Entertainment

A personal view on smoking

OK, best to start with my cards on the table. I am a smoker, I have been for around a quarter of a century (with a few brief flashes of willpower in between) and I work in the pub trade. You could say that these factors cloud (no pun intended) my judgement on the issue of smoking bans, whether the existing public places restrictions or a suggested ban on smoking in cars, and you’d probably be right. Nevertheless, I know smoking is daft, I know it’s unpleasant for non-smokers and I don’t believe it’s fair for parents to make their children suffer the muck they exhale.

Having said all of that, I can’t honestly say I was an enthusiast for the smoking ban when it came in in 2007. As the manager of a rural pub with a predominantly food-led trade we took the decision to become completely non-smoking some months before the ban came into effect, and our customers were (largely) grateful for it. But I always felt that establishments such as ours should be free to choose their own policy. Ultimately I always believed that such things would be, to use the jargon, ‘customer-led’ and that government interference would not be necessary. By the time of the ban there had certainly been a change in public attitudes towards smoking, and those pubs that didn’t examine what they were doing were in danger of being left behind – in the end people would have a choice, and no business wants to be on the wrong end of such a choice.

Of course, the ban in pubs did have another aspect and that was the protection of staff. Whatever one’s views on individual freedom there was a strong case to be made that the generally poorly waged should not be forced to breathe others’ smoke simply to earn a living, and that should be one of the reasons most pubs would never go back in the unlikely event that the law was ever repealed.

No such logic is present in Jersey’s deliberations on whether to ban smoking in cars. Few would argue against such a ban when children are present (although it seems an alarming 16% don’t feel compelled to agree) but it’s difficult to understand why individuals in private cars should not be free to smoke if they choose. Regardless of what those in favour of a ban say, it is not the same as using a hand-held mobile – unlike a phone you can still hold a steering wheel with a cigarette in your hand. Besides, even if you do make the case that smoking is a distraction, where do you draw the line? Is eating a travel sweet a clear and present danger? Should you really have the radio on or, heaven forbid, switch stations?

Perhaps I’m a little paranoid. Maybe I’ve adopted the seige mentality propagated by the tobacco lobby. But there will be many on the mainland who watch the Jersey experience with interest with a view to changing the law here. I suspect that few of those people believe, as I do, that individual freedoms should be maintained provided there is no demonstrable harm to anyone else.

We’ve come a long way from the days when advertisers used to tell a credulous population that “more Doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette” and that is unquestionably a good thing. A smaller percentage of the population smoke now, and those that do are left in little doubt that their addiction tends not to be viewed sympathetically by the majority. I can handle being a social leper and I’ll keep going with my feeble attempts to quit. But I do think the choice should remain my own, provided I don’t restrict anyone else’s options. It will be interesting to see what Jersey’s powers-that-be conclude.

I’ll finish off with one of my favourite magic clips, which has very little to do with the arguments around smoking bans but is hugely entertaining all the same. This is an American magician called Tom Mullica who used to perform this ‘trick’ throughout the eighties and nineties. Understandably his doctors were never too enamoured with his performance, but the good news is he subsequently gave up smoking. He now reports that he can obtain health insurance for the first time in his professional life.

There is no trickery – he actually does what you see before you. (The whole clip is worth watching, but if you just fancy the disturbing part head to 2:56.)

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Desert Island Discs

Some time ago my good friend Edwin Squire posted this item on his blog, which was his stab at the thorny old dilemma of selecting eight records for a hypothetical appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. I make no apologies for the self-indulgence of this post as I attempt to do the same.

These aren’t the eight records I listen to more than any others, rather a snapshot of the kind of choice I feel I would need if I were stranded on a rock somewhere for any length of time. I’ve made a point of choosing no more than one song from each artist/composer even though I could just as easily have chosen eight songs by Led Zeppelin. Feel free to launch a critical assault via the comments.

1. Echoes – Pink Floyd This 24 minute epic took up the whole of the second side of the 1970 Meddle album, and for me was the first move towards the seventies Floyd sound that many associate with the band. Prior to Echoes there was a sense that Floyd hadn’t really managed to find a defining sound after the departure (due to a greater interest in LSD) of frontman and creator-in-chief Syd Barrett. It’s fashionable (particularly since his death) to become overly nostalgic for the psychedelic Barrett-era Pink Floyd sound, but any sensible examination of the band’s back catalogue must surely confirm that their best work was done after Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, the only album Barrett recorded with Floyd. The band scratched around for a couple of years producing such oddities as Ummagumma, the soundtrack from the film ‘More’ and Atom Heart Mother, but it was the Meddle album where they seemed to nail the concept of producing something melodic, unhurried and beautifully crafted. This turned out to be the prelude to probably their most famous album of all: Dark Side Of The Moon, which is another great piece of work. But for me, Meddle will always have the edge.

2. Kashmir – Led Zeppelin As I mentioned above, I could quite easily have picked eight Led Zeppelin tracks and been done with it but, for the sake of this exercise, I’ve landed on just one. But what a performance it is. Jimmy Page’s beautifully constructed chord sequence (borrowed a thousand times since), Robert Plant at his very best on vocals, stunning use of the quirky old Mellotron by John Paul Jones and the amazing force of nature that was John Bonham on drums. One of those songs that just gets better every time you hear it – even after all these years.

3. Beethoven’s Ninth – Second Movement I can’t pretend to be a classical music “buff”, but I include this for the sake of variety and a rounded collection to listen to while stranded on my rock. It occurs to me that the Desert Island in question could just as easily be a windswept crag in the South Atlantic as a sunkissed collection of palm trees in the Pacific, so it’s probably just as well to have something a little bracing. This great work from one of the greatest composers of them all was immortalised in modern popular culture by Malcolm McDowell’s drooling, hypnotic reverence of its “gorgeousity” in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange but, powerful as I find it, it has mercifully not had a similar effect on me.

4. Unfinished Sympathy – Massive Attack One of those songs that will always be synonymous with a time and a place for me, and that was Plymouth in the early nineties when I still used to force myself to go to nightclubs. I’ve never been a huge fan of the club scene – bad beer, bad music, doormen suffering from delusions of adequacy – but just once in a blue moon you’d get to hear a little pearl among the dross and this was one of them. Massive Attack became recognised as pioneers of the ‘trip hop’ genre in the nineties but, for me, this song is all about the massive voice of Shara Nelson. Beautiful.

5. No Surprises – Radiohead A difficult one this. Radiohead are another band I could comfortably have chosen half a dozen records from for this exercise, but I settled on this one for similar reasons to the last one – a time and a place. Thom Yorke’s lyric reminds me of 1997, a period of change in British politics which saw the demise of the eighteen-year Tory nightmare and its replacement with the fresh-faced Tony Blair. Such optimism, so misplaced. Yorke knew all along…

6. Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival Short but very sweet, a classic three chord trick. Jangly guitar and foreboding lyrics squeezed into 2 minutes and twenty seconds – marvellous. Brilliantly used as  part of the film soundtrack for An American Werewolf In London.

7. Southern Man – Neil Young I chose this for the lyric more than the performance. Neil Young’s a clever guy but I wouldn’t stretch so far as to call him a great singer. Nevertheless, Southern Man is a scathing attack on the deeply ingrained racism of America’s Deep South. “Don’t forget what your ‘Good Book’ said.”

8. Need Your Love So Bad – Fleetwood Mac Peter Green’s struggle with schizophrenia deprived popular music of one of the creative greats and, for all their mainstream highpoints and their position as the sound of Formula One, Fleetwood Mac were never the same band without him. The guitar part on this song is not intricate or showy – it’s just beautiful.

I’ve appalled myself with all the marvellous things I’ve left out of this list, and if you asked me again next week the list would probably be completely different, but here it is. As for the two items you can take on the hypothetical desert island, a book and a luxury item, I’ll go with a boat-building manual and a toolkit – I could never survive with only eight records.

(It’s only on finishing this post that I learn that Nick Clegg has appeared on Desert Island Discs this morning – haven’t checked his selection yet although I imagine it’s full of early promise but…)

The X Factor, Boring Politics and the August Blog Hiatus

The casual passer-by to this page might reasonably conclude that I have been terribly lazy throughout the month of August. It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and there are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost is the fact that my job (the one that pays the bills) is currently at full stretch with the height of the Cornish holiday season. I normally delight in telling people how easy my job is (loafing around behind the bar, making the odd sarcastic remark) but August is the month in which you could probably stretch it and say that I actually earn my money for once.

Of course, the traditional tourist rush isn’t the only reason I haven’t bothered to post here. As you will probably be aware, this blog is mostly (although not entirely) about politics, and the beauty of the free availability of blogging websites is that non-entities like me have every opportunity to vent spleen in a public forum about the poor misguided fools who aspire to run our lives.

The trouble is, after the General Election and the initial excitement of the first hung parliament in nearly forty years, politics has become rather dull again. The Coalition, while by its very nature containing some finely distilled elements of pure evil, is doing its best to be as insipid as possible. Pickles and Gideon only slither out infrequently, while even David Cameron seems to have temporarily parked the shrill, fat-faced toff act from the months leading up to the General Election. All of these things have served to keep my bile levels in a manageable state over these last few weeks. I can’t say this is a situation I entirely welcome.

The Labour Party haven’t helped matters much either. Their leadership election could have been a golden opportunity for a party, freed from the shackles of a long period in office, to capture the public imagination with an eye-catching and far-reaching debate over the future of the country and the role of the left. Fat chance. It’s been a bunch of dull people talking about dull things in a dull way. They could at least have organised some sort of nasty spat between a couple of the candidates but we haven’t even been given that pleasure. Deeply disappointing.

And so I find myself nearing the end of August with very little to write about. I can’t even summon any great sense of disgust about the return (tonight) of the single event that will over-shadow everything else for the next four months. I refer, of course, to the over-produced, overblown dung-polishing extravaganza that is the X-Factor. I wish it would make me mad, but I just don’t really care, to be honest. There’ll be bad auditions, heart-breaking back stories, manufactured spats between the judges, the annual assault on the Christmas Number One and the whole thing will be reported and tweeted about endlessly and watched by millions (although I won’t be one of them). But, to be honest, it’s part of the furniture now and Cowell’s dominance of the Christmas charts (Rage Against The Machine aside) at least spares us from Sir Cliff.

So I’m hoping that things will get back to normal before too long. Cameron, Gideon, Pickles et al will soon be back from their holidays (one pictures them all collectively attending some sort of giant reptile camp for the parliamentary recess) and my natural irritation levels will surely soar again. And who knows, the Labour Party might even do something hilarious and choose Ed Balls as their Leader. Here’s hoping…

Doctor Who – the new boy will do just fine

To those who don’t give a damn, I make no apology for posting an item on Doctor Who. I’ve loved the programme since I was a kid (I vaguely remember Jon Pertwee, but Tom Baker was ‘my’ Doctor) and have greatly enjoyed Russell T Davies’ ‘re-imagining’ of the show over the past four or five years. Last night one of the great Who traditions continued with the passing on of the sonic screwdriver from David Tennant to new boy Matt Smith.

Much discussion has surrounded the change with many fearing that Smith, a virtual unknown for those who never saw ‘Party Animals’, will never be able to fill the boots of the mighty Tennant. We have, of course, been here before. Patrick Troughton replaced William Hartnell, the original Doctor, and went on to become one of the best-loved incarnations of the Time Lord. Similarly Jon Pertwee, the action man dandy of the genre, was superceded by the then unknown Tom Baker (who has subsequently ‘regenerated’ into barking-mad national treasure). After a mighty seven years in the hotspot, Baker made way for Peter Davison who managed to make the role his own, despite a dodgy re-working of the theme tune and the shunting of the show from Saturday tea-time to midweek.

After that, it’s fair to say that the show struggled. Colin Baker always seemed a bit too grumpy (in a badly-clothed psycho-killer sort of way) and Sylvester McCoy – well… By the late eighties it was difficult to argue with Michael Grade’s assessment that the programme was “rubbish” and the then BBC1 Controller cheerfully brought the axe down on Doctor Who in 1989.

Enter Russell T Davies in 2005. The show was given the benefit of Davies’ scripts, a half-decent budget, 21st century production values and Christopher Eccleston in the title role. It was an instant hit but many were shocked when Eccleston announced he would quit after just one series. David Tennant had worked with Davies on ‘Casanova’ and was seen by the production team as the obvious choice for the tenth Doctor, but many in the wider public wondered if such an early change at the top might kill the Doctor Who revival before it was even a year old. (I remember thinking at the time that John Simm would probably have been a better bet, but he was destined for darker things.) Tennant went on to become the most popular resident of the TARDIS since the programme began way back in 1963, and the latest in a long line of actors who have proved that, no matter how loved their predecessors were, the show must go on.

So give Matt Smith a chance. He looks the part, he can act and he has a great production team around him who have demonstrated that they know what they’re doing (although Davies has moved on to pastures new). Doctor Who always seems to keep its popularity, come what may, and a new face will not change that. Within a year or so Smith will have become as synonymous with the role as (nearly) all the other Doctors have done. The new boy will do just fine.