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Posts from the ‘Artists’ Category

On Honesty

Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.

– William Gladstone

Honesty, as we all know, is not always an easy principle to live up to. That’s even more the case in politics, where constant public scrutiny has led many a good person into a moral trap or three. Have a little bit of understanding and trust in people, though, and it gets easier to be honest with them. “Honest Man” is a great old 70s track on that very point written by liberal counter-culture musical hero George Lowell. I love this track – it’s old school, soulful preaching wrapped up in good music. Read more

Four minutes of peace and simple beauty

OK, that last post was a bit of a rant. To restore balance, this is a lovely animation of a little boat. Treat yourself, watch it full screen and coffee in hand:

Little Boat from nelson boles on Vimeo.

David Peat’s street photography

Your Move, Paris, © David Peats

Take four minutes to enjoy this beautiful slideshow and commentary from David Peat. He sounds wonderfully young and peaceful (he’s a 64 year old film maker diagnosed with a terminal cancer). The Scotsman has a nice little profile of him and his career here.

RIP Gil Scott-Heron

Wow, this was surprising news to come home to: Gil Scott-Heron has passed away. He and my friend Rory kept me going through many a retail assistant hour.

Here’s a man who combined speaking a message we need to hear, with music that needed to be heard. Decades it old it may be, but The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is still required listening. Here are his three utterly essential tracks:

  • The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
  • Whitey On The Moon
  • Johannesberg

They might not all sound relevant to the UK until you think about unfair income distributions.

I’ll be spending the weekend listening to his style and trying to hear his message.

A Word On Statistics

A Word On Statistics, by Wislawa Szymborska

Out of every hundred people,


those who always know better:



Unsure of every step:

almost all the rest.


Ready to help,

if it doesn’t take long:



Always good,

because they cannot be otherwise:

four — well, maybe five.


Able to admire without envy:



Led to error

by youth (which passes):

sixty, plus or minus.


Those not to be messed with:



Living in constant fear

of someone or something:



Capable of happiness:

twenty-some-odd at most.


Harmless alone,

turning savage in crowds:

more than half, for sure.



when forced by circumstances:

it’s better not to know,

not even approximately.


Wise in hindsight:

not many more

than wise in foresight.


Getting nothing out of life except things:


(though I would like to be wrong).


Balled up in pain

and without a flashlight in the dark:

eighty-three, sooner or later.


Those who are just:

quite a few, thirty-five.


But if it takes effort to understand:



Worthy of empathy:




one hundred out of one hundred –

a figure that has never varied yet.


(translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak)

Thanks to SwissMiss


The difference between equality and equal treatment

or, “A long post about short people”.

Randy Newman’s Short People was a surprise hit in 1977. Randy’s way of parodying prejudice is to write in character. Even with the over-the-top caricature in the song, it wasn’t always taken as intended. There was widespread criticism for the extremely negative picture it painted of the “vertically challenged”.

Here’s Randy giving a solo performance:

I’ll get back to the height thing later. Let’s talk about the circumstances of birth for a bit.

Let’s talk about privileges

It’s not the done thing, talking about one’s privileges. It needs to be done sometimes, though. Take the Liberal Democrats. The party is notably lacking in members with coloured skin or low incomes. An increasingly common question these days is, “How are the Lib Dems any different to the Tories?”. There are some sensitive aspects to this that aren’t being much discussed by the membership. Yet restricting the notion of “privileged” to the top few per cent is dangerous.

I could paint a picture of not being particularly privileged. My father was a town planner for the council; my mother a physiotherapist for the NHS. They bought a house after they got married, and live in the self same house over 40 years later. Even with two parents working, our holidays were just camping holidays in France. No flights, no hotels, and an exhausting 600+ mile drive from Glasgow into the bargain. When I learnt to play guitar, I taught myself on a hand-me-down acoustic that Mum once bought for herself; it was a year or two before I had earned the right to get my own electric guitar. It was yet another couple of years before I could afford an amplifier.

But, I’m wary of becoming a Laurie Penny. It could be politically convenient to focus on, say, the years I spent on minimum wage. My brief stint in youth work in Maryhill was the most worthy part-time job I’ve ever had to supplement a low income. I could regale you with tales of drinking and gigging in some of the roughest pubs in Glasgow. But that would ignore ten years living the ex-pat life in Hong Kong. And if the goal is to deal with privilege as a powerful social force, it needn’t mean emulating Laurie’s tales of slumming it to establish one’s right-on bona fides, all part of a career conceived at Oxford University to become a voice of the people.

Was she even a teen when Jarvis Cocker sang about Common People?

Rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job.

Smoke some fags and play some pool, pretend you never went to school.

But still you’ll never get it right ‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night

Watching roaches climb the wall, if you called your Dad he could stop it all

Inequality will not be dealt with by acting as if people must forego nutrition and decent housing before they can have worthwhile views. Nor with the more mainstream Labour approach of simply ignoring the Oxbridge effect. In an age where relative poverty affects far more people than the absolute variety, we need to shift from posturing at the extremes to a frank discussion about just what advantages different people enjoy.

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful

This is my list of primary advantages: I’m white, British, naturally suited to academia and privately educated. Not a bad list in the UK at all. Even so, I think it is fair that I stand with most in laughing at the idea of Kate Middleton as a “commoner”. My family background was not awash in money; schooling for my two brothers and I was an incredibly expensive investment for my parents compared to those who afford the school fees but still have a detached house and a BMW in the drive. But of course I still recognise the advantages it has given me, and not by my own efforts.

Others might do well to do the same. Some families of similar incomes and backgrounds have chosen a state education for their children – but also more and bigger cars, houses and holidays. There are those who stay in council housing, and spend their money on being the big man on the estate. All these approaches confer some similar advantages: a certain kind of confidence, a way of speaking that combined with society’s racial and gender biases leads to freedom of choice and financial reward. There are people in the Lib Dems, I’ve noticed, who repeat the 7% figure of privately educated individuals as if that fact alone means they have not enjoyed any particular boost in their own lives. How often is the dearth of candidates from a low income background addressed?

Reaching the top shelf

All of this gets rather fraught, so let’s get back to Randy and another advantage I was born with: not being a short person.

It might seem a trivial and vain thing to point out, but not so. I’m 6’ 2”, and if statistical studies are to be believed, I owe a percentage point or two of the money I’ve earned to this fact alone. Were I American, it would play an essential role before I could get elected President, and has a similar impact on elections around the world. Women in general find it attractive – you can consider this a particularly trivial and vain point, if you believe that matters of sex don’t have much impact on general human behaviour.

All that has nothing to do with anything I’ve done. It’s the combined result the DNA I was gifted at birth, and Mum feeding me well (believe me when I say this is not a sexist take on gender roles in parenting; Dad’s taste in food is as healthy as you might expect of a Glaswegian!).

How does this relate to being a Liberal Democrat? Well, to take a similar function of simply being born, consider intelligence. It’s generally not acceptable to talk about it too much, but some people are born smarter than others. From the productivity of computer programmers to the pay scales of lawyers, this difference reveals itself in cold, hard figures. 50% more IQ points produces 600% more income. I’ve plucked those figures from the air – and don’t get me started on the problems of using IQ as a measure of intelligence – but the fundamental point remains.

From hard fact to soft thinking

It is noticeable to me that many highly intelligent and influential people seem to draw a very stupid conclusion from this kind of phenomenon. They act as if comparative values reflect absolute realities.

I am a taller than about 95% of the human race. You could say I have a tendency to look down on people, for I am exceptional. This doesn’t mean, however, that I can reach a shelf 10’ off the ground. And if there are answers to be found in the cupboard of life, they are kept on shelves at least that high. Like everybody else, I need help to find them and it doesn’t matter how similar they are to me, in height or anything else.

As a more serious scenario: it’s all well and good that Ed Balls is smarter than the rest us, but that doesn’t mean he really understands what’s good for the economy. There is an unfortunate tendency to almost deify the man (it’s usually a man) at the top, and to convey authority upon them that has not actually been earned.

Labour and the Tories constantly make this mistake; it is built into their party structure. Their wonderfully brilliant Oxbridge ministers are treated as if being tall means you’re 10’ tall. (To be fair, the Lib Dems aren’t immune. Vince Cable is tall, too.)

Keeping the good stuff safe

The financial sector has an even more dangerous attitude: not only do they act as if they’re 10’ tall, they ferociously defend a system where all the good stuff is kept 7’ off the ground. So while the global economy might repeatedly collapse as they regularly overstretch themselves, in between crises an increasingly large slice of wealth is stored in places where increasingly few people can get to it.

They are living the high life in several metaphorical senses.

The Liberal Democrat philosophy really is different. It builds into its very structure a reflection of the nature of things. The shelf is in fact not 10’ off the ground but even higher, and only with a large group of people actively contributing can we reach it. Thus we have democracy built into the policy making process.

Let’s not get too proud of ourselves, however. Lib Dems are not immune to holding beliefs that can prevent an objective view of reality. I believe that diversity is one such area, and in particular those who hold any form of positive action to represent a form of unfair advantage.

The difference between equality and equal treatment

In a limited, mathematical sense this concern for absolute fairness is fair. But every female or asian or black or lesbian or low income individual in the nation has some way to go before they catch up with the advantages I receive simply for being a tall white guy with a mainstream accent. The broader mathematical concern is that decision making by a diverse group is measurably superior to that of a group that resembles itself. Further, narrow definitions of “meritocracy” statistically result in the top tiers being populated by people with advantages not just from gender and racial bias, not just social or educational background, but also trivial issues such as height and perceived attractiveness.

Do minor advantages matter? When there are only a few spaces at the top, and the reward system is “winner takes us” in nature, absolutely. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the “de’il tak’ the hindmost” issue that keeps people on the poverty line. The right wing declares that inequality is the necessary consequence of different people being willing to make different efforts. To the extent that is true, however, the degree of inequality is the result of rewarding circumstances more than work.

At the Lib Dem conference, there were a few young women sat behind me who were disappointed to be possibly the only people in the entire hall voting against the diversity motion. I admire their determination to do earn success by their own efforts, to reject both unfair advantage and being patronised. These are noble aspirations. But strong principles have a habit of breaking the world down into artificial compartments. What makes sense in one context does not always translate to the whole. The advantages that people like me receive tend to tunnel into the subtext, undermining the goals more openly declared. They will continue to do so for a generation or more, so deeply buried are they in our culture.

As long as the measures adopted are reasonable – such as the Leadership Programme to develop “diversity candidates”, if you’ll pardon the clunky phrase – these principled women should take some comfort in the fact that any unfair advantage is smaller than the ones I’ve already got. Ones that I couldn’t even refuse if I wanted to.

Deciding on merit, not DNA

Perhaps it is patronising of me, as a tall person, to offer assistance to those who are shorter. I don’t mean it to be, though. My 5’ 4” Mum would have a few sharp words for my 6’ 1” Dad if he started calling her “little lady”. But she’d also tear off a strip if he became reluctant to fetch something from a high shelf because she’s a capable, independent woman perfectly capable of getting it herself.

In a competitive world where small advantages can deliver outsized returns, it’s perfectly reasonable to actively compensate in such key areas as candidate selection. When people live their entire lives with a predominantly white, male, middle class Parliament, they will instinctively favour similar candidates. It’s a mental association that was not their choice to make. And that’s before we raise other challenges such as the four c’s.

A small ladder up really does no more than allow everyone to be judged on their merit, and not their DNA.



Well done, Matt Cardle

Low as my opinion of the X Factor is, good on Matt Cardle for running the gauntlet and coming out a winner. I hope it gives him a chance at the artistic career that past bands and songwriting didn’t manage to deliver for him.

It’s interesting that Cage Against The Machine came in 21, while The Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird hit no. 3. The latter didn’t get old media that I noticed, so the Facebook campaign was very successful.

There’s may be some lessons to be learnt about campaigning here. Because Surfin’ Bird is a Family Guy reference to me (“have you heard the word” has been a running gag for annoying songs for my friends for ages), I never connected it to the Christmas chart competition. I’m not really one for keeping on top of Facebook groups, privacy-loving luddite that I am. So No. 3 via FaceBook alone is not a bad attempt at all – perhaps not quite enough to win the prize, though?

On the other hand, “Cage Against The Machine” did catch my attention – it had the obvious link to last year’s No. 1, Suggs, and articles on the BBC website and elsewhere. But 4′ 33″ is more a concept than a single, more performance art than recorded work. You need to be very arty farty or have a certain sense of humour to really go for it. While I was happy to cast a few pennies against the X Factor anyway, I wouldn’t bother with it otherwise. Too much reliance on concept, not enough meat.

Neither choice really made the same standout, visceral comment that Rage Against The Machine did – nor could the artists offer to do a free concert if they won. Although perhaps it was simple as various contenders to repeat last year “splitting the vote”. I really can’t get too worked about the charts myself, but probably anyone determined to repeat the RATM victory needs to coordinate better next year.

Anyway, the issues I have with the X Factor revolve around the corporation and the humiliation, not the artists. So good luck Matt Cardle, and I hope you enjoy the ride.

Cage Against The Machine

I am extremely happy to read that there is another protest against the soul-destroying X-Factor this year, with a group of artists releasing a recording of John Cage’s 4′ 33″ as a charity single. To me, the X-Factor is to music what modern finance is to working. Yes, there’s a lot of effort put into it, there are some genuinely talented people involved, there’s nothing actually wrong with much of it. But really it’s just another soulless corporate machine that is destroying what it means to be a real human being, on the grounds that it isn’t actually illegal.

Music is an art form, and symbolism is important. At the heart of the X-Factor is the ritual humiliation of people in front of a national audience for the profit of a few, and the willing surrender of control of a potential artist’s life for the sake of money. It is corrosive to our culture and self-respect. At the heart of 4′ 33″, pretentious avant garde nonsense though you may find it, is the idea that our surroundings are as important as us ourselves, and that silence has value in it’s own right. Noble themes that become ever more relevant to our lives!

You may think all that’s twaddle. Well, it’s a charity single, too, for Calm (suicide), the British Tinnitus Association, Youth Music and Nordoff Robbins (music therapy) – all good causes. If it reaches no. 1 and is played on the air, families around the country will also get a few minutes peace on Christmas day. I urge you all to buy it Christmas week.

Well done the Weegie!

Nice to hear a sound artist from Glasgow has won the Turner, with Susan Phillipsz and her Lowlands piece at Tate Britain. Sound installations remain a bit obscure. I wish I’d known about the concept back in 1992 when I did a year of Electronics and Music at Glasgow Uni (a course that was tediously stuck in past decades and centuries, a lazy bodge of modules with absolutely no thought to given to the interaction of the two subjects). Could have been the artist instead of being hidden away backstage doing sound design for other people’s plays!

I love this quote from a group of figurative artists called The Stuckists: “It’s not art. It’s music.” Well, a lot (most?) of conceptual and installation art deserves a bit of disrespect, but I reckon that’s a pretty limited view to take. Music awards are given to musicians and albums, not the audio equivalent of a painting or a piece of architecture. It would be a shame to effectively insist that an entire category of art should not be recognised at all. Then again, they opposed to the Turner Prize in general so I guess the specific criticism isn’t that important. Why can’t artists just say, “it’s not my cup of tea?”

Anyway, I’ve been looking for an excuse to go into the Big Smoke. Time to support my newfound hometown hero! And mebbe a bit of Crimbo shopping.

Glastonbury Revelations: Two Door Cinema Club

Two Door Cinema Club were the band that kicked off the music at Glastonbury for me, on the Thursday afternoon. I was dragged along to see Boy George of all artists the night before, which was actually quite a fun flashback to the 80s, but not exactly what I’m hoping for at a rock festival.

I did see the band on before them at the Queens Head, who were good enough but nothing special. Alex, Kevin and Sam brought waay more energy to the stage, and indeed a fair crowd. Since the gig, I’ve been hearing their Come Back Homeconstantly on Xfm. Maybe they had just escaped my attention. Hence the title, Glastonbury Revelations. Can’t keep up with the kids these days, no doubt I well behind the times, so these are the bands that were great new discoveries for me.

As befits their name, their music videos are quite good to. On the video for Come Back Home, I’m particularly fond of the transition using masks and a split screen at around 0:54. Check it out at