrawn with psychological problems.

Only a few weeks before his tour’s end, Ivison was frayed. “I couldn’t control my hands from shaking,” he says, and at this point he faced his most serious test. A patrol struck an improvised bomb on Red One – the name given to one of the main routes from the town – and Ivison rushed to investigate. But with his electronic jamming equipment and robot used to investigate devices from safety broken – in one case for lack of a £10 power cable, Ivison had no choice but to make what ATOs call “the long walk” towards the second bomb, aware there might be other devices designed to kill him and other rescuers. Convinced he was going to die, Ivison passed his final messages for his family to his teammate and faced the bomb alone.

Though he successfully defused it, he was left a mental and physical wreck.

Months after returning to Germany from Iraq, he sought help from Army doctors after experiencing uncontrollable rage, isolation, nightmares and depression – at one point even hallucinating his friend killed on the patrol that day, Captain Rich Holmes.

“I knew I had a significant problem that needed help,” he recalls. But despite approaching three army doctors, he was told only to ‘wait it out’ for nine months. Only after leaving the Army in 2008 was he able to start receiving NHS treatment.

After six months of cognitive behavioural therapy he is recovering. “It’s been life-changing. Within a session or two I felt like a different person. It allowed me to go over my memories and feelings of the day, put things in the right order and come to terms with what I’d seen – particularly the image of my friend Rich lying on the floor. I now remember it differently to how I did at the time. I think my brain was overwhelmed and unable to process things then.”

The extent to which Ivison’s brain had tried to shut out his experiences is seen in the photographs he showed to others – though one contained a body, he couldn’t ‘see’ it until it was pointed out to him.

He says: “I’m much better than I was, but I’m never going to get over it completely. I came back from Iraq, but my reactions are still those of a man who believes he is in a combat zone.”

Receiving the George Medal for bravery for his actions that day helped him feel he had done the right thing at Red One, and marked a turning point.

But he still suffers the fallout: noise makes him violently angry, as does acts of selfishness, while film, images or music related to conflict and loss leaves him incredibly upset. “It’s placed a lot of things off-limits to me,” he says. “Sounds, smells, images. It’s still here with me.”

Kevin Ivison
Kevin Ivison, now married, looks forward to the future. Photo courtesy of the author.

Now married with a son a few weeks old, he was worried about his fitness for fatherhood. “It did concern me because of the tiredness and crying. But it’s been nothing but an amazing experience.”

The calamitous effects of untreated PTSD is storing up terrible future damage for society, Ivison warns. With more troops including reservists on operations, the Army has to prevent it from becoming an epidemic.

“I had a stable upbringing, wonderful family, good education. I’m relatively articulate, but I couldn’t get treatment from the army,” he says. “How difficult must it be for a young guy, broken home, less education, perhaps not willing or able to express himself freely? It took me four years to get help, but they say the average time is 14 years. It just isn’t easy enough to get treatment.”

Perhaps they are listening: after the charity Combat Stress reported an increase in referrals of 72 per cent, the government this month announced it would introduce psychological screening for returning troops to identify those most at risk.

“But we need to recognise the scale of the problem,” Ivison says. “Unless we acknowledge that we won’t get the political, public or financial support to tackle it.”

In the meantime, Ivison says, of his original team of five, he and two others have left the army and been treated for PTSD. One has gone on to retrain as an officer. “And another has just been told by an army doctor to sit it out for nine months and see.”

Red One: a bomb disposal expert on the frontline


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, August 2010]


Professor Green

Professor Green. Photo: Shamil Tanna -
Professor Green. Photo: Shamil Tanna -

If luck were a lady, she and Stephen Manderson are having a rocky relationship.

The 26-year-old from Clapton in north east London spent years building his skills as rapper Professor Green before being signed by Mike Skinner (of The Streets) to his label, The Beats. Unfortunately, the label then folded.

Fortunately, Manderson was picked up by another label. Unfortunately Warner, The Beats’ parent label, wouldn’t release him from his contract. Last summer, Manderson was stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle at a Shoreditch club – luckily, it narrowly missed his carotid artery and after three hours surgery he was back on his feet. His attacker is due in court this month.

Piling irony on injury, not only was he stabbed just above the new tattoo on his neck that says “Lucky”, but his single at the time, Hard Night Out, was built around a lyric about pointless drunken nightlife violence.

Manderson strikes an imposing figure at 6ft 4ins with tattooed neck and arms and could easily fit an unforgiving stereotype. But, talking passionately about music or recalling painful memories, through his ‘ackney accent he is softly spoken and articulate, his wry grin all the toothier now his snaggle-teeth have been straightened.

You could be forgiven for never having heard of Professor Green, but the cheeky INXS-sampling single I Need You Tonight and new single Just Be Good To Green, a duet with Lily Allen that samples 90s hit Dub Be Good to Me, have brought him a wider audience. “Lily’s great,” he grins. “We sang together at Bestival, then took me on tour with her. She’s like a sister – big sister and little sister, depending on the situation.”

But the years before were altogether less glamorous. Manderson started rapping at 18, building up a reputation in competitions like The JumpOff – a lyrical jousting match where two rapping MCs take turns to insult each other in ever more ingenious and outrageous ways. Winning the UK title in 2004 and 2005, Manderson found himself flown to the Bahamas for a US-based competition. He was placed second, but rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in hiphop.

“That was crazy – me, going to the Bahamas!” He makes a dumbfounded face. “It was very intimidating; the contest was held in a boxing ring, and they had 400 people in a room that held 200. P Diddy was there, Busta Rhymes was there. Outside there was Ludacris, Pharrel – all these big names just having a barbeque on the beach.”

Clapton’s Northwold Estate to the Bahamas was quite a journey for the boy raised by his grandma – “the most important woman in my life”. His mother was only 16 when he was born, his father mostly absent. “My dad was the parent that I really looked up to, and that’s why it hurt so much when he was never around, he’d just disappear for a year at a time,” he says. “I remember times when he was supposed to come, and I’d be sat at the window waiting and he never would.”

He left school at 13. “Academically I could have done well – I was quite a smart child. My problem was always my attendance,” he grins. “What I needed was a stern hand, a slap, and to be dragged back to school kicking and screaming.”

As music took up more of his time, his job as a typesetter turned part-time and to supplement his income Manderson turned to the green of his namesake – dealing weed. But a visit from the local constabulary that risked his competition in the Bahamas put an end to that. “That was a real wake up call. It was something I’d been doing a while, but I only then realised what I had to lose. I’ve pretty much given up now anyway – I had a draw at Glastonbury last month and thought, oh my days, my eyes are closing.”

Another shock to the system was the death of his father in 2008. Unreleased track Nothing More bubbles with anger at his father and feelings towards being effectively left by both parents. “There were things between us that until recently I’d never got over. Then one day I got the call, saying he’d hung himself,” he remembers.

“I suppose it was either going to bury me or turn me around. I let go of him and of the resentment I had.
“There’s always part of me that wishes I’d had that kind of relationship with him, but it’s not going to happen. All I can do is make sure when I have children, I don’t make the same mistakes.”

This and the inter-label strife following The Beats’ demise was “a blessing in disguise”: “It gave me the drive, and forced me to get on with it myself.”

His first releases, Lecture #1 and the Green EP, were never officially released but were sold at gigs and as downloads. Manderson’s fast rhymes and punchlines are unmistakable – on Are They Rapping Like Pro? he says: “Everything I rap is in flames/this year I’m here/blowing up like backpacks on packed trains/The haters just fuel the rage/I got presence just like that guy tugging on Rudolph’s reins”. The beats are meaty, the themes are stark realities – nowhere less than on the oustanding Upper Clapton Dance, built on a classical riff borrowed from Brahms. Another track, Save Him, follows the life of a good boy gone bad. “It’s a familiar story,” Manderson says. “There’s a lot of people that have good hearts and do bad things. If all you’ve got around you is negativity, how can you act positively? Unless you have that one life-changing experience, or one person that says something that really clicks, how do you change?”

Can’t music help? Aren’t there enough rappers covering drugs, violence and girls? “I don’t want to make preachy records,” he says. “My situation is changing because of my music – but everybody makes music, how many of them use it to change their life? It’s ignorant for people not living like that to say, oh you don’t need to sell drugs. They do. They need money, for a family. They don’t want to work in JJB Sports, but it’s all they can do because they didn’t go to school.”

The Green EP’s is less aggressive, the melodies more prominent, with a touch of self-depreciating humour reminding us Pro Green does not take himself too seriously. “I was learning then,” he says, “It was all punchline/punchline/punchline. I didn’t understand song structure and melody, I was just rapping. But I want to make songs, not just raps.”

Predictably, search for the phrase “the new Eminem” online and Professor Green is a name that appears, alongside Mike Skinner and fellow east Londoner Plan B. What’s the connection? Not much, apart from their skin colour. “It’s cheap journalism,” he laughs. “But I suppose it’s quite flattering. The impact Eminem had on rap is immense – a white rapper who the industry accepted, and whose skills a lot of people feared.”

The new album reveals broader musical influences: the guitar-drenched sound of Oh My God, the bass-heavy dubstep sound of Jungle, guest vocals including sweet chanteuse Emile Sandé and the smokey voice of acoustic singer-songwriter Fink. But there’s also something else – a vulnerable side. The final quarter of the album exposes a more mature approach to songwriting. Goodnight is a touching eulogy to his recently-departed great-grandmother; the piano-led Where Do We Go asks what if? of a former relationship, recounting a near-miss with fatherhood that obviously resonates strongly with the son a teenage mother; and Closing The Door, a slow, dubby track written during a moment of crisis in a relationship.

“We were together for three years, split up for two, and then started talking again after I got stabbed,” he says of his girlfriend. “We’d just got back together, the single was just doing well, I was about to move into a new place, so was she – I just had a bit of a freak out. I just felt I couldn’t focus on her and my career. We didn’t see each other for a few weeks, and Closing The Door was the result.”

Not all the album works: sometimes there’s too much guest singer and not enough Professor, sometimes keyboards that are just too pop clash with Mandersons’ rough, nasal delivery, and one track fails the autotune test.

But Pro Green won’t be bowed: “You know, ‘being real’ is something that gets thrown around a lot. I’m not trying to be pop. I’m just making music I like. If it turns out to be pop and people are like, you’re selling out…” He shrugs. “Cool, innit. I’d rather sell records than not.”

New Professor Green album Alive Till I’m Dead (Virgin) is out July 19. See


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, July 2010]


LCD Soundsystem on the end of touring

James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem. Photo: Corbis Outline -

James Murphy, the driving force behind DFA Records and LCD Soundsystem, is feeling his age.

Before his latest album This is Happening was released last month, the burly New Yorker had suggested it was to be his last – queue outpouring of grief from fans.

“Yes, I think it’s the last,” he confirms by phone from Zagreb, Croatia, where the band is due to appear at a festival. “It’s the end of the band as a band that does albums and tours and makes videos and stuff,” he explains. “LCD will still exist in some form or other, releasing 12inches or music, but it’s the end of being a professional rock band. That was never the plan. It’s great, but it’s not the plan. We’re getting old and people have other things they want to do.”

So Murphy has had enough of the touring life. Has turning 40, as he did in February, changed how he feels?

“Definitely. I definitely feel that a lot of things I’ve done were a longer time ago than I would like, and I’m aware that I’m so tired, and that I want to do so many things but that I’m on hold while I’m doing this. I like touring, but I’m not a big fan of what it takes away – time and life and productivity. There’s no time to do anything else creative because you’re just running to catch up with everything else.”

Groggy from having travelled overland from Germany the previous day, Murphy is surprised to find today’s soundcheck put back – “It was delayed an hour by Billy Idol. I never thought I’d hear myself saying that,” he laughs in a voice gravelly with tiredness.

The affable Murphy has been ploughing his own furrow for 10 years since founding DFA (‘Death from Above’) Records with English producer Tim Goldsworthy, the man behind unclassifiable trip-hop act Unkle and the influential lazy breaks of MoWax Records. Ten years ago, skinny jeans, pointy shoes and one-inch ties for men and jagged angular guitar bands were only on the cusp of becoming the all encompassing cultural meme they are today. New York was synonymous with bands like The Strokes who led the garage rock revival.

But despite – or perhaps due to – having already weathered the 1990s in little known indie bands Pony and Speedking, Murphy found this of little interest. After meeting Goldsworthy, the pair realised there was more potential in ploughing their different musical traditions into one.

“I hated dance music when I was young,” Murphy recalls. “Or at least, what I thought was dance music. I thought it was just pop. Talking to Tim we realised that it was around the 90s when our music diverged. We were both listening to the same things before that – we’re both big Smiths fans, we both liked My Bloody Valentine. Then Britain went all ecstasy and America went all grunge and suddenly there was a divide between the continents.”

“We thought – let’s make some music that appeals to both of us now, and there’s probably a lot of people out there that agree with us.”

With their dance-punk sound resounding in clubs and bedrooms ever since, it’s potent mix of punk’s physicality and the infectious machine-funk of electronic dance and disco undeniably catchy, it’s safe to say there were.

So such caché must have come as a bit of a surprise to Murphy, whose first success as LCD Soundsystem, the 2002 single Losing My Edge, was a comic send-up of the coolest of cool, with the song’s narrator checklisting influential bands and inserting himself at seminal moments in music history (“I was there in 1974 at the first Suicide practices in a loft”) even while betraying his fear that the young are surpassing him and that “I’m losing my edge”.

As a youngster, Murphy was distinctly not-cool. He was never in the in-crowd, and in some respects realised the fickle and destructive nature of trying – like the narrator in Losing My Edge – to be on the right side of every social trend.

He says: “When I was young I think I desperately wanted it. It wasn’t until I was 13, when people start getting weird – that I chose to be different, partly because I was bigger than everyone else so I could just be as weird as I wanted.”

A keen martial artist for many years who at one point ran a jujitsu school by night in the same offices he ran the record label from by day, as a younger man Murphy was a fighter at school and even spent a brief stint employed as a club bouncer.

“I always wanted to be cool – I just wasn’t any good at it, so I gave up, started DJing disco records and things I liked and suddenly I was cool, which was obviously deeply, deeply weird for me,” he says. “People started being nice to me all of a sudden.”

It turns out that doing what you always wanted to do turns out to be the right thing after all – “It so hokey to say it, but it’s really true. It’s just near impossible to pass on to my nieces and nephews,” he says.

Murphy has described the catchy, repetitive grooves he creates as ‘body music’. “I never really liked the same things as other people,” he says. “The ones I like are always the really physical songs, with really hard hits, or drones underneath them, stuff with a real visceral quality to it.

“Dance music is most obvious, but also something like early Metallica – physical, punishing music. Or [1980s New Wave band] Liquid Liquid, or [70s disco band] ESG. Or The Fall – bands that bash their instruments rather than play them, that’s the stuff I’ve always liked. ‘Nice’ never really appealed to me. ‘Pretty’ is the province of the boring.”

“I suppose,” he muses, “that means I don’t care so much about songwriting. That’s why I never cared much about pop, because it never really moved me.”

Even if Murphy’s being sincere, he’s surely wrong. LCD Soundsystem’s second album, 2007’s Sound of Silver, contained extraordinary songs like Someone Great, a poignant song about loss over a metronomic, hypnotising backing track, or All of My Friends, the lament of a man whose youth is behind him looking back at his former simple pleasures. It peaked at 28 in the UK charts but was lavished with praise by critics and voted 17th best album of the decade, with All of My Friends voted second best song of the decade.

This is Happening takes off from where Sound of Silver left off. Murphy is a bit older, a bit more weary, and the sense of looking back and looking in pervades the album. “Everybody’s getting younger/It’s the end of an era, it’s true” he sings on Dance Yourself Clean, over rattling, squelching electro that makes you want to. “Never change, never change/this is why I fell in love,” he sings before concluding “I can change I can change/if it helps you fall in love” on I Can Change. And rearing out of the more percussive electro numbers is All I Want, a guitar and vocal-led piece reminiscent of Bowie.

Recording the album was interrupted by creating the soundtrack to the Noah Baumbach film Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller as a 40-year-old man who spends time with old friends, old flames and former hangouts after suffering a nervous breakdown. The soundtrack is suffused with the sound of the 1970s, and showcases a completely different side to Murphy’s skills.

Some years ago, Murphy said he “had about eight albums in him”. With four LCD albums under his belt and now a soundtrack, even with Murphy retiring his soundsystem now, we can look forward to – at least – another three records from a musician at the top of his game.

He says: “I feel like the band achieved a lot of stuff that I’m psyched about, but it’s not worth doing at the exclusion of everything else in our lives. It’s good to go out this way.”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, June 2010]


Is it nature or nurture when teenagers kill?

The death of Ralph Millward - after the trial.

The notion that children and teenagers could kill is deeply shocking because it upsets our preconception of the young as innocents, incapable of such brutality.

This has always been a rose-tinted view – as much as when two young New Zealand girls beat their mother to death on a whim in the supposed ‘golden age’ of the 1950s – a tale which inspired the film Heavenly Creatures – than in how 19 teenage boys from British cities were killed in the first half of 2008 alone – the youngest 14, the oldest 19.

When a shocking attack or killing occurs, we convince ourselves our children are not capable of carrying out such violence using fanciful means – rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal, violent films and more recently computer games have all been fingered as culprits in turning otherwise ‘nice’ children bad. But it is pointless to blame such media for the actions of a tiny minority when millions consume them regularly without ever developing violent or homicidal urges.

A study in 2005 by the American Sociological Association concluded there were no links between violent video games and homicidal behaviour in children, remarking that homicide arrest rates among children and teenagers fell 77 per cent in the 10 years after the release of computer game Doom in 1993, seen at the time as a touchstone of violent games.

The authors take a further step in pointing out the latent racism that lies behind the suggestion that white boys who kill are driven to do so by external forces. The report stated: “White, middle-class killers retain their status as children easily influenced by a game, and victims of an allegedly dangerous product. African-American boys, apparently, are simply dangerous.” The report’s conclusion that youth violence is better addressed by studying broader problems such as family breakdown, poverty, addiction and education seems crushingly common-sensical by comparison.

The three boys that killed homeless Big Issue vendor Ralph Millward in Bournemouth last year, Jimmy Ayres, 15, Warren Crago and Craig Real, both 17, do not seem to be the mythologised ‘teen killers’ – loners, mentally unstable, or obsessed with death or violence – that have committed even more appalling crimes elswhere, for example the Columbine School and Virginia Tech massacres in the US, and similar shootings in Germany and Canada.

On a sunny day in May, the Rossmore estate in Poole where the boys lived does not seem a threatening or unruly place. It is not an estate in the urban high-rise sense, more a neighbourhood of single and semi-detached houses, none older than thirty or forty years. One group of teenagers know the boys well. A cousin of Crago, 20-year-old Alex, said: “Warren was always a bit of a wild child, he got excluded from school and that, but he had a girlfriend and had just started to settle down. He had hobbies, you know, he liked bikes.

“When I heard from my father that he’d been arrested I said, shut up, you’re joking. We got round to see my aunt and uncle, Warrens’s folks, and they were in a terrible way.” Jimmy Ayres, the youngest of the group, lived with his grandparents after his mother left two years ago. He never knew his father. “They had enough on their plate already without this,” Stephan added. Ayres’ grandmother declined to comment. The television was on at Crago’s house, but no one answered. Real’s family had moved to Brighton, according to a neighbour.

While perhaps their defence of their friends is admirable, the darker implications are made explicit by another teenager, Jack: “Everyone’s got into a fight over nothing before. I’ve kicked a tramp in the head before. You do, if you’re boozed up.”

Others who knew the boys were far less complimentary. The grandson of one of Real’s neighbours said he had often thrown stones at his grandfather, smashed windows and hurled abuse over the fence.

“He always tried to be the big man,” said Jason Evans, 16. “Always trying to make out how hard he was, pick fights with people. He wasn’t well liked – there’s been a fair few cases when half the estate had been outside his house.” He added: “You do wonder if it’s the family or whatever, but it always seemed his mother was trying to bring him up right. I never thought he could do something like that.”

Other neighbours had similar stories of abuse, smashed windows, egged cars. Poole Council said antisocial behaviour in the area had dropped 30 per cent in recent months. So if the three were not irredeemably violent, then they at least thought nothing of using violence in the extreme. The court heard how, after the initial attack, Crago and Real had come back to throw a shopping trolley onto Millward’s battered body.

Christine Barter, senior research follow at Bristol University’s School for Policy Studies said that experience of violence going un-chastised by adults, or meted out without consequence built up a greater tolerance for violence. “There may be a high tolerance of violence, not just in young peoples’ culture but within their broader communities,” she said.

“It is not always easy to pinpoint a cause,” she said. “But complex families or difficult backgrounds often appear in these cases. There does seem to be a link between experiencing violent behaviour or neglect in the home as a child and then acting out that violence later in life.”

As the boys and their families were known to social care and other council services, the Poole Safeguarding Children Board, a watchdog set up to oversee the child protection work of probation, social care, education and other services, is to hold an independent review into whether there were any missed opportunities in previous dealing with the boys, perhaps providing better means in the future to help difficult families and children.

Although the board usually looks at cases of violence by adults against children, board chairman Ron Lock felt that although “most unusual” it was right that the board also review this case.

The inquiry will report within three months. The boys’ sentencing for manslaughter is at the end of June.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, June 2010]


David Holmes

Illustration: Jimmy Turrell -
Illustration: Jimmy Turrell -

A good film soundtrack hangs in the background, carried along by the film’s momentum, giving way to dialogue or standing in its place as the narrative requires, but without intruding into the viewer’s consciousness.

David Holmes is like that soundtrack; releasing album after album of unusual, thoughtful music over 15 years that swing between ambient soundscapes, clattering breaks, techno and jazz, he still remains a background figure, known more among producers and studios than the record-buying public.

Holmes, 41, is the youngest of ten children born and raised in Belfast, giving him, he says, the “brass neck” to propel him through his career. Belfast in the 1970s was short on fun and long on Troubles, and while the paramilitaries warred on the streets outside, young David spent his days under curfew watching films, unwittingly sowing the seeds of what would become his signature musical style.

Holmes says: “It was purely accidental. Andrew Weatherall once told me if you’re going to go into the studio try and find your own sound. As a DJ I used to spin soundtracks over the top of my sets, and that gave me the idea – it just became my thing.”

Playing rhythm and blues records in nightclubs as a teenager, Holmes found his musical interests abruptly altered in the late 80s. “Like millions of other people, I got completely obsessed with the acid house revolution. So while I was always buying different music – soundtracks, country, rock and roll – my next obsession became electronic music,” he says.

“And that in itself opened me up to primitive electronic music, library music, musique concrete – all this electronic music that existed long before acid house.”

His first release to overtly sample cinema was DeNiro, (under the moniker The Disco Evangelists), intertwining themes from Apocalypse Now, Once Upon A Time In The West and Blade Runner.

This Film’s Crap Let’s Slash The Seats, his first full length album in 1995, is a brooding, atmospheric soundtrack in search of a film, from the dark foreboding intro No Man’s Land – sounding every bit the backdrop to an opening scene – through acid techno, fractured funk, and breathy ambience.

For his 1997 follow up Let’s Get Killed Holmes, instead of sampling films directly, Holmes used recordings he had made as a mere teenager – that brass neck again – of street people in New York, splicing together captured dialogue and drawing on his early Mod and soul influences.

Traipsing through the underbelly of New York City as a teenager had been “an enormous trip”, Holmes recalls. “We were recording in the wee hours, under the influence of mind-altering chemicals. I remember consciously just trying to focus on pressing the record button.

“The whole thing was like Fear and Loathing in New York. The experience of making those tapes is the one I’ll take to my grave – it was such an adventure.”

Many of the titles come from the NYC experience too – Let’s Get Killed was a phrase that readily came to mind walking through the Bronx at night. Holmes says: “Just after that, we found sprayed on wall in fresh paint ‘Don’t Die Just Yet’. To be honest I began to freak out a little.”

A warm and upbeat album, it became Holmes biggest hit, chiming well as it did with the late 90s ‘big beat’ sound of the time. A third album, Bow Down To The Exit Sign, was also well received.

There is a certain irony Holmes’ music’s affinity for cinema has become what he’s better known for, providing soundtracks and compositions for a dozen films. Steve McQueen’s film about IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, Hunger, was one that he sought out.

“There’s been more than a fair share of glamorised films made about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and I really wanted one to do it right. I knew McQueen would. He made a film about an IRA icon without turning it into a pro-IRA film, and in a way that made it relevant to what’s going on in Abu Grahib and Guantanamo. It’s a great, great film.”

Holmes has scored for many of Steven Soderbergh’s films, including Ocean’s 11 and its sequels and most recently The Girlfriend Experience, featuring the first major crossover role for adult star Sasha Grey as a high-class escort.

“I haven’t seen the film, but I’m a big fan of Sasha in her other job,” Holmes laughs. “She’s a really interesting character, a real 21st century porn star – a very smart girl.”

The Girlfriend Experience features on a retrospective of tracks from the last 15 years, The Dogs Are Parading, which also includes tracks from his most recent original album, The Holy Pictures – made in 2008 after the deaths of his parents.

It is an album full of tender moments, and for the first time, Holmes steps out from behind the shield of cinematic themes and adds his voice to the mix, sounding not a million miles from Jim Reid of the Jesus and Mary Chain.

“I’d toyed with the idea of singing in the past but it was only after I lost both parents I felt I had something important to say,” he says. “I wasn’t really intending to make such a personal album, it just happened. I felt no one else could’ve sung those lyrics so every day when my family went to school and record them myself. It was a very cathartic experience.”

A man with many strings to his bow, Holmes latest project is not a film score, but a film – Good Vibrations, co-produced with Michael Winterbottom, looks at the life of Terri Hooley, a colourful Belfast character and his titular record shop on the city’s most dangerous street. “He discovered The Undertones and sold the rights to Teenage Kicks for £500 and a signed photo of the Shangri-Las – he never got the photo,” Holmes chuckles. “I’ve been buying records off him since I was a boy, and all my friends for 20 years are involved in the film. We’ve been talking about making it for years – it’s a real Belfast production.”

But for all his Belfast history, the future for Holmes lies in LA, where he’s moving with his wife and five-year-old daughter. “I don’t want to hit 50 and never have lived anywhere but Belfast,” he muses. “And just think of the weather!”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2010]