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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living, and that should be one of the reasons most pubs would never go back in the unlikely event that the law was ever repealed.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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Be afraid…

In 2004 the journalist Adam Curtis made an excellent series of films for the BBC called The Power Of Nightmares: The Rise Of The Politics Of Fear. In those films he made the point that, back in the 1950s, politicians ran for office with a positive agenda, promising to make our lives better through forward-thinking initiatives – by the 2000s the message had changed to a promise to protect us all from the dark and unquantifiable threat of international terrorism. This week’s terror alert has shown that, while the political colours in both the White House and Downing Street may be different from the Bush/Blair era Curtis talked about, the 21st century message of ‘be afraid, be very afraid’ is never too far from the surface.

In the wake of the ‘Cargo Bomb Plot’ voices have inevitably been raised in the UK and America, calling for tighter worldwide security measures and a heightened state of alert to protect against the global machinery of terror. Just as inevitably, there will soon be calls for more domestic legislation giving ever-greater powers to the organisation of government. Mercifully, so far, the governments on both sides of the Atlantic have shown a little restraint in their tone but, as Andrew Rawnsley wrote in this weekend’s Observer, how much pressure will it take from vested interests like the head of MI6 before the encouraging Lib Dem and Conservative noises in Opposition are brushed aside when it comes to decisions over, for example, the control orders regime? A sensible, informed debate about the balance between security and liberty would be most useful right now.

I don’t wish to belittle the very real danger that the ‘Cargo Bomb Plot’ presented. There can be little doubt that there are all manner of ‘terrorist cells’ trying their hardest to garner the worldwide publicity that a major atrocity would have afforded them. Where I struggle is with the suggestion that there is a highly organised global network of terror, masterminded by Osama Bin Laden, operating under the banner of ‘al-Qa’ida’.

I’m no natural enthusiast for the conspiracy theory. I’m certain that NASA landed on the Moon, that the death of Diana was a tragic accident and that Lee Harvey Oswald really was the man who pulled the trigger in Dallas on that November day in 1963. Similarly I don’t believe that the US government was complicit in the 9/11 outrage, other than through its incompetence.

Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that the Bush administration used the fallout from the attack on the World Trade Center to unite the western world against a common enemy, in the same way Ronald Reagan painted the ‘Evil Empire’ myth of the Soviet Union. Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the global arms and oil corporations used this fear to push their hard-edged neo-conservative agenda. The damage, in Iraq and Afghanistan, was both massive and utterly counter-productive. The onus is now on politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to ensure that the climate of fear which led to those campaigns is not fostered again in pursuit of an enemy which bears no relation to the image painted by those whose motives are considerably less than pure.

 

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…)

David Miliband decides not to be Gordon Brown

The days of speculation around the future of David Miliband, following the narrow defeat by his brother in the Labour Leadership election, must surely have done enough to convince any watcher of the party’s internal warfare that his decision to step back from frontline politics is the right one.

Ed has been making all the right noises, talking about how he desperately wants David to be in his Shadow Cabinet and so on, but it has become abundantly clear that the leadership contest has done lasting damage to the relationship of the two brothers. This is hardly difficult to understand. David must have assumed that the leadership was his for the taking, having been the favourite for so long, only to have the prize snatched from him at the very end by his own brother.

His disappointment and the resentment of those around him is perhaps an understandable human emotion but there does seem to be more than a touch of the ‘Michael Portillos’ about his failed bid. Miliband, like Portillo in the John Major government, had an opportunity to topple Gordon Brown at the depths of his unpopularity but chose instead to sit tight and wait. Both men missed their best chance and ended up as hugely disappointed bridesmaids.

Ed Miliband, for his part, should feel no guilt for standing in the same contest as his brother. He had every right to put himself forward for the leadership and can point to the result – in spite of Labour’s bizarre electoral college system – as justification for his boldness. Perhaps in time his older brother will come to terms with it, but for now the emotions are probably just too raw.

David’s simmering resentment was clearly demonstrated by his unguarded remarks to Harriet Harman during the new Leader’s speech this week (towards the end of the clip below) and there can be no doubt that, if he had accepted the rumoured offer of Shadow Chancellor, a less-than-friendly media would have had years of fun highlighting divisions between the two brothers, whether real or imagined. After sixteen years of warfare between the Blair and Brown camps, the last thing Labour needed was two new faces to carry the civil war into the future.

David Miliband has done the smart thing for himself, his brother and his party and, although much will be made of it in the news over the coming days, the discomfort of such scrutiny will be nothing compared to the long-term dysfunctionality which would surely have been unleashed had he stayed within Ed’s shiny new tent.

Another take on the Papal visit

I’m grateful to David Briggs for pointing me in the direction of this splendid take on the Papal visit to the UK:

I’m fully aware that there are some who will view the continual criticism of Mr Ratzinger during his visit as regrettable and perhaps even offensive but, despite my unashamed atheism, I post this clip simply because it made me laugh. Make of it what you will…

Jim Clark

While putting together yesterday’s post about Ferrari, I started trawling through some old clips of the great racers of the fifties and sixties. Such an exercise inevitably leads you to, in my opinion, the greatest driver of them all: Jim Clark. Had Clark been racing in the modern era there’s every chance he would have racked up a frightening selection of pole positions, fastest laps, race wins and Championships. Instead, in a time of almost non-existent safety precautions in motor racing, he was tragically killed at the old Hockenheim circuit in 1968.

Here is a clip of him in action in 1963. Note the open-faced helmet and the lack of safety barriers and run-off areas on the circuit. But most of all, note the gloriously smooth car control. I would have loved to have seen him in action.

A difficult week

I haven’t blogged for a good few days now and, to tell the truth, I haven’t really felt like it either. I can’t throw in the excuse that I’ve been busy because (although it has been a hectic week or so) I normally find it easier to write something when I’m stacked out than when I’m not. No, it’s been a difficult week for me personally (I won’t bore you with the details) and it is this which has led to my output being more than slightly thin on the ground.

When you have one of those weeks (or days, months or years) you very quickly change your view of what’s important. I try to keep a sense of perspective at the best of times, remember that the world is a very small place, and that my part within it is inestimably small by comparison. I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to view the wonder of everything that goes on around me from a position of relative comfort.

Sorry for the navel-gazing, and sorry if you dropped by expecting to read an irrationally tetchy man bitching about the Tories or some such – normal service will no doubt resume before too long. In the meantime, have a look at this and remember how unimportant we all are: