Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Where's there's Blame, there's a Claim....

The Cabinet Member in question was baffled
as to why his modest second home featured
in his morning Telegraph

I walked through Westminster last week, and the atmosphere felt tense. Even Big Ben seemed to cast a wary eye each way before he moved his hand, as if he would be accused of claiming for the time that elapsed since the whole sorry saga of MP's expenses exploded. On the streets, eyes were cast probingly from suit to suit, before being turned to the pavement, as if hoping for it to obligingly open up. It must have been quite entertaining to observe MPs over the last week or so inside the bowels of the Houses of Parliament, each unsettled by what may transpire in the Daily Telegraph concerning their financial exploits of the last couple of years. No doubt they were aware of each other’s too. Picture the scene in a leafy garden on a summer’s afternoon in Pimlico, with a colleague's hearty backslap greeting a cabinet member’s gloat that the barbecue they are gorging on is courtesy of HM government. That same barbecue now sits conspicuously on the lawn, hanging its coals in shame.

This whole business reminds me of a time during my schooldays when the entire year group were called together to investigate a spate of thefts from the school canteen and tuck shop. The thing is, everyone was at it. The dinnerladies in charge were woefully inattentive, and the smuggling out of a curly wurly here, and an apple there (for the more health conscious thief) had become commonplace. That was the problem; because the abuse of the sweet shop was so widespread, it became acceptable within whole groups of students, and consciences were collectively cleared as a result. It was only when it became clear that so many individuals had been spotted, following a sting operation between a squealing student and a despotic biology teacher that everyone began to get nervous. Guilty glances, not dissimilar to the ones being cast around Westminster, replaced the collective sanctuary of the shared secret.

It is surely this mindset that has set the bar for the expenses that have been claimed in recent years, and with each stage of acceptability, the bar has been raised. It has long been known that Parliament exists in a totally different world to that of you and I; or as the newspapers are so fond of calling it, a gentleman’s club that exists within an insular bubble of security and affluence. That bubble was burst when news of the leak was reported; the fact that there was immediate talk of calling in the police to root out the whistleblower now seems unbelievable, and gives weight to the accusation that the lascivious W1 club was attempting to cover its back. Perhaps it was in an effort to exclude herself from this Westminster trap that Margaret Moran claimed for a second home in Southampton. How very noble. Admittedly there are MPs that exist outside of this circle, politicians such as Norman Baker who have long campaigned to make public the expenses claims, but they seem to be few and far between as the Telegraph continues its relentless charge against Westminster. In fact, so much coverage has been given to this story that regular readers have been outraged; you now need to delve inside the paper as far as page 12 before there is even a mention of cricket!

So what is the next logical step for a horde of marauding money grabbers without so much as a phoney mortgage receipt to hide behind? Why, what any self respecting guilty party (or parties) should do; find a scapegoat. Luckily for them they don’t have to look very far, as the Speaker Michael Martin is asking for it. Not that he doesn’t deserve to go, of course; his reluctance for this whole debacle to see the light of day is well known. His own expenses have come into dispute long before this particular episode, although that is not the main reason for his culpability. If he had his way, the whole scandal would have remained under wraps, and the corrupt ship Westminster would have sailed on undeterred, and as the representative for MPs as a group, that is unforgivable (but somewhat typical).

Whilst I don’t sympathise heavily with MPs over these revelations, I do take issue with all this talk of ‘pigs in troughs’ and ‘we pay for your luxurious lifestyles’. Yes, ‘we’ as taxpayers do ultimately foot the bill, but it is by no means an exclusive invoice that starts and ends in Westminster. The same collective ‘we’ pays for the exorbitant wages and needless management consultants at the BBC, not to mention some of its journalists, whose expenses claims probably remain their most creative work to date. ‘We’ pay for the extortionate pensions claimed by disgraced heads of city Police Forces. ‘We’ pay for the shambolic social services that operate children’s services in London, and for the council tax that haemorrhages from every orifice of inept local councils. The counter argument to this is that MP’s are responsible for making their own rules, but let us not forget that the corrupt expenses system has existed for a long while. Just as I have claimed for spurious mileage on my company car in the past, so hundreds of thousands of workers up and down the country exploit their systems in a time honoured fashion. I’m not saying its right, that’s just life. What’s that you say, as a society we’re not greedy? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the banking system.

It is time now to draw a line through the current system and create a fairer and more level expenses playing field. Increase MP wages if necessary but cut funding for anything other than travel, food and essential basic accommodation costs. Even that is generous; most of us pay for our own food do we not? I expect the Speaker will stand down, and examples will be made of the most erroneous claimants, but eventually the public needs to put its high horse back in the stable and allow the government to tend to the lame donkey of an economy that it shares a stall with.

Lastly, is there a demonstrative collective noun for a group of expense claiming politicians? Any ideas? Might I suggest ‘a Moat of MPs’?

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The Lost Highway

The lost streakers on the Lost Highway
were, unfortunately for them, completely
unaware of the lost Juggernaut.

I'm fairly sure that most people have recently had an irrepressible urge to read about a slightly obscure alternative bluegrass and country rock event on the South Coast. Fortuitous then, that I just happened to have written about one. Quite a coincedence I'm sure you'll agree..

The Lost Highway

When first invited to 'The Lost Highway', I pictured a lone figure sitting under a tree by the side of a deserted road, poignantly plucking his steel guitar, the metallic twang sailing gently across the plains of the Mid West whilst the wind whipped up the melancholy melody like sand over the Dustbowl. To a mildly cold Hove then, for the latest showing of the regular country, folk and roots event at the Brunswick, and not even a Stetson in sight. I opted for a large Bourbon though, just to be sure. The venue’s small but prominent stage and candle lit tables ensured an intimate atmosphere for the busy crowd as the first act stepped up.

At odds with the event’s billing, Chris Simmons seems to have no doubt as to his own destination. His stop on the MySpace highway is certainly a busy one, and his CV reads as a breathless list of achievements (and a fair amount of name dropping). His first line, 'Mine is a written request, a pending SMS' by no means set as awful a tone as the lyric suggests. He has, along with his bandmate and backing vocalist Adam Mellor, an impeccable ear for melody. No wonder Jackson Browne lists himself as a fan. His songs are well crafted, and probably good enough, when he gives 100% (for here I fear he was not) to take him a very long way. The faultless close vocal harmonies lifted the tunes immeasurably, and the upbeat number 'Saturn Returns' sounded like Sting on anti depressants.

Headlining the event was the foot-stomping country rock of The Cedars. A set that started out a little tame soon became, in their words, 'low down and dirty'. The authentic up-tempo bluegrass numbers wouldn’t sound of out of place in a Whiskey-fuelled hoe down along the banks of the Mississippi; it took the sea gulls on lead singer Chantal Hill’s dress to remind me we were still in Brighton. The musicianship was first rate; the vocals shone throughout, especially when sung a cappella. The banjo and bass lines fizzed along nicely and the drummer rattled a surprisingly large sound from the world’s smallest drum kit. One drawback however, was the lack of charisma from the band members, which beyond the red lips of Hill, was notably absent. The audience too, could have reacted more fervently at times; where I half expected to turn and see impromptu do-see-do-ing to the driving rhythms, I was greeted with only mild toe tapping. I suppose this is, after all, the Mild South and not the Wild West!

Part of the reason for The Lost Highway's success is that it enables bands of many styles and disciplines to come together in a single event. Claire Lloyd, promoter with Kong Promotions, says 'The Lost Highway is an important part of the Brighton music scene. What started as an Americana event has branched out to give exposure to great artists from a wide range of genres, most that you would not normally expect to see on mainstream billings, whilst ensuring they don’t become pigeonholed.’

The next junction along The Lost Highway is The Fortune of War, Hove, on 14th May for what promises to be the best event yet. Hey Negrita,
Two Fingers of Firewater and the excellent Sweet Sweet Lies will be performing as part of ‘The Alternative Escape’, continuing the Lost Highway’s tireless journey towards unearthing some of the best, diverse and most entertaining acts in the area.