Friday, 20 July 2018

England's Glass Is Half Full

As World Cups go, Russia 2018 will be regarded as one of the better tournaments; perhaps not the best of all time, but certainly better than a lot of people would have given it credit for before it kicked off. Prior to the competition, I had my misgivings. Fears of unrest at the tournament (football in Russia has a reputation for terrace violence and racism) and the underwhelming performances of the England national team at recent tournaments were just two of them. The poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer and double agent,  Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in March this year (regardless of who was actually to blame) and the ensuing exchanges that saw Russian diplomats expelled from the UK, and British diplomats banished from Moscow, led to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office urging travelling fans to be wary of “anti-British sentiment”.

But from what the media reported, it seems that there was little, if any trouble in Russia this year, and it does seem that the 2018 World Cup was a remarkably fan-friendly tournament. Footage from inside the stadiums seems to support the view that the fans were extremely well behaved and the organisation efficient (apart from the presentation of the trophy to France after the final which, to put it politely, was a bit of a shambles).

Overall the standard of refereeing at these finals seemed pretty decent as well, albeit that in the early group games it appeared that all of the officials had developed a total inability to spot the adoption of all-in wrestling by teams when defending corner kicks. Serbia were denied what most observers considered to be the most blatant penalty in the history of the game when Aleksandar Mitrovic was pulled to the ground by not one, but two Swiss defenders, while in England's opener against Tunisia, Harry Kane was repeatedly tugged to the floor without the reward of a spot kick. And it isn't as though the referees were not seeing these incidents - they clearly were - but equally clearly were choosing not to penalise the offences. Fortunately, this subsequently changed with later games seeing defenders rightly penalised for holding and rugby tackling forwards.

The use of the Video Assistant Referee system (VAR) in this World Cup opened a whole new Pandora's Box of problems. The principle of VAR is pretty sound, and while in the past I've felt that the Laws of The Game ought not to differentiate between a World Cup Final and a game on Hackney Marshes, I'll now accept that VAR has its place in the game at its highest levels. But the problem with VAR is neither the idea nor the technology, but the people who administer it, either in the booth or on the pitch. Once VAR has been invoked and offered the referee a chance to review their decision, there must always be an element of doubt creeping into their mind such that it is more likely than not that they will reverse their original decision regardless of whether they were right first time (and often, they were); it's human nature to let doubts creep in once you've been told to look at something again.

Referee Enrique Caceres studies the monitor as VAR comes into play in the Portugal v Iran game. Photo:Maja Hitij/FIFA via Getty Images

The normal tub-thumping jingoism that accompanies England at major tournaments was mercifully absent this year. Optimism surged once the Quarter-Finals were reached and won,  and understandably so, after all, England won two knock-out matches in Russia, their best return for many a year. Before this competition England had been victorious in just six knock-out matches at major tournaments since 1966; the last time England triumphed in a game beyond the group stages was against Ecuador in 1996.

I was as cynical as anyone when 'England's DNA' - a sort of footballing methodology and consistency of style and approach across the national side at all age levels - was announced in 2014, but it seems to be bearing fruit, since in June 2017 England's Under-20’s won both the Toulon Tournament and the World Cup and with different squads at each tournament. Later that same month the Under-21s reached the semi-finals of the European Championships before losing on penalties to Germany. In July, the Under-19s won the European Championships after beating Portugal in the final, and then in October, the Under-17 side won the World Cup, coming from 2-0 down to beat Spain 5-2 in the Final. Maybe, if players advance through the ranks to the full England side, playing a similar style of football throughout their progression, the national side will start to perform more consistently and more importantly, more effectively.

Sam Allardyce losing the England manager's job for allegedly giving advice on how to circumvent the FA’s rules on third-party ownership may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. One can imagine that Sam's squad would have relied heavily on the usual suspects - Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart, Jack Wilshere et al, whereas Gareth Southgate was prepared to give younger players a chance, and to a large degree, was vindicated for doing so.

Gareth Southgate's team selection and air of calm professionalism won him many fans at the World Cup.

In recent years my interest in World Cups has waned somewhat, but I watched more of this tournament than I anticipated - viewer friendly kick-off times helped. I especially enjoyed the Portugal - Spain, France - Argentina, and Belgium - Japan games, and managed to see most of England's games. The Quarter-Final against Sweden proved a challenge, however, as Val and I had tickets for BBC World Book Club with Hilary Mantel (author of Wolf Hall) on the same day, and with me being slated to ask a question (as it happens, it was cut because time ran out) it was difficult not to attend. BBC World Book Club over-ran slightly, so the game had been going for fifteen minutes by the time we emerged from the event. Fortunately, the wi-fi at The Southbank Centre came to the rescue and we watched the game on my iPad.

Hilary Mantel at BBC World Book Club...

...followed by England v Sweden
But the Semi-Final against Croatia presented me with a big, big dilemma. Back in January, I booked a ticket to see one of my favourite bands, Big Big Train in concert on 11th July, not realising that it was the date of one of the Semi-Finals. Frankly, even had I known that I would probably still have booked a ticket, after all, what were the chances that England would be playing? As the competition unfolded, it was clear that I could have a choice to make, and after the Sweden game that I definitely had a choice to make. With the gig being in Basingstoke (a two-and-a-bit hour drive from home) while England were featuring in the last four of the World Cup for only the third time in my lifetime, you could say that I was conflicted. In the end, I chose Big Big Train and was glad I did as they were brilliant. Staying at home to watch the game would have been frustrating, stressful and inevitably made me wish I'd gone to Basingstoke.

Big Big Train in Basingstoke proved to be a wise choice.

One swallow doesn't make a summer, and hopes for England's chances in Euro 2020, and the 2022 World Cup need to be tempered with a sense of realism, but it seems only reasonable for the optimist to believe that for once, England's glass is half-full.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

A Midland Odyssey Part Twelve - Spanish Pesetas and Travellers Cheques

Every year, as the end of July approaches, I inevitably think back to my days as Foreign Clerk at Midland Bank in Barking during the 1980's, and the panic that set in as the Fords shutdown approached. Factory shutdowns in the summer have long been a characteristic of manufacturing industries, and with Ford having a major plant just down the road at Dagenham, the end of July - beginning of August period would see literally thousands of residents of Barking and Dagenham simultaneously on holiday. As many as 40,000 people worked at Ford's in 1953, and although this number has steadily fallen over the years - to just over 3,000 today - as recently as the 1980's Fords were a major employer in the Barking and Dagenham area.

Ford's plant at Dagenham. Picture: Lars Plougmann - Flickr: 164945157

So, each July, as the end of the month edged closer, thousands of Fords employees began contemplating their fortnight on one of the Spanish Costas, or one of the Greek islands and that meant picking up their Pesetas, or Drachmas, and their Travellers Cheques. And whereas today it's possible to just wander into a bank, or bureaux de change, travel agents, or the Post Office and buy your currency over the counter, back then at Barking branch we were not allowed to hold stocks of currency and therefore most customers wanting their foreign money had to order it in advance.  The plus side of this as far as I was concerned was that I knew for any given day, how many foreign money orders I would have to make up; the downside was that I knew exactly how busy and increasingly frazzled I would be on those days, and inevitably it was Fridays that most customers seemed to want to collect their orders.

Each morning during the summer months, one of my first tasks would be to make up the travel orders before we opened for business at 9.30am, but no matter whether there were twenty orders, or just five or six, it was inevitable that the customers who arrived for their travel money first were the ones whose orders had not yet been made up, while those orders where the cash had been counted, the Sterling equivalent calculated and all of the vouchering completed, would lie in the dual-control drawer until sometime in the afternoon. And handing out that currency was a time consuming job too, since in addition to their cash, most customers bought travellers cheques which I had to watch as they signed them, and then run through my customary patter about keeping the receipt separate from the cheques so that in the event of their loss or theft, they had a record of the serial numbers for any insurance claim.

One year I decided to take holiday during this particularly busy time, and my good friend and colleague Keith Markham was moved from his normal role on the Securities desk to cover me. I think that the trauma of stays with him still, as he often mentions the experience when we meet up. While he may have forgiven me, he certainly hasn't forgotten!

Today, if you go into a bureau de change to buy your foreign currency, you will be served by someone with a computer in front of them, and your receipt will be printed out complete with currency amount, exchange rate, Sterling equivalent and commission amount (if any). In my technologically impoverished day, the conversion was performed on a calculator and the customer's copy and associated accounting vouchers were written out by hand, and also unlike today, each transaction attracted commission. I very much doubt there are many places that charge commission charged today, but it was the norm in the 1980's. But that doesn't necessarily mean today's travellers aren't paying commission, it's just that today the rates are loaded to account for it, and the spread (between buying and selling rates) is much larger.

Those exchange rates today are usually on view in banks and other exchanges in some form of digital display, but they weren't in Midland Bank, Barking circa 1985,! In the banking hall there was a light box with the names of the various currencies that we bought and sold on it, with columns showing the rates - buying and selling - for notes and coins (although in practice we rarely, if ever dealt with coins) and for cheques. And each morning I would stick little plastic numbers on that light box in accordance with the rate sheet that had arrived in the Head Office Letter that day. In theory, when an exchange rate update was advised during the day, I would have to go out and amend the display, and also change the calculation on any unsold orders. In practice, this was observed in the breach unless the rate in question had moved dramatically, and dramatically enough to get me out there would be if someone had devalued their currency! The rates were rarely accurate anyway, due to the propensity for those plastic numbers to drop off the shiny surface of the light box; the only way to have any chance of them adhering was to dab them with saliva, not the most wholesome of practices!

It wasn't just the sale and purchase of foreign currency that was labour intensive in 1980's branch banking. While Midland Bank had moved away from the iconic Burroughs TC-500 computer terminal to the rather slicker Nixdorf machines, on the foreign desk the pen, calculator, books of record and the typewriter still reigned supreme, and the typewriter on the foreign desk was especially busy. There were Credit and Debit Advices galore to be typed, with one customer - a record exporter - receiving numerous payments from overseas during the day, which printed from the Nixdorf terminal and had to be transposed onto a Credit Advice and sent out in the mail. And that same customer issued numerous Foreign Bills for Collection, the forms for processing which were seven-part monsters that necessitated the use of six pieces of carbon paper to complete. It goes without saying that typing using that amount of carbon paper required quite a heavy touch to make sure that the seventh copy (the one retained in the Branch) was legible, but also required an accurate touch as corrections were a total nightmare!

It seemed in those days that almost everything one did had to be recorded in a book, whether it was foreign currency transactions, issuing travellers cheques, processing payments, or processing bills; just about everything had its own book or ledger. And those books stood on a shelf in front of me, the face of which was plastered with stickers on which I had typed the addresses of customers and account numbers of the accounts I used most frequently. It would not be allowed today of course, data protection regulations would put paid to that time-saving hack - actually I'm not even sure I ought to have done it even thirty years ago, and I'm vaguely aware of some point in time when I was required to remove them all to avoid bringing down the wrath of the inspectors.

I can't find a picture of Midland Bank, Barking so here it is in later years rebranded HSBC.

I spent five and a bit very happy years at Midland in Barking; when I started there I knew only a little about foreign work - a job that became my favourite and shaped the rest of my time in the bank - by the time I left I wouldn't say I was an expert, but I certainly knew a bit about virtually everything, and I had the task of making up foreign money orders down to a fine art.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Who Play At Annfield? And Other Questions

Which Scottish League club play at Annfield? Who won the Wearside League last season? Who is Wolves' most capped player? At one time I could have answered those questions in a flash; at one time it was pretty much compulsory for me to be able to. As a member of the Romford Supporters Club Quiz Team in the 1970's and 1980's those were the sort of questions you could expect to face in the Home Counties Supporters Clubs Quiz League, in which Romford's team played sides from Barking, Wimbledon, Barnet, Southend, and Gravesend & Northfleet, among others. And all of the questions were composed from information contained in the Rothmans Football Yearbook, which was first published in 1970, and knocked existing publications like the Playfair Football Annual, or the News of The World Football Annual into a cocked hat. 

When Romford first entered the league, home matches were played in the Social Club at the football club's Brooklands ground and the team included well-known supporters like Jim Hughes, Dale Sharp, Barry Dove and Jon Walsh. Occasionally, football club secretary John Haley would be on the team. In those early years there was little danger of Romford actually winning anything, in fact the team were once described by the Quiz League Secretary as "the chopping blocks of the league." This changed in 1976 when Romford rather startled their opponents by winning five out of their six league games and becoming the first team ever to win at Gravesend, by a score of 60-51. Gravesend won the league - just, on points difference - finishing narrowly ahead of Romford and Barking (the only team to beat Romford) as all three sides finished with records of won five, lost one. By this time the team had changed a bit, with Martin Bailey, Rob Godfrey and myself joining and reducing the average age of the team a little (it was a long time ago). The team's finest hour came in 1980 when the league was won for the only time. The football club had folded in 1978, but the quiz team kept going and that year beat Wimbledon (by common consent, the best team in the league at that time) in the first game of the season. Thanks in part to the addition to the team of Andy Prescott, for whom the quizzes were as much an academic exercise as anything else, Romford won the league, winning every league game. We actually took it seriously that season, going so far as to have revision sessions.

It may not seem like much, but it's one of the few things I have ever won!

And here are some pictures of the people who won it with me.

With Brooklands long gone, home games were played at local venues like Collier Row FC (now also gone), or pubs like The Durham Arms in Romford, but as some of the team drifted away and new faces like my friend and work colleague Keith Markham were drafted in.  None of these new recruits had seen the football team play, and some of them would have been hard-pressed to point to Romford on a map.  Home games migrated into Central London and to pubs like The Bloomsbury Tavern in Shaftesbury Avenue. By this time the quizzes were little more than an excuse to meet up, socialise and have a few beers. At some point in the mid-1980's the team disbanded.

The Durham Arms in Romford

The Bloomsbury Tavern

The first Rothmans Football Yearbook (or as everyone knew it, 'the Rothmans', or sometimes just 'the book') cost eighteen shillings (90pence) and ran - as did subsequent editions - to about 1,000 pages, covering everything from the World Cup to what we would now refer to as Step 6 football. If it wasn't in the Rothmans, it probably wasn't worth knowing. The first edition of the Rothmans that I owned was the 1971-72 issue; it cost £1 and my parents bought it for me while we were on holiday (Eastbourne, I think) and I bought every subsequent book until sometime in the mid-1980's, when the quiz team packed up and the need to own new issues diminished.

The book was sponsored by Rothmans until 2003 when they withdrew due to legislation restricting tobacco sponsorship in sport. Sky Sports took over as the new sponsors from the 2003–04 edition onwards (somehow I imagine that most diehards still call it 'the Rothmans'), but in March this year Sky withdrew their support and the book's future is in doubt. The internet is probably partly to blame; who needs a book that is as thick as a brick and just as weighty, when all the information you could ever need is just a couple of taps away on your smartphone? The Home Counties Supporters Clubs Quiz League is still going, albeit the format has changed from head-to-head matches to contests featuring all six remaining member teams on a monthly basis at a pub in Clerkenwell. Assuming that all the question are still derived from 'the Rothmans' and that Sky do drop their sponsorship and the book is no longer published, this is going to force the league into drastic action to find a source as impeccable to replace it.

The Rothmans was football's answer to Wisden - that great cricket almanac that has been published continuously since 1864 and thankfully shows no signs of imminent demise - perhaps never treated with the same sort of reverence, but mightily respected by all who encountered it. If 'the book' does cease publication, then the casual statistic loving football fan will be left with few choices. There is the Nationwide Football Annual, but with the most recent edition containing a mere 244 pages, it is hardly in the Rothmans' league, though it does have longevity on its side. The Nationwide Football Annual began life in 1887 as the Athletic News Football Annual; it lasted 59 years under that name until it became the Empire News and Sunday Chronicle Annual. The newspaper for which it was named merged with the News of the World in 1960 and the annual changed its title again. With the failure of the NotW, the Nationwide Building Society - once sponsors of the Football League - put their name to it.

In the days when the Rothmans was a compulsory purchase at the start of every season, each new edition would take its place on my bookshelf alongside its predecessors until eventually a combination of a lack of space and the Romford Supporters Quiz Team finally folding resulted in me throwing them out. If I had kept them they might have been worth a few bob now, although the highest price I've seen for one goes to the first year's edition (which I did not own) and is available on Amazon at £59 in paperback and a staggering £340.75 for the hardback. Nowadays I suppose that the diehards, the technophobes and the quiz enthusiasts are the book's primary market and one which is in all likelihood dwindling. Nonetheless, it would be a shame if Sky pulled the plug on football's most respected publication, and all apparently for the sake of the £30,000 annual sponsorship money that the broadcaster puts into it. Think about that; Sky are happy to pay £3.579bn for the rights to broadcast the next three years of Premier League football, but reluctant to stump up some small change to keep a book going after nearly half a century of publication.

Finally, to return to the questions at the top of the page. The Scottish League club that played at Annfield were Stirling Albion (they now play at the Forthbank Stadium); the Wearside League was won by Jarrow last season, and Billy Wright (105 England appearances between 1939 and 1959) remains Wolves' most capped player.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Fear The Machines

Should we fear the rise of the machines? And if so, should it be for the reason science fiction suggests?

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) has created conflicting opinions. There's a school of thought that machines with artificial intelligence will bring about a utopian world; equally, there are plenty of people who believe quite the opposite, that AI will be mankind's downfall. Steven Hawking has said that AI could be the "worst event in the history of our civilization." Elon Musk is another who cautions about the dangers of AI. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg is a high-profile proponent of AI and says that he is "really optimistic" about its future.

Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg: Differing views on AI

The rise of AI, the prospect of the machines taking over and attempting to wipe out mankind à la the Terminator films is an enduring science fiction trope, and it's by no means a recent one either. E.M. Forster's 1909 short story, The Machine Stops, posits a world in which mankind has become almost totally reliant on a machine that provides for their every need, and that civilisation collapses when the machine stops working. It is less apocalyptic than the elimination of man by nuclear weapon-wielding robots, but more plausible perhaps as we now have become so reliant on our gadgets and the technology behind them that without them we would possibly no longer be able to function.

Setting aside any fears that the growth of AI might eventually reach the point where self-aware machines start to view mankind as a nuisance at best, and a threat at worst, and wipe us all out, there are reasons to view the rise of AI with some trepidation, although there are as ever, plenty of opposing views. Ever since the Luddites destroyed the machinery in cotton mills that were threatening their jobs, we have viewed advances in mechanisation and technology in the workplace with ambivalence. For every worker freed from the dangerous, the dirty, and the simply monotonous by mechanisation, automation, and computerisation, the trade-off is a reduction in the number of available jobs.

Luddites taking it out on the machines that took their jobs.

Going back to the heyday of Tomorrow's World, before the mobile phone, before the home computer - before the spread of the office computer even - and we were frequently told that in the world of the future machines would remove the drudgery from our working lives, that we would have more leisure time as our working week reduced. Except, even then I felt that was over-optimistic; if machines reduced the number of hours we would need to work, then the amount of remuneration we would receive would fall correspondingly. Or, as it turns out today, there are fewer people doing the same number of hours (or more), while other people are herded into jobs with zero-hour contracts and precarious employment if they can find a job at all.

Raymond Baxter presenting Tomorrow's World, a programme that regularly predicted a utopian world in which the working week would be truncated as machines took over our jobs and increased our leisure time.

According to the Future of Work Commission, a body set up in 2017 by Labour MP Tom Watson to look into how the UK is dealing with the new technological revolution, " the most apocalyptic predictions about the impact automation will have on jobs are far too pessimistic." Instead, the report says, " automation and artificial intelligence will create as many jobs as they destroy."[1]  Watson himself says, “If the heavy lifting and routine tasks of the future can be carried out by 21st-century machines, then the workforce of the future will be free to focus on activities that generate greater economic benefits for a greater number of people. That is liberating. So I suppose what I’m really saying is – robots can set us free.”

Tom Watson

Hand in hand with this, Watson and his Commission propose that employers should encourage flexible working and leave for learning, to allow employees to gain new skills as their current roles become mechanised. Worthy ideas, but perhaps naive. It is all well and good to say that as a worker's role become mechanised they can retrain and gain new skills, but it is difficult to imagine whole swathes of manual workers displaced from their roles retraining and finding positions as HR consultants or finance officers within their company, even if they had the inclination, desire, or wherewithal, if the positions simply do not exist.

As we saw with disputes on the London Underground and Southern Railways, when proposals were made to replace booking office staff and train guards with ticket machines and one-man-operated trains respectively, trade unions rarely take kindly to this sort of thing, and fight vigorously to maintain the rights of the workers to continue in their roles, even if automation can replace them; and that after all, is part of their raison d'être. And in the pursuit of retaining jobs for their members, unions can be excused pushing for them to be redeployed in roles that add no value - a bit like replacing a lorry driven by a human being with an autonomous vehicle but requiring a man to walk ahead of it waving a red flag.

It isn't just manual workers who are threatened by the rise of the machines in the workplace. As anyone who worked in an office in the 1970's will testify, mechanisation, automation, and computerisation replaced the tedious manual tasks we were all engaged in, enabling employers to make savings by reducing the headcount. For the workers who remained, rarely did the amount of work reduce, in fact as many discovered, workloads increased - the concept of doing more with less, is not a new one.

These changes, together with reducing and removing redundant and duplicated processes and tasks that add no value, have enabled organisations to shrink their workforce still further; and it's likely to get worse. According to the think-tank Reform, about 250,000 jobs could be replaced by robots by 2030, and these are jobs such as administrators in Whitehall and the NHS, GP receptionists and the like. Reform also claims that around 30 percent of nursing duties, like collecting information and administering non-intravenous medication, could also be automated.

"Take two aspirin a day and come back and see me if you're no better in a fortnight."

The sorts of numbers Reform are bandying about are based on existing technology, and technology we can currently foresee, but looking at the changes that I for one saw in nearly forty years in the workplace, these are likely to be merely the tip of the iceberg. There will be many advances that will enable the automating of processes and jobs that can only currently be performed by people which we can presently not conceive of - by way of example, when I started work the idea of mobile phones, the internet, and personal computers was the stuff of science-fiction; now we take them for granted.  And if these advances come to pass then the people displaced by them are unlikely to find full-time employment elsewhere; the gig economy will expand, and as Mark Zuckerberg has argued, some form of basic universal income will be necessary.

What we'll be reduced to once the machines have taken all of our jobs.

The Terminator films may have given us cause for concern that the rise of the machines could see us all wiped out by a nuclear holocaust, but personally I am more concerned that if we do all die in a hail of ICBMs, it will be the result of the actions of one or two men with dodgy hair-do's and vast nuclear arsenals, not some super-computer. AI induced armageddon is more likely to be driven by the algorithms that run the machines trading on the world's stock markets, causing financial meltdown in a frenzy of selling that drives companies out of business and bankrupts everyone.

Actually, it's even more likely we'll die of boredom if machines eventually replace almost every job on the planet, albeit that those who still do have a job will find themselves working longer and harder than ever.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Lost In Music

2017 was a bumper year in terms of my attending live music events; having totted them up, I find that I went to nearly twenty gigs, concerts, radio recordings, etc. There was opera, there was prog; there was classical and there was pop; there was stuff I adored, and there was stuff I tolerated; there were shows I paid quite a lot to see, and there were shows that were free.

In my younger days I was lucky enough to see some really big bands;  the first concert I ever saw, in the 1970's, was Genesis at Earls Court, which rather set the tone for seeing big acts in big venues, like Yes at Wembley Arena, 10cc at the same venue, Genesis at Wembley Stadium, Dire Straits at the Hammersmith Odeon, those sorts of artists and venues. But between 1992 (Genesis at Earls Court, again) and 2008 (Porcupine Tree at indigO2) I saw nothing, partly because my musical tastes had ossified and the bands I had always liked had stopped touring, or if they were still playing, were nigh on impossible to get tickets to see.

Genesis recorded their best-selling live album, Seconds Out, during the tour I first saw them on.

From the mid-2000's onwards, however, I have found a whole new raft of bands to enjoy, driven largely by my discovering a whole new generation of bands playing prog rock, that much maligned, much misunderstood, but still hugely popular musical genre. And swept along and buoyed up by the new wave of prog bands and artists like Big Big Train, and Steven Wilson, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of artists such as Steve Hackett and bands like Yes. And so in 2017, I found that there was an abundance of artists that I wanted to see, and remarkably, despite the difficulty that many people - myself included, on occasions - have in getting tickets without having to resort to using secondary sites charging extortionate prices, I managed to get tickets for everything that I wanted to see.

At this point I could launch into a review of all of the shows I saw in 2017 - but I won't because that would be almost as tedious to write as it would be for you to read, so instead, here's some edited highlights.

Best Show
Well, at the start of the year I expected that the much anticipated Big Big Train gig at Cadogan Hall would be a shoo-in for this, but the first night -which I attended - had a few technical issues in the first half, and although I enjoyed the show immensely, it perhaps suffered from the weight of expectation. ABC, performing the whole of their glorious Lexicon Of Love album (up there in my favourite five albums of all time) at the Royal Albert Hall was a real highlight of the year; similarly, Fish doing the whole of Marillion's Clutching At Straws was marvellous. But the show that stood out, head and shoulders above all others was Frost* at Dingwalls. Playing most of their third album - Falling Satellites - and selections from Milliontown and Experiments In Mass Appeal, they were superb, and the highlight of my year. An honourable mention has to go to Tubular Bells For Two, however. Billed as " One album, two men, too many instruments…" this comprises two Australian multi-instrumentalists playing Mike Oldfield's classic album live and in its entirety; the show that I saw in October was stunning and at times, bonkers.

Frost* at Dingwalls.

Best Venue
I have always been a great fan of the Hammersmith Odeon (or whatever they are calling it this week), and I saw Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman (now known as Yes featuring Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman) there last March, and still love the place. 

Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman at Hammersmith Odeon.

The London Palladium, where I saw Steve Hackett is a great venue too; the Royal Albert Hall is simply marvellous, as is the Royal Opera House (I saw Rigoletto in December), but my favourite venue of the year - and I had not been there before last May - is the Islington Assembly Hall. Opened in 1930, this Grade Two listed building closed in the 1980's and lay unused for thirty years. 
Steve Hackett at the London Palladium.

There are original art deco style interiors and staircases to admire at the Assembly Hall, and the concert hall - while being admittedly quite plain - affords a great view from wherever you stand, and although there is balcony seating - and some on the floor - it is a venue best enjoyed standing in my view; in fact I have discovered this last year that given the choice, I'd stand rather than sit at shows these days. From a purely aesthetic point of view, the Union Chapel in Islington takes some beating; an absolutely stunning venue.

Riverside at Islington Assembly Hall
The fabulous Union Chapel

Worst Show
In truth, there were no bad shows in the roster of events that I saw last year, but there was one that I endured rather than enjoyed - well, two actually, the same artist twice. Headlining one of the free events that I saw - The Roundhouse Music Festival in Dagenham's Central Park - were Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, not an act I am a big fan of. My wife, on the other hand really likes them, so when she saw that they were playing at Nells Jazz and Blues Club in Kensington, she was keen to go, but not so keen to go alone, so as a dutiful husband, I went too.

Steve Harley, not my favourite, but at least we had good seats.

Biggest Surprise
Last May, I saw three great gigs in a week: Steve Hackett at the London Palladium, Riverside at the Islington Assembly Hall, and then Blackfield at the same venue. A musical collaboration between Steven Wilson - a man whose musical influence has spread far and wide, and further it seems with each passing month - and Aviv Geffen, Blackfield were outstanding, surpassing my expectations. And, as a bonus, Wilson - who was not slated to appear on the tour (tickets were sold with that expressly stated) came on stage for three songs. A great night, better than I expected.

Steve Wilson (centre) on stage with Aviv Geffen (right) at Islington Assembly Hall with Blackfield.

Best Support Act
Only four gigs that I saw had support (I'm excluding the two outdoor events that I saw that featured multiple performers). My experience of support acts is that they are either terrible or surprisingly brilliant (many years ago I saw Bryan Ferry - he was awful, the support act, Londonbeat, were superb). Of the few that I saw in 2017, the best was undoubtedly Doris Brendel, who supported Fish. So good was she that I bought three of her albums from the merchandise stand, and they certainly stand up to scrutiny, with Upside Down World being especially worth a spin (it's available on Amazon and Spotify).

Doris Brendel - best support of the year, I'd happily go see her and her band again.

Best T-Shirt
I have a weakness for buying t-shirts at gigs (see Quirks and Idiosyncrasies), and I have lost count of the number of them that I have; I added eight to the collection in 2017. As for the best of those, it's a toss-up between Frost* and Fish, with the latter just edging it.

This year promises to be a slightly less frantic one for music - just five gigs in the diary (so far, anyway) - with Lifesigns at the Half Moon, Putney and Steven Wilson at the Royal Albert Hall particularly anticipated. There are plenty of bands and artists I'd still like to see though, and one who has been inserted firmly on my bucket list after seeing a documentary about him, and then seeing him live on TV with Chic ringing in the New Year, is Nile Rodgers. It's quite possible I'll never get the chance to see him, but I live in hope.

2017's Full List
1.       Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman at Eventim Apollo (aka Hammersmith Odeon)
2.       ABC at the Royal Albert Hall
3.       Steve Hackett at the London Palladium
4.       Riverside at Islington Assembly Hall
5.       Blackfield at Islington Assembly Hall - Support from Pat Dam Smyth
6.       Rick Wakeman - Piano Pieces at Cadogan Hall
7.       Big Big Train at Cadogan Hall
8.       Tubular Bells For Two at Union Chapel - Support from Gypsy Fingers
9.       Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel at Nells Jazz & Blues Club, Kensington
10.   Frost* at Dingwalls - Support from Romain Thorel
11.   Fish at Islington Assembly Hall - Support from Doris Brendel
12.   Rigoletto at Royal Opera House
13.   An American In Paris at Dominion, Tottenham Court Road
14.   BBC Singers at Temple Church Winter Festival
15.   In Tune - BBC Proms at Imperial College Union
16.   David Live (David Bowie Tribute) at RUSS Club, Romford
17.   David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac and Aerosmith tribute acts at Central Park, Dagenham
18.   Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel at Central Park, Dagenham
19.   Elvis Fest (Elvis Presley tribute acts) at Central Park, Dagenham
20.   The Blockheads at the Havering Show, Harrow Lodge Park
21.   Ray Lewis Still Drifting at the Havering Show, Harrow Lodge Park

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Losing Our Memories

Imagine if there was no internet. Not that the internet had never existed, but imagine that it was suddenly turned off, never to return. We have become so reliant on it that the consequences would be almost catastrophic. Working from home would become impractical, shopping from home would have to be done by phone or by post, and social media would disappear. On the plus side, there would be no more tweets from Donald Trump, no more invitations on Facebook to play Candy Crush, and no more dubious emails from strangely benevolent Nigerians offering riches beyond compare in exchange for your bank details. But, while the internet has brought us untold benefits, and has enriched our lives in many ways, our increasing reliance on it comes at a cost, a cost to our memories and our cognitive powers.

Imagine if this was all there ever was, for all eternity, when you tried to connect?

I have always enjoyed quizzes; I think it stems back to my days at junior school, where we had a teacher - Mr Harris (he drove a green Rover car and had a finger missing; those two facts are not connected, he lost his finger during the war) - who would set us questions to go home and find the answers for. Armed with nothing more than a basic encyclopaedia, I would seek the answers to puzzles such as, Who designed the Suez Canal?[1] Or, the dates of the First World War, the sort of things that were rarely taught, but which are useful to know. In later years I regularly competed in quizzes, playing for a team that took part in a league (the questions were exclusively about football), and then a monthly quiz in which about twenty teams took part, and in which my team had its fair share of success. And that enjoyment of quizzes has been in part responsible for, and a result of the pleasure I get from gaining and retaining information, facts and trivia, purely for its own sake. Having a retentive memory was something that I found useful and important at work, and both at work and at home, I've frequently had people ask, "How did you know that?" when I wheel out some useful (or sometimes not very useful) information. And the answer is that it is simply ingrained in me to learn and retain stuff, as well as being something that I get pleasure from. It might be more pertinent for me to ask people who don't retain information in a similar manner, "Why don't you know that?"

The man responsible for the Suez Canal.

These days, the answer to that question would increasingly be along the lines of what's the point, that's what Google is for. And that worries me, as it seems to me that we are creating a culture in which knowing things is becoming less important and that we are increasingly relying on technology to do the work our brains should be doing. I am not alone in thinking this; more eminent minds than mine have concluded the same thing. Professor Frank Gunn-Moore, director of research for the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews, is quoted as saying that people 'outsource [their] brain to the internet' rather than using their memory to recall facts. The professor - who is an Executive Member of the Scottish Dementia Research Consortium - considers our use of the internet  as "an experiment the human race is running and we will have to wait and see if this outsourcing affects dementia prevalence."

Professor Frank Gunn-Moore

There has been a lot of focus in the medical profession about obesity in recent years. According to a study in The Lancet, as many as 2.1 billion people - that's almost 30% of the global population - is obese or overweight[2] and we are urged by governments - local and national - and by our doctors to eat more healthily and exercise more, yet while we understand that our bodies need exercise, we seem progressively more likely to neglect exercising our brains. Back in my primary school days, when Mr Harris asked us to find out the longest river in the world[3], we would scurry home to our reference books and look up the answer, and then we would retain it and retrieve it when relevant, such as while playing Trivial Pursuit, or watching some TV quiz show when the question came up. Nowadays a classroom of children asked that question would whip out their smartphones and Google it. It does seem that the internet has changed school lessons - and especially homework - out of all recognition. When my younger daughter was still at school - she left a couple of years back - it seemed that no piece of homework could be completed without reference to the internet, and while in my day, I struggled back and forth from home to school laden down with textbooks, they seemed to be conspicuous by their absence during my daughter's education.

In hardback, this textbook was the heaviest known to man when I was at school.

Google Maps means never having to leave the house with an A-Z in your pocket when visiting somewhere new, nor having a road atlas in the glove box of your car. Technology means not having to remember phone numbers anymore as they are all on your smartphone. Google means never having to retain anything; look that fact up, use it and forget it - until the next time you need it when you have to look it up again.

In millions, the number of internet users globally - it comes to about 40% of the world's population.

There will be people who will pour scorn on this; there will be people who think that because it is easier to Google something than use an encyclopaedia - or heaven forbid - our brains, it must be better, or that using Google stimulates the brain rather than weakening it (sounds counter-intuitive to me, but some people believe it). Those ideas are way off the mark in my view, and smack of denial. I know that as I get older, my memory is slowly deteriorating. Facts slip away (especially names; for some reason TV and radio presenter Clive Anderson's name seems particularly difficult for me to recall), and my recollection of events from yesteryear get jumbled or lost completely, so I know that if I exercised my brain less, it would atrophy at a rate of knots.

Who's this again?

A major reason why I started writing this blog back in 2012 was to exercise my mind, so it is ironic that having railed against our over-reliance on the internet, I am using the internet in order to get that mental exercise. But then, the internet is not an entirely bad thing; just as the consumption of salt, sugars and fats is important to our diet, so too can the internet be important to us. As with many things, moderation is the key.

[1] It was Ferdinand de Lesseps.
[3] The Nile, although there are claims that the Amazon is longer.

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