A force awakens… again

[WARNING – MANY, MANY SPOILERS]

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The film may have come out a year and a bit ago, but I’ve finally sat down to watch the Blu-Ray extras for Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Sure, I had to go to the ‘Deleted Scenes’ first (who wouldn’t?) but they don’t really lend much to what happened, and there’s no real nuggets in there, nothing that really (rightly) felt that it shouldn’t have been left on the floor. Because the film didn’t feel anything but lean. But the ‘Making Of’ was a really special viewing. I’m also not afraid to say I shed a tear watching the scenes with Carrie Fisher, both on set and off. It seems ever more tragic that she’s not going to be here to see how the universe develops in front of our eyes. A part of my childhood really did die when she left us.

The Read-Through alone sent shivers down the spine. Seeing Carrie, Harrison Ford and Mark Hammil in the same room, with Peter Mayhew, Anthony Edwards, talk through the words in that universe again… it still didn’t seem real. God knows what it must’ve been like being part of it. Because this is a film (no, not a movie) that I never thought would happen again. After the three ‘prequels’ that let down so many people of a certain age, I felt the stories had run their course. I’d never immersed myself that much in the books when I was a kid – sure, I read a few, but they never gripped me the way that first roll did on A New Hope – so for me, the films were the centre of all of it, and while I love the original trilogy (ok, I’m obsessed by it) and I still watch them regularly, I’d resigned myself to that being it. A sad, underwhelming and overblown successor that drowned in SFX, clunky dialog, toyshop characters and none of the real magic of the first three.

But of course, the last two years have proven how wrong I was. And as a 42-year old man, there should be something a bit sad about being so excited and overwhelmed by a couple of films, but then this is my youth, returning, and in a world that’s so grim, grimy, chaotic, unsure and angry, it’s no surprise that many of us are revelling in the escapism that such a vibrant, colourful and enticing universe that we all find so familiar gives us over the rest of reality.

There’s so much beautiful synergy between the old and new. And yes, some of that is a purposeful, heartstring-tugging intention to rope us olds back in, but it’s also such a reverence to the original films, because JJ Abrams gets that it’s a legacy, not just a money-making machine, churning out ever-decreasing chapters for the next decade. He was a fan himself when we were watching Empire as a small kid, he was a teen in LA, seeing the very same magic. So, where the old generation hand over to the new in The Force Awakens, it’s not just in front of the camera. Just looking at Nien Numb, who so memorably appeared in Jedi in the Falcon in the final battle of Endor, back as a pilot in the base on Yavin, or, even more sweetly, Warwick Davis, Wicket in Jedi, now returning (so much more known to many for Extras) as Wollivan alongside his yellow-headed monster daughter in the bar scene at Mas Kanta’s. It’s that incredible charm and character that’s indelibly inked onto the new films that makes you feel such a connection to them, where it wasn’t expected or assumed. There’s over a hundred creatures in VII, so many of them non-CGI, from the returning Gonk droids, to new pilots, musicians, bounty hunters.

That’s one of the greatest beauties of the  new trilogy so far is Abrams’ and the entire team’s willingness to only use CGI when there was no other means to achieve their ends. As many of us felt Lucas slowly diluting the rough-hewn charm of the original trilogy with needless new effects shots and reissues, leading to an almost shiny, blurred, CGI-laden set of prequels that fell into the era’s obsession with effects, the Force Awakens went back to what worked best: real models, characters, creatures, sets, effects, which felt so much more visceral and real. It always does, and it should be a lesson to filmmakers out there, that computer-generated SFX should be the point of last resort. Gareth Edwards showed that, more than anything with Monsters, a beautiful looking film made on a minuscule budget, whose effects were part of the tapestry, rather than the end-point of the whole fable.

I can’t even imagine what is must’ve been like being part of it, but there was something wonderful about how the younger actors – John Boyega especially – were so blown away by being on set, wanting a hug from Chewie, a walk through the Falcon. It says something that over 200 people were crowded onto the set when – for a day, they set aside a WHOLE DAY – when Han and Chewie get to utter the line that made a million adults squeal: “Chewie, we’re home.” It’s lovely to hear that, even as the film was being so meticulously made, pretty much the entire cast and crew were as excited as the rest of us were anticipating it, and watching it. And all of it soundtracked by John Williams, at 84 years old, still vital and perhaps one of the most important and iconic people in cinema today. Music that is as much part of our lives as Luke, Han, and Leia, but also Indiana Jones, ET, Jaws, Superman, Home Alone, Schindler’s List, Empire Of The Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, Lincoln and War Horse. Who else has been nominated for 50 Academy Awards?

The ILM work is still just incredible. Seeing so much referencing the original trilogy, whose effects were groundbreaking at the time, back against the new film is wonderful. The best CGI is the stuff that doesn’t look like it’s even there until you look, and for every shot that is obviously FX, there’s a bunch of stuff happening in the background that you don’t know is even unreal. And the new stuff: The Black X-Wing, the new TIE-Fighters, the updated Falcon, the Star Destroyer Graveyard, new Stormtroopers. Seeing them photograph the old 5ft model Falcon and take the little motifs the original model makers left (the ‘Drive Safely’ stickers!) and mapping them onto the ‘new’ Falcon so that the little details perpetuated into the new chapters. You’d have to know these details and watch it over and over, so it’s great to see that this is just ‘what had to be done’, even though many of us would never even spot what’s there. It’s just another example of the rich detail, thought and love that went into it all.

There are so many amazing insights into the making of the film. That JJ Abrams himself came up with the basic concept of BB-8. That Poe was going to be killed early on before they changed the story to keep him in. That Kylo Ren’s suit was going to be chrome (ugh) but when it was dumped it ended up as Captain Phasma. The fact that so many of the original crew from the first trilogy were part of the team that made The Force Awakens, in many cases using inspiration from the iconic Ralph McQuarrie, or the original designs, photos, and in one case, one son’s own inspiration from his father’s snowspeeder drawings in Empire. It felt like not just the handing on from one generation to another in front of and behind the camera, but really bringing so much of the history back together to ensure that the magic of the first trilogy was sprinkled all over the newest one. That may seem obvious, but it’s really the most important and intangible thing that, done wrong (especially overdone) would’ve seemed clumsy and too broadly brushed. They got it nailed.

As a film geek anyway, these behind-the-scenes things are catnip to me. It’s why I’ve started a Saturday that I couldn’t get back to sleep at 7am by thinking ‘I’ve been meaning to watch a bit of this for ages” and sitting here on the sofa for almost 3 hours gorging on the entire extras for the original Blu-Ray, feeling like a 6-year old kid again. But the mechanics of putting something so huge together is fascinating. I feel as excited watching this as I did watching grainy extras on the VHS tapes back in the mid-80s, or reading through the articles in the papers and magazines at the time. I wish I could take a weekend out and watch the whole lot from all of the films, but I’ve got packing to do!

Really, it’s an incredible thing to just immerse yourself in every now and then. I know that I’m a bit of an obsessive. How can you not be that excited about watching a universe unfold in front of your eyes that you first witnessed as a small boy (I was barely even walking when the first came out) and want to dive back into that? It’s part of my lifetime. It always will be.

A princess of Hollywood, gone to the stars.

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“You have owned my likeness, lo all these years, so that every time I look in the mirror I have to send you a check for a couple of bucks.” 

I am not remotely embarrassed to I say I’m obsessed with Star Wars. I’m one of millions. But it doesn’t change the fact that seeing that universe expand in front of me from the day I was old enough to watch A New Hope (on VHS, I’m not that old) changed my life. I’ve watched that film over 100 times, and know every word and every character’s movements and expressions like it was my own. The quote above, of course, comes from Carrie Fisher to George Lucas, one of many quips she so beautifully and bitingly made in a career that was so much more than just those films, knowing so astutely that she’d have to rail against that oversimplified outline for the rest of her life. In this context, it’s not an exaggeration to say that when news of her heart-attack came through before Christmas I just thought “oh god, not her too”. There was way too much more to still come than 60 years would allow, even for someone that packed in as much as she did. I dearly hoped she’d pull through, ready with some withering self-deprecation about her not being dead yet, to witness the outpouring of support, and to solider on for another decade or two. But it wasn’t to be.

Really, it feels so desperately sad. I know public grief is a cheap commodity these days, traded in competitive chunks on a daily basis like a modern currency, but at 41 I don’t feel ready to let so many of these childhood touchstones drift into the mists just yet. Not Carrie, someone that stood out so much in those films, like she did in life, and instructed me about women in ways I didn’t even understand at the time. Even though she often resented the ties that bound her to those films (famously describing the role as ‘a lot of it was just running down corridors’) more tightly than she ever may have wanted, the late-blooming return to this fantasy universe and the rush of adolescent joy it brought me and so many others, makes it all the more sad she’s suddenly no longer here. [Spoiler alert] I’m not sure I could stomach that last scene in Rogue One right now. It just feels too sad to see that fresh face against this backlit scene of contemporary sorrow.

She was my first crush, probably before I even knew what one of those was. But she was also, flagrantly so much more than a sex symbol, and everything many women in cinema weren’t usually allowed to be at the time – feisty, witty, sexy, funny, articulate, intelligent and forceful – and not even Han Solo or Luke Skywalker stood a chance against her in those three films. Even as she was planned for execution, she fought back, showing vulnerability even as she cracked jokes at Grand Moff Tarkin’s expense. What a woman, in so many of the right ways, not some silver screen cypher employed as window dressing. I was hooked from then on, by this mystical figure clad in flowing white robes, who was pretty handy with a blaster and didn’t seem to care for gruff, charming space pirates (well, not at first). She transformed, during those six years from nervous ingénue princess to a star in her own right, famous – sadly, above so much else – for that bikini, rather than killing the mighty Jabba, as she should be. Perhaps one of her best put-downs came from this very weary topic, answering an angry father: “‘What am I going to tell my kid about why she’s in that outfit?’ Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage.””

She was fearless. The daughter of celebrity parents (Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, her mother now tragically joining her barely 24 hours later), born and raised into Hollywood royalty, she spent much of her life and career remorselessly skewering that privilege when others hid behind it, seeing no vanity or assuming no position from it, often making capital out of the litany of ‘you-couldn’t-make-it-up’ drama that befell her. In fact, her truth about the underbelly of the industry, on others, but much of her own often painful and scarred experience, came to inform her post-Endor life. A voracious chronicler, her books were brilliant warts-and-all paens to growing up inside the movie bubble, with Postcards From The Edge very loosely autobiographical, and made into the brilliant film with Shirley Maclaine as the tortuous mother and Meryl Streep in the title role (for if Meryl plays you, you know you’re a true character of note). She even appeared – indirectly, until I only realised very recently – in the lyrics of one of my favourite albums of all time, as Paul Simon (her husband for eleven ill-fated months) talked about the “window in your heart” he found after she’d gone, immortalised in Graceland. Added poignancy when no more were needed.

She published memoirs that laid bare the high and low points of her life, taking them on tour as one-woman shows, and showing the openness and vulnerability that drew us to her from the start. Even forty years later, she managed to raise eyebrows when admitting to an affair with Harrison Ford in The Princess Diarist, which landed only a month or so before her untimely death. To the end, she never dimmed the switch. She also had roles and work that were often – sadly – overlooked. She provided the comic chops and humanity as Marie in When Harry Met Sally, worked in Shampoo, Hannah And Her Sisters, The Blues Brothers, Soapdish, and more as well as television, from 30 Rock, Family Guy, brilliantly as Rob Delaney’s acerbic mother in Catastrophe (for which she’d just finished a new series before the fateful flight home she caught from London), and spiky cameos aplenty in everything from Sex And The City to Big Bang Theory and Entourage. She never stopped working, applying uncredited script work to Hook, Sister Act, The Wedding Singer and more, even if many foolishly thought there was nothing between Jedi and The Force Awakens. Her epitaph is so much more than A Galaxy Far, Far Away.

She was also fearless in her openness about mental illness. Suffering from bipolar disorder from a young age, she never shied away from what it led her to, or the complexities of being a sufferer. Being the daughter of Hollywood royalty would be hard enough to cope with, but fighting bipolar disease, it’s actually incredible to think she had a career at all, given the rates of suicide it induces. But addressed it she did, and head on: “I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital,” she spoke over two decades ago. In a still-incredible interview, she talked in understandable terms about how her battles manifested themselves. ” I have two moods,” she explains. “One is Roy, rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood. And Pam, sediment Pam, who stands on the shore and sobs … Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it’s out.” It’s for this reason alone, and her honesty, that she should perhaps be lauded more than anything for helping switch around the usual mental health narrative. She showed that that real, famous, great, successful people suffer from these conditions just as much as the rest of us, and the effect it can have on those people that feel alone and side-lined and unable to feel they can talk to anyone about it. Taboos are there to be broken, and Fisher did this with all the vim of Leia or Marie, realising that if it came from her, then another wall could be broken down.

But the part of me that aches the most is still that boy that watched entranced back in the early 80s, as this whirlwind in white, that grew up with that adoration and admiration unchanged, seeing that return in 2015, and feeling privileged to be living through both ages of the life of the person I knew as Princess Leia. From childhood crush to full-on adult infatuation, to middle-aged reverence, that person on and off-screen that never played by the rules, never kept quiet when it was expected, never felt she should fulfil the role of which she was expected. She suffered, wore that as a badge of honour, and never stopped seeing the positive side of her fractured existence. As my 40s trundles on, it feels like too many of those we held dear in our formative years are being taken away too early. Perhaps this is just what getting old is like, and this is the start of a long, uninterrupted march of those faces in front of us for the next few decades. But few will have the impact that the likes of Leia, Han and Luke had, and that emotional squeeze from the icons of your simpler, more brightly coloured childhood often hold onto you much more than those in our cluttered, complicated adult life ever could.

Sixty years old is way too soon, when so much felt still in front of her. The sadness is only compounded by the devastating death of her mother, Debbie, only a dayfew after her daughter. But for  a couple of lucky generations, we all saw that first clip and thought what Luke Skywalker did: “Who is she? She’s beautiful“. She was one of a kind, and the world is a far poorer place without her. May The Force be with you, Leia.

Goodbye, George

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I thought that 2016 had already done its fair share of disposing of iconic artists, but it still had a few cards to play. So the irony of hearing George Michael had passed away on Christmas day seemed a cruel joke too far (one that social media predictably jumped on in its crass, insensitive way almost as soon as the news hit that evening). But like Prince and Bowie before him, the sudden and unexpected nature of his passing was perhaps the biggest surprise, given he was only 53.

I know that it’s the new norm in the social media age to bear ones feelings online, and to lace tragedy with hyperbole and flowery language, an arms race to see who is the most upset or struck by these events, but while Bowie and Prince have been ever-present in my life, they were never the soundtrack to my childhood. George Michael, in Wham! and as a solo artist was definitely that, even before I knew much about him, or – blissfully unaware as a 7 year-old – his life, I was dancing round the living room to Club Tropicana and Wham Rap and recording hits off the radio on tape (yes, remember that?) Like any child of the 80s (born in ’75, but growing up in that oddly bleak yet flamboyant decade), pop music was central to my formative years. And what a decade for pop it was, perhaps never bettered, with so many big acts to choose from, even the one-hit wonders were somehow brilliant (think Owen Paul, Jermaine Stewart, The Buggles, Cutting Crew, Nina, MARRS). But alongside globe-spanning heavyweights like Duran Duran, Madonna, Prince, U2, Queen and Bowie, George Michael felt much more like one of us. The son of a Greek-Cypriot restaurant owner, born and raised in Kingsbury then Radlett, meeting Andrew Ridgely at school with dreams of pop stardom.

Forming Wham! in 1981, (I don’t know what you were doing when you were 18, but I was listening to his records, and wondering what my Geography degree would get me in life) they had a no.1 album within two years, with 3 top ten singles, including Wham Rap and the iconic Club Tropicana. The latter was filmed at the famous Pikes Hotel in Ibiza, and when I found this fact out much later on in life, I spent 2 summers trying to find the place outside San Antonio, just to be able to stand where that famous video was shot, such was its legend. It seemed crazy that I could be walking around that pool (luckily, no white pants for me), replaying that video in my head, wondering – and wishing – what it would’ve been like to have been at one of those weekend parties there in the mid 80s with George, Andy, Freddie, Grace and the rest.  He just made it all look so fun.

From there, the hits rolled almost non-stop, with staggering numbers: 100m albums sold, 7 UK no.1s, 8 US Billboard no.1s, his debut solo album, Faith, sold 20m alone, not to mention the list of awards, from 3 Ivor Novellos to countless Brits, MTV, Grammy and American Music Awards. But above all, he was a star, and a star all of his own making. George Michael did things his own way, and all his success came at a time when, if you were gay, you still had enough problems to deal with from daily life, but when you were a megastar, you’d be hounded relentlessly and mercilessly by the tabloids, rabidly obsessed with outing and shaming homosexuals. These are the same tabloids now eulogising him. It has ever been thus, the hypocrisy hanging rank in the air.. But Michael refused to be ashamed of his life. Much has been made of him not coming out until 1998, following his much-publicised bust (sorry, sting) in LA by an undercover police officer. But he didn’t care personally that he was gay, only that coming out publicly would affect his parents more than anything. In many ways, he was still the outsider from suburban London, but also, he didn’t exercise rigid control on his public or private life because he was ashamed, but because he felt it was none of anyone’s business. This infuriated the press, who simply attacked him further, and just made us root for him even more. His refusal to be a sexless, ashamed, out-gay man, is to be lauded, and still feels an outlier today, but in the late 90s, (having endured and survived the turbulent 80s) he was one of a few pop stars to be willing to put his head above the parapet. Even back then almost half the UK still thought same-sex relations ‘always or mostly wrong’. Many thought his career would suffer then, but of course, it was arguably one of the finest ripostes to a celebrity shaming there’s ever been: he made Outside in weeks after that arrest and ‘scandal’, lampooning at once the press, the LA Police, homophobes everywhere, showing that gay sex was still just sex, and making them all uncomfortable at the same time. A masterstroke, and one that many others would never have dared risk. He did it with gusto and humour, and I only loved him more.

There was the usual narrative of the ‘troubled’ star, yet no one bared this truth more honestly than George himself, speaking of his demons and addictions openly and causing many of us that were teens or younger at the time to go back over lyrics and feel embarrassment over what was overtly personal and downright dirty songs, released in plain sight. But it was all part of a talent that wrote and sang songs that were emotionally inclusive and soul-baring. When he was playing the James Dean role on Faith, he was also singing about a quick shag on Fast Love, or more brazenly pushing the tolerance of radio stations and tv channels with ‘I Want Your Sex’ (famously writing ‘explore monogamy’ on his partner’s back in lipstick’. But for all his brazen nature, great copy and partying, tragedy and difficulty was never far away either. Watching Anselmo Feleppa, his partner, die of AIDS-related illness in 1993, and penning Jesus To A Child to commemorate him. Even the accidents and incidents that put him in prison briefly, the public shame heaped on him made him no less forgiving, and it was hard not to love him for that, particularly when you detest the right-wing press and their motives so much. All the while, he still looked for that next hit, writing dozens of news songs, fighting his label for control, and in recent years that next album that never saw the light of day, robbing us perhaps of a next chapter to his remarkable story.

And all through it, he was a trailblazer and a star. While he was releasing solo classics like Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1, he was donating money to charities and individuals. Stories of giving a nurse fifteen thousand pounds anonymously for her IVF, or a concert for NHS nurses following his mother’s death, donating royalties to Childline, or Terrence Higgens’ trust for AIDS, making clear that having ‘more money than he could spend’ didn’t mean he didn’t know how to use it. In a world where celebrities now do much work for charity but do like to talk about it, he was the opposite. His work for LGBT charities was huge, and he also wore the position of a global pop star figurehead for a movement with zest, whatever the personal cost.  The trail he blazed didn’t just inspire musicians and others from his music, but made it easier for people after him to be who they needed to be, and as his music success waned, his legacy’s impact increased only further.

Ultimately though, for those of a certain age, his death leaves a sizeable hole. From as early as I can remember, I danced to his music, wanted to be him – and yes, long before I had a clue he was gay, we all wanted to be him, or be with him, such was his attraction to women – and bought his records. The tapes I had from back then are mostly long gone – I still remember being so excited to buy the cassette single of he and one of my other childhood icons, Elton John, duetting on Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me from Our Price in Redhill in 1991, when it really wasn’t cool to like either that much any more – but the records remain. So many hits, that it seemed like one of his records was permanently in the charts from 1981 to the late 90s, a staggering output, especially when success is so fleeting in the modern musical world. He did so much that seems normal now, but lost him friends, success and money back then, whether it was refusing to be in his own videos (Freedom, particularly, irked Sony, but it’s now one of the most replayed videos that era, chock-full of supermodels), suing his own record company for creative control, and simply be unashamed being out and gay when it was accepted to be a career-killer. Lesser artists would’ve been hit, but he just did what he wanted to, and that’s why people rooted for him.

I’ve dabbled as a DJ over the past two decades, and now the radio show I do is based around being the best wedding set you’ve ever heard. Understandably, Wham! and George Michael have always been high on my list of #bangers since the start. How can they not? So many of them have such happy memories for me, whether it’s listening to Wham! in Africa when I was a kid, or mesmerised by him joining Elton at Live Aid, or cracking up when the LA policeman sued him for making Outside, with George at the centre of his own joke. And every new year’s day for the last seven years, dancing to Everything She Wants at Bugged Out. Even last week, I played Last Christmas (how could you not?) on my radio show’s festive edition. It seems so sad that it’s now an epitaph, rather than a celebration of someone you hoped still had gas in their career for a long time to come. He also joins the list of artists I never saw live and that I’ll never get that chance to. Everyone I know that did was in awe. That voice of his had few peers.

As we get older, it’s inevitable that those we love, and revere and worship will slowly slip away before our eyes. Only a fool would be unwilling to accept this. But 53 is no age to go, discovered by your partner lying calmly in bed on Christmas morning. Not when you’re re-releasing a classic album in 2017, and planning a documentary that we’ll now never see. Nostalgia is a business all of its own these days, but when a chunk of your childhood becomes a freeze-frame of memories, and no longer a living, breathing person, part of that dies with them. It’s not overdramatic to say that, because while I listen to so much new music, there’s a huge part of me that’s still that little nerdy kid dancing round the room with a comb singing Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, and wanting to be that flamboyant guy on tv in tennis shorts and a haircut bigger than my torso, bobbing around alongside Andrew Ridgely. Knowing that George Michael is ‘never gonna dance again’ is a sad, sad day indeed.

What Brexit says about the choice the United States has…

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As a Brit with an interest in US politics that’s lasted pretty much my entire adult life, all I can say is that if Brexit has taught us anything, it’s that those promoting the politics of fear and division don’t care about you or I. Their ideological, selfish campaigning has nothing underneath it. The vote to Leave was a shock, but not unexpected. The Remain campaign simply thought they could scare voters into staying, while Leavers simply peddled negative, xenophobic, racist and outright made-up figures that played to that populist, “we don’t need anyone else to be Great Britain” rhetoric. It resonated with people that thought politics had failed them and saw solutions through demonizing others rather than the very people telling them to Leave. The very same people from the heart of the establishment who were claiming to be anything but. Sound familiar?

There are many things about Hilary Clinton that I have issue with, and while Bernie made inspiring and principled speeches and energised youth and disaffected voters, surely we all knew the reality was that the majority of his plans would have never been reality (Obama’s two terms fighting the House and his own party tells us that an overwhelmingly decent and principled man still struggles to push through even the most sensible policies). And we only have to look at the Labour party to see how a candidate that’s come to power on a wave of populism and left wing ideals has proven a less than competent and effective leader.

But Bernie has forced Hilary into adopting more of his language and policies. This can only be a good thing. Is she as inspiring? As emotive? As warm and engaging? No, she isn’t. And she’s up against a candidate that, however abhorrent, knows how to speak in a way that (unfortunately) connects with many people, playing to their fear and anger. She has to be positive, she has to be able to reach out to voters that want to be heard, that are being attacked by her opponent. That’s a potentially huge demographic. The more he alienates, the more voters are up for grabs for the democrats. Simply refuting his “policies” won’t work, because he makes them up as he goes along, which makes them hard to lay a punch on. And yet Hilary seems to be held up to a level of scrutiny that no man and certainly not a “personality” like Trump ever is.

But however depressing it is to see another dynasty crowned (between Bush and Clinton, that’s most of my life covered, more than half if Hilary gets in) and feel as if there’s such a narrow choice for leader, the alternative surely must galvanize democrats? So many here voted Conservative in 2015 thinking it was a safe bet for a coalition only for a majority to get in and set about further ruining the country, culminating in our decision to leave the EU. Many voted there as a protest, or because they bought lies on immigration, the economy, public services, and it’s going to affect the rest of our lives in the UK.

Trump would be the same. It would be an atom bomb in the US political landscape. Like Leavers, I’m not even sure he wants or expects to win. It’s just about his own ego and popularity. He’s willing to divide the country to feed his own myth and coffers. It’s a crazy situation, but Hilary hasn’t even made her convention speech and yet democrats are fighting each other: it’s just what he wants. I can’t see any reason not to vote against Trump, and to prevent him from being in office, Hilary is the only choice, surely? Anything else is just giving a vote to the devil….

Brexit – where do we go now?

Back from the mud and pretending we’d not left the EU until I got home, I’ve been trying to rationalise the campaigns, the vote, the result, and what it means for the UK, England and the EU. Whichever way you look at it, it isn’t going to be pretty, and I very much doubt it’s going to be the ‘new Britain’ that many Leavers hoped from the mess that both sides threw around for the last few months. If we wanted our country back, what sort of country is that really going to be?

Some things to make clear: however disappointed I am in the result, and whatever bile and hatred is already emerging, all Leavers are neither racist, nor xenophobic, nor are they all little Englanders wanting us to return to the 50s (18 or 19), nor do they hate Europe, or each other, nor are they idiots. Some are some, many or all of these things, but just because some voted Leave as a protest (I mean seriously) and others regret it, that’s democracy. You can be disappointed in a result, detest those that drove us to it, even those that made that choice if you want to, but this is how democracy works. If we’re going to get angry, get angry that those that lied to us. Many voted to control immigration, save the NHS, ‘take back control’ (and what a loose and nebulous premise that was.. of what?), to make our own laws, to halt pressure on public services… all of which are admirable and sensible choices. Sadly, I very much doubt many of these things will be resolved.

The truth of the matter is – to me (my opinion, not attacking yours) – this was a referendum that no one but a section of the Tory party wanted. That section’s been there ever since we joined the EU in its earliest form. Cameron shat himself over the threat of ‘up to 10’ seats going to UKIP last May, so pledged this in their manifesto. He never expected to be in majority government, and suddenly had to deliver. All this from the threat of an ‘outsider’ who’s a former Tory councillor, stockbroker and pint-drinking middle England upper middle class Tory, Nigel Farage. This is the political mess our country has become.

Once the campaign started, you had one side (Leave) who were energised, with the EU as a punchbag, marking it out as the root of all evil – immigration, public services, economy, democracy, human rights, red tape – when much of it was created by the very govt they existed in. They had the might of the press behind them, whose lies they’d been supporting for years. They vented against the very experts that supported their last 6 years in power, as if figures just didn’t matter any more. A motley crew of Farage, Johnson, Gove, Duncan Smith, Patel and more, evoking the colonial era success of industrial Britain, an Albion that’s a figment of our imagination (we were a terrible country then) as if pulling up the drawbridge would move all our problems away, instead of merely making us having to deal with them in isolation. They preached lies from the start: 350m went to the EU every week, it would all go to: the NHS, science, arts, rural areas, defence… you name it, pluck out a populist idea and sell it. We’d solve immigration issues with a points system that already lets in 180,000 a year from outside the EU, we’d reclaim our democracy (as if forgetting our membership of NATO, WTO, UN, Commonwealth and many other climate and trade deals we don’t write ourselves) or complaining of unelected politicians (whilst choosing not to reform the Lords, which is exactly that), and then moved onto, emboldened, the rub of it all. They lost the economic argument, so they hit home on immigration. They may have criticised Farage’s posters, but did nothing while in power. The very Tories that decimated our public services in the myth of austerity now blamed immigrants for it, when they are net contributors to the economy, and have allowed the growing xenophobic and racist voices to rise and demonise them, the working classes and post-industrial communities. They caused the problem, they pushed it onto someone else. A perfect storm. They had no plan for victory (did they really expect it?) and didn’t care. They’d lie with impunity, it was never going to happen, was it? And these are the candidates for PM. Cameron was awful, but this lot… you just wait.

And Remain? Half-hearted or invisible campaigning, or simply not campaigning at all, so afraid of standing alongside they hated they sucked all momentum out of the positive message that could’ve been made. They led on the economy, supported by almost everyone, but couldn’t put out a good message. It was only one thing: DOOM. And yes, that’s what’s going to happen, but they were hamstrung on the truth. Blame the EU too much for immigration, and people will question how their austerity helped public services. Cameron and Osborne started strongly but were the only big voices that anyone recognised. Their hearts weren’t in it in the end. Then the rest? Greens and Lib Dems did work hard, but their voices were drowned out by the main protagonists, and the positivity submerged by the lies and negativity. And Labour? Split, as were Tories, down the middle, riven by an internecine war for the party. Corbyn appeared half way through to support an insitution he’s been opposed to all his career, and refused to share a platform with any other party for fear of his own reputation. His colleagues did, but the message was almost entirely negative, and positivity doesn’t resonate with fear. A half decent campaign would’ve likely won, and yet refuting all the Leave’s lies simply was ignored by the press most of the time. By the end, even after the tragic killing of MP Jo Cox, no one could appeal to compassion or sentiment. The campaign, like all politics now, seemingly, has been poisoned.

All the same, I, like many still held out hope that we’d sneak a win by a couple of percent. So, what happened? The split of age ranges said it all – 75% of young people (but not enough young people) voted to Remain, most cities did, Scotland did, as did Wales, but much of rural England and working classes voted to Leave, and this tipped the balance. Even then though, the result was a shock. Even personally, putting aside my beliefs, it’s depressing to think that we can survive in a globalised world where immigration, climate change, economics, crime and trade are all internationally formed and affected by shutting the curtains. But the supremely negative campaigns destroyed all hope in the whole referendum. Fears and worries were inflamed, division and hatred fed, to the point where many people simply saw it as the only solution. A kick against the elite? If you think Gove, Farage, Johnson and Duncan Smith aren’t elites then we are in trouble. Yes, kick Westminster, but this wasn’t a changing of the guard. It’s going to be a lot, lot worse.

So, what now? Economic shock, uncertainty, a plunging pound, and protracted battles for control of government and opposition. And what of the promises? 350m to the NHS, or schools, or public services? Just ‘suggestions’. Immigration? It ‘may well not fall’. Control is not constriction. Trade? Single markets mean free movement. Just ask Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. The EU council’s made that 100% clear. So we best invoke Article 50 now. Oh, that’s not going to happen? Why? When? Because the Leave campaign have no plan, no post-exit ideas. They didn’t expect to win. They’ll crow and laugh as the markets fall, we all lose money, because it won’t affect them. It never would. They’ve got their wish? Who cares what happens now? If you believe any of their lies, that’s understandable, the country is a mess that needs many many things solved, and so you feel hope and empowerment from voting to Leave. But this was never going to happen. It’s far more complex than a Yes/No choice. It’s a modern tragedy, a vote that should never have taken place, or was supposed to, on the whims of a party riven by internal division over Europe. This was never anything but a Tory civil war, that’s resulted in the country in panic. And it’s going to be the reason for division and hatred. We’ve seen that already, and it’ll be the excuse for everything ‘well we’re just the UK now, everyone else needs to leave, we voted for it’. It’s grim. Scotland will leave the UK, maybe Wales too. And we may end up with a result that betrays everyone’s hopes – both Leave and Remain.

What will the future look like? PM Johnson? A man so much more right wing than Cameron or Osborne, a born liar who ruined London if you weren’t an investment banker or CEO or foreign property buyer, or Gove, another former journalist that finds truth a mere inconvenience. Or Theresa May, a Remain campaigner that really was 50-50 and who gave us the Snooper’s Charter. We’ll have a UK Bill of Rights, tear up so much EU legislation that protected our workers rights, environment, industry…. and unless we have a sensible opposition party we’ll allow the Tory party to steamroller this country and sell it off to the highest bidder. All while the division they stoked keeps us busy. I’m no Labour cheerleader either, and I’m deeply disappointed in the party tearing itself apart, with neither wing wanting compromise, so while they should be uniting with Lib Dems, SNP and Greens to hammer this terrible government, they’re going to be fighting each other.

It’s a mess. And it’s a mess built on a decade of lies and mistakes from all sides. The rise of the right in Europe (and many elements at the extremes of it) is continuing and we have a battle to prove we’re a friendly, open country and region. Leaving the EU can only hurt that, and for the many Leave voters that do not share that sentiment, we have to come together to try and ensure we don’t retreat into ourselves and into hatred and division, because this result is the means for many to now see their views as accepted. I’m incredibly disappointed, and sad, and angry with the politicians that lied to us all along now being at the control. The country will suffer and I have no faith they will do what’s right.

Ever feel you’ve been cheated…?

Dan Ghenacia – The Start Of Something Great

In my second article for Pulse Radio, I was chuffed to be talking to a DJ that I have loved ever since I first saw him play at DC10 in Ibiza back in 2002. Back then he’d started his nascent Freak’n’Chic imprint, and minimal techno was on the up. Ten years later, he was still a resident, and his house music was warmer, but largely undisturbed, and Dan is just as welcoming and unassuming as he’s always been: a DJ that with a great career that’s still just the same person he was when he was first playing le Batofar in the early 00s. Now he’s in Apollonia with Shonky and Dyed Soundorom, so we found him in Berlin….

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Dan Ghenacia is one of the underground’s survivors. The Parisian has been at the heart of his home city’s scene since the late ‘90s, helming Le Batofar’s legendary after-hours boat parties and forming seminal house and techno imprint Freak ‘n’ Chic in 2003, a label that spawned many of Paris’ current crop of leading lights. Fast forward to 2013, and, while that first label has been closed three years, he continues to be resident at Ibiza’s Circoloco parties, and now resides as one third of Apollonia, a DJing, label and production trio with fellow Parisians Shonky and Dyed Soundorom. Pulse Radio caught up with him in Germany in between studio sessions to talk about his plans for the next twelve months.

http://pulseradio.net/articles/2013/12/dan-ghenacia-the-start-of-something-great

Erol Alkan – The Outsider

I do a bit of writing on the side for the lovely people at Pulse Radio. And I’ve been lucky enough to interview one of my heroes – Erol Alkan. He’s the quintessential outsider of dance music, one of the loveliest guys you’ll meet, and, for someone that’s not always been comfortable with talking about himself, a great interviewee. Below is an opener, and the link to the piece on Pulse.

Erol Alkan
Erol Alkan

Erol Alkan is an electronic music outsider. He’s produced artists as diverse as Mystery Jets, Long Blondes and Franz Ferdinand, and remixed The Chemical Brothers, Bloc Party, Daft Punk and Tame Impala. He ran the irreverent weekly Monday night Trash for a decade, and started label Phantasy Sound in 2007 shortly after its farewell. Since then, this renegade label has released music from Daniel Avery, Boize Noize and Connan Mockasin to In Flagranti and Late Of The Pier, while a regular fixture at Bugged Out!, and gigs as far afield as Toronto, Berlin, New York and Helsinki, though the end of 2013 marks Alkan’s first solo release. Pulse caught up with him to talk about his life in music, and why he’s happy on the fringes, looking in.

http://pulseradio.net/articles/2013/11/erol-alkan-the-outsider

Do the Hustle…

The cast of American Hustle
American Hustle….

I thought I’d start the new year by trying to get to the cinema more, partly because there’s a lot of good stuff around (12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, Anchorman 2, Monument Men) and partly because I live five minutes walk from an independent cinema here in Stratford, so there’s really no excuse. I chose David O’Russell’s new ensemble picture about (in the loosest of terms) about a corruption scandal in New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s. Pedantry check: while it does bear a passing resemblance, in reality it’s only framed around events, the names are changed (to protect the not very innocent).

That out of the way, it’s a hugely enjoyable film. The cast is superb, working very much as an ensemble, even though you’d argue (like The Fighter) the star of the show, while pitched behind Bale’s crack addict (in The Fighter) brother or overweight con-man here, is Amy Adams. She’s proven serious acting chops once again, the driving force behind the men, and the story, and a world away from Disney fare of the last decade. But part of the joy is just how great the film looks, and, more importantly, feels. Yes, there’s been a lot of talk about style over substance, but that’s a lazy criticism. This isn’t Anchorman, it’s pitched fantastically into the late 70s, and there’s little flamboyance above what’s needed to tell the story.

As for the plot, it skirts a little close to pastiche at times, in terms of the Goodfellas-style focus pulls and bar scenes, but it’s all about the characters, staying much in close-up, to get us close to the action, which works especially well in the scenes with De Niro, which crackle with menace (and imminent collapse), and in the second half of the film, as things slowly unravel. There’s no great payoff, even though the ‘real events’ are given a veneer by Russell, reminding us that this is life, and there’s never a happy ending (cue “some of the actually happened” at the start).

Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper in American Hustle.
Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper in American Hustle.

Bale is in superb, shape-shifted form as Irving. Compare this to The Machinist, and you have to wonder if he’s the actor most willing to destroy his form to inhabit the role. He’s not afraid of walking around, gut out. He also gets the fine line between crafty con artist and flawed human perfect, in fact all the characters interweave really well, whether it’s Adams’ ballsy and strong fellow con, Cooper’s curly-haired and increasingly wayward FBI agent, Penner’s Elvis-haired mayor, and Lawrence’s agoraphobic wife. You can sense how much they’re enjoying themselves in every scene, even when it’s all going to pieces. Despite the fact this is a criminal caper, you still feel sympathy, even though most of the characters are pretty unlikable.

The music is superb – think Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Live And Let Die, A Horse With No Name, I Feel Love, Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone – and adds to the experience greatly, (and as an aside, it’s so great to see attention to a good soundtrack when the film’s so clearly lodged in its time) and it’s one of the many reasons why I barely looked at my watch for the two hours-plus running time.

It’s a classic tale of American life, of crime, corruption, politics (in passing) but more than anything about people. And it could’ve come across as a lazy pastiche, but it was a hugely enjoyable trip, at times almost a romp, that’s carried by its stars and its director. It could’ve been overacted, but actually, there’s a nice understatement it much of it, even when the scenes are being laid on thick (the toilet scene in the casino with Adams and Lawrence for starters). Even O Russell, whose career reached something of a crossroads at the divisive I Heart Huckabees (I thought it was self-indulgent nonsense), where his behind-the-camera antics were both cringeworthy and aggressive, (and widely reported) seems to have righted the ship, and reigned in much of his difficulties (though not all), and since then he’s put out three award-worthy films in The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. This has already picked up nominations for the four main actors, director and screenplay in the Golden Globes.

So forget the criticisms, and just enjoy what’s a beautifully acted, superbly shot, dryly funny film that captures the world-weary transition from the 1970s in New Jersey in all its glory.

The rich get richer, and the poor….

Obama announces debt deal

Well, when you’re a Tea Party-backed Republican and you’re crowing about your ‘victory‘ in the debt-ceiling deadlock, why should you care? After all, you stood in the landslide mid-terms on a ticket of no taxes and rolling back so-called ‘big government’, under a misguided sense of taking America back to Washington-era constitution, and after weeks of acrimonious argument and Capitol chicanery, you’ve succeeded in hijacking a process that’s hitherto been smooth and commonplace and turning it into a means to push America further to the right.

It’s astonishing that, for an administration that still holds a Senate majority, this government can be held hostage by a group of politicians that, for all the aghast cries from dissenting Democrats, didn’t even support such a painful bill because the cuts were not nearly tough enough, and the compromises too weak. The likes of Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, who would sooner give up their right to bear arms than bring in tax increases for the rich, have come off best in a game of brinkmanship that played with the global economy as if it was a roulette table. While many thought that a deal would eventually be done, simply because it had to, it’s incredible to think that a President whose election ideals reached out to the poor and disenfranchised so much has now been forced to support a deal that must’ve felt like sucking vinegar, against everything he and many of his party stood for.

So why did it come to this? The debt ceiling had to to be raised, as it had painlessly by countless Democrat and Republican Presidents before, but this time the Democrats, shorn of their House majority, had to face the fact that this time the vote would be made, by those on the far right, to symbolise the deep divisions on Capitol Hill. The GOP, so riven itself in conflict that on Friday its House leader, John Boehner, humiliatingly lost proposed vote simply to approve his own party’s plan, has managed to play a game of chicken, safe in the knowledge that however opposed to their plans President Obama was, he would most likely compromise in the national interest, something they would refuse at all costs. And what costs? While many doom mongers had forseen another 2008, the reality was that a US that couldn’t service its own payrolls could’ve sent the markets into turmoil, and yet Tea Party-backed Republicans and many more moderate in their party saw it as a viable alternative to many of their bete noires, especially that spectre of all spectres, tax rises for the rich.

It’s a distasteful, unpalatable truth that many of these super-rich politicos see it as their divine right to save the majority of the wealth for the majority of the rich. Bush’s tax cuts, an abomination when they were brought in 2001, are staggeringly still here, making those with the most proportionally better off year on year. It was this unthinkable that saw the Right push back against a series of proposed Democrat plans that would’ve seen them take a hit along with many schemes designed to help the poorest – social security, education, Medicare, Medicaid – in favour of swingeing cuts that simply left them untouched. To a British citizen like myself, even with a Conservative-lead government, this seems an almost unbelievable truth. That a country as apparently welcoming and diverse as the United States, self-appointed global leader and trumpeter of its ideals, can allow this abomination to persist, in fact to be furthered is shameful beyond description. But this, to many on the Right, is the American Dream. You are responsible only for yourself, you reap what you sow, your success is yours alone to enjoy, and no-one, NO ONE, is going to deprive you of it. Perfect, if you’re a millionaire, but if you’re below the poverty line? Well, you just need to work harder. It comes as no surprise that the majority of these Tea Party-backed are white, middle and upper-class (yes, there are token minorities, there always are), and their supporters even more so, while all the poor are often black, many minorities. Well, they’re just poor because they’re lazy, or they don’t work hard enough, or they’ve not made their own opportunities. It’s one of the staggering conditions of the United States: try to redistribute wealth, to help using taxes those less well off than you? You’re a socialist.

In a Europe where Obama would be, and is, welcomed with open arms for his lofty ideals and balanced views, many in his own country happily equate him with Stalin. And as the Right pushes further from the centre, these viewpoints, festering in the fetid cauldron of the likes of Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, gain more and more mainstream credence, and soon, they are talked of as the ‘centre’ ground in a country whose politics are becoming ever more polarised. So, we’re left with a bill, that’s passed with disgust by the majority of Democrats, and amazingly rejected even more so by the Tea Party for its weakness, that ‘saves’ the States, for now. And you almost have to take your hat off for the way the Right fought the battle. They’ve weakened the President, undermined the economy, and a Senate majority, won a bill that’s abhorrent to Democrats, and for them this is just the beginning. And why? Because they’d rather see people on the street over medical bills, bankrupted by mortgage repayments, homeless and jobless, because they see it as their divine right to retain all the wealth they have, at the expense of those who have none. That is, in their eyes, the American way, the American ‘dream’.

It’s a disgrace, and no amount of argument, however eloquently expressed, will convince me that the Tea Party is anything other than the politics of the mean. The selfishness of the wealthy over the powerlessness of the poor. Helping those less well off than you isn’t socialism, it’s humanity, and these last few weeks have shown, as if it wasn’t already flashing like a million watt bulb, that these people have none.

Monaco – When Saturday comes

Morning in Monaco
Morning in Monaco

Sadly, this is my last full day in the principality. I go through my normal morning routine here. Up, shower, down to breakfast where I’m treated to more fresh rolls, pain au chocolat, croissants, all smeared with healthy amounts of beurre and jam, readying me for another day of petrol-headed action. I’m banishing all thoughts of sadness (and an early flight tomorrow – more of that later) with a throwback album inspired by all the talk of Britpop last night. Blur‘s Parklife flows into my ears as I walk down to the station to catch the train into Monaco. It’s another cloudless day and high 20s. This Is A Low isn’t that appropriate, but it’s a beautiful piece of music. I’m being careful on the sun front though, seeing as my only colours are white or pink, I don’t want to add to any of the already burnt parts of my body. Once an Englishman….

All eyes on F1 Quali in the GP2 paddock
All eyes on F1 Quali in the GP2 paddock

The GP2 paddock is busy as ever, with the teams already pushing yesterday’s results into the background with another race to prepare for this afternoon. Unlike F1, there’s two races every weekend in GP2, so it’s double the fun, enjoyment and excitement, and the stress. No rest for the teams sadly, but it means that drivers can make up for mistakes in the first race, and while the Sprint race is 15 minutes shorter, and with less points, the beauty of it is the reverse grid. Cars 1-8 in the Feature Race reverse positions and so P8 is on pole. It’s a good incentive for the midfield to push in race one, even if they’re out of the points early on, and makes for an interesting race every time. This time round, it’s Frenchman Charles Pic – he of the lion’s mane hair – that sneaked into the coveted 8th after Englishman Oliver Turvey failed to take his drive-through on Friday. As with many sports when they get to the top of the tree, it’s the details that often make the difference, and with a season of 9 rounds and 18 races, it’s small changes like this that can decide championships.

"What do you mean you don't have any D'Ambrosio caps?"
"What do you mean you don't have any D'Ambrosio caps?"

There’s a full day’s programme before the GP2 guys hit the lights at 16.10, with the Formula Renault drivers qualifying as a stroll out of the station after 9.30 (no late starts here) and down past Place D’Armes, where the merchandising stands are in full flow. It’s fair to say that here, being so close to Italy, and with scant French representation on the grid, at least not in the cockpits, that Ferrari rule. It’s a sea of red in almost every stand, and while Schumi, Lewis and Jenson get a look-in, as do the Red Bull guys, it’s the Scuderia that have a hold on the public’s affection here. An Alonso win here would register on the Richter scale. And it’s F1 practice and qualy that’s high on the agenda for many of the fans here today as I head through the now familiar tunnels and out to the GP2 paddock. It’s a hive of activity, with the ever-present sound of engines firing up and turning over as the teams feverishly fine-tune (or in some cases reassemble) their cars before this afternoon’s race. Something that’s really come home to me this week is the inordinate amount of work that goes into putting a car on the grid. We all know the massive teams and budgets involved in F1, but in GP2 there’s only a fraction of the manpower, and yet the work put in is monumental, with a restless weekend for the mechanics, media, drivers, team principals and sponsors – it’s a wonderful microcosm of how motorsport works, and for many of the teams, having been in since pretty much the beginning in 2005, they’re a close-knit crew of friends as well as workers that function with the single aim of putting their driver on the top of the podium.

The GP2 teams hard at work
The GP2 teams hard at work

F1 3rd practice, like qualy after it, is dominated by a huge shunt. In practice, it’s Roseberg, and in qualy it’s Perez, both coming out of the tunnel up to the chicane, and echoing some bad memories of Button and Wendlinger’s accidents there in previous decades. It’s moments like this that make you remember that sign that dominates the tracks around the world: ‘Motorsport is dangerous’. The sport is so safe in this era, it’s easy to forget the terrible toll it took on its drivers in the past. Jackie Stewart’s campaigns against the lack of safety and medical provision in the 70s was met with a furious backlash at the time, with many traditionalists questioning his commitment to the sport, but now we can look back and see just how far safety has moved on, and what we have the Scotsman to thank for. It still doesn’t prevent some heart-in-mouth moments, and both of these were such incidents. Coming out of the Tunnel, first Rosberg, in the morning, and Perez, in the afternoon, braked, losing the back end and snapping them into barriers before being propelled, helplessly, towards the barriers that separate the safety road from the run down to Tabac. Rosberg was lucky, while launched over the bumps, he missed it by millimetres. Perez was not so lucky. He came wide out of the tunnel and hit the barrier side-on after glancing the wall, the slo-mos showing him desperately clasping his hands in protection around his helmet just before impact. It was a sickening crash, and for 20 minutes, while the medical teams carefully worked to remove him safely and get him to hospital, a cloud descended over the city.

While qualifying resumed – and Hamilton lost out worst to make only P9 – it was clear that their comrade’s safety was all that was on drivers minds. They may be paid millions (well, some of them) and feature in a sport that is steeped in money, glamour, and individual achievement, but at times like this it’s refreshing to see everyone in the paddock thinking only of one thing, and that’s a speedy recovery to the stricken driver. It was a tense wait until a delayed Sprint race, but by the time the parade lap was in progress, a collective sigh of relief descended on Monaco as reports of Perez being conscious and talking in hospital fed across the airwaves. He wouldn’t be racing, but the popular Mexican will be back, hopefully for Canada, and news that he was sitting up and watching the GP2 race that afternoon were heartening, and amusing proof of how obsessed drivers are with their sport. The race itself didn’t quite live up to the Friday stormer, with Pic’s sterling drive from pillar to post edging out Josef Kral, with Romain Grosjean coming home in 3rd to keep up his championship title charge. With another stall on the grid from local boy Stefano Coletti – resplendent in his dinner-suit overalls for the race – there was more precision avoidance, but otherwise little incident barring Chilton’s struggle on wearing tyres giving way to first Filippi then Valsecchi. The result left a cigarette paper between the main contenders – astonishingly the top 5 left the principality separated by 5 points, with Grosjean and Sam Bird tied on 23, race-winner Pic on 22, and Valsecchi and Van Der Garde on 21. GP2 has always been tight, and this weekend was another reason to shout it from the rooftops: get into GP2 if you’re a real racing fan, because it’s motorsport at its finest and most elemental.

Where did everybody go?
Where did everybody go?

No sooner had the race finished, and the quotes been given to David, now speed-working on a deadline with the rest of the GP2 team and journalists covering the race, than the paddock was slowly coming down. It’s amazing that so much is packed into a small space, but if it was full at 15.00, at 18.00 it was almost empty, the tables away, TVs off, teams packing up and staff frantically dismantling the space that’s been my home in Monaco since Thursday morning. It was hard not to feel tinged with sadness at this point. In some ways it’s felt like I’ve been here for a week, with so much crammed into an amazing 4 days, but also with the racing done, it all suddenly feels over too quickly. And yet for me, as a glorified punter (albeit a massive fan) it’s merely the end of a holiday. For the majority of people here, it’s a job, and their hard work and dedication will receive only a short break before they move on to Valencia in four weeks to do it all over again. I get to walk away into the Monaco night, while many of the teams here – either racing or GP2‘s own administration – will still be here long after I’ve sat down with my first beer. It’s easy to forget that while fans watch in the comfort of their own home, the work that goes into a race series is almost never-ending. But it’s a love for motorsport that keeps the wheels turning, and GP2 is no different.

Au revoir, Monaco
Au revoir, Monaco

For me, I head off for a last look round the port, climbing up to the amphitheatre that sits on the corner of the headland below Port Hercule and gazing over the iconic skyline, knowing that I’ve heard my last roaring engines for this year. Some of you may wonder why I’m not staying for the F1, but there’s good reason for that. While I love F1, in fact it was/is my first love, there’s an economy of scale that means many fans will never get to witness an F1 race first hand. In Monaco it’s possible to grab a lofty viewing point above the port, or even a balcony close to the circuit if you’re in with the locals, but for many, grandstands are upward of 200e, or even up to 1500 euros for the top packages, which prices all but the privileged out of the market. As GP2 finishes on Saturday, so too will I, and while I’m sad to be missing the marquee event, I’m not hugely disappointed. I’ve seen all the F1 cars on track twice, and that’s an experience I’ll not forget. It’s just a shame that F1 – as, I guess, befits its glamourous image – is a sport that is only affordably viewed from the sofa. My love for it is undiminished though, even so, but it’s one of the many reasons that GP2 is neck and neck with it. The racing, the teams, the drivers, the atmosphere, seem much more connected to the years that I first fell in love with the F1 circus, and its purer, more unreconstructed racing. When I watch the drivers on the grid in Valencia, I’ll be tinged with happiness and sadness: I’ll know the faces better, feel more closely connected than ever to GP2, but of course, I’ll wish I was there to enjoy it all over again.

The GP2 paddock
The GP2 paddock

The night isn’t quite over though, and tonight is Champion’s League final night. And while I’m English, my loyalties tonight are with Barcelona. Odd? Not really. I’m a Spurs man, so no great lover of the Red Devils, and I’ve spent many many weekends in the Catalan city, be it at the amazing Sonar festival, or staying with friends that live in the city. I’ve even been lucky enough to see them at the Nou Camp, trouncing Getafe with only ten men. I can’t seen United winning, so I’m trying to meet up with Will and David to enjoy a Catalan victory. The location is about as anachronistic as I think you could find in Monaco – The Ship and Castle, perched in the Fontevielle port is a good old English boozer, and I’m sat at a table with a pint of Fosters waiting for the cavalry to arrive. Will makes it, but sadly not David, but what he misses in football, he also misses in annoying chanting from the assembled Reds. “We do what we want, we’re United and we do what we want.” So, that extends to losing to City in the FA Cup then? As it happens, it’s a glorious night for Barcelona fans. Apart from some early scares and a great Rooney equaliser, it’s Barca’s night, the 3-1 scoreline barely doing justice to their domination of the English champions, even if it upsets Alfie, a four year-old in United kit that adopted us for the game. Watching them play is a privilege, and the last pints sank, with GP Week’s Adam Hay-Nicholls also in attendance, are a fitting end to another action-packed day that’s left me well in need of bed.

Vamos Barca!
Vamos Barca!

As I take the train from Monaco’s main station back to Beaulieu for the last time, I try to scan through the events of the last 72 hours, and coming across a bewildering succession of highs. From my broad grin as I descended over the sea to Nice, to my wonder at first sight of the Monaco skyline, wandering the track at Casino, Massanet, Tabac or Rascasse, enjoying beers with Will, Matt, James, Dan and David at Rascasse, hearing the roar of engines start up for the first time, seeing the familiar faces of the GP2 team and being looked after by them as if I was royalty, to the wheel-to-wheel racing of the GP2 drivers, my amazing trips to Stand K on Thursday and Friday, and my heart-fluttering half-hour in the pits on Thursday, plus the odd celeb spot, and mixing it with the drivers in the GP2 paddock, it’s been a whirlwind of petrol-tinged wonder. I’ll be taking back memories aplenty, hundreds of photos, my hallowed GP2 pass, my Jenson cap (not sure pinky-orange is my colour but what the hell) as well as some great times spent with Will, who’s responsible for me getting into GP2 all the way back in 2007, and David, who as well as being my regular city pub-parter in day-job London, is also part of all those memories, plus everyone I’d been lucky enough to meet along the way. I may be up at 7am tomorrow to catch the red-eye back, and be watching the F1 action from David’s sofa in London, scarcely getting my head round all the sights and sounds, knowing I was there less than 5 hours earlier, but this weekend will be with me forever. I can’t wait to bore everyone with it for the next few months. They may grow tired of the tales, but I never will.

Merci, et bonne nuit....
Merci, et bonne nuit....