Sunday, November 22, 2009

Careless Whisper

I was prowling about in a shop yesterday lunchtime – a rummage around that included hunting down as-kitsch-as possible Christmas presents for two of my grandchildren; it not only being the start of the customer-bump-and-grind season but with the added rationale that they’d already have every slab of Lego or cuddly toy they could ever wish for.

Items X and Y – registering high on the kitsch-thermometer – were finally selected and, with my customer-barging tolerance levels already stretched to breaking point, it became time to stand patiently and await one’s turn at the till.

The summons forward was ushered in with a cry of, ‘will the next guest step forward, please’.

Oh dear, the hapless being behind the counter has been indoctrinated into the criminal school of bollox-talk – doubtless his / her overlords have decided, by calling us customers ‘guests’, we’ll all feel that much better about the entire shopping experience.

Long, long ago a similar corporate indoctrination was taught (if memory is correct, it emanated from Japan) – primarily in building societies (nowadays banks) and a manner of employee-training-as-propaganda spread mercilessly whereby personnel started to address each other with team-analogies… for example, staff weren’t… errr… staff… nope, they were players. And they didn’t work within a branch office (for example) but… in a team. One didn’t have a boss or a supervisor or a manager…. but a team-leader.

Not only were hapless customers back then forced to come to grips with this new, entirely meaningless, terminology but that entire corporate, quasi-motivational, pop-psycho-babble has bolted like a recently gelded stallion through the open stable door to become prevalent in way too many lives.

Does this make me cross...? No, not particularly since, by and large I either ignore it totally or... find it’s inherent absurdity side-splittingly funny.

And so, besides this weekend’s shopping experience, it was difficult to avoid the recent verbiage uttered from the lips of a bloke who, quite frankly, should know a lot better – the Holy Grailsford.

Who he..? David John Brailsford CBE is – and, its only right and proper to address him by his correct title – British Cycling’s Performance Director and nowadays Team Principal of the fledgling Team Sky.

His (well-deserved) honour was upgraded from the MBE he was awarded after British Track Cycling’s Olympic success in Athens to a CBE in the 2009 New Year’s list following the same teams astounding haul of precious metal in China.

So far, so superb.

And, this weekend, his new Sky-baby is getting ready to divest itself of swaddling clothes at its Madchester home and preparing to fly (or, perhaps… roll… would be the better adjectival word).

And, given that this is a project which has caught the attention of not just British National media but similar around the world, the shaven-headed Companion Of The British Empire (next step arise Sir Dave..?) has been indulging in a few interviews… after all, he’s the team’s head-honcho and… well… who better to outline the inner workings, the team’s aims and aspirations and… all that sort of stuff?

The only problem is, DB (CBE)… has miscued disastrously.

Actually, as this Voltaire on its windswept grassy knoll sees it, he’s scuffed it toward the side-netting rather too many times over the past couple of months; in fact – ever since the much-heralded initial rider-announcement that was completely bodged by entirely school-boy PR in September.

Lets back-track a bit, shall we?

Because, the mis-fires have been occurring with alarming regularity since then – with, for instance, all of the news regarding rider / staff acquisitions emanating from 3rd party resources – as opposed to the mother-source. The most recent example being the disclosure of two (middle-ranking) Italians signing on the dotted being broken by the widely-read Italian sports daily, La Gazzetta Dello Sport and immediately fed out by (arguably the widest read cycling news portal globally) and all across the Twitter network.

Indeed - Sky's own announcement of Sean Yates' recent appointment as one of their Director Sportif's came hours after every other cycling site and news feed had published the information. No understanding of how the media works in the 21st Century - sadly so.

Even more recently has been the heavily rumoured transfer of rising British starlet Ben Swift from the ranks of Katusha to Team Sky… widespread published rumours that have reverberated across Europe fed by angry comments by Katusha’s own head-honcho, Andre Tchmil saying – ‘I think it is very bad that a new team like Sky goes around thinking they can buy up riders who are under contract. I’ll say once and for all, Swift will be part of Team Katusha in 2010. He’s not for sale. I don’t sell my riders’.

Be that as it ultimately may be, its also interesting to note that, with reference to the same story, stated – ‘as we go to press on this the Team Sky press office remains uncontactable… read in to that what you may’.

Then, factor in Wiggo-gate – the will he ride for Sky / won’t he remain with Garmin with regard to Bradley Wiggins – a (presumed contractual) stalemate that’s become as soap-opera a saga and about as annoyingly drawn out as one of East Enders’ ghastly plot-lines on TV.

Whether cycling’s own Weller-Rhys Ifans’ look-a-like does or doesn’t matters not – because, as a sheer PR exercise, Team Sky have played this about as poorly as it gets.

And, that’s simply been fuelled by the latest ‘revelations’ from the Holy Grailsford which have caused the vast majority of cycle-sport fans who really do care about Team Sky and the success thereof (and I’m holding my hand up here as one of the many) to absolutely shudder.

Which brings us neatly back to (one of) the latest interviews.

So… let’s consider a few choice quotes drawn from chief sports’ writer Owen Slot’s article in this Saturday’s Times – that’s the thunderer of London for the uninitiated – under the headline of: Team Sky’s secret weapons? Ants, chimps and crowns, but riding is not essential.

‘If individuals feel valued, they will be far more productive in their work’

– ummm… yes… gosh and golly… that’s truly ground-breaking thinking isn’t it…. Actually, this Voltaire tends to think that that sort of a man-management (whoops, person-management just in case my Voltaire gets disconnected for being politically incorrect) ethic has been in play for ohhhhhhhhh, lets see… absolutely aeons.

‘I’ve got two bus drivers from Formula One. I don’t want to see your driving. Think about it. We give the pre-race team-talk in the bus, that is our dressing room. The drivers take us to the start of the race in the morning and that’s where the nerves come on, where the riders get edgy. I said to the drivers, ‘What I do want to know is what you are like under pressure, when you are tired do you shout and scream?’

– Errrr… wow… that’s revelatory. Why, for example, would a bus-driver be tired in the morning, en route to a race? Shouldn’t they / wouldn’t they have had a good night’s sleep? Further to which, bus-drivers work to rigorous time-behind-the-wheel strictures.

The bus as the dressing room – sure, cycling is, after all, rock ‘n roll on wheels. Besides, a good bus driver is actually way more than someone who can get the assembled to place X at appointed time Y – in any event, going from A to B is guided by sat-nav nowadays (whoa, did anyone say the word Garmin?). The main attribute for a good bus-driver in this day and age is to combine invisibility and reliability with being the fount of all local knowledge.

What, however, is more concern-making is Grailsford’s use of I – the first person singular… perhaps this Voltaire is missing a fundamental point but… isn’t this about the team as a whole?

‘One of the first things we’ll do is ask riders to create their own rules. Shove them in a room: ‘Can you discuss how you want to be treated, can you discuss timings of the bus? If someone is late, what do you want us to do? I can promise you they will be more extreme than we would be. They’ll say, ‘If someone’s not there, we go.’ I guarantee.'

– Phew… that’s… ground-breaking thinking too. Actually – and here’s another rock ‘n roll metaphor, the real responsibility is down to Sky's tour manager equivalent to ensure that shaven-legged thoroughbred Z is on the bus and… on time. Does Grailsford really believe that Tour-contender H, being three minutes late for the scheduled departure of said-bus, would lead to a strict on-time roll-out with the end-result being Sky’s team-leader is left behind to make his own way to the start line? In a realistic world, that’s hardly going to happen… is it?

‘We are not malicious or vindictive, but if anyone’s behaviour is not allowing us to get where we want to be, we’ll give them a chance to modify it and, if they can’t, then they are out.’

– Right… so that’s a case of do it like we say and, if you don’t, then fuck-off… is it? That – to this Voltaire – smacks of despotism… and that equates to being dictatorial; hmmm – does the man behind all those glittering medals at recent Olympic Games wear Rasputin’s cloak? Is he, in reality, something of an autocrat?

‘Ants don’t worry, they operate like a fantastic team, they accept obstacles and deal with them in a positive manner, they don’t complain and remain positive. An ant doesn’t work on emotion, is proactive and always chooses the ant role.

– Ahhh… yes… now, that’s truly a magical quote; a prince among prose-thieves.

The team principal of – arguably – the most important and certainly the most interesting British sports’ formation this century… can not only talk to… but… is able to get inside the mind of… a metaphorical ant.

Y’know… this quack-religious, attention-seeking jargon simply doesn’t wash…

Can you imagine one of the director-sportif’s in the team car, waffling in like-manner and issuing instructions to his riders, as they’re approaching a major col in the Pyrenees… it’d probably go something like this: We need to seamlessly engage with our key-enabler and think out of the box proactively to leverage the initiative that RadioShack and SaxoBank are implementing.

Strong leadership – oh yes… Visionary – oh, absolutely… Single-minded – but, of course.

Nevertheless, it should never be forgotten that there is a fine line between megalomaniacal (corporate) vision – which can so easily lead to hallucination – and reality.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Blackberry Way

The voice coming through the public address system is honey-toned, calm and reassuring.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Silk and I’m your senior cabin-attendant this afternoon. The Captain has advised, due to severe weather conditions at our destination, that we will be remaining on the ground for…’

Here, the amateur-thespian within the afore-mentioned 'Silk' inserts a melodramatic pause; the drama ahead clearly to be played out to the maximum. Part-repeating herself, she continues: ‘We shall be remaining on the ground for a further fifty-one minutes.’

Another farcical pause ensues – presumably to allow us all time to admire Captain Fantastic’s stop-watch precision regarding the hold-up – before her pearly-dew-drop-vocal chords announces that ‘due to statutory regulations’ no ‘refreshments’ will be served during the enforced wait to become airborne but…

‘For those of you who have cellular devices, feel free to use them at this time.’

The elation felt within seat 24D is palpable.

Across the aisle to my left, the lady occupying the window seat is first out of the traps… within moments she’s loudly engaged in discussing a recent appendectomy in all its most delicate detail.

Other ‘phones further up-front squawk into life; within this enclosed space, a cacophony of personalised ring-tones abounds… ranging from Celine Dion trilling a chorus to one of her songs (a perennial favourite of mine) to the sound of a cat miaowing…

The man of middle-age at eleven o’clock (tick tock) of me, meaning he’s occupying seat 23C, ingratiatingly announces himself as Howard to the small child seated across the aisle from him and, thus directly in front of me.

The child makes no response so the mother, seated next to her, informs Howard – in an equally booming voice – that said four year old is known by the unlikely name of… Madison.

Doubtless the parents were of Posh / Becks persuasion – naming their offspring from where the child was conceived… which’d mean nooky was conducted in either the boon-docks of Madison, Wisconsin or somewhere along Madison Avenue, NYC.

Madison’s father is seated immediately across the aisle to my left. He has been forcibly placed there by the voluble mother who has forcefully informed the woman chattering gaily about the appendectomy that he (that’s how she refers to her husband) has to sit next to an ancient lady who’s make-up style has been derived from the Bette Davis school; all plucked eyebrows and severity of lip-line. As appendectomy-lady moved seat, the Bette Davis look-a-like turned a strange shade of orange, looking like she may expire any moment.

Madison herself, however, proves not terribly talkative so Howard unrolls his laptop and starts editing what I presume to be a speech he’ll be giving in the next few days: glancing down the aisle, I can’t help but notice that he seems to be a leading expert in the effects of Methane production in animals.

Meanwhile, the appendectomic conversation three seats and an aisle away from me has reached a crescendo of intimacy – signalling it is time to retreat under the noise-abating headphones and get back to my book; a fabulous yarn called Requiem concerning the end of The Crusades and Edward Longshanks war on Scotland and William Wallace in particular thereby tickling all of my Mediaeval leanings.

However, the next page-turn leads me into a sombre dissertation on the precise levels of pain that a prisoner banged up in the Tower of London would undergo in 13th century England when sentenced to being hung, drawn and then… quartered.

Mediaeval agony or modern day aural torture – time to unfurl the trusted i-Touch and lurch into a tune-shuffled world of my own; one that’s not peopled by bloody Celine Dion ring-tones – a smattering of operatic choruses before Massenet’s exquisite Meditation of Thais cuddles up neatly to some of Malcolm MacLaren’s sadly-unheralded ambient musings that dovetail tidily into The Maps’ own quasi-Icelandic ambionic delights.

Which all goes swimmingly until a larger than life figure hoves into view, waddling up the aisle – her posterior (which is the size of Bermuda) brushing each arm-rest at the same time - while her lips have been not only rouged but glossed into an unlikely shade of crimson, one that my Dad would have described as being the colour of a Baboon’s arse. Her eye-make-up is synchronised to a rather fetching shade of powder-blue.

The name on her lapel reads… Silk… and I’m informed that, since we’re about to get airborne, I have to unplug.

As we bump, bore and claw our way upwards, my own musings lead me to thinking about this emerging cellular-device-dominated generation.


Lets just imagine that one is pretty high up the food chain in corporation X and been working like the proverbial for the preceding Y months – putting in a heck of a lot of long, seriously stressful, hours and therefore badly in need of a break; a few days away from the hurly-burly and the inherent pressures of modern-day commercial life.

Time away to recharge the batteries with a spot of good, old fashioned, R+R somewhere warm, tinged by palm-trees, fabulous food and beautiful sunsets.

Everyone at your office knows you’re off on a short holiday; one’s in-bound email alert has been set to something along the lines of: ‘I’m away from my desk until such and such a date and will respond to you at that point.’

Cases have been packed and re-packed; swimmies and sun-cream are to hand, the far horizon beckons.

So far, so splendid.

However… such is the dominance of the Blackberry / i-Phone / HTC / Palm – take your pick… it means that, however one wants or tries to unwind – nowadays, its harder than ever.

Because… the time to chill-out and switch-off in this cellular-device-led age has been set by the bullying bosses and un-thinking power-brokers… to… zero.

And, man / woman management is in crisis-mode.

Harsh economic times mean jobs are at a premium equals bosses have become empowered by… fear.

In any situation you can conceive, look around you… people are checking their mobile e-mail. From lifts (elevators) to the beach; from restaurants to dinner at home; from the back of a taxi to a ‘plane just landed. Shopping and what happens.. one constantly collides with militant mothers weaving from one aisle to another, their eyes diverted to the small screen. In any municipal park you can think of... Paris, London, Cairo, New York, Cape Town or Melbourne... joggers are jogging and runners are running but... next time you're out and about viewing the self-same, just have a look to see how many stop to check... their mail.


Our new economic, mass-communication-led, culture has bred a work-ethic of fear of being out of touch.

And an even worse fear of... not being seen as ‘available’ twenty-four hours a day.

Both are pressure-fears of ‘if I’m not then person X might be’ which equals… the bosses know you’re cornered, therefore they – unthinkingly and entirely unreasonably – believe they own you and your time.

No matter that one’s in-bound e-mail alert has been set as it has – messages (no matter how trivial) still keep popping up.

No matter that one is attempting to enjoy the pleasures of a pair of dolphins frolicking under a tropical sunset, there is always someone trying to reach you – most often on a inconsequential issue that can, quite properly, be solved / sorted out on one’s return.

No matter that human nature dictates that any person needs to recharge overwrought life-batteries, work in the 24 hour-a-day, 21st Century now has assumed a level of self-righteous importance whereby bosses (surreptitiously) demand that one keeps in touch.

As handy a device as the crackle-berry or its many variants are, its building a culture that is slowly but definitely signalling the end of an epoch.

And, in this Voltaire from its position on the windswept prairie’s view… its ushering in an era that is unbalanced.

Mass-communication is absolutely brilliant but it should never, ever, result in dis-respect.

Lest we forget.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Shout To The Top

The room is stark… not Phillipe Starck but just downright plain; unadorned ordinary with cold (not chilled) white-washed walls unencumbered by pictures or, indeed, imagery of any kind.

There are two windows but only one will open to little more than a crack; the air inside smells suspiciously of cleaning fluids.

There are two beds, neither double nor single but somewhere in-between; both are topped by sterile –probably disinfected – lightweight duvets, encouragingly turned back. No chocolate on the pillow though – this is low grade but high rent.

The television – seriously hi-definition and gadget friendly – is positioned high on the wall facing the beds – presumably such that one can lay back and enjoy all on offer.

The remote control is, helpfully, hidden in a jar on a tray next to the orange-brown coffee cups and miniscule plastic milk containers. Hunting high and low, it takes me fifteen minutes before I’m able to locate said gadget. Attempting to operate it, I wish that I’d listened more carefully instead of dreaming about bike races and music while studying O-level physics at school.

Access to all of the premium channels (with premium meaning low-grade pornography) is set at a premium price – I know this because, flicking through the channels with only the remote to guide me, I click on a button I don’t mean to and am but a hair’s breadth from adding a premium charge to a room already costed-out at pure rip-off. Only nimble dexterity of thumb and forefinger leads me back to the remake of a remake of a film I saw when I last wore short trousers.

The bathroom is next door and looks (and feels) like its been used by a generation of corpulent business men who, presumably, have lain back on one of the two medium sized beds having chalked up a further premium charge to their expense accounts that, ultimately, will be filed by Miss Jones at the outer limits of her desk under… miscellaneous. Oh, how they must miss their wives and loved ones.

This noble emporium has, however, announced itself as being wi-fi friendly; ahhh… splendid – that means I can connect to the world wide west and, at the very least, keep in touch with loved ones as well as stay on top of inbound work-related ‘stuff’.

Well travelled machine is plugged in; it sparks into life in an entirely satisfying manner yet… falls at the first hurdle.

Oh yes, it can see the connection but until I enter a password it’ll accept, I won’t be able to travel behind this particular iron curtain.

Fabulous, its late night, my stomach is reacting volubly and not particularly noiselessly from a rather splendid meal from the Indian sub-continent partaken with my lawyer and all I really want to do is log on, collect, respond and log-out.

But in order to do that, I’ve got to jump this unforeseen, technical, Beechers Brook.

Trudge downstairs and request the access key from the disinterested bloke behind the desk.

You want how much… for how long…?

An old fashioned audible gasp escapes while displaying my best quizzical expression – which, in turn, renders both eyebrows shooting north beyond the hairline.

This ‘charge’ of theirs is about as absurd as those rumoured to be put into place by Ryan Air who, pundits claim, will shortly (if they’re not already) be requesting their customers to pay to use a lavatory whilst mid-air. Heaven help any passenger who is low on change after eating a dodgy prawn sandwich.

Disinterested bloke displays no customer-care attributes whatsoever as – reluctantly – a note is fluttered across the desk toward him. Very little coinage comes back by way of change.

A middle-aged, slightly paunchy, German is standing beside me; he too requires www access… not only is he deeply shocked at the price quoted but actually kicks the counter in frustration whilst loudly airing his Teutonic views at the hotel’s swindling attitude – clearly this doesn’t happen in Hamburg… or Bonn… or even Munchengladbach – curiously enough twinned with the Franco / Belgian city of Roubaix; whose own stadium is home, of course, to the final pedal-strokes of the Queen of Single Day Classic cycle races.

So here’s the thing…

This place I’m staying in is a known brand the world over; their logo instantly recognised by millions. I’d not intended Room 203 as an overnight stop – indeed, I’m only here ‘cos the lady of the house in which I was to stay has unexpectedly succumbed to a bizarre form of skin-eating disease…

Be that as it may, I’m in a needs-must situation but, even so… is it really necessary for corporate brand X to dupe its customers?

It’s a brand that, at one time, was synonymous with a certain level of quality; now it (to this Volatire’s thinking) just equates to… how much can we milk our customers for.

See… I would argue that a brand has a certain responsibility and, when brand X or Y gets complacent then their brand-loyal customers don’t just get lost and confused… they ultimately move on… to a brand that, essentially, does what it says on the tin.

The old adage rings true: it takes a long old time to cement a reputation and, it takes but moments to smash it to smithereens.

Alison Bain, (one of) if not the head honcho of American Express puts it like this: "Providing superior customer service that goes above and beyond the norm is something we place considerable emphasis on within our organization."

And… given how fickle customers are nowadays allied o how fed up most of the world’s populace have become with traditional forms of advertsing, this seeking out of new ways to acquire ‘brand awareness’ is central to most companies thinking nowadays; not just the cementing of brand X but taking it to new levels – as emphasised by BP’s top-chap, David Bickerton who states, “The importance of brand coherence across geographic boundaries and across internal and external audiences contributes to building a successful brand."

Using a different form of corporate gobbledygook-speak, Erich Stamminger, top terrier within the Adidas Group says: "We have a clearly defined brand mission, vision, and values. Authenticity plays a vital role here... It builds trust and credibility with the consumer and provides the basis for identification with your brand, and it must never be jeopardized."

Which, in a slightly circuitous manner, brings us to sport on two wheels, peopled by blokes with heavily muscled, shaven legs who whizz up hill and down dale and over unforgiving terrain at impossible speeds while, at the same time, being emblazoned by tight-fitting outfits proclaiming the names of sponsoring companies. Yep… cycle-sport is one of those rarities within sports sponsorships whereby the team is known by the name of the sponsoring company.

Now, just have a wee think here… that doesn’t occur in Soccer… nor in Baseball… not in Hockey (ice or otherwise)… neither does it in Show-Jumping, Athletics, Rugby, Fencing, Volleyball, Squash, Badminton, Curling, Ten-Pin Bowling, Tennis (table or lawn), Synchronised Swimming or even Welly-Throwing… does it?

Nope… Formula One is… to a degree… the only exception…

Which, essentially means cycle-team-sponsorship is a pretty beezer form of marketing device. Added to which, its been well proven over the years that a company which puts in amount Z more often than not, sees return Z+++ multiplied as a return on their investment.

Equals… come 2010, two of the latest companies to throw their sponsoring hats into the collecting ring are… RadioShack and… Sky.

Now, lately, all of the debate – most especially with the formation of the latter team – has centered around the inclusion or otherwise of Britain's cycling’s mod-meister, Bradley Wiggins.

So… while having a bit of a squint at this… lets also consider that within the context of the whole.

Wiggins is currently under contract to the US based squad, sponsored by the multi-media Sat-Nav developer, Garmin. He, through barely-veiled comments, has made it plain - using Soccer parlance - that to achieve his aspirations (bettering his 2009 4th place finish in the Tour de France) means he’d need to move to what he’s termed the Manchester United of cycling, stating he’s currently riding for the equivalent of Wigan Athletic.

To a UK registered team, Wiggins has clear value – via his multiple Olympic Gold Medal’s and, now, with his just-off-the-podium Tour finish, he’s one of only three (British) household names associated with cycling.

Cycling aficionados would argue strenuously that other names are well-known but, pose the question to the man or woman in the high-street and the facts emerge: the only recognisable names would be the lad Cavendish, the recently knighted (Sir) Chris Hoy and… Wiggo.

Cav-lar is (for a wide variety of reasons) unattainable for Sky until at least 2011; Hoy only competes on the track and is, already, a de-facto team-member since British track-cycling is sponsored by Sky-HD… which leaves the team in an almost must-have position in their quest for Wiggo.

Garmin (headed by the savvy Jonathan Vaughters) obviously knows all of this – equals, the lawyers on both sides are now involved and sums approaching the million pound mark as a contractual buy-out are being freely bandied about via Twitter and any other rumour-mill one feels like consulting.

But… what is the true significance and why, for a start, are Sky involved in the first place?,

The real benefit of a Wiggo buy-out to Sky is (to this Voltaire on its grassy-knoll) obvious but… its not the equally obvious comments that have, thus far, been proffered.

The value is the increased media exposure in Sky’s key markets (the UK being just one) and taking their five-year plan forward… It is, put simply, all about global brand awareness.

Because, lest we forget, modern-day cycle-sort is all about the furthering of that.

The Murdochs (via News Limited in Australia which owns over 170 Newspapers alone ‘down under’ / News Corp globally as well as Fox TV etc) aren't in this for self-agrandisement; they've recognised that cycling (and branding thereof) is a key, cost-effective, manner in which to promote their 'products'. Its also hits the ecological / green sweet-spot that translates into a corporate feel-good factor; plus, they’re targeting the youth-market and so, in a sense, Sky’s sponsorship of cycling is sound business strategy, psychology and brand awareness all rolled into one.

Therefore, while sporting considerations are, obviously, of paramount importance in (the make-up) of the fledgling Sky team, it is (has to be) also about their own markets and penetration thereof. Further to which, while Sky may purport to be a ‘British’ team, the reality is entirely different… it is (and has to be) international - witness the inclusion of Australians, Norwegians and Germans among others into the line-up for 2010.

Italy – as just one example, is a key Murdoch-territory… not so long ago, Italian premiere Berlusconi and Murdoch were buddying up (cf a fairly recent Time Magazine cover story)… of late, matters have soured – and the Italian stallion has decreed a twenty percent tax on Sky-Italia tv subscriptions since he’s woken up to the fact that Rai tv are swiftly becoming eclipsed. And, given that we’re in the realms of billions of Euros here, the sums aren’t insignificant.

Thus, is the most recent team news much of a surprise for the (perceived) British squad in that its has just been revealed that Sky have signed two mid-field Italians (fuelled initially by the signature chasing rumours valued at over a million for TdeF top ten finisher, Nibali). Why..? Its again obvious, they’ll be the spearhead for further incursions into that territory. Further to which, the Murdochs have recognised the Italians as sportive-passionata… and they recognise, perhaps more than many, the power of the people’s vote. Consider… the combination of The Sun newspaper and Thatcher and the war (for want of a better term) with Argentina… Oh, and who owns The Sun...?

As such, and given that both India and China are more on the Murdoch radar than is perhaps suspected… should we be surprised – in time – by..? This Voltaire wouldn't be in the least surprised...

Further to which… consider Garmin principal Jonathan Vaughter’s own comments made in the last couple of days concerning the recent date change for America’s (now) primary cycling event… "In my opinion I see the Tour of California as a Grand Tour. It’s the eighth largest economy, directly behind France. The race will be televised in over 100 countries and it has a broad following in Europe already. The concentration of these fantastic races in a 90 day period is pretty fantastic for the sport. You’re going to see the world’s eyes on cycling."

The world’s eyes… televised in 100 countries… Ahh yes, absolutely… The mondialisation… globalisation as another word to describe the same.

To quote Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager – ‘be the best band on your street, the best in your town, then be the best in your country… only after that, can you become the best on the world stage.’

And therefore Wiggo… and, in time, Cavendish… as sensational athletes that they undoubtedly are, still simply multi-million dollar / euro / pound early-move pedalling-pawns in the global game of brand-awareness chess.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


It probably began with the quick glance to my right, which was rapidly followed by one of those, oh bollox moments. Don’t know about you but walking under ladders isn’t something I do. Whether I technically and actually… therefore physically… walked right under it is – immediately – open to debate…(but only) in my head.

Except, there it is, up-against scaffolding to my right – equals, I’ve (sort of, in a maddening head-fxxk manner) walked my walk… under it. Darn, that’s not good… ‘cos, I’m superstitious.

Reverse steps, cross street away from scaffolding and aforementioned ladder and take the long way around.

While superstitions are pretty bonkers in the main, I’d suggest most of us suffer (if that’s the right word) from them… so, consider these random selections; apparently, seeing an ambulance whizz by is terribly unlucky unless you either pinch your nose or hold your breath until… you spot a brown dog… Not good enough?

Ok, try these few then: If you say good-bye to a pal while standing on a bridge, you will never see one another again (scary monkeys); a knife received as a gift from a lover means that the relationship will shortly end (very scary monkeys – cue the Hitchcock directed Anthony Perkins shower scene); it’s bad luck to cut your fingernails on either a Friday or a Sunday damn, I’m pretty sure I clipped mine last Sunday morning); if you have mirrors in the house they should be covered during thunderstorms because – apparently – mirrors attract lightning… hmm, not sure I’ve ever believed that one.

The number thirteen, however, is a pretty good one… on streets in Florence, for instance, the Italians won’t use the obvious digit but employ… twelve and a half instead. Pretty cool, the Florentines.

On the other hand, combine the number and Friday and you’re in superstition heaven (or hell, dependant on your point of view). In days of long ago, Friday 13th was usually associated with the day set aside for public hangings – and, needless to say, there were (reputedly) thirteen steps leading to the scaffold up which the heavily manacled condemned trudged. Don’t worry, this won’t hurt a bit, son… clunk, swish, snap… gonner.

Anyhow… my favourites are: it's bad luck to put a hat on a bed (actually, that I never do – the trilby and similar others reside elsewhere of a night); it is bad luck to light three gaspers with the same match (I always use a lighter and only smoke one at a time – yeah, ok, I know… I’m a walking health-hazard); if one’s right ear itches, according to myth, someone is speaking well of you (ok, but my right ear rarely itches, the last time was probably in the 20th century) and should you plant Rosemary (the herb that is) by your doorstep, it’ll keep witches out. Ahh… that’s good… but what if the witch is already in residence?

Be all of that as it may, I arrive at my destination having circum-navigated said ladder and join a short queue before the reception desk that is protected from wrong-doers, terrorists and sundry others of criminal-bent by a large sheet of plate glass.

The line moves forward slowly and… just as I am about state my name and the reason for my being there to the elderly, uniformed, gentleman manning said reception desk… when…

Now, I don’t know about you, but this little Voltaire on its grassy knoll, believes that should one be at the forefront of the (any) queue then its somewhat impolite to feel onself barged completely out of the way and to one side by an entire family – from Granny down to screeching babe-in-arms – who, patently, believe that – due to their skin colour – it is actually their right to be seen first.

Maybe I’m just a bit old-fashioned – but, here’s what I believe in:

Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned; that until there are no longer first-class and second class citizens of any nation; until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes… everywhere is war… And until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race, there is war. And until that day, the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship, rule of international morality, will remain but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained… now everywhere is war.

Words that began with H.I.M. Emperor Haile Selassie I (from his 1963 speech to the United Nations) but which really came to global prominence via Bob Marley’s song War.

Makes you think… eh?

In any event, the lady clasping the squalling child to her stomach – itself the circumference of the New Delhi ring-road – led the charge past; husband (surgically attached to his BlackBerry) and three other children (each screeching into their own cell-phone) bumped and bored their way by in similar fashion while Granny rode shotgun.

The uniformed elderly gent shrugged an apology.

Ultimately, I’m shown to the lift… head upwards… find next reception desk… state business… fill in a few forms… ask for help on a couple of questions… complete forms… all is proceeding in the swimmiest of fashions until… in order to complete X and Y, they require photographs of self..

Ahh… I have come unprepared, I didn’t know this – though, if I’d thought about it a bit – given that pretty much everything nowadays needs to have mug-shots attached – I’d have done the deed at some accommodating chemist’s emporium along the way.

Clearly I’m not the first who hasn’t brought pictures so I’m directed in the general direction of where I can get this done… stride manfully up to the cabin… enter… close curtains… adjust glasses to read the instructions… read them twice so that I know what I’m doing… place loot in the slot which says insert money… press the green button… and…what the fxxk was… that..?

The photo-booth is bellowing at me.

It is shouting its instructions out… I cannot stop it, nor can I find the volume control that is set to eleven. Worse still, the process (which I’ve paid for) is ongoing… and this is a very talkative photo-booth… every few moments, fresh instructions are bawled at me at ear-piercing volume.

Humiliation trapped by the arms of technology… just a bit.

The sound of giggles and muffled guffaws can be plainly heard from outside the booth – the emporium into which I’ve entered is full… and clearly, the customers are relishing this unanticipated comedy act.

After what feels like an eternity, the photographs have been taken and the countdown in seconds from ten to nought (since the count-down is shouted out by the talking photo-booth) become the longest ten seconds I can remember.

Throughout, I’ve cowered behind the curtain and only emerge when I feel the photo-booth has (finally) shut up.

Trudge back to the counter and offer up the (red-faced and embarrassed) images; they need two not four – bollox, I pressed the wrong button. Enquire as to whether they know of another (perhaps quieter) photo-booth and am directed elsewhere.

Four hours later, I’m back to collect the documents and just as they’re dangled before me, the (unanticipated) price is proposed… shit, I could’ve flown most of the way to Jamaica for… that… amount.

Emerge into sunlight to be met by Camp Freddy… gay activists I have no problem with; straight, lesbian, sideways, gay, up & under, bi, lengthways, try-anything… whatever your sexual-calling… that’s all fine with me…

However, Camp Freddy and a lot of his equally mincing cohorts are brandishing clipboards, right under my nose and right outside where the shouting-photo-booth is… plus I’m hardly out the door and barely got a fag (sic) out of the packet before he, too, is yelling at me…

Down into the bowels of the earth to catch a train and… confronted by a bloke who’s playing Auld Lang Syne on a weird, two-stringed Chinese half-fiddle, with pre-recorded but louder than he is accompanying back-beats.

Oh no… this is drivel… time to consider other things…

The first six combatants for the SKY (cycling) team roster have been announced today; yet, sadly that’s been another own-goal by the field-marshall's of team SKY… its an International team so… why on earth just name the first of six British blokes who… when all is said and done… and, no matter their career history and how individually good they are… make an announcement which hardly sets the world alight?

We live on a global stage… equals… this is absolute crap.

Its public knowledge (rumour / conjecture with no public rebuttal) that a good deal of serious, international, stars have been signed so… why this tack / route?

Harsh words...?

Ok... check the web-sites for the daily nationals and those who’ll pick this up internationally… Guardian – tick, Torygraph – tick, Daily Stale – tick… BBC on-line sport - tick... and – sadly – that’s it. None of the other broadsheets (even) in the UK have picked this up.

On the one hand, SKY are finally (yet belatedly) entering the mainstream… (plus points)…on the other… they seem to be intent on shooting themselves in the foot by, initially… announcing – in the globally greater scheme of things – names that won't make editors sit up and take notice… (minus points).

In time to come, SKY will (I have no doubts) be a great team… they have fantastic resources… a superlative and proven director sportif in Scott Sunderland plus… great riders. So, once out on the road in 2010 and in competition, I’m convinced the results followed by the awareness will come.

Within the next twenty-four hours, news feeds say that another ten riders (most of whom have been rumoured without public rejection) will be announced… terrific… in the next however long, the remainder of the squad will be (apparently) announced. Again, terrific news…

However, unless there is a seriously big-hitter in there, an international name, then SKY… once again… will have self-imploded.

So much is expected… so much – so far – has yet to be delivered… And, without a shadow of a doubt, there are – currently and on the international stage – big question marks against the formation that carries so much hope for the ongoing globalisation and cleanliness of the sport.

This all… to this little Voltaire on its grassy knoll, looks like its being manipulated (not terribly well) by the senior-management above who, unhappily, believe in an attitude gained from recent past (we’re super successful – look at our Olympic results – so… fxxk you).


In any event, its also the day after the bizarre evening that was this years’ Mercury Prize. Sponsored… ‘cos that’s the name of the game… by BarclayCard.

And the winner is (was)… Speech Debelle…

20 thousand quid in her pocket and now lapping up the attention of GMTV, BBC and… eeek, C4 too.

And, provoking a fair old bit of debate in the process too.

The Mercury is… with no questions… the most prestigious of all the UK music prizes… after all, its for ‘album of the year’.

That’s nothing to do with album sales… the marketing campaign… the actual sales (download or otherwise)… the sleeve… the singles… the videos… Nope, just the music.

She’s won… yet… the question remains… was it really the ‘album of the year… the best music you’ll listen to that was released in GB and Ireland (the MMP's remit) in the last 12 months?

Do the judges – the twelve angry men and women festooned with canapés – believe that… ?

Was Speech Debelle’s record the best on offer..? Or was it an album that hit all the right notes with the judges and reflected all the current trends..?

Can’t imagine I’ll be listening to it in five years time… but hey… who am I to become exasperated at bickering-in-a-back-room – so-called – experts?

The enjoying of music is, after all, subjective and nothing other than an opinion.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Absolute Beginners

Its the time of the season for... the making of preserves.

This recipe began life by combining three factors:

Firstly, Régis (the stone-mason with hands the size of large hams who lived at the back of Merle HQ) had a fig tree that overhung the top of the garden which was over-laden with fruit and neither he nor Mrs Régis liked figs – equals, propel rickety step ladder and washing up bowls toward said tree, balance precariously and harvest all in reach before the wasps got ‘em;

Second – with buckets of figs happily harvested, search for a challenge-free recipe – and, given that I couldn’t find what looked like even a half-decent one, unearth an elderly edition of Mrs Beeton’s Household Management and peruse the pages marked ‘Preserve Making’;

Thirdly – in that the foodie-Madame from the mid-19th century hadn’t penned one specific to figs, marry one of dozens she had written-up pertaining to other fruits to a bog-standard jam-making recipe off the back of a packet of French preserving Sugar.

And then trust to luck because I’d absolutely no idea what I was doing.

So… what you need is:

(About) 5 lbs of fresh figs – preferably freshly picked but, if needs be, shop bought will suffice. Make certain they’re well washed in clean, cold water to ensure that both miniscule grubs and other nasties are disposed of (from fresh-picked) and the preserving shit that supermarkets cover them with (if shop-bought) is well away by the time you start cooking.
6 mugs (ordinary coffee-mug-size) of preserving sugar – one of the two key elements to this entire process; preserving sugar is a different density and consistency to other sugars.
1 mug of cold water.
½ a mug of fresh lemon juice.
1 large pan.
1 wooden stirring spoon
6 or 7 preserving jars – or use already used Bonne Maman jars in which marmalade and other preserves have been bought; these are an ideal size plus have nice, colourful lids. Ensure that whatever receptacle and lid that you use is not just clean but… fully sterilised.

And… this is what you do:

Quarter the figs – obviously, discarding any manky bits;
Plonk the quartered figs, all of the sugar but only half of the water into a big pot and gradually – and slowly – bring this to the boil – stirring gently the entire time. Stirring throughout the entire process is key element number two;
As the mixture – hey, you’re making jam – starts to bubble away (keep it to a medium simmer) and the sugar starts to dissolve it is absolutely critical to keep stirring;
Add the lemon juice and the rest of the water… and keep stirring as the mixture simmers gently;
After a bit… not very long, maybe ten minutes, the jam will have reached a rather nice consistency – take it off the heat and set to one side;
Once it has cooled down a bit, ladle enough mixture to pretty much fill one of your pots, seal the pot and then turn said pot upside down and leave it for twenty-four hours – preferably somewhere dark, like a cupboard;
Uncork a bottle of the well-chilled and pour yourself a glass – you’ve earned it;
24 hours later, turn the jars upright… about a week later (or less, depending on how hungry you are) the jam / compote is ready for eating.

Now… if you’re feeling of adventurous disposition, there are a couple of variants on this theme which work rather splendidly.

The first is chucking in the zest of one lemon alongside the lemon juice – it’ll give the end result a bit of a piquant flavour.

The second is to add half to three-quarters of a mug of either Cognac, Armagnac or… way better still… home made Walnut Liqueur. Addition of the latter is the absolute dogs-bollox and turns this Fig Compote into something really rather special.

Besides the obvious and conventional manner of serving Fig Compote (on toast for breakfast etc), it works brilliantly as one of two key accompaniments to Foie Gras… the other being Slow Cooked Red Onions.

Bon appétit.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Night Boat To Cairo

The transfer season is now wide open (no, not as part of the unfolding soccer season…). This is to do with my other love in life – bikes; the kind ridden by fellas with shaven legs because, upon us has come the season of the witch.

Plus, the start of September is also a time to consider what the ‘record label’s’ have decided we should be spending our hard-earned upon come the following autumnal months. And so, given that I’ve always held the view that bike-racing is rock ‘n roll on wheels – so much is the same, its just the stage that moves… lets have a quick peruse of what’s what.

OK, so… am I more excited about the makeup of the about-to-be-launched British mega-team sponsored by Rupert Murdoch’s SKY… or the imminent release of Mariah Carey’s Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel?

Am I spending more time wondering about what the new Lil’ Wayne album will sound like or what SKY’s jersey will look like? Have I chuckled at the title of someone called 50 Cent’s new release (Before I Self Destruct) while wishing his music would or have I self-debated what bikes will be used in 2010 by Scott Sunderland’s (the senior director sportif) team?

Questions for sure… the answers are blindingly obvious.

And, with regard to Tommy Mottola’s ex, proof positive, if any were needed, that over 60 million in the US alone (and another 140 mill around the globe) can be wrong… very wrong indeed.

But, seeing the SKY boys astride - like so many lycra-clad Italian stallions - the beautiful lines of a Colnago (or even a Bianchi) would be just about as yummy a collaboration as it gets but… somehow, I can’t see that occurring… but hey, one never knows. And... just to clarify one little bit here... I don't... errr... how do I put this... bat for the other side... just to make that clear, you understand.

Anyway... September 1st was the due date for the unveiling of the riders that SKY’d hired – any formal announcement made earlier and the team would have been fined zillions of euros for breaching one of the many UCI codes of practice.

Talking of which (codes of practice) and as an aside, it does strike me as a bit peculiar that, in trying to eradicate the internal war of doping within cycle-sport that the UCI haven’t – for once in their existence – decided to be tough… by that I mean, properly tough. For sure, the dopers (for that read cheats) are being slowly weeded out but… is the received punishment adequate?

This Voltaire (on its grassy knoll) says its not.

You’ve been proved beyond a shadow of doubt that you have doped (cheated) equals… you get life – that’s it, you’re out of the sport for good. Make the deterrent tough enough and only the truly stupid will attempt to buck the system. And, for what its worth, I’d also advocate that across all sports. Period.

Because, only then will players play on a level playing field.

And, one good thing coming out of Team SKY hq over the past months has been this total zero-tolerance level as regards anyone in the entire team’s make-up who carries even a whiff of (cheating) suspicion with them.

Anyhow… currently… no announcement has been made.

In many respects no big deal as what (who) will be, will be… and, doubtless all will be unveiled in due course.

However… it does strike me that the grand-fromages at Team SKY are not that conversant with the way the media is working as we reach the final quarter of 2009 and are, for reasons best known to themselves, stuck back in the dark-ages of working the media.

For example – while they may well be biding their time to ensure (in their own minds) that their announcement is seen as really major news… the rumour mills are running ragged. And, with every passing day, rumour and conjecture will lead to a lessening of impact.

Other established squads (notably Garmin, BMC, Katusha, Saxo Bank as well as Lance Armstrong’s new formation, RadioShack) are cleverly drip-feeding the information of newly acquired riders and co-sponsors etc; thereby generating ongoing interest but, what SKY appear to be doing is withholding absolutely everything and waiting (for their own agenda) to unfurl when they believe it suits them best.

In times past, this might have worked to their advantage but, my suspicions are that – with companies seeing bigger and better news dissemination & comment-led articles led via the likes of Twitter and on-line as a general rule – the head-honchos at Team Sky aren’t playing this terribly cleverly.

For a start, the rumour-mill has – over the past month or so – produced a number of names that have been ‘leaked’ as probables.

Lots of will they / won’t they / perhaps they should etc etc…

The most obvious conjecture and (inevitable) ongoing media-debate has been over the Manx-missile, the lad Cavendish but – unless someone, somewhere has pulled off an almighty financial and sporting coup, it would seem more than logical that he’ll sprint out his current Columbia / HTC contract; after all his job is to win and he has an established team that delivers him specifically for that purpose.

SKY – at present – is untested and (in my view) he’d be barmy to make the move for 2010. The next again year, well, that’s a different tale indeed and will be as much down to his undoubtedly huge asking-price as anything since the publicity value that he’d return any potential team sponsor would be colossal.

The other major contending Briton is the fourth-placed-finisher from this year’s TdeF – the Weller look-a-like, Brad Wiggins – but, he too, is contracted (to Garmin) for 2010 and… as things stand, it looks improbable that he, too, would jump ship to SKY; not least as that transfer would (inevitably) mean a sizeable buy-out of his (currently final year) with Garmin who – logically – aren’t going to kiss goodbye to one of their prized assets without putting up a serious financial fight.

As to former TdeF yellow-jersey wearer David Millar – well, he’s a share-holder / part-owner in Garmin (again, so far as I know, until the end of 2010) and it – again – seems logical that he wouldn’t make the switch until at least then.

And, while one and three on the above list appear to have publicly ruled themselves out of contention; Wiggo who – as this is being written has just secured the British National Time Trial Champion’s jersey – remains a dark-horse.

Be that as it may, cycle-sport is – nowadays – more international than ever before and despite this being the first really major British team, SKY will – undoubtedly – contain significant names from a number of countries other than the UK; most probably Scandinavia, Australia, Germany as well as the other (obvious) British talent.

And… all of them (those of non-British nationality) will have their own relationships with their own, home media – this is one of the reasons why the rumour-mill has been churning, because, without a shadow of a doubt, its been fed by international riders (or their managers / ‘informed sources’) offering ‘off the record’ comments to their own local journos / media folk… after all, one of the tricks of working the media is keeping the people who write about you… sweet.

Plus, over the past month or so, there have been quoted statements, stating that the vast majority of the riders they’ve targeted are now contracted.

So… what is the delay and… what is the delay in making these announcements achieving?

Well… it looks like the major-domo’s at SKY are requiring that ALL of their ducks are lined up in a neat row before – officially – saying anything. That’s fair enough – after all, its their team and their cash that’s set it all up.

However, in this day and age, that is (again, in this voltaire’s view from its own grassy knoll) a bit of a strange tactic and one fraught with all manner of potential to back-fire.

How would I have done it..?

Firstly, I'd have eradicated the rumour mill by drip-feeding the riders announcements from the due (and given) date

And secondly, properly considered the overall picture appertaining to 2009 and not 1990.


Within the major announcement, there would be a number of smaller announcements that would all combine to make up the whole.

This isn’t just about the riders who’ll spearhead the team but will (necessarily) include the clothing manufacturer; the bus-supplier; the logo / jersey design; the bikes and components to be used (from wheels to tyres, from pedals to handle-bar tape and bottles and more), the off-road clothing and nutritional suppliers; the doctors, physios, masseurs and mechanics – and so on and so forth – because the formation of a cycling team will include literally dozens of people and sponsoring partners alike.

So… given that September 1st was the key date, I’d have dealt with (1) above by issuing ‘notices’ on a regular basis from that day forward… when the initial riders had been confirmed, their names would have been released; and as regards (2), once the bike supplier had been finalised, another press-release; once the key components for the bikes had been sorted out – another… so on and so forth.

This way, the drip feed effect would have garnered more and more publicity – after all, that’s the real name of the game – and each supplier would have had their own level of media exposure.

However – the way its going – it looks like the final announcement will, in reality, become so huge that – inevitably – only the cream from the top will be written about or commented on… meaning that the (deemed-by-the-media lesser ‘components’) won’t get much of a look-in – creating less media value for those – be they suppliers or riders themselves.

And, this is the bit that this Voltaire believes the field-marshalls at SKY have got wrong; this is the bit – however much you think you can control… you absolutely cannot.

As such, it is also highly probable that – given the nature of this ‘announcement’ – that the major-domo’s are all preparing their own wordings for inclusion in said ‘official press-releases’.

IF that’s the case (and I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be) then, there is another lesson to be learned here… as much as the major-domos will all want their ‘corporate words’ to appear in magazine X / on-line publication Y / newspaper Z, chances are that those worried about / much fiddled about with pithy corporate phrases will not be used at all. History shows that and that’s a fact. The media – as a whole – don’t much care for corporate this or that; what they’re looking for is key – one-to-one – words from the key players…

The end result… I’m anticipating more and more rumour running amok over the next week or so and would imagine (since I’m not part of the circle, let alone an inner one) that those at the sharp end right now – Scott Sunderland being one – are going quietly bonkers with their cell ‘phones ringing off the hook and e-mail in boxes full to bursting with… questions.

Questions that I’d imagine (since all I’ve done is apply a bit of logic fuelled by years and years of doing that PR job to the above arguments) he – and maybe one or two others – are probably forbidden from answering.

Ahh well, that’s life at the 2009 corporate coal-face no matter what game you're in.

So… what else do we have to look forward too?

Stephen Still has a new record coming out by all accounts; David Gray too… Muse and Vampire Weekend as well... There is to be a massive Miles Davis retrospective boxed-set issued and REM are due to release a live album too.

All far more intriguing than the poodles – Leona Lewis and Mary J Bilge – who’ll both be unleashing volumes of… errrr… warbling to beats… later this year. Gosh, I’m so, so very excited.

However, in between waiting on the SKY team news, I will be really waiting on Maps who – so I’ve read – will unleash a new album (Turning The Wind) in late October and Guy Clark’s Some Days The Songs Writes You that should (grammar not withstanding) also be out by November; well – at least there is some light on the musical horizon then.

The last Maps album came out what… three or was it four years ago… to this day, its a permanent fixture on the I-Touch wherever I travel and Guy Clark… thank heavens he is still making music; one of the truly great songwriters of all time and, from memory, his first album (Old No 1) came out roughly when The Cate Brothers released their first record on Asylum… I wonder if both still sound as good as they did back then… darn that’ll mean a trawl off to to try and find a copy of both (given that both vinyl languish far away at Merle HQ currently).

Ah well… no matter the delays and the rest, three things to really look forward to for when the days of summer start to properly shorten.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

From Langley Park To Memphis

As September opens up its account, those of us of a certain age mourn the passing of Simon Dee who passed from this life to the next on August 29th, falling to bone-cancer. Sad enough as that is, sadder still to relate that he died in more or less complete poverty and total obscurity – a far cry from his heady Sixties days as… the DJ; the first voice ever heard (under the bed-clothes) from Radio Caroline; stalwart of Radio Luxembourg and whose own, eponymous, TV show was as much a must-view as (say) Ready Steady Go or TOTP was back then.

If you ever wondered just who played the cameo role of the gay tailor in the original Italian Job film – kitting out Michael Caine with kipper ties after the latter’s release from jail… that’s Simon Dee. My autograph-book (as much cherished by a star-struck twelve-year-old as absolutely anything) contains his large, scrawled, signature from one heady afternoon spent in his company; watching intently as he recorded one of his night-time Radio Luxembourg shows – my Dad’s friend was Ken Evans, programme controller of the same and, without knowing how it worked in those days, a few strings had been pulled in order that I could sit in (quietly mind you) on the recording. I thought that was all fairly normal – I’d no idea (at the time) just how lucky I really was.

And so – as the days grow ever-shorter, the silly-season continues apace: factor in the latest intrigues as set forth by Colonel Gaddafi… can he really be serious – cue early-twenties John McEnroe Wimbledon-voice – with his proposal to the UN that Switzerland should be done away with meaning that, essentially, it’d be ‘folded’ into France, Germany and Italy.

From a brief study of the UN charter, no member country can threaten the existence or sovereignty of another. Nevertheless, Gaddafi is set to present his bizarre plan when Libya takes over the year-long presidency of the U.N. General Assembly on September 22nd or therabouts.

In amongst the wailing sirens and the inevitable overhead chatter of multiple helicopter gun-ships that’ll accompany the SWAT teams and NYPD blue-boys up and down the West Side Highway each morning and evening as the delegates are (securely) whisked to and fro to debate, one can but hope that something as entirely ludicrous will be thrown out at the first throw of the UN dice.

The silly-season also marks the ending of the holiday season. And for the first time in an inordinately long time I’ve been lucky enough to indulge in a few days of wave-jumping in the frothing surf of a far-away angry sea; washing sand from in-between my toes, kite-flying at the same time as trying to avoid the pull of a fierce rip-tide while bronzing-up on a beach reading one book after another.

To be honest, I’d completely forgotten just how truly wonderful it could be to while away sunshiney hours simply hanging about on a beach; that this activity – if it can be termed as such – was aided and abetted by people I really wanted to ‘hang-out-with’ helped… immeasurably.

The body has been refreshed by inactivity; the head freed from its lava-flow of mud(dled) detritus; the mind liberated like a prisoner no longer having to report to a parole-board of head-debris; the brain no longer clogged like a car-engine run dry of diesel; the spirit reinforced by concrete-clarity of mind.

Oooops, is that all becoming a bit too Oprah Winfrey; journeying a tad too far down the road of self-seeking humanistic counselling?

Probably… but hey… there’s certainly something to be said for the rejuvenating powers of salt-water.

Besides which, it was also the perfect antidote for a somewhat peculiar wedding attended; and – as much as I probably shouldn’t say this – about as far removed from what I believe celebrating nuptials should be… as could be. Strangely strange… oh yes… and anything but oddly normal.

It began innocuously enough with the time-honoured pre-hangover-riddance hotel-lobby rendezvous that transported groom plus six like-minded to indulge in the Royal & Ancient sport of… a good walk spoiled.

The front nine holes went as swimmingly as they should for a bevy of hung-over high-handicappers; however…the home-bound nine was played out accompanied by inbound texts at six-minute intervals to the groom from his bride-to-be explaining that his testicles would be neatly wrapped around his seven-iron should he arrive even thirty seconds late for the ‘wedding rehearsal’.

Ah yes… the not-too-dressed-up rehearsal… This aspect was overseen by the ‘wedding coordinator’ who, before long was referred to by the more irreverent amongst us as plain-old… wc; she brandished her clipboard full of notes from behind a crocodile smile under a leonine mane of bottle-blonde hair with... all-seeing, expensive aplomb.

Suitably primed from a generously proportioned bucket of Margarita, we all assume our places; we are then talked through the ‘service’ (this being an exterior affair); are shown – via her ingratiating school ma’am-manner – precisely how to comport ourselves from here to there in some form of mad(dening) entrance of the gladiators but, after a few minutes, all is done and we trot off back to the bar.

So… here’s the thing… what, precisely, does a wc… coordinate?

The next again day there wasn’t a great deal to do until dressing up time and so the beach was hit with a vengeance. That too went swimmingly until the kite I was flying crashed slap-bang into an elderly couple’s beach-picnic about a hundred yards from where I was wrestling with the sudden (and unanticipated) decrease in the off-shore-breeze. That’d be a somewhat unexpected forced landing from the picnic’ing couple’s perspective too, I’d imagine.

Anyhow, at the appointed and fully scrubbed up, we all gathered to wander around in a rather aimless fashion – this being the norm at every single wedding one attends. Then, wc hoves into view like a young dreadnought ploughing through the North Atlantic swell in an old WW2 movie with a phalanx of photographers in tow. Drat, these fellas hunt in packs and they begin their ‘work’ upfront of the ‘service’. Plus, the whole shebang is being video’d. Merde multiplied.

While the video-bods are relatively (pleasantly) discreet, the photographers are entirely ingratiating and, consequently, supremely irritating. Let the show begin.

Wc opens proceedings requesting that I please place this wilting-white-rosebud in position X on my lapel – nope, I’m sorry, I don’t do stuff like that… this refusal clearly means that self is accumulating minus-points on her clipboard with alacrity. Ok, stand like this then, shake hands like that, put your left leg forward... place your right hand over there... no, look this way, eyes in that direction... now – please adjust your cuffs, too much white shirt is showing... now say cheese. I utter fromage under my breath instead; bollox – I’m not a fxxxking contortionist... Ordeal over, its obviously time to return to the trough.

However, as everyone of similarly bent knocks back a swift one pre-nuptials, I realise that I’ve left the reading I’ve been asked to deliver in my bag and its a ten minute walk back and forth to room... and, mother hen with her stopwatch set to Apollo 18-style countdown, is saying we have but six minutes to kick-off.

Run to the room; hunt high and low in an A-Ha style while perspiration drips down my arms and onto my shirt-cuffs and, eventually find offending article hidden neatly under other articles; the cleaners have been in. Find hair-dryer in bathroom, plug in and blow-dry arms and shirt-cuffs before trudging back to position A. Brilliant, proceedings can now commence...Only they can't...

Vicar (substitute) doesn’t know that I’m doing a reading... My name doesn’t seem to be on his own clipboard; he evidently isn’t a rev-substitute who does unscheduled (nor does he seem to much care when informed)... His lackey is prodded, Lazarus-like, back into active service and instructed to produce a mic and stand as vicar-substitute marks a spot on his one page of 'notes' for self's inclusion in the proceedings and all, finally, is well.

We wander back (again) to position A and then proceed to march back across the lawn as instructed by the wc to position B (which she'd totally cocked-up and which the front rows had to interchange themselves) and every single lady present, even the ones with tattoos, rues the fact that high heels don't work terribly well on freshly watered grass. The bride, propelled across the greensward by her father, arrives to canned music and the hankies come out... her mother is seriously ill in hospital so a web-cam for her (the mum) to view the service / exchange of vows has been set up – unhappily and despite enough technology to pale Jodrell Bank into insignificance, its malfunctioning.

Nonetheless, the vicar-bloke talks the talk, vows are exchanged while a single white rose is waved about in the bright sunlight as loads more tears are shed and then its my turn to strut my stuff… but… not before the best man has tripped and fallen flat on his face over said mic and stand as the reverend-substitute, his Lazarus-like cohort, bride and groom and… photographers… and videographers all hover in the background.

Then follows the final wordy stuff from the vicar-come-quickly which, on his cue, is followed by huge yee-hah-ing applause. While everyone assembled is (naturally) delighted that bride and groom to have tied the knot and are, thereby, allowed the luxury of their first official – wedded - snog, I (genuinely) never could get that bit; it all seems a tad too manufactured to me.

The exit is as contrived as the entrance; we’re all video’d as more photographs are taken at strategic points (resulting in progress across the grass being funereal) but, eventually, we’ve all shuffled back across the lawn and, in light brigade style, the charge to the bar begins... but not before all the wedding flowers were rescued from being plonked into the dumper - weird as this may be, the guests had hardly moved away before the cleaners moved in.

Two hours later the cocktail hour ends and we're all ushered into the 'room'... that is, everyone bar the principals. Our table is so garishly bedecked that I’d take pity on anyone who’d quaffed a few magic-mushrooms as a pre-dinner bracer. Moments later, the master of this part of the ceremonies – equipped with his very own microphone and with the volume pumped to eleven and counting – starts extolling the assembled as to the next part of the proceedings. The grand entrance.

However, we’re not making sufficient enthusiastic noise for this particular mc. Oh dear.

To compensate, he then begins to whipp and whupp the assembled up into a complete yee-hah-ing frenzy and, only when satisfied – much like a stage-craft-bereft rapper extolling his audience, ‘hey Minneapolis… are you ready to p a a a a r t e e e e’ – do the happy couple trot into the room; their every step accompanied by blinding flashbulbs going off – the entire thing retained for posterity by… you’ve guessed… the videographers.

Eventually everyone settles and our table eagerly anticipates a couple of bottles of the well chilled arriving. Not so fast... first, there is the first dance. and, it seems to go on forever... and, the song is massacred by (hide your eyes) Celine Dion. It is utterly ghastly. Our entire table starts glancing around expectantly for waiters and waitresses bearing down on us with bottles. Once again, not so fast.

Because… next up is some kind of communal dance which – so the mic-brandishing mc informs us in a scarily loud voice – we shall be ‘sharing’ this with the happy couple. With a half decent bottle of the well-chilled on the near-horizon, I lead the charge to the dance-floor and we all we scurry around, treading on everyone's toes to another unidentifiable but equally abysmal song and scuttle back to our table as fast as possible.

The waitress arrives with one bottle.

Clearly this isn't half good enough, dancing gives one a bit of a thirst – and she is despatched post-haste straight back to the ice-bucket with a request that she brings a further three. In the meantime, food is served.

Within forty minutes, three from our table together with the best man are praying to the porcelain-lavatory-god under lock and key in the ladies and men’s cubicles.

Following this minor incursion into the good-natured proceedings came not just the ceremony of ‘throwing the garter’ (which, thankfully, I missed, having wandered outside to ingest a much-needed gasper) but, another treasure which the mc announced as... people touching. Now, bride and groom doing the old table hopping routine I get but... this, to my ears, was one announcement too far.

There were more speeches, mostly of the random variety and quite a bit more hip-shimmying... but the final furlong was, mercifully, in sight.

The only wedding speech I can remember was actually relayed to me second hand – this delight occurring many, many moons ago: friend X was to be second-time around married to a rather fetching blonde filly… everyone is gathered… the trough has been emptied and, on full stomachs, the speeches begin. The best man – who has flown in from Australia and landed but a day before – is suffering from jet lag and stumbles over his words like a man who has quaffed three too many Valium. Ultimately he gets to the end of his piece of paper and proposes the toast… to the happy couple… only… using the name of the groom and… his first wife.

Twenty-four hours later everyone has miraculously recovered but, my passport (always kinda handy to have about one’s person as a means of identification and so forth) is nowhere to be found… forty-eight hours further on and bride and groom are back from their honeymoon and at the bride’s mother’s bedside; she’s become dangerously ill and within a further moon and sun rotation, has (sadly) nipped off to be met by St. Peter at the pearly gates. Fast forward a further ninety hours and my ‘phone joins the passport on the missing list.

Annoying as this may have been, I stand by what I said about the rejuvenating power of salt-water.

The very same day, I come across this saying: Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass but to learn dancing in the rain.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Twist In My Sobriety

The first gun-metal-grey streaks of dawn knife their way across the slow-to-materialise sunrise-skyline while the tugboats plough their way up the oh-so-still Hudson; up river a couple of hours by train and turn left, inland a bit and over the hills and not too terribly far away… and, there’s Woodstock – forty years ago this weekend – oh, boy.

But first, look left and there’s Union City on Jersey’s shore; home to the Union Dry Dock upon which Blondie shot their helicopter-led, day/night-time video for the track from Eat To The Beat that, curiously, was never issued as a single in America yet reached #13 on its first outing in the UK. A song penned by the ubiquitous Ms Harry together with bass-player Nigel Harrison, one time native of Princess Risborough, itself not too far down the road (or up, depending on one’s direction of travel) to one of the legendary UK venues of the seventies and eighties, Friars Aylesbury.

And home, at that point in time, to one of the very best independent record stores in all of Britain – run by a couple of music aficionados (Steve and Sue) and owned by the man behind Friars itself – Dave Stopps. Just a small middle-England market town yet one which boasted not only that tiny shop which was stuffed to the gunwales with must-have domestic vinyl as well as the very latest, de-rigeur imports but also an absolute must-go concert venue whose reputation was such that it could justifiably claim to have been pivotal within the development of a number of acts; Genesis (like ‘em or loathe ‘em) would be one of many.

I lost count rather a long time ago of the number of times I made that one hundred-plus mile round trip; seeing some extraordinary acts in the process – Queen (as one example) supporting… now, who was it… pretty sure that’d have been Cockney Rebel. Otway and Wild Willy Barrett; the Ramones; Jess Roden not long after the release of his first solo record in tandem with Iguana when they’d become the imaginatively named Jess Roden Band; Lindisfarne; String Driven Thing; Mott The Hoople who, for one reason or another, will always be associated with that particular gig; OMD; Osibisa – that was a hot night indeed – and of course… Stackridge… nights when Let There Be Lids rang out loud, proud and clear; the Saw Doctors of their day – a band who never sold a great deal of records yet who were utterly irresistible live.

Friars was also a jumping-off point to the US for so many bands of that era touring new albums.

Hey, Manhattan – look, there’s the Carlyle where Kennedy stayed… The Brooklyn Bridge laying before me… Paddy MacAloon’s paen to the city of blinding lights from Langley Park To Memphis; and off to the right, the signs for Queens that’ll eventually lead to the Whitestone Bridge, immortalised in Sonny Condell’s song on Tir Na Nog’s third, Matthew Fisher (the court-case-winning organist from Procul Harum) produced, magnum opus Strong In The Sun; just a little below that would be other signs for Jackson Heights – the group formed by Lee Jackson from the ashes of The Nice when that band imploded and Todmorden’s favourite son, Keith Emerson took his organ and knives off to fill enormadomes with Lake and Palmer. Jackson Heights, of course, variously featured both Mike Giles and Ian Wallace on drums – both, equally, stalwarts of King Crimson with the former also part of the long-forgotten duo MacDonald & Giles who recorded their one and only, eponymous, album for Island – the gatefold cover featuring both arm in arm with their ladies of the time, perhaps wives of now.

Further still up on the Jersey-side there’s Hackensack – giving of itself (by name) to Nick Moore’s band that formed in 1969 to release just the one, Roger Dean cover-designed, Polydor album Up The Hardway which, by all accounts (cement-hard-rock not exactly being my forté) is quite a considerable collector’s piece some forty years after the warmth of that and other vinyl hit the shelves of record stores up and down, across the length and breadth of… days when the newspaper adverts proudly proclaiming ‘available at your local record shop’ meant exactly that.

Now, there’s barely a record store at all.

At present, in the UK, there’s something like four-hundred independent record stores trading; in 2003 – there was well over a thousand. And, way back then – there must have been in excess of five times that number.

Do I bemoan the days of vinyl passed?

Yes… actually… I rather do.

Because there is no longer any real experience that goes with the purchase of a new recording.

Look at it this way – nowadays, the new (for sake of example) Bob Dylan waxing sits alongside a Beatles 2010 calendar in a book-shop; Waterstones, Barnes & Noble – take your pick, they’re one and the same. Woolworths (r.i.p.), Boots the Chemists, Sainsburys, Tescos, Wal-Mart or WH Smiths – their ‘record’ departments trotting out top forty as if there was / is nothing else to tempt the eager punter with. Fill up with petrol or diesel and take your pick from dozens of compilations that sit right next to the crisps, nuts and chocolate bars in any Shell / Mobil garage. Did you crave the new U2 album? Available at cut price when you purchased a cappuccino at Starbucks.

And online – what’s really there? A huge mass of… stuff – you can look but can’t touch. And, about as enticing a manner of shopping as glancing at the cellophane-wrapped top shelf volumes in an immigrant run, seedy newseller’s in East London.

The online process is… well, there isn’t a ‘process’ as such. Think about it for a moment – you dial up your latest, all singing, all dancing version of I-Tunes and log in to the I-Tunes store. So far, so ok – but, what greets you? Their (beastly) recommendations – which aren’t really theirs at all – nope, corporate label X or Y has ‘paid’ to have their ‘product’ ‘promoted’.

There is no possibility – any longer – of wandering through the racks, looking through album sleeves; all the cds that are for sale are so heavily protected by being put inside security coffins that, the simple pleasure described above is no longer available.

And here, maybe, is where the grey area is – for me at any rate – no longer grey. This is where black becomes the new white.

And… it comes down to the one, single, word – product.

And, many years back, it got me into a whole heap of trouble… for daring to question my (then) paymasters at EMI. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to 1972. Act one, scene one – the EMI annual sales conference.

I’m twenty years old (ok, so that means you now know how ancient I really am). The venue is some terribly swish London hotel and all of us nonentities (ie, sales reps) are there in our best haircuts, suits and kipper ties.

Some of us – self included – had beards; they were all the rage back then and, I confess, I rather thought I looked a little like a young King Charles – the first of that line who, you’ll recall, had a minor disagreement with Parliament which ended with one single blow of a well-sharpened axe when his head rolled onto a sawdust laden scaffold outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, one chilly Tuesday lunchtime, the 30th day of that particular January in 1649.

The great and the good were there from ‘head-office’, those inhabitants of the hallowed turf known as Manchester Square – the office building that featured, rather fetchingly I always thought, on not only the cover of an early Beatles album but also on the blue and red double-compilations of later years.

Many of them sported beards too. And, one by one, they took their turns up at the lectern in front of a slide-show to deliver a ‘presentation’ of their new ‘product’ for the coming autumnal sales drive.

And what delights did they and the relevant label-heads from the EMI distributed labels of the time have to tempt us all with..? Well now, 1972 was, of course, the year when quadraphonic sound came out to play… remember that or never heard of it? No… ok then, a little refresher – quad sound meant that you had to buy a load more audio equipment (amp and two more speakers being the bare minimum) and, in essence, sit in the middle of the room with the speakers cunningly positioned so that the sound… surrounded you.

It was a little like sitting in amongst the violas if orchestral was your preferred take on music or being uncomfortably close to Jon Lord and his Hammond if that’s what musically got your rocks off.

Quad meaning four and… speakers set in four corners of one’s room wasn’t a bad first step. Did it work… well, it was an interesting audio experiment but, really nowhere near as sophisticated as the kind of surround-sound you get in film theatres today.

The boffins loved it (of course) as did my pub-landlord of the time. Late night sessions with him and his wife just outside of Newbury (he was a monocled, Swiss baron and she learned the art of cooking Steak Dianne from the French bloke who actually invented the dish) playing Elgar, Wagner and Vaughn Williams at colossal volume whilst imbibing too much whisky saw to much of that year… as did the bar bill which saw a goodly portion of my EMI wages.

So… what did we get… hmmm… Deep Purple and Machine Head (and yes, they released a quad – or Q4 – version); Babe Ruth, Pink Floyd and Obscured By Clouds, a Gallagher and Lyle album, most probably Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill which was on ABC but, so far as I recall, that was distributed by EMI at the time (and did anyone actually know that a steely dan was a name of a dildo-variant… I think not); there’d have been a Gensis album – Foxtrot; Island would have weighed in with the first Roxy Music offering. The Music For Pleasure label would have given us a Magic Roundabout album and Twiggy – that was the year of The Boyfriend. There was ELO because Roll Over Beethoven had already clogged up the summer airwaves and The Shadows – of course there was a Shad’s album, there always was… and… yes, The Wurzels too – on the Starline label. Oh my, such delicious memories.

And, up they trotted, one by one, to extol the virtues of this or that… piece of… product.

Ultimately the assembled company were introduced to a new high-up-in-the-ranks chap. I think he may well have had a beard too. His name was… Bob. And, for the life of me, I can’t recall his surname. No matter… Bob had a background in… canned food. And, during his speech, extolling the virtues of the fabulous EMI, he used the P-word a great deal.

Later that evening, there was the company dinner at which we were all jumbled up with regard to seating – meaning that you’d have someone frightfully important hosting a table which’d be filled with people within the organisation but all from disparate backgrounds and jobs.

I was on Bob’s table.

And, after partaking a couple of glasses of the well-chilled, I was in belligerent mood and took him to task for using the P-word.

How on earth could he justify calling the music that an artist / act had sweated over for (perhaps) weeks / months and which had been committed to vinyl with a cover / jacket / sleeve that had been equally lovingly designed (so long as it wasn’t on Music For Pleasure) and… term the end result… product.

So far as I was concerned, that was equating music to baked beans.

And, it was as fundamental as that.

And so, in no uncertain terms, I made my views known

What I didn’t know – at the time – was that the canned food company from which he’d been recruited was called… Heinz.

Needless to say, my opinions didn’t go unnoticed and a severe dressing down was my reward a few days later, administered by my area manager, one Jimmy Parmenter… a kindly soul who did what he had to with, I believe, a heavy heart since he equally well knew that what drove me was passion. Equals – was it any wonder / surprise that I jumped the EMI ship at the earliest possible opportunity to join Island in ’74.

Passion – it drove me then, it does today and will until the day I bowl up at the pearly gates… and its passion about music. I’m just not passionate about music seen as / termed as / known as / referred to as… product.

Which, basically, is all one gets nowadays.


Trawling around the wild west wait a lot earlier this year, I came across an absolutely fascinating site. It was almost as if it’d been built purely to satisfy me / my kind of person… One quick look and I immediately knew that DB, holed up in his Aunac lair in the rural idyll that is the Charente would love it… and… in fact, pretty much everyone I knew who loved… music.

I fizzed the link across to France. Two days later came the reply which I’ll paraphrase here… thanks hugely for sending that link, it is indeed amazing and fully satisfies my vinyl-junkie cravings. However, you’ve not endeared yourself to the wife, she unplugged me after five hours spent online, gazing avidly – claiming that was enough for anyone. I plan to have another look when she’s out shopping tomorrow.

And the site… its called

Its run by a couple of blokes who’ve set up what could be, loosely termed, the ultimate vinyl-junkie’s fix – they specialise in rare or hard to find, vinyl and other recordings. In short, a collectors site.

And, I’d argue strenuously that its probably the very best out there.

A few weeks after discovering said site, I’m parked up in my borrowed car in a once and almost forgotten backwater in Kent – the home of It’s as non-descript and somewhat run-down as the warehouse looming large before me.

The façade belies the interior, however. Because, once through the portals, it’s a different matter altogether – a veritable treasure-trove of vinyl / cd – long forgotten jewels are racked cheek by jowl and all lovingly tended / catalogued by staff who care equally passionately about… the music.

In one respect, I’m almost glad of my suitcase existence since it precluded the purchase of a great deal laying before my eyes.

Yes, its an online shopping experience but… what sets it apart from the rest is this: the manner in which everything is laid out is as close as it can (online) get to browsing through the shelves and racks of yesteryear. Its (almost) as good as sifting through the imports bin in a shop that simply doesn’t exist any longer. Its also markedly different – and all the better for it – from the other collector’s sites out there because, the cataloguing is done / written up by people who one just knows would have worked in one of those stores; the kind of people who’d have unpacked a gleaming new import, inbound from the States way back when, and immediately played it to a shop-full of curious customers.

What could make it better... hmmm, only one thing - and, that'd be the boffins at installing a facility to play bits of music (a bit like they have on I-Tunes).

This weekend, forty years ago, half a million – give or take a few – trudged to and from the mudbath that was otherwise known as Max Yasgur’s farm in Sullivan County, upstate New York.

The counter-cultural revolution was in full-flow yet man had, but a few days before, walked the Sea Of Tranquillity having journeyed to the Moon on board Apollo 11 while Jimi Hendrix closed out the three day Woodstock Music & Arts Fair by de-constructing the Star Spangled Banner – one was a product of man’s invention, the other as eloquent a musical statement as can be made that, no matter how many times its is heard or viewed, could ever be described as… product.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Man In The Mirror

It was hard not to avoid the gruesome spectacle coming out of Los Angeles yesterday; the Lennin-esque laying in state followed by the highly questionable ‘celebration’ of the boy-man-boy who died last week in, what can only and best be described as, questionable circumstances.

Musician, singer and song-writer supreme – no shadows and tall trees of a doubt there.

But… why wasn’t it left at that; why – or what caused – most of the known-world to react in the manner in which they have; this out-pouring of communal grief, the like of which hasn’t been globally seen since the (public) death of Diana, Princess of Hearts.

Yes, it’s a tragedy that someone so absolutely talented died so young – but, its this comparison-thing that so grates: the whole over-the-topness of ‘he / his music was there for me, he wrote / sang the soundtrack to my life’ – all total, utter, bollox.

Jackson’s music – like so many others’ – just touched a part of all our lives.

However, the fact of the matter is that it was simply that – a touch – no more, no less. Equals, why this apparent (self fulfilling) requirement to make it into something it never ever was?

Its like being on the receiving end of a discreetly flirtatious smile from a pretty girl at a party… that's something rather nice, makes one feel good. Doesn’t mean – in the telling of it later – that one enjoyed a full-blown relationship or had children together.

This outpouring of ‘public’ grief; the gnashing of dentures; all of the hysterical wailing and tear-smudged make-up; the ‘fans’ 'comments'… one wonders if – in time to come – they’ll think back and consider more wisely; somewhat like those who chucked flowers at Diana’s coffin en route to the island in the middle of that lake in Northamptonshire; the Lady of Shallot on her way home.

Unfortunately, the very same that happened earlier this year when someone who’d had their own Warhol-like fleeting brush with ‘fame’, publicly died of cervical cancer – the absurdity of all of that bloom-laden hysteria proven these last few months by example; how often is that particular person thought about, discussed, commented upon… today?

And... where was the dignity?

The Los Angeles television-transmitted images owed as much to the psychedelia-tinged pictures from Johnny Depp’s new Alice in Wonderland as it did to a funeral (for a friend); the grotesque spectacle of the ‘family unit’ in single white gloves while hiding their crocodile tears behind a uniform of the blackest of dark glasses – hey, we’re Los Angeles royalty so lets look completely preposterous indoors; their fake(d) D’Artagnan solidarity – all for one, one for all – when, in real life, family harmony had been a daily misnomer.

Once again, I wonder… where is the dignity?

And what or who caused the spectacle of his daughter being pushed forward to howl her own, ten-year-old anguish straight into the cameras and millions of homes, bars, cafe's and over-sized plasma screens around the world?

Grief is an incredibly private thing; coming to terms with and mourning the death of a parent is a unique experience – not one single person can compare their own knowledge of that to anyone else – and that’s a fact.

Yes (of course), people can sympathise with one another but to say – yes, I know what x or y is like – bollox. You don’t, ‘cos everyone is different. So… for someone who’d been ‘protected’ and pretty much out of the public spotlight for as long as she’d been alive, to have the older members of her family push her forward on the dais and have her speak – how utterly irresponsible was that?

Dignified… no, I don’t think so.

But then, the entire ‘show’ smacked of being a public-relation’s led extravaganza – less Cirque du Soleil and more freak-show circus.

And, as much as that was truly ghastly, witness the phalanx of so-called friends and celebrities who’ve been coming out of the woodwork like so many termites to pontificate about someone that so few, so very few ever knew.

Which leads one to wonder… what was this all in aid of? Unhappily, this last ten days or so has been just the beginning – the squabbles will go on for years if not decades and, in all probability, the regiments of lawyers and aides will be the only ones to reap massive remuneration, Allan Klein-like from the dying embers of his estate.

This is a line taken from Danny Eccleston’s excellent piece written for Mojo Magazine: In death as in life, Jackson was the canvas on which the circling carrion-birds projected their desires: for love, fame, money and copy. Next up: the "revelations", fact and fiction, with no way of telling one from the other. After all, you can praise the dead, or bury them – or both – but one thing you can't do is libel them.

Precisely so… Because… and without a doubt, his highly dubious ‘other-life’ will also continue to be air-brushed under the carpet just like it has been ever since his death was announced. Almost as if that part of MJ didn’t exist – which, clearly, it did.

Which, in itself, presents another paradox – because he created the body of (musical) work that he did, is it ok to sweep that (wholly unpalatable) aspect of his existence to one side? Clearly, from the way he was eulogised yesterday, it seems so.

This little Voltaire says bollox to that... entirely.

While one (and this should be emphasised) was markedly less ‘flawed’ than another, much like it was with Diana, so has it been with Jackson.

And, as curious and bizarre a fact as this may be, I met both Jackson and Diana at the same venue; different circumstances but, nevertheless, the same place.

With the latter, I was in the line when Kid Creole performed at The Grosvenor House Hotel – can’t for the life of me remember the occasion, perhaps a Prince’s Trust charitable event… the precise circumstances are now lost in the mists of my mind’s time but, the handshake and the short conversation ensued. She was taller than I’d imagined; very softly yet firmly spoken and had the most exquisite eyes. Being on the receiving end of the full nuclear blast of them is something one never forgets.

Jackson and I stood next to one another at a BRIT Awards ceremony at the same venue – equals, that’d make it early eighties; after a few glasses of the well-chilled, nature had come a-knockin’ and I’d made my way to the men’s room on the first floor of the very same hotel.

Positioned all alone and half-way along the urinals and mid-flow and there was the unmistakable sound of the door opening and – while gentlemen stare straight ahead (unless, your name is George Michael that is) – it was impossible not to notice a smallish quasi-military-clad figure arrive and stand next to me; immediately unbuttoning the fly of his black uniform trousers.

Not a moment to either introduce oneself or to proffer the hand to be shaken, I think you'd agree.

Anyhow, we stood there, side by side – neither uttering a word, both focussing intently on both the task in hand (as it were) as much as the gleaming white tiles at eye-level, straight in front of the pair of us – letting nature take its course. Ablutions over, I turned, washed my hands, dried them and the door was opened for me by Michael’s gargantuan, Giant Haystacks’-like minder, standing guard over his charge.

Very different to another occasion when, out on the road with the Irish group and support act The Waterboys in northern France (equals more or less same sort of era); a motorway pit-stop is called. This was in the days when tour-buses were not the luxury means of conveyance that they are nowadays; in fact – its unlikely that the Irish quartet bother with such in this day and age, far easier for them to fly from show to show.

Anyhow… there we all are… like cartoon animals from one of those French paintings from the turn of the 19th century that my parent's had hung in both the downstairs cloakroom and above the lavatory in the upstairs bathroom; lined up and ready to go. Only… one of us was in a spot of bother. Yes, the fly-buttons had been undone and the porcelain had been pointed at but… action came there none.

One by one, we all buttoned or zipped back up and turned to exit the urinals. Yet, with one remaining, legs slightly astride in that most manly of stances and staring straight ahead. What’s up, Bono? Quoth long-time tour manager, Dennis Sheehan, can’t go… you got stage fright?

Was Diana really Queen of (all our) Hearts; was MJ the King of Pop; is Bono the penguin-Emperor of rock ‘n’ roll? Its all relative and, most probably, era specific.

And, in a peculiar manner and within this Voltaire on its grassy knoll on the windswept prairie of other Volatires (and there are zillions if one cares to look with regard to MJ) death - viva la vida - is a common, binding factor.

We’ve witnessed the public displays – quite a few years back for the flawed-princess and over the last few days for the pop-sovereign – but, what was instructive was being at Earls Court (again, a few years back now) to attend one of about a week’s long stint of shows that the Irish band played; dates that coincided with the death of Bono’s dad.

As mentioned earlier, the death of a parent provokes unique feelings; there can be no debate about that – yet, that night, the band played one of the most emotional sets I’ve ever witnessed. Its likely that very few in the audience would have known – this being pre-Twitter days – but, it’d (almost certainly) be true to say that the ‘emotion’ emanating from the stage would have been felt from the very front to the very back of the 18,000 people in Earls Court that night.

There was (as I recall) but the single mention from the stage; during Bono’s intro to their song Kite – when, among other things, he mentioned that he thought he’d written the song but, in actual fact, he realised that his father had.

It's summer, I can taste the salty sea;
There's a kite blowing out of control on the breeze

I wonder what's gonna happen to you;
You wonder what has happened to me

I'm a man; I'm not a child

A man who sees; The shadow behind your eyes

Who's to say where the wind will take you
Who's to say what it is will break you

I don't know

Where the wind will blow

Who's to know when the time has come around

I don't want to see you cry

I know that this is not goodbye

Did I waste it; Not so much I couldn't taste it
Life should be fragrant; Rooftop to the basement

The last of the rocks stars; When hip hop drove the big cars

In the time when new media; Was the big idea

That was the big idea

Who's to say where the wind will take you
Who's to say what it is will break you
I don't know

Where the wind will blow
Who's to know when the time has come around
I don't want to see you cry

I know that this is not goodbye

The other night, while on stage at The NeuCamp in Barcelona, Bono dedicated Angel Of Harlem to MJ whilst citing the fact that the song had been inspired by another (tragic) Harlem Angel, Billie Holiday.

There was dignity in that… dignity in music.