Friday, 21 January 2022

He Was The Man

I had a song going through my head the other day and identified it as The Sweet's Blockbuster from 1973. In those days watching Top of the Pops was practically an obligatory requirement for all high school and university students. I remember the Junior Common Room at my hall of residence being packed for half an hour each week, in the Sweet's case while a variety of lewd comments which would undoubtedly be seen as extremely homophobic today were directed at the glam rock band. The loudest heckles always came when bassist Steve Priest pouted to camera in his silver platform boots and delivered the line "I just didn't have a clue WHAT to do".  But then Alex Petridis's 2020 obituary of Priest quoted Julie Birchill saying he was "built like a hod carrier" and "looked like a navvy who'd stolen all your make up". And he would have used it all too: David Bowie told Priest backstage on ToTP "you know you really are putting too much make up on".  (You can see for yourself: the link to the ToTP video and other songs are on buttons at the bottom).

But the basic riff (da de da dum / dum dum and repeat) was haunting me, reminding me strongly of another well known song. But which song? Reassuringly quickly I realised it was Bowie's Jean Genie. So why hadn't I noticed that before and who blagged it off who?

Well Blockbuster was released in January 1973 and Jean Genie  in late November 1972. Probably a  bit too close together for plagiarism. A Google search quickly revealed that loads of people have noticed the similarity - it just took me nearly 50 years... Google's occasionally helpful "people also ask" feature had questions like "which came first - Blockbuster or Jean Genie?"  which me took to an eye catching bit of click bait linking both recordings to Bo Diddley.

"Darren's Music Blog" tells me the songs were recorded within a month of each other and were developed contemporaneously, the Sweet's songwriter Mike Chapman playing the Blockbuster riff to Steve Priest backstage at Top of the Pops in mid September, while Mick Ronson's biography says Jean Genie was developed from an impromptu tour bus jam in the USA in the same month. Direct copying seems unlikely therefore. Indeed, the Sweet's Andy Scott was horrified when he heard Jean Genie: "we're coming out behind it, it's got the same riff, we've got no chance". Nevertheless, in due course Blockbuster was at number one in the UK singles chart while Jean Genie reached number two. 

The Wikipedia entry on Jean Genie notes the controversy over the similar riff to Blockbuster, with the co-writer of Blockbuster, Nicky Chinn, describing it as an "absolute co-incidence".  Chinn also described a meeting with Bowie at which the latter "looked at me completely deadpan and said 'Cunt!' And then he got up and gave me a hug and said, 'Congratulations...'" The two songs were in the top five of the singles chart together for three weeks in January 1973.

Darren also goes on to claim both songs may have been influenced by the Yardbirds 1965 version of Bo Diddley's 1955 song I'm A Man. Though Bowie may equally have picked up on I'm A Man  as Iggy Pop, a collaborator of Bowie's, covered it in 1972. That could well be, though the riff of I'm A Man is really a very conventional blues. It goes:

Da Deeee da Dum/ tap, tap, tap, tap

with a long bluesy second note and four very short, light taps on the snare drum, compared with Blockbuster/Jean Genie riff which basically speeds up the riff and adds punch by replacing the four short drum beats with two heavy beats. Jean Genie and Blockbuster both have a tempo of about 128 beats per minute while I'm a Man is a languid 105 (andante, apparently). So the writers of Blockbuster and Jean Genie both simplified the rhythm and made it rockier.

But then I listened to the Sweet's ToTP performance once more and, before the drums come in with the two thuds, Andy Scott's guitar is indeed strumming da de da dum / de dum de dum with four short chugs at the end just like the snare drum in Diddley's I'm A Man. As the song progresses this subtlety is soon blocked out by the two big drum thuds (four dainty taps just wouldn't work). Bowie's song just sounds like it has the two thuds on guitar and drums to me, a slightly more brutal simplification. 

So yes, for me it's definitely Diddley's riff, especially on Blockbuster. But interestingly it's not THE Bo Diddley riff. Self evidently that's on the eponymous song Bo Diddley, also from 1955.

An obituary of Diddley on the website Premier Guitar led me to a fact I was oblivious to but should have known: the Bo Diddley beat is used in Buddy Holly's 1957 song Not Fade Away covered by the Rolling Stones for their first top ten hit in 1964. Holly's version is more staccato, interestingly. But the same beat has been much much more widely imitated, used in the Who's Magic Bus, George Michael's Faith and the Clash's Hateful as just a few examples. Premier Guitar quotes a musician saying that the beat works "over a funk or a two beat groove, it's a really universal feel". So universal that Diddley would say to his drummers "whatever you do, don't play the Bo Diddley beat" as he must have been worried about his songs getting too samey.

This made me catch up on some education on Spotify - and wow! On The Red Rooster (so that's where the Stones got their title from...) you can hear echoes of not just the Stones, but Jimi Hendrix's Red House. Infatuation sounded like Marvin Gaye to me and some of Eric Clapton's influences burst out of Hot Buttered Blues. Diddley Daddy, played with Muddy Waters, sounded quite like Captain Beefheart (and I didn't think anything else sounded like Captain Beefheart). And the song titles - like Bad Trip, Gun Slinger and Fireball - presaged rock'n'roll turning into rock by a couple of decades.

Diddley and Chuck Berry are often credited as rock 'n' roll's originators as guitarists. But Diddley's earthy rhythms feel more primitive than Berry's "swing-meets country" as Premier Guitar puts it. Indeed, when outraged American parents lamented their children's affection for "jungle music" they were most likely referring to Diddley rather than Berry.

I'm reassured that no-one ever tried to claim plagiarism in any of this. Rock music is derivative, it all draws from what has gone before. I'm still gobsmacked by the ludicrous decision in the Marvin Gate estate v Robin Thicke court case, when Thicke's Blurred Lines was found guilty of copying the "feel" of a Marvin Gaye song, not even it's melody,  rhthym or lyrics. 

I'd like to think Diddley was flattered by the similarity of songs such as the ones discussed above. And anyway he would probably have been the first to admit that he blagged the rhythms from elsewhere himself. His Wikipedia page says:

The "Bo Diddley beat" is essentially the clave rhythm, one of the most common bell patterns found in sub-Saharan African music traditions. One scholar found this rhythm in 13 rhythm and blues recordings made in the years 1944–55, including two by Johnny Otis from 1948.

And, if Blockbuster and Jean Genie were derived from Diddley' I'm A Man, well according to Wikipedia* that song was inspired by Muddy Waters's Hoochie Coochie Man written by Willie Dixon. Maybe I should check that out on Spotify sometime too. 

Either way, I can only agree with Michael Ross's summary in his Premier Guitar obit:

By combining “jungle” rhythms with the modern technology of the electric guitar, Bo Diddley created a sound that thrilled the youth of post-WWII America, terrified their elders and still resonates today.

Diddley, whose monicker may have derived from a "diddley bow", a homemade one string guitar of African origin, was an innovator. He melded blues, Caribbean calypso and doo-wop ballads, always experimenting with new tunes and feels. His early rhythmic style, with its rapid scratching of a few strings, came from violin bowing, an instrument he played as a child. With his equipment he pioneered the use of rectangular shaped guitars, as in this 1957 publicity pic:


He had a variety of oddly shaped guitars made for him with an increasing number of gizmos as the years went on: circuit boards for "onboard effects" for example. In later years he played a synthesiser guitar. 

He certainly was the man, the genie of the blockbuster.

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Darren's music blog (link below) has video clips of Yardbirds and Diddley's I'm A Man and others but I've inlcuded links below for you to listen to many of the above songs. I've given the full link in case the buttons I've included don't work

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Links for listening:

You can see the Sweet's hilarious ToTP performance of Blockbuster here  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNXFtVWB47E)

And Bowie's Jean Genie here  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7atHoLxow9k)

Bo Diddley's I'm A Man from 1955 is easy to find but here's a youtube link : (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKlAiuaYdoI)

The Yardirds version of I'm A Man is possibly a link between the Diddley and Sweet/Bowie songs as it's the same riff as Diddley's with the four short drum beats, but much faster - a breakneck 144 beats a minute. Hear it here

Bo Diddley plays Bo Diddley on the Ed Sullivan show at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLcYuuljrD4. You'll surely recognise the similarity to the Stones Not Fade Away though it's much faster.  The song was written of course by Buddy Holly whose version is much more staccato: hear it here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NN2L84dvoag). The Clash's wonderful Hateful featuring just the same riff can be heard here,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQjoayRUvTs&list=RDBQjoayRUvTs&start_radio=1

-------------------------------------

Sources:

Alexis Petridis's obituary Steve Priest: the outrageous Sweet bassist who presaged heavy metal was in the Guardian:  https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jun/05/steve-priest-the-sweet-bassist-heavy-metal. It makes an interesting (and credible) case that the "low glam" Sweet were just as influential as "high glam" David Bowie

https://darrensmusicblog.com/2016/12/04/the-sweet-versus-bowie-the-riff-in-blockbuster-and-gene-jeanie-origins-and-influences/

https://www.premierguitar.com/bo-diddley-was-a-guitar-slinger

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%27m_a_Man_(Bo_Diddley_song)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%27m_a_Man_(Bo_Diddley_song)




Monday, 17 January 2022

Clueless

Everton are looking for their sixth new manager in six years since Farhad Moshiri became majority shareholder. 

There are plenty of good things to say about Moshiri. The new Everton ground at Bramley Moore dock, construction proceeding apace, would not be happening wothout him. The issue over the need to replace an ageing Goodison Park - the first purpose-built association football stadium in the world according to Wikipedia* - thwarted attempts to sell the club or secure investment for more than two decades with even Newcastle and Aston Villa, let alone Manchester City and Liverpool more attractive acquisition targets than Everton. Moshiri has underwritten significant spending in the transfer market - over half a billion pounds. 

The problem though is that under Moshiri, even with Bill Kenwright at his elbow, Everton have been clueless with no apparent strategy for development of the team. One wonders how so much money can be spent and yet the squad can be so light in numbers and thin on quality.

The scattergun approach with managers might work for Roman Abramovich but there is plenty of continuity behind the scenes at Chelsea and there has been a perennially strong squad for a long time now. After a while the players don't respond to the manager so Abramovich changes him.

Part of the problem at Everton is that the players, most of whom are on long contracts, know the manager is temporary. They don't respond; maybe even flout instructions and performances are weak.

Each time the club is looking for a new manager many fans say they need to appoint a top quality manager with a proven track record. Well, Ancelotti won the Champions League twice as a player and three times as a manager, one of only three managers to achieve the latter feat. Everton started brightly under Ancelotti but in the second half of his sole season in charge they were poor. Benitez had won the Champions League and Europa League as a manager. Again Everton started well under him but it only lasted a few weeks. So appointing a high quality experienced manager isn't enough.

Benitez's appoint was always a risk in so far as some fans were never going to accept him and it was to be expected that a poor run of form would soon lead to a toxic atmosphere. But the events of the last six weeks reveal so much of what is wrong at Everton. As results deteriorated in early December the board backed Benitez in a power struggle with the director of football, Marcel Brands. Brands was sacked, presumably to give Benitez time to get some improved results under his belt. At a vibrant Goodison a couple of days later Everton recorded their first league win since the end of September against Arsenal. There have been no more wins in the 5 games since, just a creditable draw away to Chelsea with many regular players missing and several stand ins - which is telling.

Sacking Brands made no sense if Benitez's job was aso under threat. While Everton's transfer business has been very dodgy much of it was legacy players on long contracts and it has arguably improved under Brands with buys such as Richarlison, Digne, Mina, Allan, Doucoure and Godfrey who have all arguably been successes. Andre Gomes looked great before his bad injury, Gbamin suffered an even quicker bad injury, Branthwaite looks a good youngster and Olsen and Begovic have been good goalie understudies.  Moise Kean didn't work out and Rodriguez was a luxury player for Everton but his record of goals and assists has been missed. The only totally dodgy siging of Brands's reign, for me, is the hideously overpriced Iwobi who many believe to have been imposed by Moshiri. The Liverpool Echo rated all the signings under Brands, probably a bit more favourably than I have**.

To back Benitez, sack Brands then sack Benitez within 6 weeks looks inept and leaves the club with no driving force and less than two weeks of the transfer window to go.

The saga over Lucas Digne, a player brought up at Lille, PSG and Barcelona and who has 43 caps for France, is telling. Benitez clearly lost it with Digne, excluding him from the squad before selling him. Newspaper talk is that Digne was upset because he was taken off set piece duties in favour of Andros Townsend. This doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Firstly, Townsend hasn't been on the pitch all the time. Secondly, it is useful to have a right and a left footer standing over free kicks to put doubt in the defending team's minds. (You have to engender a genuine element of doubt, mind, which Everton rarely do). It is just as likely that the fall out was over Digne's productivity: he recorded 8 assists two seasons ago, 7 last season and this time in half a season - zero. His productivity might have been linked to how Benitez wanted Digne to play, possibly more conservatively with wingers in the team to do that job.

But to back the manager offloading your left back, who happened to be one of your best players, on 13 January having signed a new left back on 1 January, only to then sack the manager on 16 January? Crazy. One can only hope the new left back, Ukrainian Vitaliy Mykolenko, settles down after two underwhelming performances since arriving. He even managed to make Digne look like a competent defender (which he isn't). Hopefully he won't, like Digne, acquire a dressing room reputation for not believing he had always played well and nothing was ever his fault.

All that said, Benitez's record had become indefensible. His micro-management approach may well be past its sell by date and wasn't working. The defence continued to leak despite that supposedly being a Benitez strong point. Zonal defences with zones left vacant, as per Brighton's goal from a corner flicked on to the far post. Everton went behind early in games with predictable regularity. Indeed the only stat on which Everton are at the right end of the table is points won after being behind. They had a lot of practice at it.

The bookies favourite for Moshiri's seventh "permanent" manager is his first, Roberto Martinez, who he inherited and sacked after only a few months, Everton having finished a disappointing 12th. Things have rarely been much better since....

I have mixed feelings about Martinez because it all started very well. The team played a modern, possession style of football and the crowd got used to talking among themselves in the quiet passages of play. But with Barkley and Lukaku up front they had explosive pace and finished 5th, nearly matching David Moyes's best premier league finish (4th) while recording their highest points total in 27 years. We sang this along to the Beach Boys Sloop John B:

We play from the back / with Ross in attack / the School of Science / is on its way back!

And it was possible to believe it. But Martinez was too dogmatic in his approach to possession football. He appeared to like to consolidate possession when his team won the ball back, rather than trusting his team to attack at the transition. I realise that transitions are dangerous as well as opportunities, but it was just too ponderous and predictable. Since then he has taken Belgium to first in the world rankings - for two and a half years - and third place in the 2018 World Cup. Maybe he has learned stuff, maybe not. But what worries me even more is that while he took Wigan to an FA Cup win on his watch, beating Manchester City in the final (and Everton 3-0 en route), he also got them relegated. Now Wigan were not an established Premier League team*** but even so, is he the man for what could turn into a relegation struggle? 

Interestingly when I checked Martinez's Wikipedia entry just now it and it says:

"Martínez is the manager of Everton football club, who he expects to be relegated in 2021/2022 season"

Must have been hacked by a Liverpool fan!

Other candidates? Forget Frank Lampard, I wouldn't want him anyway but he needs to be very careful about his next job - Everton would be career suicide. Many fans want David Moyes back - they didn't after he'd been at Manchester United but he's doing well at West Ham, challenging for the top four. So why should he go back to the basket case that is Everton?

Graham Potter? Not as much of a punt as Mike Walker but while he has done well at Brighton, Everton would present him with the under-performing big club challenge, which does for many.

Wayne Rooney??? He's done well at the even bigger basket case that is Derby, but a big punt.

The simple fact is that, apart from a brief flurry under Joe Royle and a period of stability and relative success under Moyes, which lacked only a trophy, Everton have under-performed for 30 years. Which, unfortunately, corresponds precisely with the money-laden Premier League era. In that time they've had many competent managers: Howard Kendall (mark two and three), Walter Smith, Martinez, Ancelotti, Benitez. None have thrived apart from Moyes - a risky pick from the Championship when appointed - and Martinez, for a while, but he inherited Moyes's team and a club infused with Moyes's ethos. At the time journalists used to say that the only training gorund that felt remotely like Manchester United's was Everton's with a family feel and a dressing room that genuinely welcomed new players. (I have it first hand from a Premier League drug tester that none of them have a family feel now).

My biggest nightmare is that Everton fall into the Championship with an expensive stadium project to fund and saddled with onerous Fair Play constraints if they were not to bounce straight back. Yes, there are more than enough poor teams in the Premier League right now who Everton should easily finish ahead of. But none of them are playing with so little confidence.

Everton seem to be beset by individual errors, which tends to happen when the players' brains are scrambled.

My hope is that Everton can regroup enough to pull away from trouble, get a manager, any manager, who can stay for three seasons of stability, get the stadium built and open and then Moshiri will have an attractive proposition that he can sell to someone with at least as much financial clout who eiher knows what they are doing or can appoint good people and let them get on with it.

Be careful what you wish for...

Nil Satis, Nisi Optimum, huh?

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stadium#:~:text=Goodison%20Park%20was%20the%20first,3%2C000%20spectators%20was%20also%20requested. Though it comes from a book published by Macmillan called School of Science by James Corbett so I don't know how verified that is. But Goodison Park was purpose built in 1892 and most football grounds of the day would have been multi-purpose or converted from other use and would not have qualified as a "stadium" for which I assume you need more than a stand and some dressing rooms on one side of the pitch. I'm sure Ibrox runs Goodison close though 

** https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/sport/football/transfer-news/marcel-brands-everton-signings-rated-20860931

*** Arsenal and Everton are the two most established top flight teams, Arsenal ever present since 1919 and Everton since 1954

Thursday, 13 January 2022

House of Fun? No, You're An Embarrassment

I wondered on 19 November (Tipping point reached?) whether the point was being reached where the public had decided to eject the government at the next election come what may, as they did with John Major's government in the 1990s over 'back to basics' coupled with sleaze, cash for questions, a recession and the perceived economic incompetence of Black/White Wednesday. The last of these turned into  economic success but it didn't matter. I said that the see saw might have begun to tip but more weight would be needed on the high end to make it go. There's been rather a lot of weight added....


I'm in what I suspect is a small minority that isn't prejudging the report of civil servant Sue Gray's investigation. Why? Because I'm not clear the various events were 'parties' or necessarily broke any rules. Here's my logic:

  • at the time of the above photo (15 May 2020) all sorts of work activities were prohibited and there was a general "you must work from home if you can" guidance for the rest. Most civil servants can work from home. Indeed I suspect a very large proportion of them still are: partly because I've seen statistics and partly because I note the appalling drop off in performance of usually efficient bodies like the DWP, who can't seem to answer the phone, call back, respond to letters, acknowledge receipt of money or get calculations right at the moment. So I can entirely understand why it was decided that number 10 staff needed to be in the office
  • However, it's much safer to be in the fresh air. I don't have a problem with the idea that the number 10 garden is considered an "extension of the work space".  The groups above, including the PM, the great influencer (i.e. Carrie Johnson), the dark lord Dominic Cummings and the PM's accident-prone PPS Martin Reynolds - all in the group seated nearest the peeping tom camera - are relatively well socially distanced. Maybe not 2 metres, but safe enough outdoors. Hopefully they were chewing over ideas - after all football didn't restart for nearly another month. But I'd be amazed if this particular "event" would be considered to be breaking the regulations of the time, even though the rules were that you could meet only one other person from outside your household, outdoors in a public place. The No 10 garden isn't a public place
  • However the BYOB (bring your own bottle) event to which said Martin Reynolds invited a much larger number of people sounds like another matter. Even there I could potentially be persuaded that the PM didn't see the invitation: I'm sure he doesn't read every email and it probably went to his Diary Secretary anyway. The "I didn't know it was a party" excuse sounds too daft to most people to be true but it might be. And if all those people were legitimately working in number 10 and came into the garden keeping their distance that doesn't automatically mean a regulation was broken
So I don't know whether Sue Gray will find that rules weren't broken, or that they were a bit stretched; in either case to a loud chorus of "whitewash". Though she might say they were in which case it must surely be time for a change of PM.

But even if she does find rules weren't "technically" broken (or some such form of weasel words - a phrase I first learnt from civil servants) I don't think it matters. Because I suspect that most people's reaction is emotional. Over the last few days there has been an outpouring of anger about "another rule for them". Many have posted poignant pictues of what they were doing in May 2020 - such as working in ICUs in full PPE, not going to a loved one's deathbed and/or funeral, or granny sitting alone in her overcoat on the patio outside while her grandchild's party went on inside the house for residents only. It only takes a few percent swing in marginal seats to change the outcome of a general election radically and I think we can bank that swing now.

Not only is there anger, there is also derision. Johnson has never minded being seen as a bit of a figure of fun, as in the famous picture of him stuck on a zipwire in his time as London mayor, looking for all the world as if he was semaphoring for rescue:



Johnson has traded on his scatterbrain image. I know folk who are anti-tory don't get it, but he does have charisma. I used to say that even people who didn't vote Tory (especially blokes) would be more likely to shout something like "Hey, Boris, wotcha!" and ask for a selfie with him if they saw him on the opposite pavement. For a figure of fun, to some extent it doesn't matter what the mix is between people laughing with you and at you. But a figure of ridicule is different. Never have I seen so many visual jokes on a particular theme, especially political. For example:


(with thanks to my buddy on WhatsApp for sending these and several more).

But for me none of the above really matters. To me it's about a failure of leadership rather than technical details about the rules and how they were or should have been interpreted. 

Let's say for the sake of argument Johnson hadn't seen the invitation to the BYOB "party" and it had just been put in his diary. A big presumption yes, but I often found things had just appeared in my business diary so I could just about believe it. The PM probably has regular meetings with his Diary Secretary and might veto some items but it wouldn't be a surprise if Johnson skipped some of that and ended up winging it. And remember these guys have bright young bag carriers just steering them from meeting to meeting. For example, David Cameron was an adviser at the Treasury and Home Office before he stood as an MP. 

Even in this extremely generous scenario the PM could still have realised the poor example that was being set and the risk that, with the best part of a hundred people present, it was bound to leak. The only real surprise is that it took so long! Even if we cut him that much slack, he should have realised what the gathering could look like to those outside No 10. He could have called for order and said something like "I really do appreciate all the hard work you are all doing. But we've asked people not to do this sort of thing even in private and people all over the country are suffering tremendous hardship to comply with the rules we've set. So we'll have to save this for another day. Please pick up some tucker on the way back in and let's get back to saving the country from this awful virus".

But that would have required awareness, foresight, reasonably quick thinking and the ability to disappoint those around him, a characteristic he seems to lack much of the time. People who play up to the crowd can be like that. However, these are all characteristics of good leaders. So for me it doesn't really matter what Sue Gray concludes, the issue is still a failure of leadership.

But just thinking ahead, we can anticipate Gray may conclude one of the following:
  • rules were broken
  • it's all a bit gray (sorry, grey) but the spirit of some rules weren't complied with
  • rules weren't broken, but it didn't set a great example
I think all of these options are bad for Johnson.

So the opposition have been presented with an open goal. According to Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times, Keir Starmer's team has briefed Labour MPs not to deploy "one rule for them" type points, since many voters might respond "you politicians are all the same", but to stick to calling Johnson shambolic and saying he's lost his grip and "the joke isn't funny any more".  Labour do seem to have a new found confidence and effectiveness. The strategy of Starmer sorting out internal problems such as anti-semitism and marginalising the hard left first, before turning to building confidence in them as a realistic candidate for government risked appearing underwhelming for a long time. But, as I thought it might, the long game may pay off. There is no point in pushing hard against a popular government, as this was until very recently. Most governments go through periods of unpopularity, though rarely do the wheels come off so spectacularly. You have to position yourself to take the opportunities when they arise. Given Johnson's characteristics that was always likely. Starmer's boring and trustworthy persona may well prove to be good characteristics at the present time.

When The Economist runs a story with these headlines:

"Boris Johnson has always been unfit to be prime minister

With him in office, Britain can expect a rough ride"

as they do in this week's edition, it's clear the Tories have a big problem.


Their problem would appear to be whether to change leader, if so when and for who. After all, they pushed Maggie out and then won two years later with Major.  The speculation has already started. But changing leaders isn't easy and could easily not be enough to rebuild trust. 

The story will surely run for even longer than it's taking for the Australian government to decide what to do about Novak Djokovich.

And Johnson may yet hold on. It probably depends on whether Tory MPs can coalesce around a candidate enough of them agree on. And whether they think their preferred candidate will come over as just as trustworthy as Starmer but less boring and more effective. For me that would point to Sunak though, if she got to the last two who are put to party members, it seems Truss would win comfortably. Given Sunak's smart PR the "stop Truss" move, when it comes, will be stilletto rather than blunderbuss, but it would come.

Meanwhile the hangover from the party goes on.

PS if you're wondering where the blog title comes from, of course, it's Madness! 



Friday, 7 January 2022

The season of goodwill?

Do you have the time

to listen to me whine

About nothing and everything all at once

I am one of those

Melodramatic fools...

It's a new year and I've gone back to keeping my resolution from decades ago (not to make any more new year resolutions, of course, haha). But on reflection maybe I should try to chill out a bit...

The signs aren't good, though. As we went into our second covid era Christmas a number of things were irritating me. "What's new?" you might say. Fair cop, I get grumpier as I get older. But there's so much provocation...

First there was the headline about firms calling for certainty in the run up to Christmas as the government hedged its bets. "Are you asking to be shut down?" I thought, "it's the only way you'll get certainty!" I'm not without sympathy for the hospitality industry, having to decide on orders for food supplies etc, but they clearly think someone has a crystal ball that works.  Seems they haven't they noticed that Boris Johnson hasn't got one. Though so far he's done ok in crossing his fingers about Omicron. We're not out of the wood yet but the light restrictions strategy currently looks like a good call.

I'm even more irritated by the way some football managers give us the annual whinge about the Christmas fixture list. It's mainly the continental imports of course, who are used to a mid-season break. Well we like our Christmas and New year fixtures, with the rush of league games followed by the 3rd round of the F.A. Cup, just as it is, thank you for asking. If you don't like it go home and manage in Germany, Jurgen.

Herr Klopp usually complains about the "Premier League" but of course the league is just its member clubs. Most of them, quite probably including his own on the quiet, like the income that goes with the 20 team league and its seasonal fixture rush. To be fair, Klopp's concern has always been about player welfare from the point of view of injuries and burn out. But then he doesn't have the largest squad, is more dependent on his star players than rivals Manchester City and his team play a higher energy style.

But this year the whinges have been strengthened by managers seeking postponements because of  covid isolation. Most prominent has been Thomas Tuchel of Chelsea after his club was told to play its fixture at Wolves. He claimed it wasn't "safe", predicted more positive tests in his squad after they'd had to "sit in the bus and have dinners and just stay together like nothing happened".  Wow, where to start dissecting that torrent of bilge?

Well, Thomas, with all Chelsea's resources you could have kept the players well separated by hiring a fleet of buses. One for each player if necessary. The squad could have eaten socially distanced in the concourse areas of the stadium after the fans had gone.  But aren't they mixing at training? And aren't those of them with school age children more likely to catch it at home? And, of course, while we know 16% of Premier League players are unvaccinated, we don't know how many Chelsea players that applies to. Tuchel has made it clear that he is vaccinated but, unlike Klopp, says its not up to him to advise his players. He made the point that they have had positive tests amongst their vaccinated players. Yes, we know you can still catch it, Thomas. But given the age and fitness of your players they are extremely unlikely to become seriously ill. So it's not a safety issue from a covid point of view. He went on to say his players were at risk of getting more injuries if they had to play fixtures with a depleted squad. Chelsea have one of the largest squads and largest academies, so he won't get much sympathy there either. Tuchel just wants to have his best players available, as he knows he probably only has this season and maybe next to win the Premier League before Roman Abramovich rolls the managerial dice again.

The Premier League has made clear that teams only need 14 fit players, including a goalkeeper, to fulfill a fixture. I support this stance. Though it would be tough if a team had no centre backs or forwards. Everton played their game at Chelsea before Christmas with at least ten first team squad players unavailable. Everton have been forced, by their small squad size, to fill up their bench with academy players and, often, a third goalkeeper in recent weeks, though they've had two fixtures postponed since. Even the namby pampy Gruaniad had no sympathy for Tuchel's arguments.** So just get on with it, Thomas.

Antonio Conte complained that the Premier League meeting with managers was like talking to a wall. See above, Tony, talk to your Chairman. Who probably sides with the majority while telling you otherwise.

The league was wise in rebuffing calls for a circuit breaker. Newspaper headlines about fixture "chaos" were typically ridiculous: a few games off is not chaos. The League would also have had in mind that  catching up at the end of the season from a general shut down now would be problematic, with next season due to start early because of the World Cup in Qatar in November (don't get me started on that decision...). We know what chaos would look like - an unplanned winter break, followed by a ot of postponements due to bad weather and this season almost running into next. How exhausted would your players be then, Jurgen and co? Oh and just to complicate things television coverage of the fixtures immediately after Christmas had been sold to Amazon. I'm sure the league didn't fancy renegotiating that and having to pay money back, as Amazon would have been unimpressed with the fixtures being delivered piece meal between now and the end of the season. Anyway, no-one else was going for a circuit breaker, so why should football?

The next thing made me feel depressed rather than irritated. Mrs H reported that her dental hygienist had volunteered to give people covid booster jabs. When they spoke she had done an 8 hour shift until midnight the previous evening, after a full day's normal work. No, that's not the depressing bit. Of the 14 "lanes" that could have been open only three were. All three volunteers doing injections were from the private sector, zilch from the public sector. Several hadn't turned up. No doubt individually they had good reasons. But come on!

That is a spot sample of course and I'm as partial as anyone to selective use of statistics. But when a national newspaper, pressing the case for no more restrictions, prints the following on the 4th of January***, I get really cross:

"In fact, the number of people dying with the virus is down 70 per cent, with 42 deaths reported in Britain yesterday compared to 143 on December 27."

In that context, "yesterday" was Monday 3 January, the New Year Bank Holiday. It's beyond belief that our 7 day NHS can't count dead bodies on a Sunday, let alone a bank holiday, with "catch up" days occurring almost randomly. As 10 deaths were reported on Christmas Day, 3 on Boxing Day, 143 on 27th and 19 on the 28th it's clear that the 27th was a catch up day, so a misleading baseline day. Similarly as 154 deaths were reported on 1 January, there was no report on 2 January (the party was still going presumably) 42 on the 3rd, 130 on 4th, 343 on 5th and 231 on the 6th it's clear the 3rd was an equally misleading day to choose. This is why the media shouldn't even quote the daily stats. The seven day rolling average on the two days Prof Karol Sikora chose (presumably deliberately) were 107 on 27 December and 126 on 3 January. For obvious reasons I'd never choose an NHS Monday as my baseline data but, on those numbers I'd say the death rate had gone up by 18% not down by 70%.

Sikora is a prof of medicine at the private, not for profit University of Buckingham which scores quite low in the league tables (89th equal out of 131 in the Times and 123rd in the Complete University Guide). Though it proudly proclaims to be 6th for student satisfaction in the National Student Survey and 1st for free speech in a poll by Spiked magazine. Which was set up by many of the contributors from Living Marxism when it closed after losing a libel case to ITN. It's current edition has an item on the "demonisation of Novak Djokovich"  and a podcast titled "Lockdown is the revenge of the elites".

The University of Buckingham and Spiked magazine make very strange bedfellows. This is all so far beyond parody that I think I've calmed down now.

The song lyric quoted at the top is of course from the brilliant Basket Case by Green Day, the most English sounding of the so called American punk bands when they woke up a decade and a half behind us. The very poppy end of punk, more new wave really. When I sang the first lines yesterday out loud (Do you have the time / to listen to me whine) Mrs H retorted "Do I have the effing choice?" Fair point. 

Happy New Year!

* Tuchel's whinge can be seen and heard at https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/59719428

** https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2021/dec/21/thomas-tuchel-falls-short-in-stance-on-chelsea-and-covid-vaccines

*** Only fear will stop Britain from putting the virus behind us now, Prof Karol Sikora, Daily Mail 4 January 2022


Tuesday, 21 December 2021

Reality TV has a purpose

I've been thinking about my prejudices again in my long and torturous process of trying to become more of a human being. What prompted this? Strictly Come Dancing, actually.

The final, featuring Rose Ayling Ellis and John Whaite after A J Odudu had to pull out with injury was wonderful heart-warming TV, even if it was too much of a tear-fest for misery mush Piers Morgan.

At the start of the series I couldn't figure out how a deaf person could perform well in a dance competition. But I was even more sure I wouldn't warm to two blokes dancing together. Oh, I've long since stopped having any hang up about gay couples. And I've enjoyed watching blokes dance together before: in particular a rather macho, athletic Cirque du Soleil performance showed breath taking control with slow and precise movements, requiring impressive strength. And blokes dancing together side by side has been well established in song and dance routines for many decades - Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in White Christmas from 1954 for example. But in ballroom hold?

I was concerned that the producers wouldn't give the full range of dances to John and his partner Johannes Radebe. It's seemed obvious to some of us cynics for many series that some couples seem to get remarkably favourable breaks in what dances they have to do, so I rather expected John and JoJo to be given dances that suited them. In other words to benefit from favouritism from the producers. 

For any male celebrity the rumba is a "wild card" which can stymie their chances of making progress, as it is notoriously the hardest dance to get a good score from the judges. OK, I could see a tango or paso doble working but a waltz? A foxtrot? The time in the competition that a contestant has to tackle a particular dance can easily seal their fate. One thing the Beeb has never made clear is how the dances and the music are chosen. I assume it's not random...

In the event it was Rhys Stephenson who arguably got the favours - no rumba and not much ballroom either, after week one. He was a decent dancer but so much better out of hold so I wondered whether this was the Beeb protecting its own, Stephenson being a CBeebies presenter. 

My fears about John and Johannes though were totally unfounded. They were given the rumba in week 7 which could have proved very dangerous for their prospects. But they produced such a good and compelling dance that, when it they repeated it in the final, it equalled the best ever score for a rumba in a main series of Strictly - 39 points (Craig has only ever given a rumba a ten in a Christmas special). The only male celebrities to achieve that previously have been Matt Di Angelo, way back in 2007 and the imperious Jay McGuinness of Pulp Fiction jive fame in 2015.

Indeed John was given more ballroom than latin dances. While he was very competent at ballroom this didn't do him any favours. Possibly to avoid the ballroom dances looking too much like a pastiche (ok, guilty, I suppose I mean "too gay") Johannes choreographed the dances with the two men alternating as lead. While this worked well it increased the degree of difficulty. Although John coped well with it the simple fact is it didn't always look "right". And if it doesn't look like a tango, guess what: it isn't a tango. This was reflected in the judges scores. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Rose had the lowest average score going into the final. She had the highest average ballroom score of the semi-finalists but much the lowest latin score. I don't remember the exact number and I'm not going to crunch a spreadsheet but it was below 30. Indeed, she was perhaps fortunate not to get a latin dance after week 7. John had the highest average score and the highest latin score of the finalists with a ballroom score of about 32. A J was actually the best all-round dancer, with a very even split between ballroom and latin, around 34. It was unfortunate she couldn't compete in the final but I suspect she also couldn't compete with the narrative Rose and John had going with the public.

And anyway, although the Beeb's data crunchers never seem to leak, we can be pretty sure Rose's public vote was off the scale all through the competition. There could only be one winner - and she was a worthy winner. It was wonderful to watch her grow in confidence through the series and to see how her professional partner, Giovanni Pernice, rose to the challenge (sorry) of communicating with her,  empathically as much as telepathically. Unlike rumba, "Couples Choice" is an open invitation to a high score, but their dance was exceptionally moving. And her "leap of faith" into Gio's outstretched hands in her American Smooth was the "wow" moment of the series for me. (Though John and JoJo's bagette sequence in the Charleston was memorable. No, "baguette" isn't a euphemism: if you haven't seen it, find the video and watch). 

On the night, if I'd had to choose, I would have voted for John.

So in the end I had no problem with two blokes dancing ballroom together. There is a proviso, though. We warm to contestants on shows like Strictly partly by how they respond to the challenge as competitors and partly by what they're like as people. Though you can never fully see the real person on the screen, John Whaite seems to be a fantastic bloke: warm, cheerful, friendly, talented - so light on his feet and by far the most precise dancer of the finalists from what we could see - and hugely supportive of his rather touchingly emotional pro partner. He didn't expect to win on the night and didn't seem too bothered either way. He wanted to give of his best and he gave us wonderful entertainment. For example:


Part of the reason I didn't know beforehand if I could stomach two blokes dancing in Strictly was because I hadn't enjoyed watching two women dancing together in the previous series. But the reason for this is now completely clear to me. Unlike some people I have no problem with Nicola's partner, Katya Jones, who seemed to lose public support over a dalliance with her partner in 2018, Seann Walsh. What I remember is her amazing choreography for their Matrix themed dance in musicals week, with its portrayal of the slo-mo bullet dodging scene. What was really amazing was that it transpired Walsh wasn't actually a very good dancer, but boy she made him look like one that week. So my problem was with Nicola, whose exploits I had admired winning her boxing golds at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. It turned out she didn't come across as likeable. Worse, she was one of those contestants who thinks she is doing much better at dancing than she actually is.

For me that's not prejudice: I'm entitled to not like people.

And I've decided reality TV does have a purpose. It allows us to identify with people from different backgrounds to ourselves, be it Rose and the deaf community, John's wonderful warmth as a gay man, AJ's ebullient enthusiasm, albeit always on the verge of becoming over-powering or some vacuous tattoed contestant in Love Island. We can see the world for a moment through the eyes of others.

And understand a little bit more, empathise a bit more and, hopefully, become more inclusive and accepting of people as a result.

Of course, it was great entertainment too, otherwise I wouldn't watch.

And no, I don't watch Love Island and don't intend to start. There are limits!





Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Apartheid in the UK

University staff are striking and one of the reasons is a proposal to cut their pension benefits to maintain the funding in the scheme. 

Nearly everyone in a private sector final salary scheme - not many still exist - has long since had to pay in more, retire later, receive a lower pension or a combination of the above. The large increases in life expectancy seemed to catch pensions actuaries on the hop in the 1990s. Schemes were nominally overfunded and I recall employer's taking contribution holidays. I also remember the first time I realised that tide had turned as my company's employer's contributions had rocketed from the holiday level of 4% to the standard 7.5 and then on to 10 and 11%. This would have been 2001 and our pensions advisers briefed me on the reasons as we had to answer due diligence questions on a business we were selling. I remember predicting to Mrs H that we would read a lot more about pensions in the coming years. By the end of the decade most private sector pension schemes had been restructured, at best with individuals given a choice over pay more, retire later or take less. The more usual and more guaranteed solution for companies was to draw a line under benefits earned to date, preserving what individuals had already paid for and start over with a money purchase pension. But here we are nearly two decades later and the notional deficit on public sector schemes still yawns large even after some changes were made 6 years ago. I say notional but it isn't really - it means future taxpayers, our childen and grandchildren, will have to meet the shortfall. I doubt the university staff see themselves as inter-generational looters but I could easily argue that they are.

Much of the recent publicity about public sector pensions has concerned hospital consultants, where the NHS is so poor at administration that it allows key employees to inadvertently stumble into incurring huge tax bills for working extra hours and breaching the lifetime limit. Ah but you need to be a high roller to do that, I hear you think. Nope, not really.

And, while the NHS has a stonkingly good pension scheme, it's the judges and civil servants who have the best. Their benefits build up faster, they pay in less and their employers pay in more - equivalent to up to 30% of salary. When you read about public sector pay being higher than private this huge extra benefit isn't usually counted along with pay. Of course it should be as a pension is simply deferred salary.

Here are some numbers, courtesy of a recent Sunday Times article.

A civil service manager on average pay (I assume having worked the maximum 40 years that count at that average salary as even the civil service scheme isn't final salary any more) would receive a pension of £47,215 a year. For tax purposes that is equivalent to a lump sum pension pot of £944,300.

But to get that same payout from a money purchase pension, with inflation indexing and spouse's benefits, a pot of £1.77 million would have to be built up. In principle you could pay in about £1300 a month for 40 years to do it. However, the lifetime allowance is £1.073 million after which large tax charges are incurred, so it would actually be very difficult to achieve. The Sunday Times estimated that if you were auto-enrolled into a private scheme and earning the same as the civil servant you would have to pay into the scheme for 73 years to be able to afford equivalent benefits. I don't know if they've allowed for the tax in that hypothetical calculation but it seems academic.

You could do it more quickly if your pay package (salary plus pension) was actually equivalent to the civil service manager's. This would probably mean a salary of something like £65k to 'match' the civil servant's £50k. By paying something like 30% of your salary (and ending up with roughly the same take home pay) you would think it might be possible. But no. That lifetime limit and tax charge would make the hurdle much higher. There is a 55% tax above that limit, so I think that means you'd have to stash away a total of nearly £2.5 million to achieve the pot of £1.77 million. 

I might not have this quite right but you get the drift. To get the same pension as the civil servant the private sector employee might have to be earning 50% more and make colossal monthly contributions. For practical purposes it's impossible.

The gap between public and private sector pensions was reported to be the largest in the developed world 5 years ago. No wonder the comparison has often been referred to as a 'pensions apartheid'. 

I have friends who work or have worked in the public sector who say it's not their fault that the private sector can't offer equivalent pensions. I'm sorry but that's just not right. Public sector pensions are building up unsustainable deficits and are relying on being bailed out by future taxpayers while the tax playing field is rigged against their private sector equivalents.

What can be done?

Firstly, while the pensions regulator provides advice and information for those charged with running some public sector pension schemes I don't think it has powers to require higher contributions to maintain viability, as it does for private sector schemes. If not it should be charged with doing so, or at least reporting on it, a bit like the OBR  is there to keep the Treasury honest.

Secondly the pensions lifetime limit needs a serious overhaul. I don't know how much tax it brings in - I suspect not much directly though it probably increased income tax receipts by switching excessive payments free of tax into pensions to taxable income. But as there are limits on what can be paid in why is a lifetime limit also needed? Logically it isn't. It also penalises wise investment as no distinction is drawn between payments in and  investment returns. This has all gone badly wrong from Gordon Brown's tax on pensions to George Osborne's ill thought out impositions.

Thirdly all public sector pay ought to be quoted as its full package cost of pay plus pension. It would be an eye opener. The university lecturers are on strike over their pay and pension. OK, bring it on.  Pension is deferred pay and they should be considered together. Let's negotiate on their full package compared with private sector equivalents. 

Either that or maybe all the private sector baby boomers should go and stage a sit in back at their old universities. 

The current situation is indefensible.

  • How to match a civil service pension. Clue: it may take you 73 years. Sunday Times 27 November

Monday, 29 November 2021

The more there is of mine the less there is of yours

... said the Duchess. The quote is, of course, from Alice in Wonderland. I'm reminded of it by the mess the government has got itself into over the new care costs cap of £86k announced only in September.  The government has clarified that, as an individual's assets reduce below £100k and means testing comes into place, with councils making a contribution from the public purse so that the individual's dwindling assets last a bit longer, the contribution from the council does not count towards the £86k cap. People still have to shell out until they've coughed up £86k of their own money.

I must say I was astounded at the reaction. What part of an £86k cap on an individual's contribution would you expect to come from someone else, Alice?

To be fair I hadn't realised the original government announcement implied that the £86k cap wasn't really an £86k cap. And so those in high dudgeon have a point. Kind of.

It is that the cap hits folk in low cost housing areas (mainly but not exclusively the north) disproportionately. Sure, if you are wealthy, you'll never get the benefit of this council funded taper and will hit the £86k cap first. And in all probability have more left over once the cap comes in. So yes, the cap implies that rich people will pay the same and retain more than less affluent individuals. But that was always implicit in a cap.

Sir Richard Dilnott apparently predicted this situation in his original report, aeons ago and says the government has now got it wrong. But wait: Dilnott and others could have framed it the other way round: there's a minimum you can keep rather than a maximum you have to pay. Yes, I know that wouldn't work for the Tories. And might not work in a revenue generating sense: it's a perennial rule that you only generate a lot of tax by hitting ordinary people, not just the "rich". But in principle you could devise a progressive tax-like system. Except the government having inherited a situation where everyone had sat on their hands for more than a decade, had to do something quick, not good, so didn't have time to devise anything complicated.

Notwithstanding the current storm in a teacup, the real problem is that the government didn't "fix social care". Indeed it hasn't yet tried. It came up with a hastily devised revenue generating tax and a boosted cap to protect most people's assets to some extent. A cap will always favour the wealthy though the decision was, initially, almost pathetically well received in the less affluent areas characterised as 'red wall'. When you don't have so much you may be very grateful to keep some of it. Indeed a higher proportion in some cases, when you factor in inheritance tax thresholds. 

But isn't that the problem? The solution not only didn't address the actual issue of provision and quality of care, it left more rather than fewer anomalies in the way the care costs cap works with inheritance tax, when logically it was an IHT issue the government was actually addressing not a care costs issue. 

I don't know what those red wall voters, let alone Alice, will say when they realise the cap only applies to personal care, not 'hotel' costs. I don't know the balance but I'd have thought the hotel costs were the larger component. In a kind of cost-price averaging, nursing care home residents all pay the same weekly cost (in my experience) irrespective of their actual care needs. So if you need a lot of care, the others in your nursing home who don't end up subbing you. Just as the self funders sub the local authority funded residents, who pay a block rate driven down by bargaining power, to the short term benefit of council tax payers but creating even more anomalies and lower funding for a chronically underfunded service.

This could get messier yet. As I predicted in my post of 9 September Taxing Times, which noted that the PM didn't have a plan for social care, he had a funding mechanism which was actually more about protecting the value of people's houses than anything else.

And his problem is - that's what a lot of people thought, not just me.