It begins to make sense …

Rocket 88

At first sight I was going ape at the New Yorker piece:


To [one] way of thinking, rock and roll—the music associated with performers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the early Beatles—is music that anyone can play (or can imagine playing) and everyone can dance to. The learning curve for performing the stuff is short; the learning curve for appreciating it is nonexistent. The instrumentation and the arrangements are usually simple: three or four instruments and, frequently, about the same number of chords. You can add horns and strings and backup singers, and you can add a lot more chords, but the important thing is the feeling. Rock and roll feels uninhibited, spontaneous, and fun. There’s no show-biz fakery coming between you and the music. As with any musical genre, it boils down to a certain sound. Coming up with that sound, the sound of unrehearsed exuberance, took a lot of work, a lot of rehearsing. No one contributed more to the job than Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, in Memphis, and the man who discovered Elvis Presley.

I blanched at the notion that anyone can play (or can imagine playing) … like Chuck Berry. Back to the Future this ain’t.

Berry’s recording comes from 1958, but it was derivative. He lifted the intro from Louis Jordan and 1942, and the outline for the guitar break from T-Bone Walker and 1950. Even then, those were probably not far distant from “race records” clichés. None of which detracts from the definitive Berry version.

52032b2509e5cf01aadf57f26a666847Then Menand’s next eighteen-penn’orth of paragraphs amounts to a review of Peter Guralnick’s Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, which has been getting notices across the American press. His take is that Guralnick is at-least-a-trifle hagiographical. The excuse given is that:

Guralnick understands his subject, and, after a while, you pick up on the subtext. Phillips had a genuine feel for a kind of music that was, in a Southern context, slightly asymmetrical to his own race and class. He liked the blues, and his liking of the blues was bound up with progressive views on race relations. He really did believe that by recording B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf—and many other African-American musicians, most of them now largely forgotten—he was doing God’s work. He respected his musicians as artists and as people; he identified with their travails; and he threw himself into the job of getting their music out.

My Big Bastard hard-drive, from which assorted puny iPods are serially refreshed, is one proof that B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf are not now largely forgotten. I cannot be alone in such retrospection.

Only in the latter part of his essay does Menand start to make more sense:

Rock and roll is usually explained as rhythm-and-blues music—that is, music performed by black artists for black listeners—repurposed by mostly white artists for a mostly white audience. How do we know this? Because that’s the way the industry trade magazine Billboard represented it.

Billboard started charting songs in 1940. By 1949, it was publishing charts in three categories: pop, country-and-Western, and (a new term, replacing “race music”) rhythm and blues. Every week, in each category, there were lists of the songs most frequently sold in record shops, most frequently requested in jukeboxes, and most frequently played by disk jockeys. (These rankings were all relative; actual sales figures were proprietary.)

The charting system was predicated on a segregated market. How did Billboardknow when a song was a rhythm-and-blues hit, and not a pop hit? Because its sales were reported by stores that catered to an African-American clientele, its on-air plays were reported by radio stations that programmed for African-American listeners, and its jukebox requests were made in venues with African-American customers. Black artists could have pop hits. The Ink Spots, a black quartet, had fourteen songs in the Top Five on the pop chart between 1939 and 1947. That was because their songs were marketed to whites.

And that is how I’ve been accounting for it, all these years.

Then Menand undermines that basic narrative. He argues that several industry developments subvert this version:

  • the growth of local radio stations as the FCC broke up the CBS, NBC and Mutual cartels;
  • this was accompanied by the proliferation of juke-boxes;
  • small labels intruding into the mass-market, particularly as the big labels withdrew from racially-segregated marketing;
  • the post-war boom putting buying power into the pockets of a younger market [that’s my gloss, by the way], who were more likely to cross-over the racial divide. “Race music” became R&B and also became acceptable to the white teenager with a portable record player and a thirst for excitement.

Then (after a nod at Rocket 88) he throws in the spit-ball:

Why, if white kids were already buying records by black musicians, did the breakthrough performer have to be white?

The answer is television. In 1948, less than two per cent of American households had a television set. By 1955, more than two-thirds did. Prime time in those years was dominated by variety shows—hosted by people like Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Milton Berle, and Perry Como—that booked musical acts. Since most television viewers got only three or four channels, the audience for those shows was enormous. Television exposure became the best way to sell a record.

On television, unlike on radio, the performer’s race is apparent.

We’re onto the home straight, it seems. Except again Menand swerves:

0189562572… the best conclusion seems to be the one reached by the sociologist Philip Ennis in his valuable analysis of popular music, The Seventh Stream (1992). “Did the music industry force-feed teenagers into the acceptance of rock and roll?” Ennis asked. “To the contrary, it was almost the reverse.” White listeners began consuming a style of music that had not been manufactured for or marketed to them. The d.j.s and the record companies were only scrambling to meet the demand. That demand seems to have sprung up everywhere—in Cleveland and Memphis, in Los Angeles and New York—and all at once. If advertising and promotion didn’t bring about this phenomenon, what did?

It’s tempting to interpret it as a generational rebellion against a buttoned-up, conservative domestic culture, but this is almost certainly a retrospective reading, created by looking at the period through the lens of the nineteen-sixties. Folk songs had a message, and some sixties rock songs had a message. Rock and roll did not have a message, unless it was: “Let’s party (and if you can’t find a partner, use a wooden chair).” Or maybe, at its most polemical, “Roll over, Beethoven.” But it was music intended for young people, and this was the distinctive thing.

That’s not all. There needs to be the delivery system, which (as I’ve already adduced) was:

 The 45-r.p.m. record—the single—was developed by RCA and marketed in 1949. Soon, RCA introduced a cheap plastic record player, which played only 45s and sold for twelve ninety-five. This meant that teen-agers could play “their” music out of their parents’ hearing. They did not have to listen in the living room on the family phonograph.

Menand then concertinas technological development: the transistor radio was not as rapidly adopted as he implies — we would be more towards the end of the ’50s or early ’60s for that. But we were still tied to the main suppliers: and in Britain they were few and far between (unless you had a mate with eclectic tastes and access to those expensive — and fragile, especially on a Dansette — LPs). As for the “pirate” radio stations, and before them Radio Luxembourg (208 metres, medium wave), once night fell, the sound quality was liable to be execrable.

More liberating, especially in the European market (and Menand misses this), was the compact cassette: but that was a different Philips. And with the cassette recorder, preferably plugged into the AUX socket on the best radio in the house, everyone became his (or, less often, her) own DJ.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Music, New Yorker

More Boulton bumble

Provided we bear in mind “news” amounts to no more than an edited version of as much “truth” as they feel we need to be told, we can’t go far wrong. Just keep digging for more.

And nowhere more so in the Murdochian edits of what might be in the “public domain”.

Which brings me to Adam Boulton’s Sunday Times slot. This week cozying up to the clichéd Elephant in the Room:

Not satisfied with eliminating the budget deficit, Osborne is bent on re-engineering Britain as a high-pay, low-welfare, low-tax economy. To this end, he is calling the shots on cutting tax credits. As a result the new government faces the biggest crisis of its short life.

My main gripe there is the “high-pay” thing. Evidence needed, Mr Boulton.

The official plaster-of-Paris fig-leaf applied to the offence is the (wait for it!) “national living wage“:

… a new, compulsory living wage from April 2016.

It will be paid to workers aged 25 and above. Initially, it will be set at £7.20 an hour, with a target of it reaching more than £9 an hour by 2020. Part-time and full-time workers will get it.

It will give a pay rise to six million workers but is expected to cost 60,000 jobs and reduce hours worked by four million a week, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.

On paper it looks too-good-to-be-true:


Note the weasel-word: “forecast”. Note, too the wide variation of what it might mean. And — since we live in an age of recognising the cost-of-everything, but the value-of-nothing (especially the value of words, promises, pledges, aspirations, whatever) — what imposts it lays on employers. It should also lay a burden on government, to ensure it delivers, and on that ground, one has one’s doubts:

The National Living Wage’s introduction could mean an increase in black market payments to workers, a hospitality industry spokesman has said. 

Many employers will have to increase salaries when the new £7.20 an hour measure comes into effect next April.

Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster said it would have major implications for hotels and restaurants.

He told the BBC’s Inside Business programme there was a risk of more workers being paid “cash-in-hand”. 

Mr Neill said that while the hospitality industry was “in a much more difficult place than others”, various sectors were looking at “how we’re going to deal with this and, actually, how can you pass on the cost”.

To clarify: there are just two ways of “passing on the cost” —

  • billing the customer and end-user,
  • or diddling the employees, cooking the books, and by-passing any charges and taxes on employment (especially, social security payments).

Are we all sure:

  • the latter won’t happen?
  • or that official inspection will be adequate to sort out the rogue employers?

But, where I’m sitting (quite comfortably, thank you for asking), that’s not the Bigger Picture.

What that glossy incremental line-graph, an ever increasing basic pay-packet, ignores is the way it will primarily mean no more than absorbing the next wage-bracket above minimum into the “national living wage”. In theory, and on paper, the employee currently just above the £7:20 per hour rate should see a proportionate increase — so the current £9 per hour wage should rise by 25% by 2020 (say to £11:20 per hour), to match the increase in minimum.

Better believe it!

For, unless there is real pressure from the employees, that simply will not happen. Fair dos, there may be nugatory increases. But, without proper trade union pressures — precisely the thing this government is dead-set to eliminate — there won’t be justice done.

Which has other implications.

Especially for productivity, which is where — for the last decade — we have catastrophically failed.

Oh, and haven’t we heard of Adam Boulton’s high-pay, low-welfare, low-tax economy somewhere before? Something along these lines:

In bringing about economic recovery, we should all be on the same side. Government and public, management and unions, employers and employees, all have a common interest in raising productivity and profits, thus increasing investment and employment, and improving real living standards for everyone in a high-productivity, high-wage, low-tax economy

Now where was that? Ah, yes! The Conservative manifesto, foreward by Margaret Thatcher, for the 1979 General Election.

Leave a comment

Filed under Conservative Party policy., History, Sunday Times, Tories., Trade unions


There are nasty nodules of the net where only the brave should venture.

Nowhere more so than those involved in “politics”. And the most viperous dank holes there involve gun-toters, nazi-apologists and (recently added) Scots Nationalists. Those, of course, are not mutually exclusive.

In passing, Carl Hiaasen’s recent column on concealed-carry on Florida campuses should be a must-read.

One particular vile toad is the ““: reverend simply because he is self-ordained (it’s one of those American mail-order jobs). Campbell’s Scottish connection is a quarter-century past: his present is in that Caledonian idyll more usually recognised as Bath, Avon, England. Anyone who hasn’t encountered his festering swamp, Wings Over Scotland, is well-advised to stay away: it’s declared off-limits by the politburo of the SNP.  Think Guido Fawkes without its occasional sources, or even the most basic wit. The Wings-over-Scotland window-licking commenters exceed any bounds set by Fawkes or the Daily Mail.

Here’s one recent example of the genre:


One sentence. One crashingly-banal error. Can an established “fact” be “questionable”?

That used to be task one in the comprehension test of English GCSE papers: “Quote one fact from the passage”. The National Curriculum, you see, is quite hot on determining “fact” and “opinion”.

And, as of my clipping that, 130 cybernats had piled in to comment on it. All, it seems, ignorant of a basic distinction.




Filed under Carl Hiaasen, education, smut peddlers, SNP

Adopts Mrs Merton voice …

So, David Cameron, what first attracted you to Michelle Mone as your new entrepreneurial czar?


Leave a comment

Filed under Conservative family values, David Cameron, sleaze., Tories.

My post-box is green

I’m trying to manipulate Famous Seamus‘s second most-famous quote:

Be advised my passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised. to toast the Queen.

The prompt was the piece Leo Benedictus did for The Guardian, over the weekend:

Last week, Hong Kong said goodbye to one of the last vestiges of imperialism by covering up the royal insignia on its green post boxes. But is there ever a point when this kind of history is worth preserving?

Perhaps you know that things are healing when, after centuries of violent tyranny and pillage, the British empire comes down to arguing over postboxes. In Hong Kong, where 59 of the old colonial postboxes remain, the postal service has announced that it plans to cover the royal insignias with a metal plaque – in order to avoid “confusion”. (The boxes have already been painted green and had the Hong Kong Post’s logo added to them, so you would have to be very confused indeed not to realise what they’re for.) Hong Kong postbox fanciers say that the insignias are “part of Hong Kong’s heritage and daily life”, and plan to protest on Saturday.

So are they right? At what point does a bitter colonial history stop needing to be expunged and become, well, just history, that needs actual preservation? Look around the world and you’ll find few clear answers.

VR boxThat is illustrated nowhere better than by standing on the bridge at Belleek. You can see where the tarmac subtly changes colour and texture between the jurisdiction of the County Fermanagh and that of the County Donegal. Behind is the 30 mph sign, ahead is one for 80 km/hr.

Leave the A47, and head down the N5 for Ballyshannon, and it’s not far before you spot one of the relics of imperialism: a post-box with Queen Victoria’s monogram and crown, painted green. There’s even a precious few of the classic Penfolds around (one was — perhaps still is — in Clonakilty, county Cork).

I once bought a Donegal tweed hat in Belleek — it was indeed my “End of Empire hat” (which I eventually lost in the Grand Hotel, Scarborough). I was invited to do the transaction in euros. It’s called “peaceful co-existence”: something that the two administrations, the two cultures of the island of Ireland, especially the Unionists of the North, are still stretching to achieve. It’s a characteristic in much of Andy Pollack’s writings, not least the piece he had on his blog-site in AugustThe Republic is now a warm place for Protestants, which has finally made it to the print-copy of the Irish Times.

When David Cameron announced:

“The general election will be held on May 7 and until that day I will be going to all four corners of all four nations of our United Kingdom with one message — together we are turning the country around”,

I was sure that would no more likely embrace Belleek than Muckle Flugga. I was not disappointed.

But a pity: had he gone, he might have learned something.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ireland, Irish politics, Irish Times, Northern Ireland, travel

Michelle Thomson and associates: a timeline of infamy

Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!

Thanks to Herald Scotland, we are now getting a chronology of who did what to whom, and when. We know some of the why — the love of money is the root of all evil — and some of the how.

It all started in July 2012. Solicitor Christopher Hales, one-time partner in Grigor Hales, solicitors, of Dalry Road, Edinburgh, was inspected by the Law Society. As a result, questions were raised over thirteen bits of property business. A month later the inspection report went to the Law Society guarantee fund sub-committee (GFSC), and in September 2012 the GFSC suspended Hales’ certificate to practice, and proceeded to prosecute him before the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal (SSDT).

Then everything goes into slo-mo. When there’s a serial bureaucracy as Byzantine as this one, what else can we expect? Except for one small, but worth-noticing detail: in October 2013 Sheila Kirkwood  was appointed secretary to the GFSC. What we see in this sorry saga is how close the circles of power and influence are in modern Scotland. As Thomas Dibdin had it, in a broader context:

O, it ’s a snug little island!
A right little, tight little island!
Search the globe round, none can be found
So happy as this little island.

For Mrs Kirkwood was well-ensconced inside the SNP tent:

the Law Society’s chief executive, Lorna Jack, took the unusual step of arranging a hurried press conference to defend her organisation’s handling of the affair, and the conduct of Sheila Kirkwood, who is secretary to the society guarantee fund sub-committee which handled the Hales case but had delayed handing the papers over to the Crown Office.

It emerged that Kirkwood was, with her husband and fellow solicitor Paul Kirkwood, a founder of the pro-independence campaign Lawyers for Yes, and as an active nationalist had attended dinners for Thomson’s pro-independence campaign Business for Scotland. Kirkwood had also “liked” Thomson on her Facebook page.

Don’t skim too lightly over Lorna Jack, either. She has a small plate-load of public appointments, courtesy of the the SNP government.

In 2014 the glacier started to move:

  • On 14th January, a full eighteen months after that first inspection, the Council of the Law Society lodged a complaint with the SSDT requesting an investigation into Hales.
  • On 13th May, Paul Marshall, the Law Society fiscal attended the SSDT hearing on the Hales case. The “accused” (or whatever periphrasis one prefers) Hales responded by e-mail to say he accepted the “averments of professional misconduct”.
  • In July, now two years into the epic, the Law Society published “interim findings” and a statement that Hales “must have been aware that there was a possibility that he was facilitating mortgage fraud”.  Ian Smart has a superb account of these doings on his blog, nicely explaining what mortgage fraud involves, and stating


Mr Hales was found to have assisted in mortgage fraud in no less than thirteen transactions for which he ultimately appeared before the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal on 13th may 2014 and was then struck off as a solicitor.

It’s all in the judgement which, despite its length I encourage you to read in full. Numerous examples of failing to inform lenders of undisclosed deposits, including examples of Mr Hales personally returning these to the purchasers, and several examples of back to backs, all equally undisclosed to the lenders.

But Mr Hales was not the principal actor here, he was simply the facilitator.

The principal actor, time and time again, was a woman referred to in the judgement as Mrs A. Sometimes she acts directly, on others she provides a third party deposit in exchange for a “fee”.

  • On 31st October 2014 the SSDT published its annual report, which mentions the Hales case.
  • On 18th December, in a regular quarterly meeting, Ian Messer, the Law Society’s director of financial compliance, “informally” told the Crown Office about the Hales case, apparently not including the names of the clients, or presumably fingering “Mrs A”. Which is odd because of whom we now know “Mrs A” to be: a poster-girl for the SNP, a prospective parliamentary candidate, and more. Ian Smart, again:

in May 2014, when the Tribunal decision was issued, Michelle Thomson was something approaching a national figure as one of the public faces of the SNP front organisation Business for Scotland. Indeed, at first appearance, one of the few genuine business people involved with that organisation, most of the others being little more than jumped up PR men. If her up to the neck involvement in mortgage fraud had come to light just three months before the referendum this would have been disastrous for Yes Scotland, for the SNP by association, but most of all for the economic credibility of the Independence cause. 

There’s the hint of the cleft inside the SNP: between the “business-friendly” Alex Salmond wing, and the wannabe social-reform clique around Nicola Sturgeon. To illustrate that further, we’d need to look at the T in the Park bung: as Deep Throat said, “Follow the money”, as we observe the Salmond ☞ Dempsie (partner of Angus Robertson MP)  ☞Hyslop (which ought to bring us to the other lingering SNP stink on education)  ☞ Geoff Ellis (Salmond’s guest at Ryder Cup) right little, tight little Syphonaptera.

Which almost brings us up to date. This year, 2015, we find:

  • On 28th April Ian Messer again finding it necessary to mention “informally” this Hales case at the next quarterly Crown Office meeting, again — it seems — not naming the key names.
  • On 7th May, the good citizens of Edinburgh West, kept in ignorance of what was transpiring “behind the arras”, elected Michelle Thomson as their SNP MP.
  • On 1st July, having taken a “detailed look” — well, after three years, thats about right — at the Hales case, the Law Society asked the GFSC for approval to refer it to the Crown.
  • Following which, prontissimo, on 3rd July, the Law Society formally passed the SSDT’s Hales report to the Crown Office, so at long last all the names are in the frames
  • And on 9th July, the Crown instructs Police Scotland to investigate Hales’s property transactions.


By whatever Murdochian means, by the back-end of September 2015, the Sunday Times had that SSDT Hales Report, and the Scottish edition (27th September) went big on naming Michelle Thomson.

Four days later Thomson “surrendered” the SNP Whip, pending police investigations. That was fortunately coincidental for First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who had to answer opposition questioning on 30th September:

… she knew nothing of the allegations until they were reported in the media. But she added: “I am in no doubt whatsoever in my mind that if the allegations — and again I stress the word allegations — are proven to be correct, they will represent behaviour that I find completely unacceptable.”

This is what is known as “throwing someone under a bus”.

The ripples were still spreading:

  • On 1st October. Lorna Jack is promising the Law Society will look into why it took so long for the Crown to be advised of the whole Hales mess, and also whether there were any untoward connections between Kirkwood and Thomson.
  • On 6th October Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland appeared in the Scottish Parliament:

Mr Mulholland said: … “The police have been instructed to investigate the property transactions related to that finding resulting in the solicitor being struck off.

“Police Scotland have a duty in any criminal investigation to follow the evidence and where that takes them.

“So, if during a police investigation evidence arises that other persons have been involved in criminality and fraud, or whatever crime the police have uncovered evidence of, then Police Scotland, I have complete faith in them, they will act and do the right thing as will the Crown.”

After the Lord Advocate’s appearance, Aamer Anwar, the lawyer acting for Michelle Thomson, said: “Following the Lord Advocate’s statement we must reiterate that we have advised Mrs Thomson that it would be inappropriate to comment on such matters and you will appreciate that she has already volunteered to assist Police Scotland with their investigation, despite no requirement to do so.

“Michelle Thomson maintains that she has always acted within the law.”

Ian Smart’s conclusion minces no words:

… unless the findings of the SSDT are wholly inaccurate, and you will note that the facts were agreed by Mr Hales, Thomson personally is toast. The sentencing guidelines are here. It qualifies for what is commonly known as exemplary sentencing so she’ll probably get several years in jail giving rise to an interesting by-election.

Faced with that lawyerly prognosis, the defendant has just two options:

  • take an overnight valise to the sentencing;
  • book the first flight out to northern Cyprus or Caracas.

The Thomson can may come, and may go. What will linger is the cesspit aroma that prevails in a one-party state (and Scotland is on that festering wikipedia list). It would be instructive to take all the names in this post, and locate their connections on a spider-chart. Be assured they would all link.

Such is the nature of power in a right little, tight little society.

Leave a comment

Filed under Scotland, Scottish Parliament, sleaze., SNP

Where are the scuts of yesteryear?

That previous post, and the St Andrews fauna, brought to mind this:

King’s Lynn, North Wotton, Wolverton,
Dersingham! Dersingham!
Snettisham (or rather Snet’sham),
Change at Heacham …
Sedgeford, Docking,
Stanhoe, Burnham Market,
Holkham and

As redolent to me as any verse of The Slow Train:

The Great Bean-counters of British Rail did for the first bit, the original Lynn & Hunstanton Railway from 1862, as late as the back-end of the 1960s. The eighteen-and-a-half miles of the West Norfolk Junction Railway had closed for passenger business in 1952, when it was still running Victorian gas-lit carriages wheezed along by antique steam locomotives. After the East Coast  Floods of 1953 there was deemed no possibility of it ever having an after-life.

There are so many “what-ifs” in that. Today, a “heritage railway” operating such rolling stock would be a national treasure. Had the original concept of a coastal loop, joining all the small resorts of the Norfolk coast, ever been realised we might today have something even better than Belgium’s Kusttram.

My memories — and I must be one of an diminishingly few who can recall, however dimly, that journey — are precise.

cover170x170Why was it necessary for the name of Dersingham to be bellowed twice? I still hear it in the fastnesses of a sleepless night, with the rising inflection on the middle syllable. Did that somehow echo down to Jon Hendricks’s pale imitation: New York, New York, a city so nice, they had to name it twice?

Snettisham is, if at all, known for the astounding hoard of gold torcs first ploughed up, then properly excavated, over a quarter of a century. Now starring at the British Museum and Norwich’s Castle Museum.

Then there were the bunnies.

Wolferton was, and is, something of a railway oddity.  I speak not of the incongruity, Wolverton, that is the tight curve on the old LMS line through Milton Keynes. Instead I recall the elaborate mock-Tudor confection that the Lynn & Hunstanton Railway devised to serve Sandringham House. To us lesser-breeds, endured to standing on open platforms in the northeast winds that make Norfolk in winter and early spring a place of cold comfort, Wolverton was a place of mystery and wonder. The station was always immaculate, the canopies white with recent paint — why did a place so small, so remote, deserve or demand such an extended shelter? —, planters and flower beds in abundance. Was there — there surely had to be — a majestic royal privy, the bluest of bloods alone for the relief thereof?


As the train huffed-and-puffed north out of this stately pleasure-dome, the embankments became sandy and rabbit-infested. And I mean dozens of the little buggers.

Since the Heacham-Wells link died in 1952, my memory must pre-date that. The rabbits were despatched between 1953 and 1955 by farmers wilfully introducing of Myxomatosis.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Norfolk, railways, social class, travel