Sunday 28 February 2010

Scumbags? Maybe I think so too, after all

One thing I've never been comfortable with is police officers referring to virtually everyone they meet as either "idiots" or "scumbags". The former refers to anyone who's had more than four pints, the latter to a rather hazy concept of "bad people" who police deal with on a regular basis. I've always thought of "scumbag" as a lazy term that doesn't take into account all kinds of social problems: drug addiction, homelessness, alcoholism, mental health problems, broken homes, violent parents or carers, poverty. Many police officers throw derogatory descriptions around willy-nilly, which I've often thought is wrong. However...all it takes is to see things from a different point of view, and the cynical part of you takes hold. That happened to me a few weeks ago, just before Christmas.

I was punched in the face - in a post office enquiry office at 7am. Not exactly how I had the morning planned. When I'm asked for money I'm usually fairly brusque with my negative responses - I rarely get an "oh but pleeease". This morning, however, was a different story, and after I had been asked fairly aggressively for money, and told the chap firmly but politely that I wasn't giving him anything, he called out to his mate. At this point I realised I was in a dark, deserted cul-de-sac, and my heart rate increased quite a bit; I made a quick evaluation of the situation and decided I wouldn't hang about to engage in furher pleasantries and economic debates, but rather find a little space to make a quick phone call.

The only place where there would definitely be light, and hopefully some other people, was in fact my destination at the end of the cul-de-sac, where I was off to pick up a package (some Swedish music: Hans Jorgen Alsing's Vai Alsing Da'r and Har ar en Samba til Dej by the delightfully named Samba Group Bananas. 1980s European Brazilian fusion was not uppermost in my mind at this point, I have to admit, and when I saw the two gentlemen running after me, I was glad that I knew the way through the maze of the post office depot car park.

To cut a long story short I ended up taking a right hook to the right eye socket while still trying to get through to the 999 operator. Brent police were superb in their handling of things, made several arrests and were on top of things. Unfortunately, despite having seen both of the would-be robbers, and arrests having been made, the ID parade was a horribly stressful affair. I never found out for certain if I got it wrong, but I must assume that I did, as the case has been NFA'd for lack of evidence, and those lowlifes will be able to carry on robbing people at their leisure for the time being. A little old lady in the post office said to me "I'll be scared to walk around on my own"; rather foolishly, before I had time to think, I said "yes, you'd be right". The poor thing nearly collapsed. But if a confident 26-year-old bloke takes a punch for his troubles to hang on to his own wallet at 7am, will a pensioner be immune?

I'm a fairly fit, reasonably confident, mid-twenties male who can look after himself, and I felt quite shaken up afterwards. The other victims that morning were apparently more shaken up than I was. The only positive I can take is that I often deal with victims of crime myself, and it's a reminder of just how vulnerable and helpless they can feel - for that I'm glad.

Scumbags? I might not quite go that far just yet, but I can see why the description might be applied.

Hampstead & Kilburn: the battle has commenced

Boundary changes could throw up all kinds of surprises across the country and one of the most unpredictable seats in the country is my own constituency, Hampstead & Kilburn, where we'll see a three-way dogfight between incumbent Glenda Jackson, Conservative Chris Philp and Liberal Democrat Ed Fordham.

The literature from both the Philp and Fordham camps is dominated by arguements of which party is favourite to actually win. Due to the boundary changes, we are left in an odd situation where the two parties most likely to win are trying to put the squeeze on each other and presenting themselves as the alternative to Labour. Voters must be confused by the conflicting messages saying "Lib Dems have no chance here" and "Tories have no chance here"; presumably whoever gets their message across most clearly and convincingly will win the seat. The Lib Dems are using actual general election data from Thrasher & Rallings figures, including the "Lib Dem" wards from the old Brent East constituency - which suggests that it's a straight fight between Jackson and Fordham. That, of course, depends on Fordham & co getting the "westerners" out to vote, and tapping into the "Sarah Teather effect". Meanwhile Philp's camp denounce those figures as "old" - there hasn't been a general election since, so of course they're up to date! - and use more recent London Assembly figures instead. Given that the London Assembly votes were dominated by the Boris-vs-Ken struggle, he may be optimistic. Anyone with an ounce of sense can see that both camps are using the figures for political advantage, and the bookies may give an idea of the true state of affairs: in general the Lib Dems are even money, the Tories about 2/1 and Labour 5/2. There's a lot still to fight for. Don't for a minute think that Philp or Fordham are naive enough not to know exactly what the score is; they know what's going on, but are trying to take advantage of voters' ignorance. Who can blame them?

Promisingly, the campaigns so far have mostly been based around local issues such as the Royal Free, post offices, police stations and so on. Both Philp and Fordham have bickered over who has the better track record on local campaigning but that's politics; a rival candidate distorting the words you used about a particular issue isn't negative campaigning at all, it's healthy. It'll have to get a LOT rougher before either candidate can describe the way they're being treated as "a personal slur". Happily, there's been no talk of whether someone is local or not, over their family history, over what they might have said 20 years ago. Let's keep it that way.
Both Fordham and Philp have had high profile faces join them, of course; Fordham entertained Vince Cable at a private function this week and Nick Clegg has been in town recently, while Philp took the rather more risky strategy of letting Boris loose, although admittedly in (presumably) staunch Tory country.

What of Glenda Jackson? She is as invisible on the constituency as A friend of mine, who is a prominent Labour activist in the area, told me that Labour had high hopes in North London. When I joked that they had no chance in Hampstead & Kilburn, he looked at me oddly. "Of course not, H&K is gone," he said. "We're concentrating our efforts elsewhere." Jackson herself has hardly been seen in Parliament for years and is being described by opponents as "the laziest MP in London". At present, her team seem to be making similar efforts in retaining the seat.

The latest twist is that ecowarrior Tamsin Omond is standing with a new party called "The Commons" on a one-trick-pony trip. Denounced as an act of vanity by some, I don't have a problem with it - it'll make things just that little bit spicier. And at least she's chosen her own patch to stand in. Although taking on the Greens, she's actually perfectly amenable to helping them out in Brighton. Neither Omond nor the Greens have much of a chance in H&K, and the Lib Dems will need to be effective with a Green squeeze and not let themselves be distracted by Omond. They will also need to be effective in making sure that the Lib Dem wards in the western part of the borough are mobilised and not subjected to squeeze from Labour and the Tories.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, and many other commentators have noted, social media is having a huge impact on this election. Fordham, Philp and now Omond are all active on both Twitter and in their own blogs (and commenting on other blogs). As such, they're not afraid to confront the rumours head-on and deal with their own word-of-mouth coverage. I'd argue that certain blogs have as much, if not more, influence than the likes of the Kilburn Times, Willesden & Brent Times, Ham & High and Camden New Journal these days, and Fordham and Philp, in particular, have both shown that they are not afraid to engage directly with the voters online. The flipside, of course, is that social media can easily be a breeding ground for rumours, personal attacks, and shady anonymous negative campaigning. Thus far, we've seen little of this in H&K; hopefully, we'll see more of the positives and less of the negatives.

H&K is spicy already and will only get hotter. With Lib Dem-vs-Conservative seats possibly critical in determining whether we see a hung Parliament or and outright Tory majority, expect to see a LOT of attention here. I can't wait.

Thursday 25 February 2010

Abu Zaad, Edgware Road - review

This is the first time I've written a restaurant review on here, although it won't be the last! At the weekend we rather naively turned up at Mandalay without a reservation: don't even think about it. Another time we'll be more organised. Anyhow, Edgware Road is hardly short of places to eat...the question was WHERE without just defaulting to one of the Maroush/Ranoush chain (which seems like half the street). Don't get me wrong, the shawarma from Ranoush Juice (under £4) is as good as you'll get, but it feels like a bit of a cop-out to go there every time. The only other place I'd heard of, Patogh, a Persian place on one of the side streets, was also rammed (Saturday evening at primetime!) so we were forced to go offpiste and just plump for somewhere on spec.

We were tempted by a large Iraqi place (on one of the main corners, with neon lights, can't remember the name) as it had an interesting looking menu and was packed out with Arabic-looking people (a cliched way of choosing somewhere, but I always swear by it). It was slightly pricier than other places. One to check for the future.

In the end though, we went for a place called Abu Zaad (the website only mentions a Shepherd's Bush branch, but it's undoubtedly the same chain). It describes itself as being "Damascene" cooking, in other words Syrian. It was very busy and looked promising, so we gave it a go.

It was just my kind of place. Bright lights, plastic tables, groups of (mostly) Middle Eastern men speaking Arabic, Middle Eastern football on the telly, no alcohol baby! Between the two of us we opted for three mezze - hummous (a little bit rich for my taste, I perfer a little bit more zing and texture), some kofta-style meatballs (I always forget what the name of them is) and some moutabal - a very typical Middle Eastern dish - pureed aubergine with a hint of sesame and lemon juice, with the completely liquidised texture that us so typical of that cuisine. All were good.. My freshly squeezed apple juice was excellent (bits of peel in it were a bit offputting!). I then had Sheikh Almehshi: courgettes stuffed with mincemeat, all cooked in yogurt. I had half expected this would mean it was in a creamy yogurt sauce, like a mild curry - I was slightly taken aback when I saw several baby courgettes swimming around in sour, watery yogurt. It was very nice, admittedly slightly too much of the sourness of the yogurt for my taste, but well done nonetheless. Rachel's mixed grill was solid.

It's interesting to note the (far more professional) review of Bellaphon, who seems to go regularly and drew similar conclusions to me. Overall, I was very happy with the choice - exactly what I was hoping for in terms of experience, less sterile than Maroush/Ranoush and while the food might not have been quite as slick, for me it was a much more interesting & enjoyable. Food 7/10, atmosphere 10/10, overall: recommended, and a good one to have in the armoury if you're standing lost on the Edgware Road.

Monday 22 February 2010

Paranoia, Nazism and nastiness - why I'll be changing my blog reading habits

I've followed a number of political bloggers and Twitter accounts for a little while now. I suppose I use Twitter in the way the prolific bloggers intend me to use it: I follow a couple of hundred people, many of whom blog several times a day. Too many blogs to subscribe to, but enough that I can have a steady stream of chirps emenating from my TweetDeck with some tempting straplines and a link to a blog post. So far, so good - and as a result, I can keep an eye on plenty of blogs that may be some way away from my own particular political views.

As a result, on my "Following" list on Twitter are both Paul Staines aka Guido Fawkes and Tim Ireland aka Bloggerheads (who tweet from @guidofawkes and @bloggerheads respectively). Guido is one of the most heavyweight of the Tory bloggers, and doesn't pull his punches, while Ireland is a militant left-winger whose anti-Daily Mail stance and general sense of morality appealed to me. Both provide insights and leaks that the mainstream media may take days to pick up on if at all.

But as of today, I won't be following either of them any longer. Neither of them would thank me for saying it, but they're like two peas in a pod: they suffer from rabid negativity and paranoia that is simply depressing to read.

Ireland feels the whole world is against him, and writes increasingly delusional rants against...well, quite a list of people actually. He appears to be involved in swathes of libel claims and counter-claims, threats and counter threats, and generally consumes himself in his own outrage. Were he to put his manic energy into something a little more constructive than obsessive diatribes against obscure "terrorism experts", Tory MP Nadine Dorries, and bloggers Guido and Iain Dale, then he might be quite influential in this election and not come across as merely a fruitloop. Both Dale and Dorries describe Ireland as a "stalker" - something which he denies, but the incessant flood of tweets every few minutes asking in outraged tones why Dorries hasn't answered his last question, and torrents of blog posts analysing Dale's activity to every last detail suggest that their claims are hardly wild flights of fancy. He is also paranoid in the extreme. I genuinely have no idea what Ireland's own political views are as his blog and Twitter are too crammed with wild accusations to actually have any positive content. While his abrasive stance is entertaining, and I applaud his mission to hold the muckier tabloids to account, the simple fact of the matter is that my Twitter feed has become dominated by one person who tweets dozens of times a day, and it's just become too much.

On the other hand, Guido Fawkes has the luxury of being considered a "mainstream" commentator. Unfortunately his commentary is restricted to a steady outpouring of anti-Gordon Brown vitriol and negativity which just becomes tedious very quickly. Auther Staines  rarely gives convincing arguments why any reader should be more tempted to vote Tory than Labour; instead one is subjected to endless holier-than-thou tabloidesque snippets of drivel about dodgy Labour comms professionals and moaning about the economy. Yes, the economy is in a catastrophic mess. But I don't need Guido Fawkes to tell me that. The "summary" comments, in red type, are in the style of the Sun, whether intentionally or not. The only appealing aspect of the blog is the comments section, where hordes of Guido-ites trade juvenile anti-Gordon slurs with voracious appetites, only taking time out to nip over to Nick Robinson's blog on the BBC to accuse the Beeb of wholescale bias with amusing predictability. Insightful this blog is not, whatever its influence.

It may seem strange that following Tim Ireland led me to check out Iain Dale's diary - and even stranger that today would be the day I decided to follow Dale's Twitter. This morning he published a cartoon which quite simply and explicitly compares Gordon Brown to Hitler. The artist, Louis Sidolo, provides a typically hopeless (for an artist) piece of English masquerading as a statement, which rather vaguely justifies the comparison by the fact that both Brown and Hitler were once chancellors and "caused huge economic damage". Dale, spectacularly naive, claims that he is merely "reporting" the art without any approving opinion. Pull the other one, Iain; for an influential blog, crammed full of opinion, to simply publish a piece of art without any accompanying text except for the unabridged artist's statement, is as much of an endorsement as you can get. Personally I didn't find the cartoon offensive, I just didn't find it very amusing (whisper it, but I didn't actually recognise the PM).

In spite of that, Dale comes across as both intelligent and articulate, and appears to be "in the thick of things" where the breaking stories are concerned. My early impressions are that he has more than an ounce of humanity about him. So for now, I'll keep half an eye on his Twitter and see what happens.

As I wrote elsewhere, and as others have written in many places, social media could easily tip the balance of the upcoming election. There has been wave upon wave of brilliant satire at Clifford Singer's My David Cameron, both from Singer himself and many other contributors - which became viral and hit mainstream headlines. I've personally had some of my laughs of the year from that site. Finally, some Tory efforts appeared (slightly bizarrely copying a spoof of a Tory poster) at My Labour Poster. Some of the Labourites (and Singer himself) claimed that the Tory efforts lacked humour and were vicious personal attacks; looking at them objectively, I found them no worse and indeed some of them were very funny. Singer, meanwhile, has said that he won't continue the site any further as the satire has run its course and humour could turn to bitterness. This is a dignified decision and the correct one. The original spoofs of the ridiculous airbrushed pictures of Cameron were the best of all - the site has done its work, provided a great many laughs and made the Tory comms team look slightly foolish. Social media is providing British politics with a huge new injection of nastiness and negativity and the less we see of this, the better. So I'll take my chances with Dale, and watch out for Singer's next project with interest.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Lyric's Three Sisters solid, but unmemorable

Three Sisters - Filter, Lyric Theatre ***

The Lyric Theatre's latest production with Filter of Chekhov's Three Sisters is frustratingly average. I was looking forward to seeing Sean Holmes' work with Filter having heard so many good things about their Caucasian Chalk Circle; the Checkhov turned out to be a very straight production, with rather limp humour, a complete lack of tension, and a narrative that was not fully explored.

First a gripe. It is not trendy, groundbreaking, or edgy to set up the soundbox on the stage. It is not "warts-and-all" theatre; it is lazy and merely a distraction from the fact that no money has been spent on a set. And having stage crew wander across the stage willy-nilly just papers over unprofessionalism elsewhere. I've seen this approach taken three times in the last year and a half (also with Complicite's A Disappearing Number and Kneehigh's Don John). The "let it all hang out" approach has added nothing to any of those productions.

As for the Sisters: Poppy Miller steals the show with a brilliantly repressed Vershinin. Romola Garai simply doesn't make the most of Masha - graduating from pouty to whiny via droopy and not a great deal else. A disappointment. Claire Dunne as Irina occasionally sparkles, but there were a few too many histrionics for my liking. Apart from Miller, only Ferdy Roberts as Andrei really shone.

The text had some wonderful moments and there were times when the tension of the small town life and frustration of the characters really manifested itself; and moments with the cleverly positioned microphones wored quite nicely. But I am writing this review barely a fortnight after seeing the production and I am already struggling to remember most of the production. Not bad, solid, but hardly life changing.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Camille O'Sullivan: a dangerous woman

Camille O'Sullivan - The Dark Angel (Apollo Theatre, London) *****

Camille O'Sullivan needs to behave very, very carefully. She has such power and influence over her audiences that she could corrupt even the strongest will. For now, let's be thankful that she puts her energies into creating what is, quite simply, one of the greatest shows I've ever seen, and one I felt privileged to watch the other night, which happened to be the final night of her West End run at the Apollo Theatre. I believe it was one of the last shows that Time Out awarded their legendary six stars to before abandoning that accolade; to be honest, once Camille was given the stars it would seem insulting to award an equal rating to any other show, so they might as well have retired it in her honour.

I was years behind. How could I call myself a true Edinburgh Festivalite without having seen La Clique in its glory days at the Spiegeltent (I only caught it last year at the Hippodrome) or Camille O'Sullivan at the same venue? Those days are gone - the former is onto greater things and Camille has moved up to the larger Assembly Hall in Edinburgh, via the Roundhouse in London, to the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. Tickets somehow managed not to sell out, and we found ourselves with decent seats to the side of the circle.

There are countless cabaret singers out there trotting out Kurt Weill and donning corsets in a sexed up nostalgia-fest. Don't believe the hype: this isn't a sexy show. Camille isn't a glamourous performer. Sure, she's got a great figure; sure, she wears great dresses and sparkly shoes. But burlesque this is not and Camille is not a seductress. She lurches uncomfortably around the stage, with a clunky, clumsy presence and an air of self-consciousness that suggests that she's not entirely comfortable with the situation (O'Sullivan claims to suffer from stage fright every night). Neither is this a throwback to a different era; instead, the songs are timeless, taking in emotions that humans must have felt since the stone age. O'Sullivan herself cites her heroes - the likes of Jacques Brel, Tom Waits and Nick Cave - as modern day Weills.

I read some reviews again afer the gig and it transpires that much of Camille's ad libbing and throwaway charm is in fact a carefully staged act. That's by the by; it merely reinforces what an accomplished performer and entertainer she is - much like a standup comic. The audience participation, a chorus of meows, may have been done every night, but O'Sullivan's "I'll always remember this moment" was, most importantly, believable, as we were sucked into her world and drawn into her web. By the end, she was a best friend, a confidante, a lover, a shoulder to cry on, a philosopher and a story-teller. Clap? Of course I did, whooped and cheered a bit as well, but what I really wanted to do was go and give her a hug.

Camille was backed by a strong band, whose support ranged from an almost free-jazz/avant-garde classical sound to full on rock'n'roll by way of stripped-down piano simplicity. She kicked things off with a very free "My Death" which set the scene nicely, being a Jacques Brel original made popular by David Bowie. Both composers featured heavily throughout the performance. We took in plenty of Tom Waits (a wonderful "All The World Is Green", more Bowie ("Five Years"), Kirsty MacColl ("In These Shoes") and even Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor ("Hurt"). What all the songs have in common is a portrayal in the most poetic way of the simplest, basest, strongest human emotions. Love, hate, fear, loss, life death. Some reviews accused her of histrionics but at no point did I ever feel she was over the top.

To pick out highlights would be impossible as that would imply that there were moments of mediocrity, but spellbinding is a word that does not do justice to her performance of Dillie Keane's extraordinary "Look Mummy, No Hands" - leaving the audience a visible wreck. My own particular moment of weakness came at the start of the second half with Nick Cave's "God Is In The House" - a song of such unexpected purity (a sexy cabaret singer covers a rock star's song about...being at one with God?) that I felt the years lifted away and like a small boy again. The fishnet-stockinged legs and cheeky wine swigging belied the fact that the set was surely best summed up as a return to innocence.

O'Sullivan's most comfortable territory is with the music of Jacques Brel, who for those unfamiliar is a sort of Belgian musichall Kerouac. As well as "My Death" she took on the ballad (in the true, story-telling sense of the word: slushy it ain't) "Amsterdam", a salute to the sailors and whores of the port. And in an intimate, solo version of "Marieke" she fearlessly threw herself into French, Flemish and English with equal aplomb. But the finest moment was left until last: leaving the unlit, silent room whispering the dying "We make a little history baby, every time you come around" of Nick Cave's "Ship Song", Camille at that point revealed her power as a truly terrifying Queen of the night. At that moment, every person in the room would have embarked on genocide if she'd asked. Although I've heard that murder is arguably pardonable if the perpetrator was killing to get a ticket. "The behaviour was reasonable" say the judges.

I suppose if I had to make a comparison it would be to Bjork. There's the same extraordinary range of tones, the same clumsy stage presence, the same magic, the same intimacy. But while Bjork has always embraced new sounds and production, Camille is content to stay in a more traditional medium and exploit it to its full potential. But how inadequate are comparisons? A rather more accurate one would be to clown Slava Polunin, who similarly pulls you into his personal world and shares it with you for the duration of his show. There's another reason I compare Camille with Slava: Polunin's SnowShow happens to be the best show, of any genre, that I have seen in my entire life. (As an aside: it'll be returning to the UK in late 2011 for a tour. Just go.)

Spilling out onto Shaftesbury Avenue, into a melee of rickshaws, Trocadero flyers, queues for cashpoints and "no trainers" R&B bars, I felt pity: pity for the poor souls who think their lives are complete. For nobody's life is complete until they have experienced this girl.

Best of all? This may have been the last night of the run, but it won't be the end of Camille O'Sullivan. Luckily for us, she seems to divide her time between Britain, Ireland and Australia, so it won't be long before she's back in this country again. I'll be seeing her in Edinburgh - and maybe I'll muster the courage to give her that hug. I think she'd understand.