Santa Claus Is Coming To Town…

… So you’d better be good for goodness sake, yeah. Have a good one, one and all!

In the meantime, this weekend marks the end of the fourth week since my rural Perthshire village last saw bare ground. And even the burn – usually quite fast moving at this bit – is beginning to ice up; its deep-voiced roar in full spate reduced currently to something akin to a timid whisper. Further downstream, where the flow of the water is calmer, it is completely frozen over.

Hoping for a trouble-free trip down from the North Pole for Santa – but then his journey is reindeer- rather than horse-powered so he stands a better chance of getting around than most Brits…

The Dead Republic

The closing part of Roddy Doyle‘s trilogy of the 20th century history of Ireland as evidenced through Henry Smart, his larger than life hero, was published at the end of March to no great acclaim, it has to be said: newspaper reviews were not particularly favourable (The Guardian, The Times, New Statesman; and, more favourably, the New York Times) while, so far, the UK Amazon site has an unprecedentedly low number of reviews (three) for a book by a major author. It took me more than six months to discover it – and I have had an eye out for it over the past few years since the publication of the second volume, Oh, Play That Thing!

As a whole, The Dead Republic lacks the breathtaking pace of the other two volumes – but this is clearly matched to the increasing age of Smart himself and his disillusion with and disconnection both from the cause he believed in and, indeed, his family. Nevertheless, amazing things are still happening to him as he continues his dramatic journey through the characters of modern history, both in Ireland and in the US. John Ford is first castigated as The Quiet Man idealises and romanticises his story, but then somewhat rehabilitated in terms of the theme; we meet a republican with a beard (which Doyle parenthetically informs us is not Gerry Adams, as he was still in Long Kesh at the time); Smart is then wheeled out to play a key role in the development of the modern strategy of Sinn Fein. Regeneration both of structures and of individual, personal belief and faith is certainly possible. And Doyle’s writing and characterisation is taut, and contain moments of laconic humour. Smart himself remains an utterly convincing character with genuine motivation and internal, very human contradictions amidst the events taking place around him which, it has to be said, do not always contain the same levels of believability.

The first part of the novel’s three quite distinct sections is over-long; the second betrays signs of Doyle rushing to finish (Bullfighting, a new collection of short stories, is due out next April and Doyle must have been either directly or indirectly feeling the pressure of publication deadlines); but the third is a gripping and rewarding section which provides a fitting end to the trilogy. At its heart, the novel turns on the extent to which its theme of how people and organisations are in control, or otherwise can exploit, the definition of Irishness, as the defining characteristic of the struggle for a free Ireland; this treads a fine line of plausibility but Doyle just about manages to carry it off. What most struck me is the timing: as Doyle was concluding the novel, Ireland was sinking into an economic morass not of its own making but to which the rapid style of its economic development had left it increasingly vulnerable. With the Irish economy first deliberately exposed to, and then ‘bailed out’ by, international capital, the extent to which Ireland is (or can be) actually independent in the context of the binds of international capitalism delivers both a talking point as well as an interesting conclusion to the trilogy.

Or, perhaps it is a conclusion. Doyle has already written elsewhere (The Deportees) of the changing face of Ireland, and its evident economic development from the opening of the A Star Called Henry provides an interesting counterpoint here. The Dead Republic contains a bold prediction for the future, and I have a feeling that Doyle is not quite yet done with this story: a fourth book is certainly a possibility, both thematically and historically (the novel ending some way short of the current political situation). I’d buy it.

The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story

On Backstreets, the Springsteen online fanzine, the thread on what should be included in the ‘Darkness’ boxed set for it to be considered to have been done properly ran to 480+ pages and 7,000+ posts by the time the set hit the streets – a remarkable achievement considering that the threat starter (some fifteen months in advance of the release) got the final content pretty much spot-on in his original post. The ‘Darkness’ album is the one that most Springsteen fans eulogise most, and the tour the one that most would make their first destination once time travel machines are invented, so the set has been keenly anticipated.

The box which eventually emerged last month is a marvellously produced collection of a pleasingly compact amount of material for a six-disc (three CDs, three DVDs) set, with all the discs inserted in a facsimile of one of Springsteen’s (in)famous song notebooks. On flicking through, several times I catch myself running my fingers over the creases in the pages, the tape (or rusty-looking paperclips) pinning new pages or photos in, the ‘shadows’ underneath taped-in cassette cards, the yellowing sellotape and the stains and tears, only to find them running over nothing other than smooth paper (and even though I know what it is). There is a wealth of material here from song ideas through which you can trace the development of particular songs, or spot lines that were to appear in songs recorded later, to photos to handwritten instructions regarding the stage lighting on the tour, to several running orders for the album and debates about the songs which should be included on it – both a fascinating document and a superb production.

On to the music itself, and starting with the remastered version of Darkness – well, it was completed in a single day (an ironic reflection of the time originally spent in the studio) and, to be honest, I can’t hear a great deal of difference: yes, Max’s drums crackle and snap, Garry’s bass is much more up in the mix and Bruce’s guitar sounds cleaner, sharper and harder edged. Apart from that, Springsteen’s acknowledged over-sung vocals, which wreck ‘Something in the Night’ and ‘Streets of Fire’ and come close to spoiling ‘Adam Raised a Cain’, remain overwrought. Evidently, remastering can do little about that, but there remains a hiss on the recording and, listening closely, there are evident tape drop outs. That’s a little disappointing, and I had expected a rather cleaner product.

That apart, it is evident that the Paramount Theatre as-live performance of the album – recorded late last year in only two takes and including just the members of the band that were involved in ’78 (Charlie Giordano subbing in for Phantom Dan Federici, and without an audience other than the cameras) – is Springsteen’s re-statement of the album as it should have sounded. That he can still do this 32 years on from the original is testament enough to Springsteen’s ability not just to believe in his music but to live it, and in the first two numbers in particular, he appears particularly pumped up (what must he have been listening to before going on stage?). The two takes provides an ironic comment on the time taken to record the album in the first place (painstakingly reproduced on the ‘The Making of…’ DVD, also broadcast in an edited version on BBC1 this week (the opening shots of Springsteen engaged in jaw-breaking yawns tells of the difficult times in the studio)). Intense, emotionally raw and ferociously angry, but also brooding and with moments of great beauty, this is the album as it should have been heard and it might just, perhaps, stand as Springsteen’s best work.

The double CD of ‘The Promise’ (which has its own separate release) remains, even with some additional recording, mixing and production carried out earlier this year, a collection of out-takes of mostly complete songs, or alternative versions of songs that did make it to the album, and songs with different lyrics to some familiar melodies or titles. It’s clear that, with the final selection of songs for Darkness, they got it right pretty much 100% of the time – it does remain the ‘right’ single album out of the dozens of songs recorded at the time: there is a coherence to that album (for all its production faults) and a lot of these additional songs, many of which feature the nucleus of the Miami Horns, have a party feel akin to the first side of ‘The River’ (or else a lot of the core content of what would have been ‘The Ties That Bind’, the ‘lost’ album) and would have sounded out of place on ‘Darkness’. Whoever slowed down ‘Racing In The Street’ for the album was a genius (though the line about ‘waking up in a world that somebody else owns’, which doesn’t appear in the album version and which never made it anywhere else in Springsteen’s lyrics, is an unfortunate loss): it casts greater shade on the rest of the album than would otherwise have been the case from the faster version, and there are clear benefits to the beauty of the song from the more relaxed vocal approach.

That said, some songs clearly got away – ‘Because The Night’ is a great song (though only hinting in the studio version here at the fire breathing monster it became on the tour) and would have fitted the album well (Springsteen’s reasons for not finishing it are honestly explained in one of the most interesting moments in the ‘Making Of…’ DVD), as would ‘The Promise’ (known not only for its appearance in a different guise on the short version of ‘Tracks’ but also in a bootleg sneaked out of the production studios in 1978), which remains a haunting follow-up account some years on of the runaways of ‘Thunder Road’.

Stripped to a final selection of 10-12 tracks, and including some songs recorded at the time and which later appeared on ‘The River’, ‘The Promise’ would have been a decent immediate post-Darkness album, based around a theme of young working class males with a growing sense of responsibilities surrounding their working lives but still with time to spend growing up. But then, we already know this from the tracklisting that would have formed ‘The Ties That Bind’.

Finally, the live ‘house cut’ DVD is an interesting choice of gig to put out: a couple of live bootleg films from the tour have been circulating for some time while from gigs that are, perhaps, more apparently representative of its energy and the dynamism of Springsteen’s own performance on it – otherwise evident thus far only in the plentiful and good quality music-only bootlegs. This is a touched-up version of what was a lo-fi film (befitting its origin as a ‘bootleg’ recording from the theatre’s own recording system): it’s dark and grainy, there are drop outs and out of focus shots, and some of the action is, simply, missing. Some elements have simply been cut. The sound is great, mind. But, in that it doesn’t represent the physicality of the tour that well, the DVD helps to build its aura that bit more while, at the same time, contributing to the clamour for the Springsteen organisation to dig that little bit deeper into the vaults for other, better, more representative, live films to release. But it’s still a very watchable performance of a decent gig and, until that time machine is invented, this (and the touched-up clips, continuity problems and all, from another ’78 gig on the Paramount Theatre DVD) is about as close as we’re going to get.

Will the set bring any converts? – well, not at £80 in the shops for a set featuring already released material or stuff from deep down in the vaults, it won’t. Sales are reported to have been disappointing, and I can only imagine what non-fans buying the separate release of ‘The Promise’ make of it all unless they know some of the history. Me, I’d have paid £80 just for the Paramount Theatre DVD alone – but then that could just be me. But, did they do it properly? Definitely.

CPI and fear over the rising cost of living

Today saw the coincident publication of the DWP consultation on extending the move to the Consumer Price Index to private sector occupational schemes, following the government’s announcement in July that it would be doing so for benefits and public sector pension schemes, and for related private sector schemes, as well as some research from insurance company Aviva demonstrating that the over-55s are increasingly fearful of the rising cost of living.

The move to CPI indexation remains unwanted, nasty and mean spirited, and this is in no way ameliorated by the DWP’s otherwise welcome recommendation in today’s consultation not to move to enforce the switch on all private sector schemes via over-riding legislation. Having seen the move elsewhere, private sector schemes may already be considering such a move, so the absence of legislative compulsion is small compensation for the compulsion of circumstances. With CPI being in the long-run lower than RPI by about 0.75% per year, the move will cost pensioners on even moderate pensions as much as £25,000 during their time in retirement. In the public sector, and concerning those on benefits, the switch essentially makes pensioners pay for the excesses of the bankers which have been so costly to the economy while, in the private sector, giving windfall gains to companies which are also directly affected by the move.

The move was predicated on the basis that the Retail Price Index is not a suitable measure of inflation for pensioners because it includes housing costs and, apparently, 70% of pensioners don’t have mortgages. Well, that implies that 30% do – and that’s a number that’s only likely to grow in the future – while other aspects of housing costs, such as council tax and rent, are also excluded from the CPI. Housing costs actually form a large part of pensioners’ expenditure: the most recent ONS Pensions Trends publication estimates that 17% of the expenditure of households headed by someone aged 65-74 is on housing, while the Aviva study also quotes a figure of 18% (with housing actually taking the largest share of the expenditure of the over-55s). The Royal Statistical Society has called for a review of the measurement of inflation, sparked off not least by the increasing prominence of CPI ‘even though it is not necessarily the best index for all purposes.’ And we know that pensioner inflation is anyway higher than RPI, as a result of typical pensioner expenditure being focused on the more high-rising items.

In the context of the prospect of extensively lower indexation applied to pensions in the immediate future, it is no wonder that pensioners are becoming more and more worried about the cost of living: three-quarters, according to the Aviva study, say that the cost of living was their biggest fear over the next six months while 70% say that it is their biggest fear over the next five years – a rise in the latter case of no fewer than 52 percentage points since May 2010. You could ask for no clearer view about the impact of the coalition government on pensioners than that.

Thankfully, the Office for National Statistics is considering how housing costs can be brought into RPI (para 9.10), while the UK Statistics Authority has this week published a programme of work for ONS which includes the accomplishment of such a move within two years. If the government doesn’t interfere, this will row back some of the difference between RPI and CPI, thus taking some of the sting out of the move, although the bulk of the difference (arising from the different mathematical construction of the CPI) will remain. Pensioners are right to be fearful of their future under the ConDems – it will be one in which they are very much worse off.

A broadband strategy worthy of the name?

Jeremy, er, Hunt today launched yet another new ambition for the government in the area of high-speed broadband: for a digital hub in every community. An ambitious government is a welcome thing and having a strategy for broadband is also applaudable (although I thought that Digital Britain had already set that out some eighteen months ago), while Hunt himself talks a good game – but, once again, I find myself regarding the scale of the ambition as being somewhat less than the words espoused to tout it. Again, we need some more detail about what exactly it means, but what Hunt is calling a ‘digital hub’ seems to me to represent little more than fibre to the cabinet solutions which, although clearly an advance and worth having by itself, does not seem to stack up to the futuristic concept of a ‘digital hub’. And the notion of communities then taking responsibility themselves for extending the network to individual homes raises the inevitable questions of how? and who will finance? without decent answers to which the notion perhaps ought not originally to have been raised, especially not in the context of what is meant to be a strategy.

It is also not by itself going to give Britain ‘the best broadband network [or system] in Europe by 2015’ – though here some more detail was fleshed out in that it will be a ‘composite measure‘, a ‘scorecard which will focus on four headline indicators: speed, coverage, price and choice’ (would it be too cynical to think that this means that Britain will, indeed, turn out to have ‘the best…..’, whether or not an independent observer would think the same? An early plea for the measure to be turned over to a sort of Office of Broadband Responsibility, if you like).

And another £50m for more pilot projects doesn’t seem to be a particularly forward-thinking other than an expression of the need to prove that Something Is Being Done: the existing four pilots, announced in October, are not really yet underway, still less in a situation of being able to identify the lessons which might – or might not – indicate the need for more pilots. A further delay in the timetable by which we might attain a digital Britain is, perhaps, in the interests of few of us. On the other hand, progress by a rolling series of pilot projects – provided they’re sustainable and link into the national strategy, is still progress – as is BT’s own pilot of a 1Gbps network in Kesgrave, Suffolk, also announced today.

A national strategy worthy of the name and the ambition would commit serious funds to a project of this type – especially if it is all ‘about jobs‘, with Hunt citing sources indicating that a high-speed broadband network could create 280,000 – 600,000 new jobs. Hunt again references South Korea in the context of 90% of the funding being committed by private sources – which seems to come from this report – but which seems rather conveniently to ignore the reference in the same report to this referring only to local access links to a $24bn high-speed core network built by the government (with the private sector investment also being drawn from soft loans). Facts do need to be straight.

In contrast, the UK government is offering £530m – the government has been speaking of £830m by 2017, but the remaining £300m comes beyond the life of the spending review period, and the lifetime of this parliament; and, even if it is to be drawn from the BBC licence fee whose six-year period stretches beyond 2015, we should ignore the additional £300m since it is outwith the period by which the government has committed itself to achieving its aim. The government needs to recognise that this is peanuts. No-one is seriously calling for government investment at the South Korean level – BT has committed itself to matching what is available publicly and can do a serious amount of work with it, as its partnership with the Cornwall Development Company proves – but if it’s South Korean speeds that we want, we are deluding ourselves if we think that this is going to come entirely – or almost entirely – from the private sector, especially when we are ignoring key facts about the use of South Korea as an example.

Equality and the Budget

A brief word for the Fawcett Society’s day in court on Monday challenging the Budget on the grounds that the Treasury had not conducted the appropriate equality impact assessment – and that the Budget was, thereby, unlawful. The Fawcett Society is appealing for supporters to attend the Royal Courts of Justice, in the Strand, where the case is being held, to show their support for a judicial review of the Budget.

At a time when the ConDem’s true colours are being shown in the decision to hold s.73 of the 2010 Equalities Act in abeyance, thus allowing businesses the room voluntarily to decide whether or not publicly to disclose information on the gender pay gap in their own firms, the case is a timely reminder that not only is the Budget inimical to women’s interests, so is the coalition government. It seems increasingly the case that equal pay can only be delivered by greater transparency over pay decisions, but a government which is so evidently not committed to transparency is not only clearly in hock to business interests, but is also in no place to advance the equalities agenda.

Спасибо, г-н Блаттер. Ваши деньги в конверте

Gutted. Obviously.

Given the public desire for a hanging so as to allocate blame for the failure of the England bid, Panorama and the Sunday Times look to be first up against the wall. There are evidently a lot of angry people about – but the point of a free press is that it’s able to say what it wants to, when it wants to, even when it’s a bit uncomfortable. Which is kind of the point – and, I suspect, not quite the case in a couple of other countries I could name. Stories emerging about Blatter reminding FIFA executive committee delegates of the ‘evils of the media’ just indicates that there is something to hide and reinforces the view that Panorama and the Sunday Times were right to act as they did.

What is interesting in this context, however, was the decision by FIFA first not to declare the round-by-round voting details, just an overall winner, and then to decide to do so. I do wonder how much of a role in this decision was played by England coming, well, last out of four and a desire to stick one back: a sort of two finger salute in return for the two votes the bid won and the quickest possible early bath.

At least Russia does have a footballing tradition.

As for Qatar in 2022: a  country with no footballing tradition (and therefore no-one to bring the game to), where homosexuality is illegal (football doesn’t exactly have the best of records here but at least awareness of the need to do better for gay footballers is improving) and where games may well be played in 50 degree heat is clearly more than just a ‘high risk’; it should never have made it to the voting floor. Evidently, a somewhat naive view. Neither can I see the country’s success doing much for the environment: the stadia may be zero carbon despite all that air con and, while the need for mega blocks of construction only to dismantle the new grounds for export to developing countries has an appeal at one level – well, it would have won a few more votes – it does defeat the object of having something sustainable in place after the event. And just where is all that new transport infrastructure going to take people once the stadia have all been dismantled?

Football is an international game and the media frenzy is such that it probably increasingly doesn’t really matter where the World Cup is hosted (other than where respect for human rights is evidently lacking). Indeed, there’s probably some truth in the rumour that Sepp Blatter is, as I write, checking out NASA’s research into alternative biochemistry make-up to see whether Mars can host the World Cup in 2050. Only time will tell, but the desire to extend football’s influence into new places seems at this stage already to have reached its apotheosis with Qatar.

Final word to @kmflett:

England World Cup bid- Dave Cameron & Boris Johnson confirm that John Major’s King Midas in Reverse Syndrome is back.

Nice one!