Saturday, 30 June 2018

How do we keep Airbus and BMW in the UK?

My buddy challenged me the other day to write a blog about how we could make sure Airbus and BMW don't move production out of the UK. I'll leave to one side the fact that, after one BMW boss had said they were considering moving production, another said they weren't.  And whether, even if what the second one said is correct then what about manufacture of components? After all, tariffs won't be the major issue for things like motor car manufacture, it will be country of origin rules, with all their arcane implications for assembled goods like cars. As I say I'll leave all that to one side for now. But some say an Airbus decision to exit the UK could affect more than 100,000 highly paid British jobs, so that's a big deal.

It's tempting to say that solving Rubik's cube or who created the creator are more tempting - and tractable - problems, though I'm sure that at least one of them would take me until after March 2019. But my initial reaction was that there are two choices. The first is to cut and run by applying for immediate membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), whether intending it to be temporary, until some other solution can be created, or permanent. This would keep us in the single market and would appear to head off, for now, the Airbus-BMW issue. Three EFTA members: Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, along with the current EU 28, form the European Economic Area (EEA). These three countries use EFTA's Surveillance Authority for compliance and there is an EFTA Court for dispute resolution. Switzerland operates differently and has a set of bilateral agreements with the EU. It would appear to me that there isn't enough time available to conclude bilateral agreements - after all, that is what we have been trying to do and we are running out of time. So presumably it would have to be Norway style EFTA, not Swiss.

This first option must work, mustn't it? After all, David Owen, my first political hero, was advocating it well over a year ago. But there are some big problems. The "four freedoms" (movement of goods, services, capital and people) apply. And we would have to pay in to the EU budget, while having no influence over it or EU regulations. Apparently Switzerland pays in more per capita than the UK does currently. But we could presumably participate in Euratom (Switzerland does) and the European Defence Agency (Norway does), solving some other yet unresolved issues. And the EEA doesn't cover agriculture and fisheries so we get out of some things, maybe.

My main difficulty with this solution is that it condemns us (because temporary would probably become permanent) to a definitely worse position than we had before the referendum, i.e. in the EU but with our opt-outs. We would have to hope that the EU can resolve the migration issues, which it is singularly failing to do at the moment. And accept that internal EU migration was never the main problem or concern (which, for EU citizens, it wasn't).  But if we feel that our position is inevitably worse than the status quo ante and it's a matter of limiting the damage, isn't this a way forward?

But hold on a moment. EFTA members aren't in the EU customs union, so it's not clear to me that this fully solves the Airbus issue (though it might) but it definitely doesn't solve the Ireland border issue! This is why there are customs borders, even if they are light touch, between the EU and both Switzerland and Norway. So I'm not at all clear that this is a viable solution, let alone an attractive one.

The second option is brinkmanship: to press on and try to get the best deal we can. If we assume that "crashing out" with no deal would cause major short term problems we have to rely on the Europeans blinking. After all, some commentators say German industry is worried about this happening and some of the rump EU's 27 states - but not very influential ones - are pressing Brussels not to let it happen. As I've characterised the eurocrats before as self harming psycopaths, for whom their project is more important than the well being of their people, it's not clear to me that they will blink. This is why I think we probably should have tested that by walking away from the negotiations last year.

There is of course a third option: seek to stay in the EU. But I have rejected that as the implicit question was how we save our industry while still exiting the EU.

 So what is worrying me somewhat is that I'm not sure there is a good answer to this question.

In last week's Sunday Times Tommy Stubbington wrote a column, "We can fix Brexit" saying that Britain's main five business groups, the CBI, British Chamber of Commerce, Institute of Directors, the manufacturers' organisation the EEF (which it's called because it was once the Engineering Employers' Federation) and the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) were desperately pleading to government for an involvement in the negotiations, saying time is running out and they can fix Brexit. However, reading the column revealed that, while their case for urgency is strong - businesses are starting to implement contingency plans to move activities out of the UK having long since put investment on hold - their ideas on how to make progress sounded pretty thin. The main thrust was Britain has been creative, pragmatism is needed on both sides and now it's the EU's turn. "We have seen major steps to pragmatic compromise on the UK side. This is the time for the EU to respond in kind. The EU has such capability to be creative" said one of the bigwigs. The problem with that is it is just what David Davis has been saying for 9 months now. Why would the EU respond any differently to a bunch of British businessmen?

Indeed, the EU has refused to allow its aviation officials to hold contingency talks with its UK counterparts to keep planes flying if no deal is struck by March. That could, in principle, mean "planes are grounded and wings for half the world's civil aircraft, made by Airbus, could be deemed illegal for use on planes licensed by the EU". (I take this to be hyperbole, surely it would be for planes going into service for the first time, the ones already flying have been licensed. But it would mean Airbus would be laying in to Brussels so that could help).

Stubbington noted that one of the business leaders said that the EU should "seriously consider" May's request for a bespoke deal. But said bigwig also went on to opine "What we are seeking to agree with the EU is a reverse free trade agreement. Nobody on this planet has done that before. Every FTA that has been negotiated has been about getting people to align closer. This is a unique scenario - so we need a unique solution". Great. The EU has said pretty well throughout that it will only offer one of its standard pre-baked options.

For what its worth I think we have to hold our nerve and trust that the Foreign Office and Davis's team have been talking to friendly countries within the rump EU 27  to assess what they will do if the Council of Ministers are presented with no deal. They would have the power to extend the timescales, one way or another. The big problem with brinkmanship is that damage is being done to British business now and it's going to get much worse over the next 8 months. But, of course, that doesn't bother France and Germany an iota; it's what they want, to gain a competitive advantage and, as businessmen are wont to say, steal our lunch.

But the news that a traditional friend of Britain, Mark Rutte the Dutch Prime Minister, responded to Theresa May's plea for close ongoing security co-operation with the EU by saying "Forget cherry-picking, focus on fixing the Irish border" is not encouraging. (Reported yesterday by The Times). 

My definitive answer is that I wouldn't have started from here. I wouldn't have agreed the divorce bill without a firm linkage to a bespoke trade deal. And I definitely wouldn't have agreed the ridiculous Irish border fallback, which the UK side seemed to think was hypothetical at the time, because it wasn't going to happen. This isn't hindsight: I said the day after the joint report on phase 1 of the negotiations was published "So the onus remains entirely on us to bring forward ideas to fix the potentially unfixable. The EU side can just refuse to agree to anything they or the Republic don't like. They don't have to do anything other than say "non" and "This gives the EU side the most enormous lever in future negotiations. I'm sure they won't hesitate to use it." (see Reasons to be Cheerful - or Entangled? 8 December 2017).  And, as all readers know, I would have considered walking out of the negotiations to pitch them into an early crisis, while there was still time to fix it, last autumn. I accept though that this would have been risky and Theresa May's government might not have survived so I probably could have been reluctantly persuaded to agree not to actually flounce out. But more like Trump than Davis? Yes, of course. But it's a bit late for that now.

I've been reading Wolfgang Munchau's Eurointelligence blog with even more interest than normal over the last couple of days. He is an expert on the EU and eurozone so sees things from the EU perspective, but is based at Oxford University, so is fully familiar with the political dynamics in the UK. Munchau has posted prolifically on Brexit recently.

On 26 June he asked Could the Irish border issue trigger a no-deal Brexit? noting that, ahead of Friday's summit, the EU and UK were hardening their positions.

On 27 June, in his column titled  Could no-deal Brexit preparations become a self-fulfilling prophecy? he said "It is normally sensible for both sides in a negotiation to make preparations for a no deal. We also think it is perfectly sensible for negotiating partners to say that no deal is better than a bad deal. If you don't say it, you end up with a bad deal. "  However, he went on to say "The probability of a no-deal Brexit is rising, however. First of all, industry is creating facts on the ground by reducing investment. The more this goes on, the smaller the value of a transitional agreement for the UK. If the negotiations go all the way until the end of the year, with rising expectations of a no-deal Brexit, it is quite possible that the UK government may conclude that the political cost of an agreement is too high and the benefits from a Brexit transition followed by a customs union are too low, given the changed economic situation" and " This is why a decision by the UK to join the EEA, or a customs union with the EU, has a declining economic value the closer it gets to the Brexit deadline. We are now well into the phase where people have to make preparations, and those preparations create irreversible facts." He concluded "We still think a deal is most likely, but accidents can - and probably will - intrude."

On the same day he wrote about why it is so difficult for the EU to agree post-Brexit defence and security co-operation. The UK is France's key military ally (the countries have been much closer than one might have thought for decades) but the UK has been less engaged in Africa since the Libya adventure and, in the limit, Macron will turn to Germany, even though they don't spend two brass farthings on defence and are always suspect on standing up to Russia.

On 28 June Munchau noted that Gibraltar was becoming a first order Brexit issue, talks having broken down over Spain's insistence on joint management of Gibraltar airport. I'm not sure why the Spanish want this but we know they will try anything to get some hold over Gibraltar. This is making people look at various enclaves in the EU, like Andorra and the German and Italian enclaves in Switzerland, Busingen and Campione, as well as the Channel Islands and Isle of Man. Ultimately Munchau thinks that Spain has no interest in exercising its veto because of the interests of the Campo de Gibraltar, the county in Andalusia nearest to Gibraltar. The interest of the region is to keep the border with Gibraltar as open as possible. The closure of the border between 1969 and 1982 seriously hurt both Gibraltar and the Campo, and moreover cemented the Gibraltareans' determination to remain independent from Spain, so nobody on either side wants to see a repeat.  But Munchau warns that Spain will seek to leverage the fact that 96% of Gibraltarians voted to remain in the EU to change the status of Gibraltar. I've long thought that, if it weren't for Mrs May needing the DUP's votes, the northern Irish could get stitched up. Watch out Gibraltar - you don't have any MPs in the Commons!

On the same day Munchau noted that German companies have switched from complacency to panic over Brexit: German companies active in the UK are very advanced in their hard-Brexit preparations. 44% have already shifted their supply chains, while a total of 72% say that they have made intensive preparations. 47% of German companies have postponed planned investment decisions, and one third has stopped investments altogether.  The problem is that, once these decisions are taken, they will not be simply reversed even in the case of a soft Brexit. He doesn't expect to see any breakthrough in the Brexit negotiations and thinks that this will be a knife-edge situation even if all goes to plan. "At that point the full economic damage will be done, and the relative costs of a hard Brexit will be correspondingly lower - since the costs will already have been incurred." This could mean "it might become politically too costly for the UK's government to agree or ratify a withdrawal treaty". He goes on to say "We consider a hard Brexit a real possibility now - not a tail risk."

On 29 June Munchau considered the EU's red lines in the Brexit negotiations. He notes what he calls a "solid analysis" by Jean-Claude Piris, formerly head of the EU Council's legal service. He is saying that the idea of a partial customs union for goods only is not going to happen. Such a solution might be justified for a small territory like Northern Ireland, but cannot be used as a general exception for an entire country. But what really clinches the argument is the UK’s request for single market access, based on voluntarily compliance with EU standards. Piris says: 

"This hope is based on a misunderstanding of what the SM is. A third state cannot get partial access to the SM under the same conditions as EU or EEA states without being bound by the same constraints. This is not because of bad will on the EU’s part. The EU has no choice but to protect its major success, which binds together all its members: the homogeneity, credibility and legal security of its SM. The European Council will be united in refusing to put the SM’s credibility in jeopardy."

So the EU would not be able to accept freedom of movement for goods and capital but not for people. The four freedoms come as a package, something that seems basically incomprehensible to many commentators in the UK. Piris notes that exactly the same arguments would also apply to a more limited agreement relating to goods only. This leaves only a Canada-style trade agreement, with no customs union or single market membership, but with a tariff-free customs arrangement and a joint dispute-settlement procedure. The question is where this will leave Northern Ireland. The implication is that there isn't an answer, without a conventional border. So, unless something gives, Munchau says this explains why close observers of the process are becoming increasingly pessimistic.
Oo-er... However Niall Ferguson, writing in the Sunday Times about the EU's immigration problem on 17 June, said: "I used to be sceptical of the argument that Brexit was like leaving a sinking ship." Ferguson says he is reassessing his view, because events in Europe are moving in directions that seemed inconceivable just a few years ago. He says that European centrists are deeply confused about immigration. "Many, especially on the centre-left, want both open borders and welfare states. But the evidence suggests that it is hard to be Denmark with a multi-cultural society. The lack of social solidarity makes high levels of taxation and redistribution unsustainable". He notes that a respected author, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants to the US, has argued that America must restrict immigration or risk civil war as rising inequality and racial tension combine. Ferguson hopes that America's melting pot can be salvaged, but he has no such hope for Europe. "No-one who has spent time in Germany since Merkel's great gamble of 2015-16 can honestly believe that a melting pot is in the making there. Anyone who visits Italy today can see that the policies of the past decade - austerity plus open borders - have produced a political meltdown. Fusion may still be an option for the United States. For Europe I fear the process is one of fission - a process potentially so explosive that it may relegate Brexit to the footnotes of history".

This is why the recent EU summit was dominated by migration and not Brexit. Politically Merkel is in deep trouble. Having shafted David Cameron and caused his demise over freedom of movement and then probably caused her own downfall by saying "Wilkommen" to all and sundry the only question is whether she will survive long enough for Theresa May's end to come before her own. Migration is the big issue even though numbers are a fraction of what they were 3 years ago. But the Italians have realised they can get traction on this topic. And it is the big long term issue for the EU. Syrian refugees was a short term blip. Nigeria already has a population about three times that of Canada, Australia and New Zealand combined. Roughly a third of these people live in poverty. Real poverty not what people call poverty in Europe. The number of babies born in Nigeria in three weeks comfortably outnumbers the total population of Iceland, who they played in the World Cup. This is why Ferguson says you can't have open borders and welfare states. For once the EU has grasped that there is an issue even if, as usual, they can't decide what to do about it.

Ferguson may or may not be right that the EU is bound to split, though I have always thought that the EU is probably an irrelevance in the long term, with commercial and demographic trends as they are in the world. I still believe, as I always have, that the long term prospects for a fully independent UK are good and quite possibly better than being in the EU. However, that's fine for the youngsters: I could be geriatric or pushing up daisies when this promised land is reached. I always feared that there would be a transitional hit, that the exit negotiations would be a total pain and that the EU would not negotiate on the basis of what was "best for everybody". It's why I decided I was too old to vote Leave, as I thought I would only see the economic pain and not so much of the benefit, and why I resent it so much when younger folk blame the old for the Brexit vote.

So I wouldn't have started from here and I didn't have the stomach to go through all this nonsense. But we voted to Leave and turning back now doesn't make any sense as we would definitely be worse off than when we started. So as I've said before (20 October 2017) I want to leave the EU for medical reasons - I'm sick of them (a reference to an Ozzy Osbourne joke/quote).

Over to you Theresa and David - can you actually make a Brexit without breaking too many eggs (or Airbuses?) Are you going to blink or are you going to take it to the line to see if they do? Do ya feel lucky, punk?

Now, where's that Rubik's cube? At least I know that has a solution!

Friday, 29 June 2018

The German car industry is rotten but Trump's tariffs could influence Brexit

I missed the story ten days ago that the Chief Executive of Audi had not only been arrested as the emissions scandal unfolds, but had been detained to prevent him obstructing the investigation*. That shows how rotten the culture in the senior management of the German car industry is - the German courts cannot trust them to play straight. Wow. Wolfgang Munchau says the German car industry is now tarnished with the reputation of a criminal racket**. He also says that President Trump's proposed tariffs of 20-25% on EU and Chinese cars "would pretty much destroy the business of importing cars from EU/China". Munchau goes on to say that this could have a profound impact on the Brexit discussions. "The UK is the largest export market for German car makers, followed by the US. If the US imposed tariffs, and if the Brexit talks were to collapse, the German auto industry would have to face crippling tariffs in three of its four largest export markets. The EU clearly has no interest in a hard Brexit in this situation."***

The fact that we buy a lot of Mercs, Beemers, Audis and VWs from this bunch of crooks could yet be material to Brexit, if only because of a renegade loose cannon of an American president. Wheels within wheels.....

*Audi chief arrested in Germany over diesel scandal, The Guardian 18 June 2018

** What the incarceration of the Audi chief implies, Eurointelligence 19 June 2018. Munchau's withering commentary is reproduced below

*** Trump's car tariff to come early, Eurointelligence, 25 June 2018

If you try to find these items on Eurointeilligence you may get directed to the subscription edition: click the link at the top of the right hand column for the shorter public section of the Eurointelligence Professional Briefing to see the free edition

"The jailing without bail of Rupert Stadler, Audi's chief, constitutes an astonishing escalation of the emissions scandal. It has now become clear that Audi was the centre of the diesel emissions scandal within the VW group, though the scandal was clearly not confined to that company. What has turned a damaging scandal into a industry-wide calamity is not the original act, bad as it was, but the way the protagonists have subsequently acted. The VW board behaves like an old-fashioned corporatist clique under attack. The strategy has been to obfuscate, to deny, to keep the dirt under the carpet. The German car industry is now tarnished with the reputation of a criminal racket. That would not have been an inevitable consequences of the crisis, if it had been professionally handled. But this should not be a surprise. If you are over-reliant on one industry, and on one company in particular, you are prone to becoming defensive when under attack." (Wolfgang Munchau, source at **)

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Pushing high

Panama may only have been League 2 standard but England's performance in achieving their best ever World Cup result in their second group game was excellent. I've been a supporter of Gareth Southgate as England manager since Allardyce was sacked (see Good Luck Nord, 1 December 2016). I was very impressed with his feet on the ground interview after the game, saying the start and end weren't good and implying the second half was a bit weak but that overall he was very pleased with the team's performance. At last, an intelligent England manager!

Yes, there's a reliance on set plays, but no team would relish playing England at the moment, though the better teams will feel they can force defensive errors. John Stones played well but hit one pass to no-one in particular and Harry McGuire lost possession with a couple of lackadaisical flicks in the middle of the pitch which would have driven any team manager I played for as a centre half apopleptic if any of his defenders had attempted them.

But the only really worrying thing was the manner in which they conceded the goal. I've written before about the tendency for most Premier League teams to defend free kicks with their defensive line too high up the pitch. The World Cup has revealed that this is a more widespread failing - it's the way most countries seem to do it. You could see clearly from the stripes mown on the pitch that England, using one such stripe, set their defensive line 24 yards from their goal for a free kick about 36 yards out towards their right touchline. The yawning gap between Pickford and his defence was an invitation to put the ball on the penalty spot for the onrushing attackers. It didn't demand a high skill level to take the free kick - in my playing days I would have fancied it with my 'wrong' foot. Had England lined up five yards deeper - so still just outside their penalty area reducing the risk of a penalty - the precision needed would have been much higher. Even more so if the man standing in front of the free kick taker had dropped back level with this deeper defensive line: a low delivery would not have got past the first defender, forcing the ball to be put in the air. Engand compounded the problem by not actually holding their line - three defenders were behind the main line when the kick was taken, two of which looked as if they played the goalscorer was onside. Given that the defensive co-ordinator, probably one of the centre backs, had picked a visible line on the pitch that was pretty amateurish.

Rio Ferdinand commented after the game that he thought they should have lined up "a bit deeper", so it's not just me saying it.

This failing could easily be fixed but I fear it won't be as, on this practice at least, Southgate and his coaches are going with the crowd. Come on, Gareth. Put your centre back's brain back in for a minute and get it sorted. Get them to line up at the point where a ball over their heads is most likely the keeper's. You know it makes sense, especially since we are strong in the air.

I could make myself available for a coaching session if it would help......

Friday, 22 June 2018

Best Musicians I've Seen - 4.5 Jimmy Page

I've already mentioned Rolling Stone magazine's top 100 guitarists. RS is, of course, an American publication and so it is remarkable that three of the top five guitarists had their careers launched, as Wikipedia puts it, in a moderately successful British band from the sixties - the Yardbirds. While Eric Clapton had profile from his time in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page came to prominence via a band that mixed top 10 pop songs (For Your Love, Heart Full of Soul, Evil Hearted You) with progressively more adventurous guitar breaks.

I've not seen Clapton or Beck live, though Clapton's guitar work in Cream was exceptional and the wacky guitar break in Beck's Hi Ho Silver Lining is one of my favourites in a pop song. Apparently, Beck plays entirely by ear, never learned how to read music and claimed not even to know what key he was playing in when asked by band mates. I have, however, seen Jimmy Page play twice. Page was also largely self taught, picking up a guitar that had been left behind at a house his family moved into when he was 12 and starting to experiment. He must have been a natural as by 13 he appeared in a tv talent competition. Invited to join a band he contracted glandular fever and  had to stop touring. Hanging around the Marquee club he played with Clapton and Beck and got occasional gigs as a stand in guitarist. Getting an invitation to help out at a recording session led to him becoming a regular session musician for Decca records, including playing on the Jet Harris hit Diamonds and subsequently songs as diverse as The Who's I Can't Explain (which Townshend is touchy about), the Rolling Stones Heart of Stone, Baby Please Don't Go and Gloria by Them (featuring Van Morrison) and, more prosaically, Petula Clark's Downtown. When Clapton left the Yardbirds he recommended Page, who turned down the gig because he was still wary of touring - and earning steady money from sessions, though Page has denied that was a factor*. He recommended they go for Beck instead, which they did. But eventually he tired of sessions when his label moved to making what Page called muzak. A week after Page quit sessions the Yardbirds bass player left and Page got a call to fill in.  Soon he was playing lead alongside Beck until he left also left.

By the time the Yardbirds folded in 1968, Page had made many of the contacts he needed to start his own band, Led Zeppelin. Peter Grant, Zeppelin's manager, had been the Yardbirds' US tour manager. John Paul Jones, the Zeppelin bass player, had filled in with the Yardbirds. And Page had honed his technique playing sessions and touring with the Yardbirds. He told Rolling Stone magazine "I knew instinctively what the music should be doing. It's what I learned touring with The Yardbirds." Indeed, the band he put together appeared as The New Yardbirds until a name was chosen. Famously, when told the name was to be Led Zeppelin, Annie Nightingale said something like "you won't be successful with a name like that". Six American number one selling albums followed....

I saw was lucky enough to see Page with Led Zeppelin at Manchester University in 1971. They were already a huge band but this was just before the era of stadium gigs. So it was a fairly intimate gig in what was then known as the Main Debating Hall, now called  "Academy 2". Led Zep were warming up to tour what would be the "Four Symbols" album, aka Led Zeppelin IV. As I have previously mentioned, there was less inhibition in those days about bootleg recordings and I can distinctly recall them playing Going To California and, of course, Stairway To Heaven, before they were released. But it was the songs from their first album, in particular Since I've Been Loving You and Dazed and Confused, with Page using a violin bow on his guitar strings, that were the most memorable. That and the bunch of young females standing just behind us who I felt sure were going to wet themselves every time Robert Plant opened his mouth, which did get a bit wearing.

Moving on - Page has been a buddy of Roy Harper since the 1960s and has played on ten Harper tracks including a jointly billed album, Harper and Page's Whatever Happened to Jugula, made in 1984. The two musicians played many gigs as an acoustic duo, some of them billed anonymously. I've had a memorable first hand report of one such gig, which I'll keep for another occasion. Page has appeared with Harper sporadically since and I saw one such gig, Roy's 70th birthday event at the Royal Festival Hall in November 2011. Page came on to duet with Harper on The Same Old Rock, one of Harper's most significant songs, from his 1970 masterpiece album Stormcock, one of their earliest recorded collaborations. The song ends with an extended acoustic guitar duet which I still find breathtaking, having listened to it endlessly since I was a student. I say duet, but it is, of course, Harper backing Page. Fortunately 40 years on Jimmy's dexterity had not been too dulled by all the drugs and he nailed it.

It seems to me that, back in the day, many of the most successful musicians served an apprenticeship of some duration before they found fame. Page has said on numerous occasions that his sessions and then touring experience with the Yardbirds was the making of him. He would play three sessions a day, six days a week, never knowing what he would be playing in advance and having to hit the notes as soon as he was counted in.

And, as far as anyone having that much success can do, he seems to have remained as modest as when he first met Roy Harper. Harper has recounted that, when playing at a festival in the late 1960s, a quiet chap "with trousers that were too short for him" queued up to ask for an autograph, shuffling off without saying a word. It was only later that Harper realised the chap with the trouser issue was Jimmy Page of the new group Led Zeppelin, who were also on the bill. Their subsequent long friendship led to recording and touring together in Britain and the States and the tribute track, Hats Off To Harper, on Led Zeppelin III.

There have been many reports about Page's spat with his neighbour in London. But then that is Robbie Williams, over the latter's plans for an iceberg style underground house extension next door to Page's grade 1 listed house, the Tower House in Melbury Road,  Holland Park built by the architect and designer William Burges which is significant enough to have its own Wikipedia page. Page has owned and lived in it since 1972. Apparently Page, mindful of the delicate plasterwork, only ever plays the acoustic guitar at home and is concerned about vibration damage during excavation. Anyone who dislikes Williams has good taste as far as I'm concerned but, more importantly, unlike some top guitarists Page is a master of both main forms of his instrument.

So, whether or not he's a decent bloke, Jimmy Page is undoubtedly a fine guitarist and he's on my shortlist.

* On the way to Led Zeppelin: Jimmy Page on the Yardbirds years, Rolling Stone 27 Nov 2012

Also Wikipedia and stuff I've picked up all over the place, including being there.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

A meaningless vote

So the government got it's EU Withdrawal Bill through, though notably all the discussion was about what happens if the negotiations fail, either because no deal is reached with the EU or because Parliament rejects whatever the government comes out of it with. In contrast, meaningful discussions about what should (or could) be negotiated have been deferred. This despite the fact that the clock isn't just running, the sands are running out, to mangle my metaphors.

The latest round of shenanigans was about what happens if MPs vote down the Brexit deal, or announces before 21 January that no deal has been struck or 21 January is reached without a deal being struck. The issue was whether the statement the government will the bring forward would be amendable by MPs, giving them their "meaningful vote". The government wanted to make the statement in this potentially hypothetical situation "neutral" and therefore not amendable. It has fudged the point for now by saying that, under normal House of Commons standing orders, it will be for the Speaker to decide whether the government's motion, as drafted, is amendable.

I'm left wondering if this concession to Tory rebels is a pure sop, as it seems to me the Speaker has the power to decide all sorts of things about what is debated, for example in response to an opposition emergency debate motion.

So, that's alright, it will all be up to John Bercow, probably the worst and most partial Speaker in my lifetime. What could possibly go wrong?

But does any of this matter anyway? Danny Finkelstein argued cogently in the Times* yesterday that Parliament having a "meaningful vote" maximises the chances of a hard Brexit, the opposite of what the Tory rebels want to see because it ignores the interests and powers of the other 27 EU countries (I think I'll call this the "rump" of the EU....) as well as being naive about the position of Labour and underestimating the resolve of the supporters of a hard Brexit. The whole article is well worth reading so I won't attempt to precis it here but I was taken by Finkelstein's summary of Labour's game plan and its implications:

"One of the most important things to understand is that Labour is not the party of a soft Brexit. The objective of the Labour leadership is only this: to bring down the government and defeat it in an election. Fair enough, I suppose. It has therefore announced objectives for a Brexit deal that are impossible for any negotiator to achieve. This will allow it to vote against any deal and keep voting against it.

And at the same time it has insisted it won't do anything to stop Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn doesn't want to and a number of his MPs worry it would antagonise Labour leavers.

So, come the end of January, Labour cannot be relied upon to vote for a second referendum. It might back one, but it might also just go on voting against a deal, leaving it to the government to sort out the resulting mess. If this causes a crisis, that is a good thing from a Labour leadership point of view, because it might bring down the government.

We could therefore end up two months from Brexit day without a legal way forward. The EU insisting that we are running out of time and Parliament unable to agree even the referendum that might stop Brexit."

For Labour, truly, the meaningful vote would be meaningless for Brexit, but not for their ambitions.

I've always thought that the Labour position on Brexit, saying it wants to be in "a" customs union without recognising that what it is saying would be entirely unacceptable to the EU, is mischief making in the extreme. But then that's their game plan: to get their extremist clique in power whatever way they can.

How unedifying. And how worrying.


Monday, 18 June 2018

Best musicians I've seen - 4.4 David Gilmour

Sifting through the mists of time, I reckon the first gig I went to was Tyrannosaurus Rex, still (just) in their acoustic hippy progressive era before Marc Bolan sold out, went electric and cleaned up with a string of the poppiest songs from any 20th Century Boy. Actually he did pick up an electric guitar for the last few songs of the set I saw at the Liverpool Phil, circa 1969 and the audience didn't know what to make of it. Although I enjoyed both versions of T Rex, Bolan isn't on my best guitarists list.

The next three gigs I saw were The Nice (see Best Musicians I've Seen 2, 26 October 2017 on Keith Emerson), Deep Purple (see Best Musicians I've Seen 4.2, Richie Blackmore, 22 April) and Pink Floyd. I can't remember the order of these but they were all in late 1969 or early 1970. Three amazing gigs actually!

Floyd, still in their fairly early post Syd Barrett days, played the Liverpool Empire around the time of the release of their double album Ummagumma, with its live recordings of already released tracks on one disc and a rather odd collection of pieces, though with the notable highlight of Grantchester Meadows on the second, studio recorded disc. Although I can remember general impressions from the gig, I can vividly remember one particular song: the Syd Barrett composition Astrominy Domine. Part way through it, as the other three musicians let Rick Wight play his quiet keyboard solo, David Gilmour crouched down on the floor of the stage, hunched over his guitar, fiddling with it. And he was still fiddling with it when Wright looked up, puzzled, as the guitar was meant to be coming back in. Then Gilmour lept up, waved and started playing. He had been replacing a string. Now the back cover of Ummagumma has a photo of the band's roadies with what looked to us, then, like a huge array of musical equipment in front of a medium sized van, rather than the pantechnicons that ferry band equipment now. There's a decent number of amps and speakers, a standard drumkit with some extra timpani (and a gong), various bits and pieces - but only two guitars and two basses. The two guitars both look like Fenders but might have been set up for different songs. So Gilmour had no spare when the string broke. And, needless to say, no guitar roadie to fix it for him. (Or to play along in the wings, beefing up the sound. In those days we knew who was actually playing!). So Gilmour fitted the new string himself. And was presumably having a go at tuning it, which would be why he was almost lying on the floor, trying to hear. Sometimes it's when things go wrong (see my piece on Richie Blackmore already referenced) that make for a memorable moment.

I've been extremely fond of Astrominy Domine ever since. Along with Rope Ladder to the Moon (the Collosseum Live! version, see Best Musicians I've Seen, 30 September 2017 and Best Musicians I've Seen 3, 16 March 2018) and Rondo 69  from The Nice's eponymously titled album, it is one of the tracks I have most listened to over the nearly 50 intervening years. I don't listen to many live albums but these three are all live recordings.

As for Gilmour, I hadn't seen many guitarists by then, but he was impressive, as were the band. I saw Floyd and Gilmour again at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. I guess this would have been 1972 as they were touring Meddle. While all three early Floyd albums had been top 10 hits in the UK, Ummagumma had achieved their highest album chart position to date. I bought the next one - Atom Heart Mother - which was their flirtation with playing with an orchestra and was their first number one seller. I've always liked it, though I didn't listen to it as much as The Nice's Five Bridges Suite. Like Ummagumma it's first half live, second half studio, with each band member contributing material to the latter. According to Nick Mason*, Gilmour - with little song writing experience at that point - was ordered to remain in the Abbey Road studios until he had composed a song suitable for inclusion on the album. The result, Fat Old Sun, is a gorgeous track and one of Gilmour's personal favourites.

The point I am moving towards here is that, in the late 60s and early 70s Gilmour was still developing as a musician, whereas the superficially more impressive Blackmore was pretty well the finished article. By then Deep Purple had found their musical identity with the release of their seminal - and breakthrough - album Deep Purple In Rock. In contrast Gilmour was just about to train on, as Floyd switched from their early era approach based on sound textures, soundscapes you might say, to writing actual songs and albums that flowed and soared, with Gilmour taking over from Rick Wright as arguably the key element in the band's sound, if not the major song writer.

I didn't enjoy the Meddle material as much as Ummagumma so, with student budget restrictions, I didn't buy it. At the time King Crimson, Traffic, Roy Harper and Soft Machine were all higher priorities to see and hear. The next Floyd album, Obscured By Clouds, sold well but was a bit of a stop gap, being based on a film soundtrack they had done. So I lost interest in their new material. This was more than a bit of a mistake, as their next offering was their definitive recording, Dark Side of the Moon, which features high on many pundits lists for the best album of all time. Although I soon caught up with this, by then my student years were over. Going to gigs was in abeyance to save money for the deposit on a house. Things don't change that much, youngsters! It was no holidays - ok, one week in a caravan in Wales in 3 years - no gigs and not much going out. After all, when we got the house we had no television or washing machine. Or anything much to sit on either. Do all those commenting today on the difficulty of getting on the housing ladder make the same sacrifices, I wonder? After all, not seeing Gilmour in the Floyd's mid 70s pomp was some sacrifice, in retrospect!

While Gilmour can play as fast as you like, his best stuff is the opposite of frantic: melodic and with a lot of sustain. A buddy who is a big Pink Floyd fan brought home a superb book from last year's V&A exhibition. A section on Gilmour's playing style describes how he often plays above and below the main melody, bending notes and swooping down and soaring up to join it. Breathe, the Gilmour track that kicks off Dark Side, is a classic example. Apparently Gilmour tended to use a lap steel or pedal steel guitar for these parts though they can be played as a conventional slide guitar part** - though Gilmour makes it sound nothing like a standard bit of slide playing. Not many guitarists pull off anything quite like it. As a compare and contrast, I like Muse and its front man Matt Bellamy a lot and I've seen them live twice. But Bellamy's playing can be the epitome of frantic. When we bought the superb but flawed Muse album Black Holes and Revelations and heard the track Invincible, which starts quietly with some almost Gilmour-esque long notes, but decends into a hectic and rather simplistic guitar break, I was heard to mutter to Mrs H "on tracks like this he couldn't half do with a lesson from David Gilmour". I've seen Muse twice and Bellamy is good, but no Gilmour.

Wikipedia notes that Gilmour's style is  characterised by "expressive note bends and sustain". Gilmour says of himself that his fingers make a distinctive sound: they "aren't very fast but I think I am instantly recognisable".

Indeed. So, while I didn't see Gilmour at his apogee, he's a fine guitarist and an outstanding musician and he is the first on my guitarists shortlist. Which is, as they say, in "no particular order". Since, although I think I've decided on it and the "winner", my indecision could yet prove to be final!

*Nick Mason's book Inside Out is a great read and highly recommended. But I can't write this stuff without checking some facts on Wikipedia, of course.

** Guitar Player, David Gilmour's Dark Side - a deep look at his rhythm and lead techniques. If you can play guitar - which I can't - this article tells you how to sound just like him.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Wide open?

We have lift off in the 2018 World Cup and already a classic match, Spain v Portugal. I've not watched much of the last few World Cups - it all seemed to have got a bit stale - but I've been looking forward to this one. Although the 1966 tournament is a vivid memory, it's classic games involving Brazil, Italy, Argentina and Holland from the 70s and 80s that I remember most fondly. So I'm hoping for some more memorable matches.

As for who will win, it's hard to see past the favourites, as the winner nearly always comes from the top four favourites. And yet. Brazil will have to overcome a fair weight of history to win so far from home. Generally South American teams win in the Americas and European teams win elsewhere. Sure, Brazil won in Sweden in 1958 and Germany won in Brazil last time round, the only major exceptions to the trend. I'm counting South Africa as Europe (same time zone after all, as USA is for Brazil). Brazil won in Japan in 2002 but all the favourites were playing "away" then. Maybe the fact that so many Brazilians play in Europe now means they aren't playing "away" this time. And counting Russia as Europe is debatable. I just don't know if Brazil have improved that much since they got smashed by Germany in their own back yard last time round.

But the other favourites don't go into the tournament in great shape. Holders Germany have been on a poor run going into the tournament, but they always turn up and have Timo Werner, an exciting 22 year old striker who doesn't play for Bayern, yet anyway (he's at Liepzig). However, Germany feel beatable.

Spain replaced their manager on the eve of the tournament, which one feels could be very good or very bad for morale. They've got the first match under their belt so could be ok.

France have a lot of "name" players. We'll see if 19 year old Mbappe is worth the fuss. I've never been particularly impressed with Griezmann, though he is attempting to be the first since Gerd Muller to win the golden boot at the World cup and Euros having got a decent tally of 6 in 2016, despite not fully convincing me. Just as with Man United, we wonder if Paul Pogba will turn up as a player or strut around looking like a spolit rich kid but not actually doing anything. Of course, I don't count Griezman's penalty and Pogba's streaky winner against the plucky Aussies as 'performing'. As you can tell, I have my doubts about France.

Fourth favourites are the perennial underperformers Argentina, at least since the days of the Hand of God (1986). They have Lionel Messi, who many respected  commentators rank the best player in the world ever, not just now. And Messi won the Golden Ball for the best player in the last World Cup. He had the good grace to look embarrased when presented it since, like most of us, he must have wondered how come Neymar or one of several Germans hadn't won it. Even crooked FIFA chief Sepp Blatter thought it was bent. For Messi to be ranked the best ever he needs to turn in a really good performance in what might be his last world cup, rather than looking like an imposter most of the time. As he did against Australia today. So I'm not convinced by Argentina either. After all, can you win the world cup with Willy Caballero in goal? We'll see.

So could it be an outsider? Belgium are ranked fifth (fourth by some bookies) and have Hazard and de Bruyne. They could go well. Oh, and they are in England's group of course.  And after that lot, the next ranked team are England, who have only won 6 knock out rounds at a World Cup finals since 1966. Germany have won that many since 2010.

So I feel that, unless Brazil live up to their ranking as fairly hot favourites, it could be a wide open tournament. Maybe like when Greece won the Euros in 2004. Though probably not wide open enough for England! But who knows, maybe we could get the best performance from England at a tournament since Euro 1996. I'm not holding my breath.

And I'm not actually watching the football at all in the evenings at the moment: I can't take my eyes off Ian Poulter and Justin Rose who have been going well in the U. S. Open golf with decent showings by Tommy Fleetwood and Matt Fitzpatrick. A game the English are quite good at!

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Look man!

If anyone out there still thought Sam Allardyce should have been a good fit for Everton, or was unfortunate not to go into a second season there, the story of Ademola Lookman's season should put them straight.

Lookman was a member of the England team that won the under 20 World Cup last summer. He had moved from Charlton to Everton in January 2017 and appeared a few times that season and early in 2017-18. In January Sam Allardyce decided Lookman needed more game time and tried to fix a loan to Derby County in the Championship. Lookman didn't fancy it. He wanted to go to RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga. Big Sam was puzzled and cautioned Lookman against the move. After all, why go and play in a slightly bigger league for a bigger club, where you don't know the language and will just be on the bench. Much better, as Rod Liddle said, to go and get clogged by Burton Albion and Barnsley's defenders, "make a man of you, son". But Lookman had already had that experience with Charlton. So he went to Leipzig. Where he got five goals in eleven appearances, with loads of assists. And ended the season second in the table of goals scored per minute played behind Robert Lewandowski. And pretty much terrorised Bundesliga defenders, playing typically 45-60 minutes a game, Leipzig recognising that he should not be over played aged 20. And had Everton fans saying "this guy looks good, we should sign him" on his youtube highlights.

But it shouldn't have been a surprise. Lookman's last appearance for Everton before going on loan was as a substitute in Everton's dismal performance at Anfield in the Merseyside derby FA Cup tie on 5 January. Lookman was perhaps the one bright spot. A Liverpool season ticket holder I know well, who is a good judge of a player, told me Lookman had been the only player in a blue shirt to impress him: sharp and fast. Meanwhile Everton laboured for pace up front without him.

To be fair, Allardyce might have known that Everton were going to get Theo Walcott. Or at least that they intended to bring in an experienced forward. However, I suspect Allardyce just couldn't imagine playing Lookman when he already had more youngsters than he was comfortable with in the squad. Personally I can't understand why anyone would keep Yanick Bolassie and loan out Lookman rather than vice-versa.

Leipzig want to sign Lookman permanently. I hope his view of Everton hasn't been soured.

Everton have now announced Allardyce's successor: Marco Silva who did well, relatively speaking at Hull and started well at Watford. Since his first management post at Estoril, Silva has never stayed at a club for longer much longer than a year.  Hmm. I hope it works....

For the record, Silva wouldn't have been on my shortlist, which was Rafa Benitez (see previous posts - I'd have gone for him instead of Allardyce), Sean Dyche (though I don't think he would leave Burnley right now) and Eddie Howe, whose Premier League record vastly surpasses Silva's. Of course, all three might have been sounded out and declined. But I doubt it.

I'm hoping Silva wins me over. Can he improve the club's recent Premier League record (11th, 7th and 8th)? We'll see. It will take a couple of good seasons at least to win me over.

*Rod Liddle recounted the Ademola Lookman story in his characteristic style in the Sunday Times on 20 May