Evaporating the goodwill.

As a Lib Dem, the past few months have been a living nightmare. And nothing comes any worse than the tumult over tuition fees. I may not be a student any more (those days are long gone) but I understand the dismay that they feel, knowing that in the future, the burden of paying for university will be placed on those that attend, rather than the taxpayer.

I also supported the protests when they were announced. We talk a good game in this country, but when it comes to direct action, we’re not always the best at walking the walk. However, it’s been astounding the size and amount of demonstrations, both in London and around the country. The sour taste that sits in the mouth though, and that will continue to do so, is the violent element to these protests.

Now trying to unpick the propaganda is easier said than done. It wasn’t hard to see there was a hardline element willing to cause as much damage as possible when they broke away to Millbank, and some of these were aiming for damage not just to the buildings, but the police, or bystanders. And once the police’s underwhelming response was noted, the stage was then set for ugly repercussions. We’ve seen it all before. In the G20 demonstrations, where the Met Police stated that trouble was ‘inevitable’ beforehand, thus giving them the perfect excuse to kick off. We all know what happened that day.

And so it came to pass again on the day of the vote. While many students were aiming for peaceful protest, the minority, just like the police’s pre-justified actions, will know that, since violence is ‘inevitable’, then they have the perfect excuse to disrupt and grab all the headlines from those trying to uphold the tradition of peaceful protest. Watching the scenes on tv it was pretty appalling. The police stated the protest strayed from an ‘agreed route’, thus justifying their first overreaction. With the violent few then pushing at the barriers, the first baton charge was their pre-prepared reaction, and after that, the rest of the events were almost pre-ordained.

Sights of a wheelchair user being dragged from their chair were disgraceful, as were those of a policeman being knocked off their horse, and the barricades being flung at riot police. Seeing Winston Churchill’s statue defaced, and idiots swinging on the remembrance day’s flags on the Cenotaph were flashpoints that will go just as far (especially with older generations) to evaporating any sympathy that students may have garnered over the last months.

There are no winners here.

The students, protesting in a battle they surely knew they’d lose (and did, just). Their futures and those of students that will see the first hit of the new fees in 2012, pitched into a system that puts the epmhasis on mere higher education attendance rather than excellence and focus on academia.

The police, who, while they are often in a no-win situation in scenarios such as this, were brutal, heavy-handed, untruthful, and have shown themselves to have learnt little since the G20 other than to make sure their ID numbers now show as they bring the batons down on the skulls. Mounted police charging a kettled crowd (students, rather than rioters) was shameful, and the myth that protesters (some young kids or old) were allowed out when this wasn’t possible is one that should be exposed. Kettling the last group until midnight on Westminster Bridge was a story that seemed to get scant coverage. It deserved more.

The press, who covered in an often hysterical and biased way, reporting on the police hurt and never the students, until much later in the day. What happened to impartiality?

And lastly, the politicians, who through their thinking got us into this ghastly mess in the first place.

This may be the death knell of the Lib Dems. Personally I hope (and think) this isn’t the case, but like the case for Iraq for Labour, this may haunt them for years to come.

And with the dire economic future showing little sign of improving, this may be the start of a very long, violent winter of discontent.

Live music still has a heartbeat….

The run-up to Christmas is always brilliant for gigs, and we’ve been busy on that front, seeing 3 of Dropout’s favourite bands in the space of a few weeks. Heading to Alexandra Palace on 11th November we got a double-header of two of the best bands around at the moment: LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip.

Having seen both this year already (in fact Hot Chip are my most-seen band now, clocking up 6 gigs since Lovebox in 2006) at Sonar, it was great to see them together, and while the venue’s organisation left a bit of be desired, the sound and vision from the two groups were, as ever, brilliant. Hot Chip may not click live for some people, but I love them as a real work-in-progress style of performance: there’s so much going on, so many instruments involved, and they look like they’re having the time of their lives (as much as uber-electro-geeks can do anyway). Hearing a lot of their new album One Life Stand was great. Brothers and One Life Stand always get to me.

 LCD Soundsystem Alexandra Palace

But it was even more poignant seeing LCD Soundsystem, as it is probably the last time (certainly for a long time, possibly for ever) that they’ll play in London. Having started up as a one-album experiment by James Murphy and Pat Mahoney – with Nancy Whang joining them as well as a roll-call of concert and album collaborators (including, aptly, Hot Chip’s Al Doyle) – they’ve been possibly one of the bands that’s dominated the decade’s music since their eponymous album in 2005.

It’s hard to think it’s only been 5 years since I first heard Daft Punk Is Playing In My House. I was captivated, and wanted to know who this band was, that played rough and scuzzy pop that sounded alternatively like house music, garage rock and lo-fi electronic wistfulness. Since then, they’ve been the soundtrack to mine and many others’ lives, each album being able to pinpoint various events, be it trips to Ibiza, Sonar, roasting London Summers or grey wet winters. It’s obviously sad they’re going their seperate ways, but you can’t blame James Murphy. He’s so full of ideas that it’s almost criminal to keep him on one thing, and he passed up producing Arcade Fire’s last album (Neon Bible) when he was caught up on Sound Of Silver.

They leave a legacy of amazing records, and resounding memories, and as a live band they’re up there with the best. Sadly for the gig, James’ voice was suffering, but he still made it a night to remember, one which is – as is now ever more popular – now also available on CD. It’s a way for bands to get extra income against the illegal downloads that hit their record sales, and to the music fan it’s an official modern-day version of the concert bootleg that becomes a perfect memory of a night that may have been hazy in the coming weeks. So, goodbye to LCD, I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of them. Even more incredible was 1st December, and finally seeing Arcade Fire after 7 years of failed attempts. Words don’t really do the band or gig justice, but suffice to say they took a venue that I hate – the o2 – and turned it into a majestic backdrop for one of the top 5 gigs of my reasonable life.

 Arcade Fire live at the o2.

Many times you’ll build up the event that you’ve been waiting so long to see until it’s at a level of anticipation that it can’t possibly top, but in this case, it sailed past that and way beyond. Having loved all three albums with reverence, I knew it would be impossible to include every song I’d want to hear, but they almost achieved it.

Adding a raw energy to the studio sound, especially rocking the walls down to Month Of May (they’re not violin-wielding folksters when they don’t want to be) and closing with a fantatsic encore of We Used To Wait and Wake Up (the cherry on the proverbial cake) I shuffled into the cold floating on air. It’s at times like this that you realise live music is really without challenger for an emotional, physical and aural experience.

Let’s hope we’re still saying this in 2020.

Obama’s changing religious image….

I was depressed but not surprised to see news of a poll this morning that almost a fifth of Americans think Barack Obama, their President, is a secretly pracitisng muslim. More worrying still, in a country where the religion, especially of a president, is seen as a key belief, those that think he’s a Christian has fallen from 43 to 34%.

Driven in a large part by the right-wing conversatives, above all in the media (Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, take a bow) it would be almost amusing if it wasn’t alarming. Clinging to the tenet that his middle name – Hussein – and schooling in Indonesia must’ve contributed to this, and the concious feeling that, unlike his very publicly god-fearing (and communicating, if you beleive Dubya) predecessor, he’s not visibily religious enough, those that oppose him politically and ideologically are slowly eroding his image. Most worrying of all, some of those whose minds have changed are his own supporters.

With the mid-terms approaching, this is another worrying statistic in a long and difficult term for a president that deserves a lot better from his people and his country.

When celebration on 9/11 is not glorification

Islam is taking a hammering in the US press at the moment, most of all from the traditional right-wing (read: intolerant) suspects over its so-called increasing influence in America. Witness the reaction over the plans to build the ‘9/11 mosque’ (an Islamic centre to be run by an organisation that aims to build bridges between the Islamic and Western world, but why let the truth get in the way of a good polemic?) near Ground Zero in New York recently – and the battle is still ongoing – to see that Islam is under fire as much as any time since that terrible day in September 2001.

But even more worry is now placed on the Eid festival this year, which falls on or near September 11th. For Muslims this is a celebration of the end of Ramadan, a religious period of fasting that goes back to the very core of their beliefs, but there’s a real danger that certain parties in the United States will use any show of elation as Islam glorifying the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001.

With some of the reaction in the US over the decision to go ahead with the mosque two blocks from Ground Zero (a church’s “burn the Qu’ran day” and “Islam is EVIL” signs being some of the most shameful) coupled with growing Republican support, particularly from the far-right ‘Tea Party’ movement in the last year, September 11th 2010 is likely to be arguably the most tense anniversary of the terrible day since the event, but one can only hope that it can be treated with some perspective, and some understanding, a reminder that the US constitution is based on freedoms, including that of religion, and that all religions should be resepected, however unlikely that may be.

The worry is that those that seek to spread the message that Islam = Al Qaeda, and that all Muslims supported 9/11 – shocking untruths that still are too readily accepted by those that hear what they want to believe – will use this unfortunate clash to “prove” that the Islamic world and terrorists are one and the same. One can only hope that sense wins out, and this vocal minority (and it is, thankfully, whatever you feel of the US, still that) is put in its place. We are, after all, still claiming we live in a civilsed society where freedom still has value. And that, after all, should extend to everyone, not just those that we feel it should.

Particle physics? Yes please.

Atlas Experiment

We’ve all watched it. Well, 5 million people have tuned in over the past weeks, and I’d thought that I’d never say that quantum physics had become the highlight of my week. But that’s where we are. And it’s bloody great.

Yes, the Wonders Of The Solar System has landed on Sunday nights, and all of a sudden we’ve got a scientist that’s cool, that doesn’t look like a teacher, and who can speak in ways that takes a ridiculously complex subject and talks about it in a way that anyone can understand. Professor Brian Cox has popped up on Horizon before, and he’s a regular contributor to Sean Keavney’s breakfast show on 6Music, and (seemingly trawled out at every turn) he was in D:ream, (and, much cooler, he was the scientific consultant on Sunshine), but the most important thing is that he’s been involved at CERN with the Atlas Experiment, he’s a Royal Society University Research Fellow in Manchester, specialising in Particle Physics.

Professor Brian Cox
The Wonders Of The Solar System

Those last three may not seem a reason to get excited (though for a geek like me it is) but when you watch the show, and marvel at its big ideas, you wonder why nothing like this has been on tv before. It’s simple really, physics doesn’t sell. We all love to look at slo-mos of tigers chasing antelopes as Sir David’s dulcet tones recount the glory of the natural world, but we’re not supposed to be enthralled by the ice on on Europa, or gasp at the height of Olympus Mons. But the genius of the program is that Cox has managed to take subject that seems as cold as the Artic, and make it as interesting as the first time you lit a bunsen burner at school.

The laconic Lancastrian has put into terms that you and I can understand, just what links us to the planets in the Solar System, what parallels there are between volcanoes, canyons, ice sheets, and craters here, on Earth, and throughout our faraway neighbours. It’s jaw-droppingly fascinating, and delivered with the enthusiasm – and the beauty, from some incredible film and effects – of your favourite childhood teacher, and the result is, for me, a rekindling of a love for the cosmos that I had as a kid, that I obsessed over the Moon landings on when I was 14, that made me want to be an astronaut (didn’t we all) and that makes me want to dive back into this all headlong. Yes, when the LHC started warming up it came flooding back, the sheer geekery (and the insane numbers involved) brought out the inner nerd, but five hours of the best science tv in years is what’s got me wondering about relativity, anti-matter, solar flares, string theory and gravity.

I’m unashamedly a fan, and we need people like Cox. Science has taken a battering of late, and physics especially is something that brings blank looks across faces, but I never thought I’d be talking to people at work about Jupiter’s moons on a Monday morning, instead of the football. Sometimes, you just get dragged in, and I’m even excited about reading his book. On the theory of relativity. With equations in it (oh god, not my AO Level Maths again). If even 1 kid for every 50 that watched this gets hooked on physics and the universe then it’s probably done more good in just over a month than hundreds of teachers could, and that’s reason enough to get excited. Yes, you could argue that Cox’s public profile, his Twitter account and work on the BBC could dilute his study, but when it’s bringing science to so many, then it’s worth every effort.

I just wish there was another five shows to take me into May.

What did we expect?

Blair at the Chilcot inquiry
Blair at the Chilcot inquiry

Depending on what papers you read, or what radio stations you listen to and tv stations you watch, today was due to be one of the most important in the last decade of our political history. Forget Obama’s one year on, or even his election, but Friday 29th January 2010 was the day that the Chilcot inquiry would get to hear from Tony Blair, perhaps the figurehead of our Iraq ideology and the focus of bile and criticism from the anti-war lobby. Having an ex- (and previous) PM give evidence in an inquiry such as this is unprecedented, and even despite its lack of legal standing or recourse from what evidence was heard, the frenzied build up raised almost feverish hope that we would have our Frost/Nixon moment, especially in light of a recent interview with Fern Britton where he appeared to state he’d have invaded with or without proof of WMD.

In reality, of course, this was never going to be the case. Blair, whatever you say about him (and personally his political conduct before, during and since the invasion turned my opinion of him from respected – if not supported – leader to self-important and pious disappointment) was a good leader up to this juncture. One of his main strengths was being able to put his point across, and to debate and discuss, much of which went into his conduct in the run up to the Iraq invasion. He had his convictions, his beliefs, and he stuck to them rigidly. In previous circumstances this was a strength, but this time it clouded his judgement, in the face of advice from the Foreign Office, Attorney General, and criticism from his own Cabinet, not to mention a tidal wave of public opinion, he ploughed ahead, striving to retain the ‘special relationship’ with America, possibly at all costs.Typically, he slipped in a side door and away from the protesters and families of Iran casualties, an action that seemed to preface his performance during the day.

Chilcot protesters await Blair

What we know now is that we had a ‘dodgy’ dossier, a misleading document that overstated intelligence that was patchy from the JIC at best. What we had was a legal opinion from the Attorney General that right up unto the decision to go to war wasn’t convinced of a legal case for war with the existing UN Resolution 1441. And what we had was a plan for war, but no clear plan for post-invasion. There were clear questions that were needed to be asked today, for us to try and finally get some clarity and give at least the public some modicum of truth and respect on how we came to go to war, and with retrospect, what we did wrong.

What we got was another Blair masterclass in bluff and subterfuge, stating his own case, swerving questions and restating his firm belief that he was right. Ignoring whether the intelligence he was given that led him to his ‘beyond doubt’ statement wasn’t strong and if he wasn’t correct in saying what he had, he simply stated that he believed it was beyond doubt. Similarly, he stated that he believed that the case for war was sound, and that the planning for the post-war period was ok (despite multiple criticisms from many parties in the inquiry), blaming it on conditions being different to what had been planned. If regimes with WMD needed to stop using them, why did we not invade Pakistan? China? Korea? It simply isn’t consistent. So many times, his answer started with ‘let me say that….’ where he would revert to pre-prepared answers and statements about, Kosovo, 9/11, Iran, when all we wanted were answers on Iraq.

Don’t let’s get too excited here. We knew this was never going to be a career-wrecking day. Blair wouldn’t have got where he was today by being careless or carefree (he is, let’s remember) a barrister. But he’s deflected every contentious question, at times almost suggesting in the light of others’ criticisms, that there was no issue (and effectively suggesting by that, that everyone else was incorrect). Batting everything back with a stern defence, clinging to the ‘special relationship’, stating his firm beliefs in everything he stood for, and justifying his actions on this. The only chink of light coming where he admitted his interview with Fern Britton wasn’t worded sensibly, but at the same time, denying that he was wrong. He did also concede that the 45-minute claim wasn’t, with hindsight, a sensible move.

For the families sitting in the gallery, that have lost their loved ones in the conflict, this won’t be much closure. If anything, Tony Blair’s performance, while nervous and shaky in the first hour, became more sure-footed, and less revealing as the day went on. The panel made a decent effort of not letting him settle, and after early criticism during the inquiry, they’ve become more steely, but ultimately, with no real legal grounding in their group, they were never going to get one over on the former PM.

Yes, with hindsight we can look at many decisions in a different light, but much of this was being criticised at the time, and there was huge opposition evident, but today started full of hope, and ended with weary resignation. I suppose the only consolation is that, however steadfast his outward rhetoric, Blair will have to live with what happened (and is still happening) in Iraq, and there are hundreds of thousands that have lost their lives as a result of decisions he took. This, sadly, is a situation we will most likely face again in this decade. One can only hope we look back at this inquiry and at least use it to colour our actions in the future, or this will have been a pointless exercise.

A shame on our city…..

Ian Tomlinson lies dying on the pavement at teh G20 protests

The G20 summit brought with it the usual concerns – would the day be hijacked by anarchists? Would those groups wanting to ‘hang the bankers’ really do it? How would the disparate groups be kept in one place safely? Would the protests really have much resonance across the world? But many of the press before the event nervously questioned the police’s insistence that they would turn violent. Yes, there were elements in any anti-globalisation demonstration that would be bound to hijack it for their own skewed means, but the talk up to the event seemed like it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: violence would need strong-handed police, which would result in trouble, justifying their actions.

No one would’ve guessed the events of that day would turn out as they had. While violence did erupt sporadically, and the symbolic destruction of a branch of RBS (bailout money to fix the windows, how poetic, and pointless) fed the news frenzy, one tragedy appeared almost a footnote to the day’s events. Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper seller, had died of a heart attack in the early evening in the backstreets around the Bank Of England. Seemingly unconnected to events, statements from the police called it a ‘tragic accident’.

But over the last 24 hours, as eyewitness reports of the events started to tell a different story. And a video shows most of the attack as it happened, pouring cold water on the police’s version of events. The man – not even a protester, and on his way home, and came across the remnants of a police line ‘kettling’ protesters away from the Bank of England. Walking away from a line of police, hands in his pockets and quietly, he appeared to be struck, first by a baton, then pushed from behind by the same man, falling and apparently hitting his head on the pavement. Dazed, he appears to talk to the police, who do nothing to aid him, before being helped up by bystanders. Three minutes after walking away groggily, he dies on a pavement of a heart attack.

The storm that’s been played out today, with the IPCC’s enquiry mercifully having the City of London police removed from it (would we face more ‘inquiries’ the like of which have seen no policeman from the capital convicted of any violent offence against a protester in the last 50 years?) we may yet see justice for a man whose only crime was to head home, through an area he used daily, and walk away from a line of over-zealous police. It’s hardly the scandal from Genoa, but it’s the final straw in a city and country where we should pride ourselves in our democracy and our civil protectors, but we face an ever eroding set of liberties, sacrificed to the ‘war on terror’ and the police with ever-increasing reign to ‘protect’ us. We have a right to protest, and yet even that seems to be diminished now. From Stockwell to Forest Gate, I have little faith in their ability to deal with truth any more, and the skewed statements, denying any contact with Ian Tomlinson before his death, sounded like the echo of Sir Ian Blair all over again. We haven’t learnt, it seems, a single thing.

Indeed new footage uncovered by Channel 4 news tonight gives further evidence that the officer struck Tomlinson forcefully before he was pushed to the ground. And the officer who was involved has gone to the IPCC – no doubt to tell them of his provocation. There are glimpses of hope, that process can be followed, and that the police can be held accountable, but we’ve heard it many times before, only for it to ebb away in a sea of misadventure, of ‘cannot recall who was at the scene’ or ‘details have been lost’. I hope for once they can do the right thing. If the protester had struck the policeman, we all know he would be in court before his feet had touched the ground, and it’s high time the police were treated with the same ‘respect’ we are by them.