Wednesday, 28 December 2016

No wonder every boy wanted to be a train driver

In my post "Nationalise the railways?" on 21 December I hinted that railway employees are well paid, in suggesting that most of them would struggle to get such a well paid job elsewhere. I'm not sure that many people realise just how well paid train drivers are, but the Daily Mail was one of several news outlets to pick up on the fact that drivers on Southern Railway, when they are actually bothering to work, earn £49,660 a year basic salary, topped up for many to £52,000 by a London Weighting allowance. Not bad when the median UK salary is about £28k. But hold on minute, that basic is for working a 4 day standard working week. Most of them work 5 days, so actual earnings, given that they get overtime for the 5th day, are about £70,000. That seems a pretty good whack for driving a train.

To put this in context, the median pay of the highest earning group for full -time employees in the ONS Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings 2016 (managers, directors and senior officials) was £41,500. £70k is higher than the median total annual earnings for chartered engineers, which was £63k in 2013.

Their earnings put train drivers around the 94th percentile in terms of pre-tax pay (£70k was the 95th percentile in 2013-14, £60k was the 93rd percentile). So only 1 in 20 people earn more than them. Incredible.

Oh,  and of course the drivers of course benefit from a generous final salary pension scheme and 6 weeks holiday a year. (Incidentally isn't it about time that all earnings were quoted as the value of the the package including pension and other benefits? This would be very revealing but it would mainly confirm just how good a deal many public sector employees are on).

Driving a train is a responsible job which requires some training and skills but it surely should not rank above the average for jobs in the UK economy. The only reason it does is the historic and continuing bargaining power of a tiny group.

The Southern drivers are striking again in the new year. Their strike overlaps with one by London Underground staff - another group of people with some conspicuously highly paid folk among their ranks. I implied in my post of 13 August (Right Mickey Takers) that the RMT was having a laugh, but they aren't. This has gone beyond a joke; they are taking the p**s.The pusillanimous railway bosses, pre and post privatisation have never stood up to the drivers (or signallers come to that). Remember the Southern dispute is about driver operated doors, not getting rid of drivers. But if the government hasn't got the gumption or bottle to take on these overly powerful vested interests, then I fear we will have to skip the driver operated doors stage and go straight to driverless trains as the only way of making progress and breaking the Luddite's grip. It would be a battle but one worth winning.

Pay data for train drivers in the Daily Mail on 24 December, though they got it from the ASLEF website. General pay data from ONS and The Professional Engineer.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Big Sam lands on his feet

As I expected, as soon as a Premier League club got worried they might get relegated, they would call for Big Sam. After all his record in never having been relegated from the Premier League, given the basket case clubs he has managed, is remarkable. And it always seemed to me that, while he had to go from the England job, he'd been daft rather than beyond the pale dodgy.

He told the Daily Telegraph reporters posing as investors, in the context of third party ownership of players (which is banned by the FA) "You can still get round it. You get a percentage of the player's agent's fee that the agent pays to you, the company. You're not getting a part of the transfer fee any more, because you can't do that. But because of the size of the contracts now, the contract will be worth £30m, £40m and you've done a deal with the agent where you're getting 5% of the agent's fee, which is massive for about 2 hours work." This is basically the same as the Premier League's guidance. You can't have third-party ownership clauses and you can't have influence and you can't claim the transfer fee but you can be compensated, although the player will no longer be your property.

No wonder the FA, while thinking they couldn't defend Allardyce, didn't take any further sanctions against him. After all, as Martin Samuel Of the Daily Mail wrote at the time "If he was a lawyer, he would charge £1000 an hour".

Big Sam is no mug and it would be a shock if Crystal Palace don't improve.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Nationalise the railways?

A few days ago the strikes affecting Southern led the Daily Mirror to call on its front page for the railways to be nationalised. Er - just how exactly would that help? I expect it would help the already too powerful unions get their way. The strikes would be settled and service, after a fashion resumed. Some folk might think that things had improved, for a while, until the next phoney dispute. But the rest of us would know that an opportunity to improve productivity and efficiency had gone for good.

I have come to the conclusion that the left is right when they say that the Tory trade union laws are unfair and don't work. It is now absolutely clear that said laws are far too weak and that they discriminate against consumers, in particular the customers of large, public sector funded, monopoly enterprises by providing totally inadequate protection against militants acting without even a hint of reasonable justification.

There have been suggestions in the press (not the Daily Mirror, mind) that unions should lose their protection against bring sued for the effects of strikes. I'm not sold on that idea, as I can't see how you would decide whether the action was justified in many disputes where there are often many more than 50 shades of grey. Who can decide whether a war is a "just" war?

Well, if a union adamantly insists that its action is on the grounds of safety and argues against driver operated doors, when its own members have operated such trains safely elsewhere on the network for decades, the union signed up only 8 months ago to allow driver-only operation when the guard is not available and the relevant safety authority sees no concern, then we can be sure that the unions are having a laugh. Except that it's not funny.

So maybe financial sanctions is the answer. An answer there needs to be as management need to be able to manage. Roles need to be able to be redefined. Change has to be accommodated, nay, embraced.  The alternative is the equivalent of keeping the man with the red flag in front of the vehicle. Or living in what amounts to Cuba.

I don't buy that not being allowed to strike is some form of slavery or serfdom. Employees are free to walk and get another job, which wouldn't be difficult in an economy that is close to full employment and constrained by labour shortages. A job as well paid as a railway job, though? Not so easy. And why should they I hear some folk say? Because the idea that a railwayman has to always work in the railway is part of the "job for life" attitude that belongs in the past, I reply.

And if you thought for a millisecond that the Southern dispute was about safety, or job security, or even just more dosh, here's Sean Hoyle, president of the RMT: he says "rule no. 1" for his union is to "strive to replace the capitalist system with a socialist order". Together with his unsavoury comment about drowning the bosses in spit.

At this point I start to feel a little sorry for the foot soldiers in this war (the rank and file union members), as well as those who are collateral damage (the travelling public). Apparently they have been asked to vote for up to 56 days of strikes in 2017. Now, if they don't get paid for the days they don't work, that's a quarter of their salary. One suspects that, somehow or other, it doesn't hurt them as much as that, or there would be no question of them voting for it. If it doesn't hit them in their pockets, why not? And then I remember that they elect their leaders and feel a bit less sympathy.

But at least these turkeys have voted for Christmas - time off at Christmas. Just like the BA strikers. A couple of days off before Christmas? Lovely! But it's easier for the flying part of the travelling public to decide not to go by BA in the future, if they want to get their own back. Rail passengers generally don't have that choice. That's why the price for working in the railway - and earning an inflated salary by doing so - should be to forgo the right to strike.

Nationalise the railways? I've got a better idea: nationalise the unions. Always remember, when these people advocate nationalisation, that their organisations are actually in the private sector!

PS I drafted much of this last week after reading the Daily Mirror headline. By the weekend the Sunday Times had run an editorial on much the same lines as above, just a bit more temperately worded.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

It wasn't just the trophy that was bent

I'm always surprised at just the importance people attach to the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY). It's not much of a programme to watch either now, as BBC have so little footage to show so it's all talk and schmaltz. "All peas and no steak" said David Walsh (Sunday Times), also suggesting it was sugary enough to give him type 1 diabetes. Nevertheless, let me attach some importance to it by aiming a big kick.

But first congratulations to Andy Murray, who deservedly won as sport's person of the year (which is what it was called until 1999. After all, what's personality got to do with it?). Murray has now completely eclipsed records set by Fred Perry as a British tennis player 80 or so years ago. Getting to number 1 in the world rankings as well as a 2nd Wimbledon and Olympic Gold was outstanding.

My problem was with who came after Murray in the list; or rather who didn't. Alistair Brownlee's achievement (the only athlete to ever win 2 triathlon golds) and Mo Farah's (the first athlete ever to do the "double double" of 5,000 and 10,000 metres at the Olympic and World Championships) would also have won the top award in an era of less stratospheric achievement by British sports people. (Remember when it was won by Princess Anne for heaven's sake. Or David Beckham - I admire the bloke actually and celebrity yes, but personality?? And on comparatively limited achievement).

But somewhere in the top 5 should have been Chris Froome, having won a 3rd Tour de France in 4 years when no Brit had ever won it until 5 years ago. But oops, he wasn't on the BBC's long shortlist of 16.

I know that isn't new news but I was speechless about it at the time. Truly amazing!

As for others who were on the list, I'm a football fan and I enjoyed Gareth Bale's performances in Wales's run to the semi finals of the Euros and, of course, Jamie Vardy's remarkable season in Leicester's fairy tale Premier League championship. But Froome's achievement ranks well ahead of either of those for me. Indeed, I'd put Froome's achievements well ahead of almost everyone else on the list.

I suspect the real reason Froome wasn't on the list was the controversy still raging about TUEs in cycling, with Dave Brailsford's appearance before the self appointed court that is a Commons select committee these days. But, d'oh, no one has ever suggested that Froome, who really does seem to be cleaner than clean, has abused TUEs. The doubts were all about Bradley Wiggins.

I guess the BBC numbskulls thought that they didn't dare have a cyclist on the list in those circumstances. Oh, they did actually, the Kennys (Jason and Laura - great achievements and a nice couple - ah!) and Dame Sarah Storey. Just a Team Sky thing then.

They may have thought that they couldn't have Froome but not Wiggins, after all Wiggo became Britain's most decorated Olympian with his gold at Rio in the team pursuit. Mind, a gold in a team event didn't really cut it compared with Brownlee, Farah et al's individual achievements, so surely the correct argument was that Brad was a candidate for a lifetime achievement award and didn't need to be on the list anyway. By any sensible standard Froome deserved to be on it and Wiggins arguably didn't.

When nobody is suggesting Wiggins or Sky did anything illegal or outside the rules, why punish Froome? It's the sort of thing I could get really excited about, if any of this mattered.

Of course, the answer would be to let the public decide and not to have a shortlist, but the Beeb introduced that stage after Bob Nudd won the award in 1991. But he wasn't given it because the BBC decided an angler shouldn't win and they discarded all the votes cast on coupons from the Angling Times. Dear old Auntie always thinks she knows best. A bit reminiscent of others who only want to recognise a public vote when they like the result.....

Anyway, I can just hope that Andy Murray really does think he's too young for a knighthood and turns it down if offered. Totally inappropriate for someone still competing, even if you think gongs should be handed out for things like this, which of course I don't (see post of 21 August).

Friday, 16 December 2016

The cost of carrying a big stick

Just read a revealing, if not that surprising, analysis of defence spend by country. The land of the free spends 3 times more than the next highest spending country (China) and more than the total spend of the next 10 countries in the list. We are always hearing about the parlous state of our nation's defences, but our spend comes in 3rd. Despite all Russia's sabre wielding (well, they've done a bit more than rattle sabres recently, haven't they?) the Russian defence spend was cut in 2016 after nearly 2 decades of annual increases. The cuts mainly fell on the navy which, looking at the state of the ships that sailed through the channel to the Med recently, isn't a great surprise. The only really big surprise to me in the list was that our defence spend is more than Russia's, though I expect the cash goes a lot further in terms of paying an army of Russians.

The security climate has led to most countries increasing spend lately, with Italy being a notable exception. Lots of countries spend around £10bn a year - a quarter of our spend - as do Israel, though in their case that's over 5% of gdp. Which is tiny compared with Saudi Arabia's remarkable 14%. Of course, it's expensive maintaining order in an autocratic country and playing both sides by helping anti-insurgency efforts in some countries while waging proxy puppeteering wars in others, as noted by Boris Johnson.

Here's the top 20 for you to browse for yourself:

Spend  (£bn)
>3% of gdp
+43% in 5yrs, £196bn by 2020
2% of gdp
Into the top 5 for the first time
Saudi Arabia
13.9% of gdp
Cut 5% in last year after increases every year since 1998
Increasing in 2017
Increased in 2016
Planning first army expansion since cold war
South Korea
Further increases planned to 2020
1.9% of gdp
1.3% of gdp. Cut recently
1.5% gdp. Much on border drug control
Contributing to anti-Islamist operations
<1% of gdp
5.4% of gdp (peaked at  24% in 1980s)
Pressure from USA to spend more
Recently increased spend by 20%
Increased in 2015 after 6 years of cuts
Defence spend doubled 2004-2014 following civil war

I saw the analysis on MSN's newsfeed but of course it comes from the well known publication Jane's. The spoon fed version is at
Jane's say that spending on weapons and equipment rose in 2016 to a global total of $1.57 trillion (i.e. million million, equal to £1.24 trillion). To put that in context, it's a lot more than twice the size of the global market for all beers, which is expected to reach $689 bn by 2020. No wonder countries like selling arms and arms sellers like Saudi Arabia.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Everton show Pep

"What's tackles" said Pep Guardiola, dismissively saying "I'm not a coach for the tackles. What I want is to try to play well and score goals" after Man City got roasted at Leicester at the weekend. Not only is that poor English, it doesn't work in English football. Every student of the game, especially one who has played in a competitive men's league at any standard, knows the old saying "you've got to earn the right to play". When I was a (very limited) player in the 70s and 80s nothing hurt me more than being beaten by a team of inferior players who had won because they were fitter and more committed. And nothing pleased me more than beating a team of  skilful fancy dans because we just wanted it more.

Last night Everton stumbled their way ineptly through the first quarter of the home match against Arsenal before proving two old truisms: the crowd love a tackle and Arsenal don't like it up them.

Aaron Lennon over ran the ball after a good run but didn't flinch; McCarthy and Barkley went in hard for the loose ball. My recollections might not prove precise after video replay, but you get the gist. The crowd roared approval and the Keystone Cops nature of Arsenal's goal, with errors by Valencia, Williams (twice), Barkley and Stekelenburg was forgotten. Suddenly Goodison Park was the bearpit of old again. The place that is a nightmare for visiting teams, instead of the welcoming "help yourself" buffet that it's been for many months. When they play that way, it's a nightmare for the visitors because Everton compete like Burnley, but can play in flashes like - well, maybe not Brazil or Barcelona but certainly like an Alex Ferguson team, breaking quickly and directly, getting down the lines and getting in crosses. Indeed, just like the team of Ball, Kendall and Harvey or Reid, Sheedy and Gray. Because those classic Everton title-winning teams had skill and pace and guess what? They loved a tackle and could definitely look after themselves in another old football saying.

Everton rode their luck at times in their 2-1 win last night. But they deserved it for playing with passion and commitment. Although the generally anonymous Ozil put a fairly easy chance over the bar at 1-1, Everton's pressure created a host of situations where the ball could easily have dropped favourably long before Williams headed in the winner. It speaks volumes that Arsenal's best player was Koscielny, who had a very good game.

Speaking of Williams, let's hope that fires him up as well as the team because he looked very shaky in that difficult opening period, when several Everton players looked as if the connection between brain and feet had got mis-wired.

So Everton remembered some basic facts about football. I'd been talking in the queue at the chip shop beforehand with other fans. We were all pessimistic, but the gist of it was "at least show some passion".

But it sounds as if Guardiola has never learned these basic facts in his priveleged football upbringing. Can City win the Premier League unless he does? I hope not, because City is my least favourite club. Apologies to the City fans I know, but it's not a random dislike, it's because I was caught up in what was clearly a planned hooligan ambush inside Maine Road in 1972/73 (the season of Francis Lee's many penalties) in which the visiting fans were entirely blameless and the clueless design of the stadium contributed (there was absolutely no segregation, which had been standard on Merseyside for many years). As a result I said I would never attend a City home match again and I never have. And never will, as I hold a grudge: I had a personal boycott of the Halifax Building Society for 20 years after they turned me down for a mortgage and will only do business with that bank now when it suits me. I did actually go back to Maine Road once, to see  the Rolling Stones, but driving into Manchester past the ground some years later when it was being demolished brought a large smile to my face.

Mind, unless Guardiola gets several new defenders in the transfer window, they won't win the league anyway. At least not playing with a back three of Stones and two full backs with an inclination to attack! And, after seeing Arsenal get thoroughly rattled yesterday, don't back them either. I'd say put your money on Chelsea, who are playing like a proper team: solid at the back, a good balance between defence and attack, energy to spare in midfield with Kante and Willian, a magician or two in the team (particularly Hazard) and a mean centre forward who is more likely to rough up your centre backs than get roughed up, but who is back to showing great composure in front of goal. Shame it's the wrong team in blue that I think will win the league, though at least Everton looked good enough to compete last night, which was a blessed relief.

"It's a grand old team to play for....."

Monday, 12 December 2016

Was Sanctuary the Trump card?

I know it's quite a while since it happened, but since getting up to another surprise election result when Trump won, I've been pondering the implications. I listened to Trump's unexpectedly gracious victory speech on breakfast tv in which he complimented Hillary Clinton on how hard she fought her campaign and said that America would build bridges (and roads). Er, I thought it was a wall, Donald? (But maybe now part fence, the part that isn't "virtual", according to a team Trump member). Even so, like most of us, I was left thinking "how could Americans choose Trump?"

After all, bookmakers Betfair said Clinton's chances of winning were 70% and many other sources had it much higher: the Princeton Election Consortium had it at 98-99%, a figure used by some print media at the time. But some pundits and commentators got it right: the University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times predicted a Trump win. And a Yale economist, Ray Fair, has a simple model which predicts election results on the basis of economic performance and which pointed to a Trump win as the average American family has not done well over the last 16 years. Here's Karl Rove (G W Bush's former adviser): "Trump was the candidate of change in a year when 62% of voters said the country is on the wrong track. These voters went for Trump by 69% to 25 for Clinton".

The psephologists are still poring over what happened. They have pointed out that Trump beat Clinton 62% to 33% in counties that are at least 85% white. In places where 97% or more of the population were born in America he won 65 to 30. But the result wasn't really decided on racial lines as 29% of Hispanics voted for Trump, as did 29% of Asians and 37% of other racial groups. Trump did better than the last Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, with all minorities, including blacks. So if it was a "whitelash" then Niall Ferguson pointed out that a lot of non-white voters are suffering from what Marxists used to call false consciousness.

But there were probably many things that didn't register with us about the US election that were relevant. For example, sanctuary laws. What are they and why are they relevant? The so-called "sanctuary laws" are rules enacted by states which forbid state and city employees co-operating with the, often feeble, efforts of federal officials to enforce the US immigration laws, shielding even convicted criminals from any risk of deportation. Local activists had complained about sanctuary policies for years without national politicians listening - until a young woman was fatally shot in July 2015 on the San Francisco Embarcadero by a Mexican drug dealer with seven felony convictions and five previous deportations. Kate Steinle's murderer had recently been released from jail despite a request from federal immigration agents to detain him for deportation proceedings.

Trump picked up an issue that mainstream politicians had refused to touch. He promised to penalise financially sanctuary cities in addition to making illegal entry harder in the first place. Yet despite the belated national outrage, amazingly San Francisco reaffirmed its sanctuary ordinance in May 2016.

Why did this strike such a chord with the electorate? Well, let's stay with California, one of the honeypot states for immigrants, for a moment. In the 1950s and 60s California led the USA in educational achievement; today the percentage of students lacking the most rudimentary maths and reading skills matches poor southern states like Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. California redistributes millions of local tax-payer dollars to schools with large numbers of low-income pupils to no discernable effect. Since 2000 more college graduates have left California than entered it, partly due to the high taxes needed to sustain the state's spending on the poor, a population which, according to Heather Mac Donald, consists "overwhelmingly" of low-skilled immigrants and their progeny.

But won't these people raise themselves up, as all previous generations of huddled incoming masses into the USA have? Isn't that the American dream? The dream isn't working anymore apparently. The poverty gap between low-skilled immigrants and the native-born (of any ethnicity) persists into at least the third generation, both in California and elsewhere in the USA. What's gone wrong? While many low-skilled immigrants possess an admirable work ethic, their children and grandchildren too often assimilate downwards into underclass culture, because of their parents' lack of social capital. The incarceration rate of Mexican-Americans in California increases eightfold between the first and second generations. The breakdown of the rule of law from unchecked illegal immigration over the past 4 decades was as troubling to America's silent majority as were the financial and social costs, though those exist too: just as we have heard in the UK, low-skilled immigrants depress the wages of the less-educated indigenous population.

So there was something that I don't think we were told here in the UK news - not that it would have made any sense to me without some explanation. I can quite easily see why this internal issue between the federal government and some of the states would play strongly with voters there. It also perhaps explains why the Hispanic vote for Trump, although much lower than for Clinton, was higher than expected, which appeared puzzling. There isn't anything puzzling about people of Hispanic origin in the USA who are concerned about uncontrolled immigration, alarmed by events like Kate Steinle's murder and angry that their state government isn't cooperating with the federal government to keep egregious criminals out of their neighbourhoods. The fact that they are Hispanic and the people they fear are Hispanic is irrelevant - they are all just people.

This was part of the problem with Clinton's campaign. Like moderate left campaigns of recent decades, they try to contrive a coalition of minorities and interest groups to form a majority. The result is they stop looking at people as people. Trevor Phillips, one time head of the Commission for Racial Equality, has said that he was always being wooed by lobbyists and campaigners for whom the only characteristic of his that they were interested in was that he is black: they weren't really interested in what he had to say as himself, just as a representative of a particular group. When you think about it, a lot of this goes on. The left, which always likes to portray itself as a defender of minority rights, tends to be hung up about these groups as groups, not as individuals. They often take it so far that they actually ghetto-ise (if that's a word) minorities, entrenching differences.

But returning to Trump and Clinton, maybe luck came into it. Maybe Clinton was unlucky with the timing of the resurrected email story. Though for me, she should have been dissuaded from going forward as the candidate by the Democratic party right from the start. The email story came to light in March 2015 -  the month before Clinton declared her presidential candidacy. Some folk seem to think I exaggerate the significance of the unsecure email server issue. But I would expect that someone employed by a major UK company who used a domestic email server for work purposes having been briefed that it was not allowed on security grounds would be subject to disciplinary action. And in a high security context probably sacked. The debate about whether it was illegal seems to me to be irrelevant. In many cases it might not be illegal but it would contravene employment terms and conditions. And it was deliberate. In the case of any UK politician standing for or occupying high office I am sure it would have ended the person's political career. The problem in the American system is that, if the issue comes up late, it's practically impossible to change the candidate in a presidential election. But the Democratic party could have sorted this out at the outset, or at any time until very late in the day. Except that, by some accounts, they dissuaded the better candidates from standing against Hillary, so she could be anointed.  Leaving a choice between her and Corbyn-like Bernie Sanders. Maybe it was the Clinton's dynastic influence or maybe they just thought she had the best chance. Bad call as she was identified as "the most joyless candidate in presidential history" by Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway. (Note - a woman. Despite his misogynistic comments, Trump clearly trusts women in key roles and people say, from that point of view, he is gender and colour blind. How often, I wonder, is it hypocritically the other way round?) Either way, Clinton proved to be the more unpopular of two unappealing candidates, leaving the Democrats to wonder whether almost anyone but Clinton would have won.

So was Trump was lucky with the timing of the news about the case against his university, announced on 18 November? As it was settled he was in control of that timing. And anyway it hadn't really penetrated his Teflon coat. So he just wanted it out of the way before he takes office.

The Trump and Brexit campaigns were both shambolic but authentic. Authentically boorish, ridiculously na├»ve and downright offensive at times in Trump's case; authentically misleading in Vote Leave's. But lacklustre and totally lacking in inspiration in both Clinton's and Remain's. The status quo campaigns didn't come anywhere near the crisp soundbites of "Make America great again" and "Take back control". The Clinton and Remain campaigns didn't really seem to have their heart in it. In a word, they were negative. Politicians always say they don't like negative campaigning but they are always ready to turn to it. And usually it works. But 2016 marked the year where hope trumped (sorry) fear.

Whether you were for or against, Trump and Leave offered a vision of something different, in other words hope. Yes, it might be illusory, but the alternative was to keep on keeping on; that was all people were offered. That shouldn't - needn't - have been the case, but Clinton and Leave thought it was the best way to win. Or maybe they actually didn't have any ideas. Harder for the Remain campaign, as it wasn't credible to guarantee to change the EU. Clinton doesn't have that excuse.

So what do we know about Trump, besides the all too visible facts that he is vain, thin-skinned, intemperate, prone to preposterous and inflammatory statements and attention-seeking, with a colossal notion of self? Well, we have moved on from the "misspoke" version of the truth, used by Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton in previous campaigns when caught out having said something palpably incorrect, to Trump's personal campaign to define "post-truth": when asked whether he regretted any of his campaign pronouncements, he said " No. I won."

And we know that I have some things in common with Trump: we both like golf and are prone to making outrageous comments for a start. But also we both like fish finger sandwiches. However, I don't like diet coke or hamburgers; nor do I abstain from tea, coffee and alcohol. Nor am I, unfortunately, a billionaire. Hey ho.

But what I'm really wondering is whether the new president will be trusted with the "send" button. No, not the one on the "football" - the nuclear button if we are to believe the Harrison Ford film Air Force One - but the one on his Blackberry. Trump apparently sleeps only 3 or 4 hours a night and it's thought that the intemperate tweet he released at 3am during the campaign and other similar ones really did come from his phone, while the more mundane tweets announcing campaign events were sent from a different phone, presumably of an aide. I thought that surely this button would be regarded as too dangerous to let the president do it himself? But as president-elect he still seems to be tweeting.....  Maybe we have entered a new era, perhaps to be known as Trump/Johnson, where diplomacy is conducted by speaking out - with remarkable honesty it seemed to me - in press conferences and on Twitter rather than keeping it for direct discussions in confidence. I actually find this refreshing, though whether it is a wise way to influence China or Saudi Arabia I seriously doubt.

Though whether he retains access to his own Twitter account or not, frustration is inevitable for Trump due to the president's lack of unfettered power. Which led Bill Clinton to say being president was like running a cemetery - you have plenty of people under you, but nobody's listening.

Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W Smith Fellow at Manhattan Institute. I learned about the sanctuary laws from her column, "His party's refusal to keep illegals out let Trump stomp his way in", which appeared in the Sunday Times on 13 November 2016.

The psephological and betting data can no doubt be found in original sources, but I got it from Niall Ferguson's Sunday Times article "This was no whitelash, it was a vote to get America working", also published on 13 November 2016.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

The Love Cat is a tease

While I keep returning to prog rock and musical poetry, my most enduring favourite music genre is pop music. But especially pop music when it is as poppy and catchy as Abba or the Monkees, but played with a bit of bounce, a bit of edge and preferably a rather cooler image. There are plenty of examples from the 50s to the current day, but the most perfect examples come from the new wave era, with its spiky riffs and sparky attitude. Things like Sound of the Suburbs by The Members and Ever Fallen In Love (The Buzzcocks). Examples from other eras but almost identical in genre to my ear would be the early Kinks hits from 1964 and Decent Days and Nights, The Futureheads splendid minor hit from 2004, in which the kazoo part is the shiny sixpence in the christmas pud.

But perhaps the most perfect example and, for me, one of the most quintessential pop songs ever recorded, is The Lovecats by pop genius Robert Smith's The Cure. Pop genius because he released 40 singles in the 30 years from 1978, all but 6 of them achieving a chart position. As well as Lovecats (number 7 in 1983) the other top 10 hits were Lullaby (1989), High and Friday I'm In Love (both 1992).

We saw The Cure at Manchester Arena on Tuesday evening. Smith has a devoted following, a non-trivial number of whom dress and style their hair just like him - a style that looks rather as if you've just been dug up from the cemetery, a friend remarked. There were at least as many dopplegangers mimicking the main man's  hairstyle as you see at a Paul Weller gig. Though I did smirk at the chap who, along with his knee length shiny boots, appeared not to be wearing drainpipe trousers so much as actual drainpipes.

It was a good gig but Smith, who has little stage presence (but still 1000% more than Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds, the least charismatic well-known front man we've seen) is a tease. The main part of the set lasted 80 minutes or so, with the 16 songs including a run of 4 of The Cure's better known songs in the middle, in particular the tremendous Lovesong which reached number 2 in the US charts in 1989. They then shuffled off, returning with an "encore" of A Forest, their 2nd single, much played by John Peel before their big breakthrough. They returned again to play a lesser known song with the audience not exactly bringing the roof down. After quite a delay, they returned to reel off 5 of their most poppy efforts, all well known and including their biggest hit Lullaby and the equally well known Friday I'm In Love and Close To You, leaving the place bouncing.

So they kept us waiting. And, disappointingly, they didn't play The Lovecats. To be fair it probably wouldn't sound right with electric rather than string bass, but I'd have liked to hear it re-interpreted.

Smith has a reputation for knowing his own mind and being outspoken: comments he has made to journalists about Morrissey and Bono didn't pull any punches. He doesn't hang out with other well known musicians and is married to his girlfriend from his schooldays. You have to take him as he wants you to find him.

I'm left with Lovesong on a permanent replay in my head for a few days yet. It's not easy to write good love songs, or any ballads actually and Smith's produced quite a few gems, including this one. You can see a super video of it at And no, Smith didn't get specially made up like a vampire for the video: that's his everyday appearance.

A very unique talent.

P.S. according to he did play The Lovecats at Wembley a couple of nights later. But only on the first of 3 nights there and they were longer sets - probably a later curfew. But I'm still feeling cheated.....

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Good luck Nord

I was pleased to see Gareth Southgate get the England job. I think the England manager should be English and he has served a decent apprenticeship. People say he failed at Middlesbro but they were well positioned in the Championship when he got the boot. And he has done well with the young England age groups. He seems to be an intelligent and thoughtful chap. It won't be long before the honeymoon is over, but I hope England stick with him through at least two tournaments (the next World Cup and Euros) and allow him to learn on the job. After all, we've tried big name foreign coaches (Eriksson and Capello) and it hasn't worked. So what's there to lose? After all, there isn't exactly a queue of experienced English managers available.

And the reason? It's not just that the big clubs only go for foreign managers (after all, would that be racist?) There is something rotten at the heart of our game and I'm not referring to the abuse of young players. We have gone badge mad - it takes four and a half years minimum for a pro footballer to progress from level 2 (they are exempt from level 1) to a UEFA Pro licence. And it costs £4885, though only £1034 in Spain and £457 in Germany. Probably as a result we have only 203 qualified coaches in England, compared to 5,500 in Germany and 12,720 in Spain. And to what avail? Curtis Woodhouse, who played for 8 different Football League clubs and has had success managing non-league clubs, says many former players have given up trying to get a management job. They have spent time and money ticking all the boxes, but can't even get an interview. He says a former England international has applied for 27 jobs and not had one interview in 3 years, so has gone into another line of work. How can there be a conveyor belt of future candidates when so few experienced pros can get a job, even if they want to do so, rather than go for media opportunities?

As Martin Samuel said, we can't really bemoan that there aren't plenty of English candidates for the England job - the FA are lucky to have found one. So let's hope he does well and it encourages others to get a chance.

Southgate revealed his nickname as a junior footballer in the memoir of his playing career, co-written by David Walsh (aka Lance Armstrong's troll), called "Woody and Nord - a football friendship". Southgate only wanted to have the autobiography written if it told the story not just of his career but of his best friend as an apprentice at Crystal Palace, Andy Woodman. While Southgate went on to play for a succession of Premiership Clubs, Woodman, after being released on the day Palace were promoted, shuffled around the lower divisions. The story of a friendship that endured as two wildly divergent careers progressed gave an insight into the national game, from the staggering money and prestige of the Premier League to the precarious living and hard knocks of the then Nationwide League. Walsh has said that the best bits in the book were sections that Southgate penned himself.

Oh, of course Woodman was called "Woody", so Southgate was called "Nord" because the scholarly teenager reminded his team-mates of TV presenter Dennis Norden.

Good luck Nord - you'll need it.

2nd and 3rd para above draw on Martin Samuel's Daily Mail column on 14 November.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Strictly respect for Ed

I never had much time for Ed Balls as a politician, though we all ought to be eternally grateful to him for frigging Gordon Brown's 5 rules to make sure we didn't join the euro. But despite that, his ridiculous "flatlining" gesture to Cameron and Osborne in the Commons whenever they rose to speak, repeated ad infinitum and long after it became clear post 2010 that the economy was growing - and in due course at quite a lick -  was tiresome in the extreme.

So I had no great expectations for how he would move his lardy figure around the Strictly Come Dancing dancefloor. But he was a revelation. My other half and I know how difficult it is to keep time and dance the steps without plodding, but balletic arm movements and acting are another thing altogether. The judges marks were a poor reflection of his significant dance achievements. But the entertainment value, at least until his rather awful tango when he finally went out of the competition, was immense. Funny because it was good, not like John Sergeant, Ann Widdecome, Greg Wallace or Scott Mills who were just bad.

What was most impressive was how Ed was so much fun but also dignified. Not an easy combination. And he responded just as well to going out of the competition as to the enormously bigger blow of losing his parliamentary seat. So respect.

Not only that but we also saw Ed's wife, Yvette Cooper, in a new light. I always thought she seemed a rather miserable individual but the amount of joy she took from Ed's performance gladdened our hearts.

Whether Ed can realistically make a return to front line politics - even if he wants to - rather than moving on to I'm A Celebrity, seems doubtful. A Portillo-esque media career seems more likely. But Lord knows Labour need him. After all, back in the day, Dennis Healey and Roy Hattersley, both Ed Balls figures in more than one way, stuck it out to see off the hard left. Wouldn't it have been strange if they'd gone off dancing while Michael Meacher (the nearest equivalent I can think of to Jeremy Corbyn as an unlikely leader of the Labour party) had become leader of the Opposition?

We live in strange times.

Credit when due - BBC get the balance right

The BBC radio news bulletins yesterday headlined on the death of Fidel Castro.

Castro famously tried to get his country annihilated in a few nano-seconds by egging on Kruschev to go for a nuclear first strike attack against the USA from Cuba in 1962, despite Kruschev pointing out that the Cuban people would have perished.

So instead of turning Cuba to dust quickly he adopted policies that did almost the same but slowly and progressively (to use a favourite word of the left). Yes there was free education and healthcare but that is of little comfort when there is rationing and poverty all around.

The BBC chose to have Jeremy Corbyn prominent in their bulletins, eulogising Castro for his achievements. This was followed by the newsreader's deadpan delivery about the large number of Cubans killed by Castro to defend his tyrannical regime and the lack of freedom of speech.

It was brilliant radio. Perfectly balanced and extremely funny I thought. Whether that was the editor's intention one can only guess. It certainly kippered Corbyn: an easy target yes, but I hadn't noticed the BBC hitting that bulls-eye so precisely previously.

In case you haven't read or heard it, Corbyn said "For all his flaws........he will be remembered both as an internationalist and a champion of social justice" and praised Castro for building "a world-class health and education system". He acknowledged "there were problems and there are problems of excesses by all regimes" but "we have to look at the thing in its totality" and Mr Castro had "seen off a lot of US presidents". Former Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith said the reason Mr Castro "'saw off' so many US presidents is because they're democratically elected".

I also heard Ken Livingstone making almost as much of a prize tit of himself, but that would be because he is almost as much of a prize tit as Corbyn. But though we laugh at these people - as we must - it is worth remembering that Mr Corbyn seems to think a country's leader, once in power, is entitled to remain in power until he dies. Not funny at all, really.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Stop calling my friends racists

"These second-referendum people puzzle me. If at some point you hope to persuade Leavers to defect, why call them thickos who fell for propaganda and lies? Why try to ban their newspapers, blame them collectively for Jo Cox’s death? Why tell them they are low-lifes and oldsters who hopefully will soon die? Doesn’t sound very persuasive to me."

So said Janice Turner in the Times today. The thrust of her piece was that liberal-minded folk in the UK and USA could stay in their safe spaces, no-platforming anyone who has a different point of view, pressuring businesses to try to get them to stop advertising in the "right wing press" (which unfortunately customers of said businesses read) and refusing to engage. They can stay pure, stay aloof and stay out of power for ever. Or they can listen, engage and try to understand. I imagine she feels this just might lead to a revised, coherent and appealing package of ideas and policies which could persuade and influence "our compatriots, who are the same mix of good and bad they were before June 23".

It didn't sound like she was holding her breath and neither am I. I expect the dialogue of the deaf will go on for some time yet, at least while the Remainers see the chance of thwarting Brexit by one rearguard tactic or another. And if they succeed? Well, there will be an equivalent howl of rage and dialogue of the deaf, won't there?

I can see only a divisive and divided future ahead just now. And I do resent my friends, a clear majority of whom voted Leave and none of whom regret it, being called racists when they are not.

Janice Turner, Liberal minds have snapped shut like clams:

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Christmas has come early - what will the new year bring?

In the 3 months to Sept unemployment fell by 37,000 to a ten-year low. But 95% of the new jobs went to immigrants, mainly from the EU. I imagine companies are filling roles quickly while they can. And the economy is going well - but that growth is clearly being fueled by immigrant workers. Nevertheless it is going well. Consumers are behaving as if it was Christmas already: October sales were up 7.4% on October 2015. It was the best single month in over 14 years.

So was Project Fear wrong or is it just pain delayed? Well, in terms of immediate impacts, it was clearly wrong. Inflation surprisingly took a turn down, though most commentators think it could get uglier come January, driven by the exchange rate, when price fix deals run out I suppose. But the large retailers seem to have some appetite for finding ways of keeping prices in check. The figures for business investment, due next week, are not expected to be rosy (but then neither were most of the above stats).

I warned that the Brexit transition could be messy and lengthy. I said it "weighed heavily on me" in my decision on how to vote (21 June). And that it could "easily" take 5 years (23 June, the day of the vote - did I really only say 5 years?!) I am keeping fingers crossed that the gloomsters will prove to be wrong. But, despite normally being an optimist, I am not confident. The more upbeat end of the Leave lobby who crow at every decent stat don't seem to realise that this transition hasn't even started yet!

And that transition could be very problematic. Writing in The Times, Philip Collins noted that "the Leave campaign was recklessly cavalier about how easy leaving the EU was going to be. Disentangling Britain from a series of legal treaties is not one event but many. The EU has about 50 international trade agreements from which the UK benefits, all of which will now have to be begun again. It will be a mammoth task even to replicate these arrangements, let alone improve on them. Maybe one day Liam Fox will return triumphant from Bosnia-Herzegovina with a new deal. Next stop Costa Rica, Mauritius the week after."

And he went on to say "Dr Fox cannot even start until Britain’s relationship with the EU is settled. The laws that frame the markets for financial services, employment, restructuring and insolvency, data protection and intellectual property have all been painstakingly drafted in chambers of the EU. Pension law, competition, telecommunications and media are almost as complicated. There are some bills, such as the Equalities Act, in which some provisions refer to the EU and some do not. That’s not to mention clauses whose parentage and application is a matter of legal dispute. Somebody is going to have to go through all of it and say yes or no to every clause. Every change will be the subject of well-informed corporate and charity lobbying. It is going to be fabulously complicated. If the referendum question had only been “can you really be bothered?” we would have voted to remain. This negotiation can only be done badly in two years and it probably cannot be done at all."

I think this view is amazingly negative. I can't accept the view that we can't start to negotiate with other countries until our deal with the EU is done - who could possibly stop us getting deals ready to sign? Europe might threaten sanctions against countries they have a deal with who have the temerity to talk to us - try that with Trump! Anyway, it sounds like the Europeans are setting their stall out for a take it or leave it negotiation, forcing a 'hard Brexit'. Well, that makes our decisions easier as well as there being little point in Parliamentary debates on what the deal should look like! We are in a strong position to negotiate trade deals with most countries and so the idea that they will all be different seems ridiculous: a template deal will developed by doing the first deals. And we can read and our computers can copy and paste, so all that work drafting the EU deals is available for us to vet and cherry pick.

Collins concluded "there is an inescapable sense of nobody taking back control", which does seem the case. So he argued for a transitional step, in which we leave the EU and join the EEA while further negotiations proceed. I can see the logic I that, but it would leave us in a half-way house at the next election, with myriad options for untenable positions to come out of the next General Election.

All very messy indeed. However, if we want to have control of our borders, control over what trade deals we do and not to have judges outside our system of democracy over-ruling those inside it, then there is no alternative: we have to leave. I wanted all of the things on that list but I decided I didn't want the aggravation of getting there more. But that's the job Mrs May and her government have been given: the electorate made it's choice and she accepted it - and so do I.

Though I fear it may turn out like the Stevie Winwood song for Mrs May's negotiators:

"Sometimes I feel so uninspired
Sometimes I feel like giving up
Sometimes I feel so very tired
Sometimes I feel like I've had enough....
I don't know who's losing and I don't care who's winning
Hardship and trouble are following me"
(From Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired, the last track on Traffic's 1971 album Shootout At the Fantasy Factory. Great guitar in this bluesy song - very simple but very effective. You can hear it at

Economic stats:

Philip Collins piece is at

Europe's leaders to force Britain into 'hard Brexit' in The Guardian:

Friday, 18 November 2016

The indefinite Article

What a lot of noise over Article 50 and the High Court ruling. But I doubt it makes much difference in practice unless the legal process ends with the conclusion that primary legislation is needed AND the Lords decide to block it, in principle delaying things for a year. (I probably should say the "unelected Lords" using the language that many of the politicians in what I might call the "Hard Remain" camp have used in the past, even though they would become huge short term fans of the Lords in this scenario). In which case they might get the General Election they are angling for.

Owen Smith, the former Labour leadership challenger, indicated that he would use a parliamentary vote on Brexit to push for another referendum on the terms of any deal. “Labour should amend the Article 50 bill to give people the final say on the real terms of Brexit." This poses two problems. The EU will not start negotiations until we invoke Article 50. Once we do, I thought we were definitely leaving within 2 years. So there would be no point putting the final deal to a referendum, would there, because we'd be on our way out anyway! However, I have seen it suggested that the Article 50 filing could be revoked. Clarification on this point would be welcome. I suspect it could only be revoked, or the period extended, by the other 27 countries unanimously agreeing to do so. Let's assume that's a "no" or at best a "maybe". So there would be no point in committing now to putting the terms of a final deal to a referendum if, come the day, there was only one choice on the ballot paper - out or out. I suppose people who want to stay in at any cost might say we would vote between out and begging the other 27 countries to let us stay in. Not a great choice......

More importantly for me, we would be in a very difficult place if the final deal were rejected by Parliament, the people having voted to leave. I'm sure that would lead to an election and, if it produced a government committed to leaving (which it could with less than 50% voting for leave supporting parties, which would be fraught if the Remainers then tried to claim they'd won - when they hadn't). This scenario begins to sound a bit like the hokey, out, or what?

But I think there is a yet more important question. Who says 650 MPs are more likely to come up with a better answer than the 34 million or so people who voted in the referendum? Not Matt Ridley, writing in The Times (7 November) who says "Elitists who pour scorn on the people’s views don’t appreciate how often democracy comes up with the right decision". He reminds us how often a "crowd-sourced" answer gets it right, even if hardly any single punter guessed the weight of the ox, or number of sweets in the jar. And he pours total scorn on the idea that only the more educated or intelligent are capable of understanding the issues. “It’s time for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses,” read the headline of an article by James Traub in Foreign Policy in June this year, referring to both Trump’s nomination and the Brexit referendum result. Ridley thinks Traub is just wrong: the crowd still has a wisdom that no individual can match, and the results of modern elections do not contradict this. In a new book, Against Democracy, an American political philosopher called Jason Brennan argues that democracy is the "rule of the ignorant and the irrational" and that "political participation and democratic deliberation tend to make people worse. So in it's place he recommends an "epistocracy" where you should have to earn the write to vote by demonstrating a modicum of knowledge. Sounds like a slippery slope to me...a great many decisions are taken on our behalf by such groups of the great and good - quangos are staffed, public sector organisations are given budgets etc. So Ridley argues we already have a kind of epistocracy, though one where we all get to cast our vote every so often and throw the bastards out. As Ridley says "And rightly so, because the ideal future government of a country is too complicated a question for any expert, even if, like Mr Brennan, he is the associate professor of strategy, economics, ethics and public policy at the McDonough School of Business, at Georgetown University. Besides, there is no such thing as general ignorance or general expertise. Every brilliant person I know is also astonishingly ignorant on certain matters."

Risibly, Labour MP Paul Flynn has said the result of the European referendum was illegitimate because most of the people who voted were ignorant. This takes my breath away, as have other comments which have hinted that universal suffrage should be limited on some grounds of intelligence or qualification. Try putting that to a referendum, chum! In any event, Paul, I think many MPs would prove too ignorant to be allowed to have a say on almost any issue, if they could just be tested. As for the intelligentsia, Richard Dawkins, among others, argued that he should not have had to vote on a matter he did not understand. He says that is what parliament is for: to hand such decisions to experts, who understand the details. But Ridley notes that members of parliament are not experts, let alone omniscient ones. Even brilliant people can also be astonishingly ignorant on certain matters, even Messrs Brennan and Traub.Whether Britain is right or wrong to leave the European Union is a question that nobody, however clever, can possibly know the right answer to unless they have foresight and a crystal ball.

Anyway, the MPs may get asked to agree we should trigger Article 50, even though they are in no better position to figure out the pros and cons than we all were in the campaign. If that is the correct process I don't have a problem with that. But they must vote unconditionally that we should. It's what 17+ million people voted for, in a referendum that Parliament itself approved by 6 to 1. There is no logic in debating the terms when discussing Article 50. This is because Article 50 is not about trade deals or freedom of movement; "hard" or "soft" Brexit. Vernon Bogdanor, writing in the Sunday Times (6 November) pointed out that Article 50 triggers a negotiation on the withdrawal process, involving technical but important issues such as rights of British nationals in the EU and EU nationals in Britain. It provides for negotiations to take "account of the framework" for a country's "future relationship with the Union". But that future relationship, which can take years to negotiate and evolve, requires separate processes to undertake and to ratify.

I think we need to watch these people like Flynn. They believe in democracy when it gives them what they consider to be the "right" answer. A bit like the Corbynistas who are say they believe in democracy but shout down and vilify opponents. So I reckon that means they clearly don't.

I also can't help thinking that people who want to have a detailed, open debate about what we should negotiate are actually trying to make the negotiation impossible. As Philip Collins argues in The Times (18 November) "It is not unreasonable for the prime minister to wish to keep her detailed thoughts secret. A comprehensive wishlist would be an open invitation to critics to denounce its contents and deplore what was missing. It would inevitably, thanks to the trading nature of negotiating, ensure that some of the wishes were denied. The published list would therefore have to include dummy options that the prime minister was secretly prepared to lose. Then she would be denounced, either for dishonesty or for not bringing home the bounty promised."

However, Collins goes on to say that "None of this makes silence a virtue". He is very concerned about the difficulty - nay, impossibility in 2 years - of the transition. (I may return to the difficulty of the transition but not here). He argues that the only way out of this for Mrs May is to negotiate a transitional arrangement in which the UK leaves the EU but, temporarily (or maybe not) joins the European Economic Area (EEA), which is an agreement to secure the free movement of goods, services, capital and people between Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and the 28 member states of the EU. This would permit us to opt out of those EU laws, such as fisheries policy, which we found burdensome. We would have bought temporary certainty on commercial and social policy. Crucially, we would also have bought time to do a proper negotiation and Mrs May would have the scope to play poker her own quiet way.

This might be a very sensible approach. Politically it could be difficult, internally in the Tory party for a start. With the UK in a kind of half way house at the next General Election, it would almost certainly leave the whole issue to be debated all over again, with stay here or go further options, though no doubt some would also want to include "try go back in, if they'll have us". But the big problem is that the EEA requires freedom of movement, which is the one red line identified by the government so far.

However, it could be a workable way forward if the EU is prepared to negotiate on this point. Several sources have claimed the Germans and others are prepared to compromise to some extent on freedom of movement. Indeed, recently there have been suggestions that the eurocrats are well advanced in developing their Brexit negotiating strategy and one part of it is to introduce a US-style ESTA visa waiver which British visitors to Europe would need to obtain, at a cost of about a fiver (pounds or euros, can't remember), though it would last for at least a year and cover multiple visits. Stephen Kinnock, who I had hitherto thought had at least some sense, said this was a "hidden cost of Brexit". There are two problems with what Kinnock said. Firstly, as I read it, the visa waiver would be needed to enter the Schengen area, so we would need to have one even if we stayed in the EU - though they may not intend that. But if they did we would have potentially got a way of limiting freedom of movement by introducing the equivalent process. Secondly, if a fiver for a year's travel to the EU is high on Kinnock's list of issues and priorities, I'm afraid he has just reinforced Matt Ridley's point much more eloquently than I have. You see, Stephen, out of your own mouth has come the proof that MPs are no more competent than the rest of us in this matter and so there is no case for you to try to "call back in" a decision made by a larger and, per Ridley's argument, more intelligent group.

It's undeniable that 34 million people have more brains than 650 and are therefore, between them, more likely to have got it right.

Matt Ridley's piece is at

Melanie Phillips article

Philip Collins piece is at

Thursday, 17 November 2016

This Bird on the Wire has flown

Leonard Cohen passed away last week and has been lauded as one of the great musical poets. I remember hearing Cohen's stuff, Suzanne in particular, from way back in the day. The gravel voiced delivery didn't appeal then, but in recent years I've started to get it. And my better half and I now realise the piece of music we've much enjoyed dancing the waltz to in recent years is a version of Cohen's "Hallelujah" - we hadn't realised where it came from, even though it's one of Cohen's best known songs. And we've seen Shrek.

It's reported that it took Cohen 2 years - or 5 depending on the source - to write Hallelujah and it was certainly a slow burner in terms of success. He originally wrote some 80 verses for the 5 verse song as he was reduced to sitting in his underwear banging his head on the floor. On release in 1984 it met with little reaction until it was covered by John Cale in 1991. This was to be the first of over 100 cover versions of the song (I suspect the version we waltz to is not counted in that number. It was recorded by our neighbour Richard Keeling in his Coppicewood Studios - actually his house in a similarly named road - in strict 3/4 time for his series of ballroom dance friendly CDs). Cale's album including Hallelujah was bought by a Brooklyn based woman for whom an unknown young musician called Jeff Buckley house sat. This led to Buckley covering it in a live performance at a bar, where a Columbia records executive heard the song and signed Buckley who recorded it for his 1994 for an album. But even then it didn't sell big until well after Buckley drowned in the Mississipi in 1997. Subsequently Cale's version was used in the film Shrek in 2001, though strangely Rufus Wainwright's version is on the soundtrack album, possibly because he was signed to Dreamworks. And then Buckley's version went big: number 1 in the States and 2 in the UK in 2008. So it took a decade and a half or more for the song to become really famous and it's now in the common consciousness.

Like my favourite musical poet, Roy Harper, Cohen deals in both high concepts and everyday life, in particular the intimate relationship between a man an a woman. For me Cohen doesn't have the range and depth of content, lyrically or musically, of Harper but then no-one does in my personal distortion of the world. Unlike Harper, who is vitriolically anti-religion, Cohen carried his Jewish beliefs through life, while also embracing Zen Buddhism, studying it for 5 years and becoming a fully ordained monk. But he seems to have a healthy degree of scepticism on religion, for example in Hallelujah:

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

And there is a playfulness in his lyrics, for example (also from Hallelujah):

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof

I read a story in the papers about Bob Dylan meeting Cohen when they both lived in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Dylan said "As far as I'm concerned, Leonard, you're number one. I'm number zero".

I'd have loved to have been there for this pronouncement of Dylan's to hear his tone of voice, because it seems to me that it could have come across as self-deprecating (you're the top and I'm a nothing) or as the opposite (your number 1 but I'm an even lower number, so of higher standing). Of course if it was said in a whimsical, Mona Lisa smile type of way, it would be rather more Delphic and open to interpretation. In which case this could actually be one of the more subtle things Dylan ever said.....

Anyway, Leonard, sorry I came to appreciate a small amount of your stuff rather late in the day, but at least I got part way there.

"Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free"
From Bird On The Wire", 1969

Sources include: Why it took 15 years for Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah to get famous:

Wikipedia,, and

Lyrics are all over Google e.g. and

The Dylan story was in Josh Glancy's Sunday Times tribute on 13 Nov 2016

You can see and hear Cohen perform Hallelujah live in an official video from 2009 at