The August Riots

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Monday, 29 March 2010

The UK Singles Chart – is it the right moment to call time on what was once a worthwhile institution?

The UK Singles Chart has long ceased to be the foremost barometer of musical excellence, and in an era of online downloads, free listening on Spotify and most importantly a crippling decline in the quality of music enjoyed by the masses, it can be seen as rather redundant. For instance, and this is of course merely my own opinion, amongst the current Top 40 there are less than ten songs worthy of the volume of sales that would have been necessary to secure their place. Now I understand that music is changing, and believe that it has fundamentally altered over the last fifteen years, but is there any reason to release a weekly chart ranking songs by the number of copies they have sold? Without meaning to sound facetious, iTunes does that for you when you log onto the homepage, and only a small minority still purchase singles these days. What I would ultimately prefer to see is a musical chart compiled by experts, who would choose 40 songs that have been released that week and following a detailed discussion rank them in order based on the musical quality of each song. This I believe would work far better than the current system, although I would equally advocate having no chart dedicated to singles at all if the current one were to be put to bed. Additionally the current chart is a self-perpetuating musical nightmare, as far as I can see, as a song may break into the Top 40, and then through excessive play in clubs may reach the top spot. For instance current sensation Tinie Tempah’s Pass Out may be a sensation amongst middle-class kids from suburbs pretending they live on a rough estate in Tower Hamlets, and ASBO teenagers from Shoreditch who wish for nothing less than a Cadillac Escalade and having the ‘champers on ice’, but for those unfortunate enough to have heard the lyrics, its rather less appealing. Lines such as ‘I got so many clothes I keep’s ‘em in ma aunt’s house’ may be considered modern poetry by certain misguided individuals, but are enough to put most people off.

The malaise afflicting the UK Top 40 chart poses a subsequent question, which is, do artists really want number ones, and if so, what does that tell us about them? For I consider music to be art, and this may be a pretentious and arrogant way of looking at it, but if you are an artist you don’t paint something, or sculpt something merely for people to buy it, do you? I have and will always maintain that critical respect is far more valuable than commercial success, for who in fifty years time will remember ‘Dirtee Cash’ by Dizzee Rascal? Long-term respect and remembrance over short-term financial gain should be the motto for any artist, but unfortunately the UK Top 40 is an institution that rewards lazy, half-baked attempts by artists who are either more capable or operating at the peak, and I use the term loosely, of their musical ability. When was the last time a truly brilliant song was rewarded with a position at the pinnacle of the charts? Surprisingly enough it was Killing in the Name by Rage Against the Machine, which pipped Joe McElderry’s song The Climb to top spot, following a grassroots campaign to prevent another X-Factor song reaching Number One. It seems that we are forever to be burdened with the mistakes of others, for the dearth of musical quality in the Top 40 is reflected by the singles and albums available in HMV. Now I have no problem with a chain of stores stocking songs that have reached Number One in the UK charts, for that at least proves they are popular. However when albums by obscure chart-toppers such as Jay Sean, Jason Derulo and Mr. Tempah himself dominate the HMV shelves, and far more worthy artists find themselves reduced to a single album being stocked, often at a hideously expensive price, one could be forgiven for asking the question, are we being brainwashed into buying and liking what everybody else does? I’ll leave you to decide that, if you still wish to, but in the meantime I call upon everybody to ignore the Top 40, ignore the iTunes best-seller list and have a look at Allmusic, or Q Magazine, or maybe even NME, for in these places your eyes will be opened and you will see that you don’t have to just buy a song you’ve heard in a club, or one that’s been incessantly played on Virgin Radio. For there was music before MTV, and there was certainly music before the iPod, and hopefully there still will be, once the emblem of mediocrity and sameness that is the Top 40 disappears, and we are allowed to make our own minds up once again.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The administration phenomenon – does the FA care about the future of the game it should be protecting?

Portsmouth’s recent descent into administration shocked fans throughout the country, who laboured under the delusion that the creation of the Premier League had meant that financial difficulties were a thing of the past. Few supporters would deny that from its inception the Premier League was a money-spinning experiment that has since been deeply successful, at least in a financial sense. However for those such as myself that believe the creation of the Premier League signalled the death knell for the divisions left in its wake, Pompey’s recent suffering is particularly sad. As a relative newcomer to the Premier League party, Portsmouth have fallen victim to grave mismanagement and the utter lack of concern demonstrated by those in charge of the top league in English football for any difficulties suffered by the teams within it. In many ways one shouldn’t feel sorry for Portsmouth Football Club; after all it has received tens of millions of pounds in transfer fees, reached an FA Cup final a few years ago, spent recklessly on wages, and afforded lavish bonuses to directors and ostentatious dividends to shareholders. It is by no means a well-run club suffering from a problem it is incapable of resolving, and whilst this doesn’t mean people shouldn’t care, particularly about the unfortunate redundancies inflicted upon members of staff, there are many more clubs throughout the Football League worthy of your attention. A total of 53 football league clubs have entered administration since 1992, a highly shameful and regrettable statistic for the Football Association and fans of the game alike. Whilst many news outlets have spent their time focusing on the financial situations at Manchester United and Liverpool, clubs such as Southend have been comparatively ignored.

Now forgive me for having to ask this, as the answer is rather obvious, but are Southend Football Club less worthy of our attention and the assistance of the governing body of this great game of ours? No, of course they are not. Southend’s debts amount to a mere £411,000, a mere drop in the ocean compared to those of the aforementioned Premier League giants, but with the club having been afforded just 35 days to pay said debts back on March 10th, there is a significant possibility that given Southend's precarious position in League One, they may still face a winding up order. Of course there would not be hundreds of millions of fans crying in the Far East or Africa if the Essex side were to fold, as there would undoubtedly be if the same fate were to befall United, but Southend is a club that matters to its own local community. It seems the FA has lost its way somewhat, as beneath the glamour and untold riches of the Premier League lies a whole host of clubs with their own histories that may not interest the powers that be, but are of unparalled importance to the fans who have can remember every goal in the 1967 cup run, or haven't missed an away game in twenty years. If clubs like Southend were to disappear with any regularity, it would be reasonable to say that the heart and soul of football in this country will be gone forever, to be replaced by a closed Premier League, with no relegation or promotion, and a host of sides simply putting on a show for a television audience, with Sky Sports the hosts. What a grim future that would be.

Even clubs such as Cardiff City, who let us not forget, were FA Cup finalists in 2006, on the same day that Southend were given their 35-day deadline were handed one of their own, this time a grand total of 44 days to pay back £1.9 million. Now with Peter Ridsdale in charge I’m sure few of a footballing persuasion would have expected any different, and given the Welsh FA’s willingness to bail out its most prized asset, perhaps they are not worthy of an inordinate amount of sympathy. However Cardiff are another club that may have to secure Premier League football merely in order to continue operating, a sorry state of affairs I'm sure most would agree. For many clubs in the Championship and even in League One, the Premier League has essentially become a life-raft, where those that are drowning can cling on and achieve financial stabilisation. Recent newcomers to the Premier League Burnley were able to finance additional improvements to their Turf Moor ground through their slice of the television money pie, whilst many have been able to see their debts all but disappear following just one season in the top flight. Now forgive me once again for stating the obvious, but would it not be a far more equitable and effective system for the money accumulated by the top division of English football to be filtered down the leagues? Then perhaps all clubs could ‘get away’ with a little financial mismanagement, instead of merely the richest ones, and administration really could become a thing of the past. However that would require the biggest overhaul of the sport since the creation of the Premier League in 1992, and unfortunately once you’ve got a bit of money, you don’t tend to be disposed to hand it back.

I end this sorry tale of financial agony, an uninterested FA and the curse of television revenues with undoubtedly the saddest story of all. Chester City, a club with a 126-year history, found itself wound up as the gates to its former home, the Deva stadium, were locked for the final time. I cannot honestly say that I’ve ever looked out for Chester City’s results, I’ve certainly never been to the stadium, and it will not change my life in any way now that the club has ceased to exist. However Chester City’s demise must still be considered as a loss for football itself. As an FA spokesperson stated upon hearing the news, “the winding-up of any club is a loss to the game and in particular to the supporters of that club”, thereby proving itself as an organisation to be more adept with words than tangible actions, Chester City’s fall from grace should be seen as a stopping point. The moment at which fans wake up and say ‘no more’, no longer will I idly stand by watching Arsenal on Sky Sports whilst clubs up and down the country are struggling to survive. Perhaps the only way to make the powers that be take interest is to go down to your local club, cancel your subscription to everybody’s favourite premium sports channel, and put something back into the game from which everybody seems to be willing to take so much. My club Queens Park Rangers were weeks from going out of business, and everything may be financially rosy now, but I remember the days of buckets outside the ground as do most fans, and as such we should all treat the winding up of any other league club as the end of our own. Perhaps if the decision-makers at the FA and the Premier League did the same, we could have our game back as the fair, just, equal enterprise it started out to be.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Work experience – vital preparation for future employment or just an inexhaustible source of free labour?

It is a generally accepted fact that in order to secure appropriate employment, and by appropriate I mean a job that doesn’t involve serving burgers to overweight members of the public, one must undertake work experience of some sort. If you haven’t encountered it already, you will almost certainly be subjected to the hopelessness and misery that characterises this seemingly very modern form of exploitation, as indeed I am preparing to be, unless of course your family is incredibly rich and you can swan off and work for a charity or hold a position in your parents’ business with ‘flexible’ working hours. Now in principle, work experience is a fantastic concept, for it allows students, graduates and young adults in general to gain invaluable experience of the working world and the profession they wish to enter, or at least that’s what you put on the emails you send to the companies. The fact is that work experience is for the most part a beneficial experience, at least the first time. However especially in the precarious economic circumstances many people now find themselves, companies tend to see those work experience placements as able to be, shall we say, utilised without providing for them any monetary reward. To put it simply, students emerging from university with a 2:1 degree mark, having worked very hard to obtain said grade, wish for nothing more than to enter the profession of their choice, where generally speaking they would be prepared to put sufficient effort in to ensure they reach their career goals. Now I for one do not see any problem with such desires, in fact it should be the priority of every British government to ensure that this is the case. Instead work placements are a way of taking somebody on for a week, under the pretext of ‘gaining invaluable experience’ in order that they may contribute to the continuing success, or mediocrity in some cases, of the company. There is often no pay offered to those on placements, who it is taken for granted will work simply for the ‘honour’ of working for such an illustrious business establishment. Is this right? Well, unless you happen to be a staunch capitalist who believes trade unions are a bad thing and wishes for Victorian workhouses to make an unexpected comeback, then no. Of course it isn’t.

The scandal doesn’t end at the mere nature of work experience however, with a TUC report revealing that “one in three youngsters on work experience are given tasks for which they should be paid”, and confirming the suspicions of many that bosses are simply “taking on graduates desperate for jobs as interns and using them as free labour.” The above practice has been identified as “exploitation” by TUC boss Brendan Barber, who added "we must crack down on internships that offer hard graft for no reward.” Whilst Mr. Barber’s vision of a brave and fairer new world will strike a chord with many young adult victims of the work experience lottery, they are unlikely to bring about the sweeping changes that are needed to create a just system. This is because big-city or even local bosses are far more concerned with profit margins, the make of car they drive and how often they can get out of the office to play a quick 18 holes, rather than the welfare of their employees and equality of opportunity. The work placement nightmare may induce many graduates to brand their often hard-earned and always expensive degrees pointless, a fact that will surely be of concern to a government for whom educational expansion was a key tenet of the reform programme.

So what can be done then? Well unless a sudden wave of morality were to wash over those who subject innocent, fresh-faced young adults to the demoralising effects of work placements, you can be sure that for years to come the current malaise will sadly continue. Having said this, the effects of the recession upon this particular situation cannot be underestimated. Many companies have been forced to shut branches, factories and warehouses, tens of thousands of employees have been laid off, millions are struggling to make ends meet, and hundreds of CEO’s have seen their annual bonuses tragically cut from seven to six-figures. As such it has not been the prerogative of most companies to provide large numbers of graduates with paid employment, as it may well be during a time of economic prosperity and growth. However something must be done to stop the exploitation of naïve graduates and current students, looking to gain experience initially but eventually just desperate to be afforded the remuneration they deserve for the work they have done. One would hope that the experiences of those responsible for allocating positions to applicants would remember the difficulties they faced in their younger years, attempting to climb the employment ladder and achieve their dreams. A utopian vision I’m sure you’d agree, but one that for the future of our society should be implemented sooner rather than later, unless they really do want us all to be working at McDonalds.

Friday, 26 March 2010

The Obama Healthcare Bill - a victory for common sense?

Last Sunday the House of Representatives in the United States voted to pass a landmark healthcare bill, at the heart of President Barack Obama's agenda, by 219 votes to 212. The bill is set to extend healthcare coverage to 32 million more Americans, and marks one of the most significant changes to the US healthcare system since the Social Security Act creating Medicare and Medicaid was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in July 1965. Following the vote Obama remarked, "We proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things," adding "This legislation will not fix everything that ails our healthcare system, but it moves us decisively in the right direction". For those of us accustomed to comprehensive healthcare coverage, a fully-fledged welfare state and a history of state intervention in a number of areas of our lives, the passing of this bill will be seen as perfectly logical. Indeed many understandably fail to recognise why it has been such a struggle for President Obama to enact legislation such as this. However the fact that we in the United Kingdom, and indeed most other European nations have a history of the state being involved in the everyday lives of its citizens; indeed this is seen as a fundamental part of the 'social contract' associated with democratic societies, that in return for engaging with the political process, and paying taxes to fund the state it will in return provide a range of services, including healthcare, unemployment relief, and council-run housing programmes. In the United States this is not the case, for a significant proportion of Americans deem freedom to be 'freedom from state intervention', being allowed to own a gun, not being forced to pay taxes, and not being forced to subsidise the survival of others. The phrase 'survival of the fittest' was arguably invented to sum up the general American psyche. Therefore it is almost, and I repeat almost understandable that the struggle between advocates of said healthcare bill and its opponents look set to result in a near civil-war. The fact that the bill was passed devoid of any Republican backing is certainly an indication of the fight Mr. Obama faces to bring about his personal vision for America's future. It remains the case that Republicans would much rather finance an oil war in the Middle East, and send some of the poorest Americans to die in aid of bringing 'democracy', which more often than not manifests itself as years of instability, insurgency, economic collapse, social degradation and terrorism, than permit the Democrats to infect the 'home of the brave' and 'land of the free' with what they term 'socialism'.

It appears to me that a certain number of citizens residing in the United States may require a full definition of socialism, however in attempting to provide one I may find myself the victim of twenty-first century 'McCarthyism' for propagating the views of an 'evil' ideology that is in actual fact manifested in only a handful of nations around the world in its true form. Getting back to the healthcare bill, it seems the backlash from Sunday's momentous decision is beginning to be unleashed, with ten members of Congress supportive of the proposal reportedly having received death threats. The FBI have been called in to investigate a number of incidents in which bricks were thrown through the windows of certain Democrats and menacing phone messages have allegedly been left for politicians who supported the bill. Now forgive me for bringing in yet another international comparison, but I can't imagine anybody throwing bricks through David Cameron's windows if he were to support a slightly controversial proposal regarding changes to NHS funding, unless of course he were to move to Peckham and unfurl a banner reading 'I am richer, more educated and therefore better than you.' A brick thrown through the window of a Democratic Party office in Rochester, New York at some point over the weekend had a note attached, which read "Extremism in defence of liberty is no vice," quoting 1964 Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Democratic member of the House of Representatives Bart Stupak was the victim of a number of deeply offensive and aggressive voicemail messages, which his office has since released. One male caller left a message saying "I hope you bleed ... (get) cancer and die," whilst at least one obscene fax message was said to have been received. Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter, whose New York office window was smashed, revealed her concern saying "it's more disturbing to me that Republican leadership has not condemned these attacks and instead appears to be fanning the flames with coded rhetoric."

One can only hope that Americans learn to realise just what was achieved on Sunday, and that the Republicans who feel the need to protest in such a way can overcome their prejudices, and realise sooner rather than later that such bullying tactics are not only sickening but deeply in contradiction of the democratic process. In the meantime Barack Obama should allow himself a congratulatory pat on the back, as after years of chanting 'yes we can!', finally he has delivered what BBC North America editor Mark Mardell called the most significant victory for the president since he took office 14 months ago. However Obama's task is only likely to become more and more difficult, as he attempts to turn America from a 'disgraced world policeman' to the internationally respected, peaceful nation his rhetoric is calling for. Yet whilst Obama is set on reform, it will take a good few years for him to unite the nation behind any sort of consensus, if indeed such an achievement were ever to be possible. With Republican party leader John Boehner stating "We have failed to listen to America," following the successful vote, it will be interesting to see whether the swingometer that is American public opinion will back its President, or support the regressive Republicans in their crusade to bring the United States back into the nineteenth-century, and undo this brilliant achievement in favour of another illegal war in everyone's favourite area of conflict, the Middle East.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Facebook – is the art of communication being lost?

Type the word ‘Facebook’ into the Google search engine, and a grand total of 2,310,000,000 matches will appear on your computer screen. Said website, founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes, all Computer Science students at Harvard University, has become ubiquitous as the primary means of communication for a generation of not only teenagers, but adults as well. Millions of companies lose hundreds of millions of pounds through staff being distracted from work and compelled to log onto Facebook to look at drunken photos from the night before, whilst millions of students’ revision timetables and essay deadlines are forgotten about in the clamour to ‘like’ their friend’s Facebook status, or buy a new tank on ‘Fishville’. However does Facebook actually allow its users to truly communicate? As far as I can see, it fails to do so. Whilst the art of communication may have been degraded to the point that ‘commenting’ on a friend’s status passes for interaction, there is a certain hopelessness surrounding the phenomenon. For one could remain in one’s room all day, completely ignoring the people they live with, i.e. their actual friends, and wile away hours ‘talking’ on Facebook ‘chat’ to people they barely know and feel they had communicated, made friends and got to know the recipient of their correspondence. Facebook has been greatly distorted from what its creators intended, and has become less a network for university friends and more a lifestyle. People spend hours sifting through photos they have been ‘tagged’ in by friends, and indeed spend hours ‘tagging’ their friends in said photos, in order to find an appropriate ‘profile picture’ so that people visiting their profile will judge them favourably. Many spend hours ‘adding’ people from school they have never, or at least rarely spoken to in order to make it appear that they are popular. At university, one feels compelled to have more than 400 friends on one’s Facebook profile in order to feel normal, to feel popular and accepted. However since when has it been the case that listing a large number of people as ‘friends’ on a social networking website has signified popularity? Surely a friend is somebody who cares about you, is interested in spending time with you and willing to talk to you? If anything the ‘friends’ made on social networking sites are nothing more than ‘friends of convenience’, who want you to make up the numbers on their profile so they can look as popular and well-liked as society dictates that they should.

Yet furthermore there is a certain vanity to Facebook, a certain boastfulness outside of the ‘how many friends do you have?’ lottery. Some of my acquaintance will not allow themselves to be ‘tagged’ in pictures where they appear anything other than ‘acceptable’, perhaps because they are embarrassed, but perhaps because they do not wish to be judged. Yet the point missed by such people is that, if somebody with a camera has managed to capture a photograph of you looking, shall we say, ‘worse for wear’, then the likelihood is that your friends will have seen said apparition as well. Not only this, but if one feels one’s friends will judge them for having an ‘unacceptable’ picture tagged on Facebook, then surely they are friends of the lowest calibre, and not worth bothering with? Personally given the wealth of shall we say ‘unsatisfactory’ photographic material featuring myself on Facebook, it would be stupefying for me to ‘de-tag’ every time I witnessed myself pulling ‘a face only a mother could love’, for my friends have almost certainly seen said face before. Following the conclusion of High School, many people who perhaps were not as ‘popular’, although popularity in the various incarnations I have witnessed it entails a vanity I personally find repulsive, go to University and meet a new group of people who accept them for who they are. Understandably some of these people wish to display their ‘new lives’ on Facebook, and through ‘status updates’ which have become tantamount to official proclamations or press releases for certain people, they try and persuade their former tormentors, or former social betters that they too are popular, they too have been accepted, and they too now go out regularly and have an amazing time. This poses two questions, the first being would the former social betters said statuses are directed at even care? Yet the second for me is more important, as it must be asked, how does a Facebook profile demonstrate success? If anything for somebody to have a Facebook profile with thousands of ‘tagged’ pictures, many of which said profile holder laboriously ‘tagged’ themselves, and detailed information about their character, interests, activities and music tastes, shows that somebody has spent a little too much time on the computer as opposed to actually socialising with their friends. Or perhaps I’m the only one who would draw such a conclusion.

In addition to the issues of vanity and the pathetic nature of people attempting to impress old adversaries with their new ‘successful’ Facebook profiles, there is the issue of pre-judging that as far as I can see is endemically associated with Facebook use. For when one logs on to Facebook to check the profile of somebody they have just met, or may not have spoken to yet, the ‘interests’, ‘about me’, and ‘favourite music’ sections, in addition to the number of friends and tagged pictures, can often decide the opinion one develops of somebody they have perhaps never even seen. Now forgive me if I’m missing the point here, but is such a phenomenon not deeply sickening and off-putting? I would hate to feel that somebody is willing to converse with me simply because I like ‘appropriate music’, or from my profile I appear to ‘go out’ sufficiently to be acceptable, or because I have just enough ‘friends’ listed on my profile to be considered normal. Obviously if somebody put ‘shooting prostitutes’ and ‘decapitating rabbits’ as their primary interests, and their hobbies as ‘stealing cars’ then yes, perhaps they are not an appropriate person to be associating with. However examples such as this are extreme and thankfully, at least in my experience, very much sporadic. However despite the rather lengthy list of objections I appear to have built up, I am yet to arrive at what is arguably the most dangerous. That is the phenomenon of ‘profile stalking’, and I don’t merely mean by paedophiles or other such deviants from the path of the law. As far as I can see, ‘Facebook stalking’ by ordinary people goes hand in hand with all that has been discussed above. If one doesn’t know somebody, then why not see if they have a Facebook account, after all everybody seems to. After finding said person, why not have a look at their interests, what groups they are a part of and their profile pictures to see if they are normal/and or acceptable? Is this really what our society has degenerated into? Rather than attempting to speak to people on a level, perhaps find a common interest that may generate into a friendship, most would rather sit on a computer, not speaking to anybody merely ‘liking’ the status of somebody they met on a drunken night out that is already near-forgotten, or ‘adding’ a friend they have said hello to twice.

One could argue that as a Facebook account holder, albeit not as obsessive a user as many others, I ought not to be calling the kettle black. To a certain extent this may be true, and the above critique was certainly not intended to vilify Facebook entirely. There are aspects of said website that are deeply beneficial, specifically the ability to keep in touch with those you are unable to see face-to-face, the university networks that allow for close contact with Student Unions and the ability to present one's views relatively freely with little fear of reprisal. However I do vehemently believe that Facebook since its inception has had a detrimental effect on the art of communication, as people become less and less disposed to actually talk to others and sacrifice real-life interaction for a sham virtual manifestation. However Facebook alone cannot be blamed for this, as a host of websites began the procedure, including Myspace and other such portals of false communication. Yet given that Facebook is now one of the most-visited websites in the world, and has become a way of life for many people, is it time for us to begin demanding our lives back? A not insignificant number of people nowadays ask 'how did we remember birthdays, or get in contact with people before Facebook?' Well people must have managed it, just as they did before mobile phones, before any automated form of communication. I write this as somebody wishing to point out the futility of basing one's life around Facebook, not to encourage anybody to stop using said website. Enjoy the beneficial aspects of Facebook without becoming caught up in the game of popularity, appearance, and vanity that so many unfortunately appear to have done. Reclaim the art of communication, talk to your friends, go out, spend time together; or one day you may wake up and realise you've done nothing with your life besides build a virtual existence characterised by popularity, success and happiness that is sadly valueless in the real world.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Formula One Season Preview – will Michael Schumacher’s return be a glorious comeback or a simply a money-spinning swansong?

With the inaugural race of the 2010 Formula One World Championship just two days away, instead of the usual focus on altered driver line-ups, new teams and often controversial regulation changes, much of the anticipation surrounds the return of the most successful driver in the history of the sport. Michael Schumacher, winner of seven World Championship titles, having won over 90 races and accrued more than 1,300 points throughout his career, after threatening to make a dramatic comeback for Ferrari last season, has joined the newly-established Mercedes F1 team on a three-year contract, from which he is reportedly set to earn £20 million. However leaving money matters aside, Schumacher’s return has been likened to that of Nigel Mansell in 1994 at 41, Schumacher’s current age, and Niki Lauda’s comeback in 1982 at the age of 33. It will certainly be fascinating to provide an F1-orientated answer to the perennial sporting conundrum of experience versus youth. Particularly intriguing will be the battle between the all-German, at least in driver line-up, Mercedes GP, and the British McLaren ‘dream team’ comprised of the two previous winners of the World Championship title, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. For anyone in doubt of the significance of the Mercedes/McLaren fight in terms of the fight for both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships, the results of Friday practice were particularly telling, with the top four positions occupied by Jenson Button, Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, and the man who may well overshadow his illustrious German counterpart, Nico Rosberg. Unsurprisingly Rosberg’s name has been relatively ignored by the world’s motoring press, and given his previous results to suggest him as a genuine title contender would be rather premature, but if he can maintain the pace illustrated during practice at Bahrain throughout the entire weekend, the 24-year-old’s first win in Formula One may be closer than many would imagine. As for the rest of the early frontrunners, Lewis Hamilton is once again a man predicted to excite, panic, frustrate and surprise fans and opponents alike, in equal measure. Hamilton’s assertion in February, upon testing the new McLaren in Valencia, that “the problems I had [last year] I don't have in this car” will not only be deeply encouraging for the team following the extremely difficult 2009 season, but suggests a new mood of optimism and bodes well for the success of the burgeoning all-British combination. Button meanwhile, having finally realised his undoubted potential with Brawn GP last year, will be looking to further establish himself as one of the foremost drivers of his generation, and prove that his undoubted success wasn’t merely a flash in the pan. Worries remain over the possibility of friction between the two drivers, especially given the animosity that rapidly emerged between Hamilton and his former team-mate Fernando Alonso, who demanded as Button almost certainly will, parity of treatment with Hamilton, whom the McLaren team has essentially been tailored around since his emergence in 2007.

Ferrari will be expected to make a big impression in this 2010, with the new F10 said to be a dramatic improvement over the sluggish and unreliable F60 which saw the Italian manufacturer to just one solitary race victory and fourth in the Constructors’ table with a return of just 70 points. Felipe Massa, who suffered a series head injury at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, which put him out of action for almost half the season, has called the F10 “very competitive”, and stated “it looks like we are in good condition to start the championship”. Following the Luca Badoer/Giancarlo Fisichella interregnum, it will be important for Ferrari to begin the season strongly, given that it wasn’t until Monaco, the sixth race of the Championship season, that either driver managed to score a podium finish. Meanwhile the arrival of Fernando Alonso, twice a Championship Winner and unquestionably one of the foremost drivers of the decade, should aid Ferrari in its attempts to establish itself once again at the top of the grid. With Alonso claiming the F10 to be the “best car that I’ve ever driven”, the strong ‘title favourite’ tag that has been foisted upon the Spaniard may not be premature after all. Furthermore having been in the relative F1 wilderness for the past two years, due to Renault’s inability to reproduce the type of car that propelled him to two World Championships, the prospect of an Alonso/Hamilton clash will be tremendously exciting to those who remember the deeply acrimonious relationship the pair had at McLaren back in 2007. Having achieved his dream move to Ferrari, otherwise referred to as “the worst kept secret in Formula One”, Alonso says his experience at McLaren has helped him to “grow up”, but even if any bitter feelings towards Hamilton have been long cast aside, those expecting fireworks on the track between the two, arguably the strongest drivers currently on the grid, shouldn’t be disappointed.

As for the remainder of the teams, with both BMW and Toyota having announced their withdrawal from the sport, the entire grid will be powered by just four engine manufacturers, the lowest number since 1980. The replacement for the German manufacturer will be Lotus Racing, a Malaysian-backed outfit, which marks the return of the Lotus brand to Formula One after a sixteen year absence. Although not strictly the same as the former Team Lotus, whose last race was the Australian Grand Prix in 1994, a sense of continuity is provided by the fact that Proton Cars, who are backing the venture known amongst the Malaysian media as 1Malaysia F1, are the current owner of Lotus Cars. Furthermore the fact that the team will be based in Norfolk, in many ways the spiritual home of the Lotus brand, gives the team a distinctly British and traditional flavour, despite its Malaysian ownership, and harks back to the glory days of Colin Chapman and the exquisite Lotus 79 that propelled Mario Andretti and Team Lotus to Drivers’ and Constructors’ glory in 1978. Although there were worries about whether or not the team would manage to have the car ready for the weekend’s race in Dubai, Lotus Racing’s driver line-up looks set to be far more reliable. With Jarno Trulli, generally recognised to be a qualifying expert and one of the most experienced drivers in Formula One currently, and Heikki Kovalainen, the former McLaren number two yet to demonstrate any outstanding potential but nonetheless a driver with significant experience towards the top end of the grid, Lotus Racing can be optimistic of a solid, if not hugely impressive, first season. Hispania Racing Team is the second new-entry for the 2010 Championship, and will be only the second Spanish Formula One team after the failed Bravo F1 enterprise in 1993. Likely to occupy the back row of the grid for a significant proportion of the season, Hispania’s driver line-up is perhaps the most intriguing of all, with the second Indian driver ever to compete in F1, Karun Chandhok, with only a moderate GP2 career behind him set to race alongside a driver with an altogether impossible pedigree to live up to, the nephew of the three-time champion, Bruno Senna. Virgin Racing is the final debutant amongst the teams, having been entered into the provisional team list under the name of Manor GP, and have signed former Toyota driver Timo Glock, a man with the potential to be erratic, unpredictable and brilliant all at once, and Brazilian youngster Lucas di Grassi, a graduate of the GP2 School, and Glock’s principal adversary in the 2007 season in said competition. Much like Hispania and Lotus, Virgin Racing will be expecting little more than a consolidatory first season, in which the priority will be focused towards car improvements rather than points scoring, and attempting to establish the Virgin brand as a significant player in Formula One.

With the top and bottom of the grid a largely predictable affair, it will be teams such as Sauber, Force India, Williams, Renault and Toro Rosso expected to occupy the middle positions on the grid, hoping to take points from the front-runners wherever possible. In terms of pre-season testing which was largely interrupted by inclement weather and therefore perhaps not a reliable indicator of future performances or results, it was the performances of the Sauber, who experienced remarkably quick times, although were rumoured to be running a slightly lighter fuel load, and Williams who were able to demonstrate a similar pace thanks to three years worth of alterations and development. However as for individual drivers, it is certainly worth keeping an eye on Robert Kubica at Renault, whose career has been slightly stop-start of late, with the progress made during impressive seasons in 2007 and 2008 brought to an abrupt halt last year thanks to the poor reliability and mediocre pace of BMW’s F1.09 car. Furthermore last years runner-up Rubens Barrichello, the most experienced driver in Formula One history, looks set to be a persistent threat to the top ten and a potential thorn in the side of Mercedes and McLaren, along with Kubica. Meanwhile the Force India line-up of Adrian Sutil and Vitantonio Liuzzi looks set to ruffle a few feathers amongst the F1 hierarchy, with the former setting the pace by topping the leader board during Friday practice, edging out title contenders such as Alonso, Kubica, Hamilton, Massa and Button. Indeed Hamilton has been quick to identify Force India and Sauber amongst the fore-runners on the grid, whilst Button stated his belief that both teams are amongst the most competitive and could threaten the dominance of McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull. Unsurprisingly I have chosen to leave Red Bull Racing until last, not for any concerns about their potential to succeed, moreover because they are vey much the dark-horses of this year’s Championship. Having finished second in last season’s Constructors’ standings, with a hugely impressive total of 133.5 points, the at times mercurial partnership of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel looks set once more to dominate the upper echelons of the grid. Whilst the majority of the pre-season attention was focused on the return of Michael Schumacher and the undoubted potential at Ferrari, Red Bull Racing have made significant strides since their inception in 2005, and a strong chance of winning both the Drivers’ and Constructors’’ Championships in 2010. Few would deny that Sebastian Vettel, the youngest race winner in F1 history at 21 years and 73 days, has the potential to be a champion. Indeed former driver Stirling Moss, described by many as “the greatest driver never to win the World Championship”, has revealed not only his confidence in Vettel to lift the trophy, but backed the young German financially to do so. As with any sport, it is futile attempting to analyse pre-season data and past performances in order to determine the identity of any future winners, and tomorrow’s qualifying session will be the strongest indicator yet. However with the return of Michael Schumacher, two-time winner Fernando Alonso achieving his long-awaited move to Ferrari, the formation of the British ‘dream team’ of Hamilton and Alonso, and drivers such as Vettel, Webber and Massa keen to live up to their potential, the 2010 Formula One season has the potential to be one of the most exciting, unpredictable and competitive in the history of the sport.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

New Order – the tragic birth of one of British music’s most innovative and original bands

The unfortunate life of Ian Curtis has been well documented, particularly the circumstances surrounding his tragic death. But following Curtis’ suicide in May 1980, Joy Division, the band he had created alongside Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris, had lost its driving force, its raison d’être. For Joy Division was modelled around the personality, ideas and experiences of Ian Curtis, and as such could not continue in his absence. The creation of New Order in the summer of 1980 was both an evolutionary and a revolutionary step, continuing the post-punk origins of Joy Division in conjunction with an even greater focus on synthesisers and an increasingly electronic sound. New Order’s debut, Ceremony, was very much a transitional album, attempting to honour Joy Division’s immense music legacy and break new ground at the same time. Hook later revealed the attitude of the band towards Ceremony, saying “we were confused musically…our songwriting wasn’t coming together”. Whilst few would be surprised at these words, they were potentially worrying portents for the future. Yet New Order quickly established a reputation as a band that knew no bounds, wasn’t constrained by a genre and could constantly reinvent and reinvigorate itself. Whilst undoubtedly the band’s commercial and creative peak came in the 1980s, throughout its incarnation New Order spanned twenty-seven years. If one includes the Joy Division years, then Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris can be seen as having established and maintained a musical dynasty.

For those lucky enough to be familiar with New Order’s work on any significant scale, it is impossible to deny that their contribution to music has been extraordinary. It is fair to say that few bands have given as much to the progression of dance and alternative rock music in Britain to have received such little praise and acknowledgement. The fact that ‘Blue Monday’ remains the highest-selling 12-inch single with, it’s claimed, over 1,000,000 copies sold is a testament to the appeal of New Order. For many bands, a single of the magnitude of ‘Blue Monday’ would have constituted the height of their creative and technical abilities; however in the case of New Order it is merely a further example of the band’s mercurial contribution to music. Whilst equally-talented and praiseworthy bands of a roughly-similar vintage, such as Depeche Mode, are acknowledged as being one of the greatest electronic bands in musical history, New Order are comparatively ignored. Power, Corruption and Lies, Brotherhood, Technique and Low-Life are essential to any patron of alternative rock, dance, electronica, synthpop or New Wave.

Whilst most bands would have contented themselves with moderate commercial success, New Order strove to be different, and to set themselves apart from the establishment. The inclusion of frogs croaking on ‘The Perfect Kiss’ almost certainly constitutes the most bizarre sampling ever used by a band of any particular note. Whilst New Order were borne out of a legacy of misery, suffering and tragedy, and spent their initial years attempting to balance the immense legacy of Joy Division with a desire for experimentation, it can be reasonably said that by the time of 1989’s seminal dance production Technique, the band had produced a sizeable legacy of their own. Although more than twenty years have passed, and production values and recording qualities have improved immeasurably ‘Round and Round’ and ‘Mr. Disco’ remain textbook manifestations of modern dance music. Whilst in the past few years DJs and dance groups have tended to produce thumping, repetitive tracks led by heavy beats and a catchy riff, for New Order instruments and synthesisers were the weapons of choice.

Whilst some fans may decry the fact that New Order were forced to wait until May 1990 for their first UK Number One, I see this as part of the band’s almost indescribable charm. Yes, World In Motion, released under the moniker ‘Englandneworder’ may be a football song, may feature an appalling rap by striker John Barnes, and may see the band at their most commercial, but for me it is still proof of the band’s continuing innovation and originality. Factory Records may have been and gone, and the New Order-financed Hacienda nightclub swallowed up by the property industry, but New Order’s legacy will live on for years to come. Never mind that the band continues to lack the type of public adoration currently afforded to far lesser artists, form is temporary, but class is permanent. In 1980 one era came to an end, and another began, in which musical boundaries were broken and the rules of post-punk rock were drastically re-written by a group of lads from Manchester. So for those unfamiliar with New Order, steer clear of the constant stream of greatest hits albums and ‘definitive collections’; instead immerse yourself in a back-catalogue of untamed brilliance, and familiarise yourself with one of the greatest bands in the history of popular music.