Friday 30 November 2007

Obscure List of the Week

Today's Independent reports on the boom trade in... bagpipes (a big seller on eBay apparently). It offers the following list of twenty facts about the bagpipe that I'd imagine are a must-read for everyone (especially those with a mild tartan fetish):

Bagpipes by numbers

1 Bagpipes developed independently in parts of Europe and the Middle East around the same time. The earliest surviving written reference comes in the writings of the Athenian poet Aristophanes, who disdainfully mentioned that the pipers of Thebes played on instruments of dog skin and bone.

2 There are four vital components to modern pipes: a steady supply of air delivered down the blowpipe; an airtight bag (originally made from animal skin but now synthetic) which stores and controls the supply of air via squeezing; the chanter or melody pipe, played by one or two hands; and the drone – a reeded pipe with a sliding joint to alter the pitch.

3 Bagpipes have long been popular as an instrument of war, both scaring the enemy and boosting the morale of the pipers' own side. During the Jacobite risings of 1745, possession of the pipes in Britain was punishable by death.

4 After leaving university, Alastair Campbell – later to be Tony Blair's spinmeister-general – busked his way round Europe with his bagpipes – even basing an erotic essay on the experience.

5 There are more bagpipe players and pipe bands in New Zealand than in Scotland, largely as a result of Scottish migration in the 19th and 20th centuries.

6 The bagpipes made an unlikely appearance in Friends when Ross, played by David Scwhimmer, tried to learn to play them for his sister Monica's wedding.

7 Because of their limited range of just nine notes bagpipers can play only music specifically composed for the instrument. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies composed 'Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise' for the pipes in 1985 while musical satirist Peter Schickele featured them as one of his six instruments for the fictional PDQ Bach's Sinfonia Concertante.

8 The Emperor Nero was known not just for fiddling while Rome burned but also for his love of bagpipes. According to Suetonius, he once showed offered to play them in public after losing a poetry competition.

9 The noise of bagpipes can reach 111 decibels – louder than a pneumatic drill.

10 In 2005 army health and safety inspectors called for soldiers to wear ear protectors while learning the instrument.

11 Bagpipes featured prominently on AC/DC's fist-pumping anthem It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock 'n' Roll). The track featured on their three-million selling album High Voltage in 1976.

12 A mysterious bagpipe-wielding figure peers down from the central panel of Hieronymous Bosch's 15th century triptych The Epiphany, observing, apparently unseen, the Magi's adoration of the young Christ.

13 One of the earliest written records of the "great pipes" in Scotland came in 1623 when a man was prosecuted in Perth for playing them on the Sabbath.

14 The relationship between Cherie Blair and the Royal Family is said not to have been improved by the famous Balmoral ritual of a bagpiper playing a 6am reveille.

15 King Rama VI of Thailand ordered that the Great Highland Bagpipe replace the oboe as the official instrument of his elite Wild Tiger Corps.

16 An asthmatic teenager in Glasgow recently reported that his breathing problems had been radically improved since taking up the instrument. Scientists are investigating his claims.

17 The Gaida – a form of bagpipes– remains Bulgaria's national instrument, and it is common both in orchestras and at weddings.

18 Bagpipe standard Amazing Grace is often hailed as the most covered song in history, with more than 3,200 different recordings in existence . It was played at the funerals of Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, Joe DiMaggio and Sonny Bono.

19 The jazz musician Rufus Harley switched from saxophone to the bagpipes after watching the Black Watch play at President Kennedy's funeral, adapting the instrument to play jazz and blues.

20 Paul McCartney's bagpipe-based 'Mull of Kintyre' was his biggest ever hit. The 1977 single sold over 2 million copies, outstripping anything he had achieved with the Beatles and created the highest selling bagpipe track of all time.

Thursday 29 November 2007

Harry Potter is the Devil

From 'Jesus Camp', a film that looks worth seeing... but these people are REALLY insane...

World Turned Upside Down

You know it is when start agreeing with... Boris Johnson, the Tories' shambolic London Mayoral candidate!

In response to complaints from the chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Commissioner-friendly Len Duvall, over the use of the words 'trigger-happy' to describe the police officers who executed Jean Charles de Menezes, Boris had the following to say:

You seem to want me to withdraw the use of the word "trigger happy" in respect of the death of Jean Charles de Menezes.

I have absolutely no intention of doing so. It is hard to think of any other description of a catastrophe in which a completely innocent man ends up with seven bullets in his head.

I have made it repeatedly clear that I believe the officers involved to have been personally extremely brave.

But I remain deeply dismayed that neither you nor the Mayor nor anyone else seems willing to address the fundamental question in the minds of the London public.

If this man was thought to be a potential suicide bomber, why the hell was he allowed on two buses, and then down the Tube? Why was he allowed to put the public at progressively greater risk?

Many people believe that common sense policing would have allowed his identity to be established at a much earlier stage.

Amen. Couldn't have put it better myself.

Wednesday 28 November 2007


God, I love this tune...

Sick Day

I've been off work today - the 24-hour knock-out cold bug has found me. And there's something very odd about staying home in the middle of the week, half-dazed; it's like a flashback to student life - only this time with central heating that works and a fridge that contains fresh vegetables.

It's hard to believe that in three days time, December will have arrived. Perhaps that old trope about time speeding up on the slip road towards 40 is true. Yesterday I told my friend Estelle that this year had been the worst of my life, but if that is true, how come it has flown by? Shouldn't it have dragged along, painfully, like waiting in the queue at the Indian High Commission for a visa?

Instead, since the turn of the year, there has been this and that and a great birthday party in February. And since Gilly's passing, there have been events to organise and things to do, and I managed to get by without having to take time off work. Plus two, soon to be three, trips abroad to three different continents. I have what can best be described as a wretched carbon footprint...

The reason is simple - I realised today that I can barely remember any of it.

Seriously. Don't ask me for anything detailed that happened this year and expect an instant answer. I just have random memories.

Getting a lift from Naz through south London at eleven in the morning after a long flight from Houston, heading to the Royal Free Hospital to see Gilly for one last time.

Checking into the Copthorne Hotel near Gatwick and then out again about three hours later because of a severely delayed flight to South Africa, knowing that in the space of 12 hours we had managed to travel no more than ten miles.

The last hill on the road to Southend.

Coming back on the train from Leamington Spa with a clammy whisky-hangover and stopping at Wembley Stadium's new station - before the stadium had even opened. Unsurprisingly, no-one got out.

I seem to have travel memories. Actually, no, I seem to mainly have airport memories. And in a couple of weeks, I can add some more.

So tell me again... who exactly are you?

Monday 26 November 2007

King Kevin

Most unlikely headline for the first 'Kevin' in the world to become a nation's leader:

King Kevin the new conqueror

Sunday 18 November 2007

Olympic Promises

Interesting report this morning on Radio Five Live by Barbara Collins on whether the East End will benefit from the 2012 Olympics and whether the Games will really leave a legacy of sporting facilities, business opportunities and a brand new transport infrastructure. In the week when the Olympic authorities have been trumpeting their plans, what kind of regeneration is on the cards?

Download as a podcast here [mp3 - right click to 'Save As...']

Saturday 17 November 2007

The RESPECT split and its impact in Newham

For those who are still unaware, one of Newham’s two opposition parties, RESPECT, has split nationally into two factions, one led by George Galloway and the other by the Socialist Workers Party.

Following an emergency meeting of Newham RESPECT on 26th October, a statement was issued that strongly opposed any split in the party and called upon the leadership “to pause and refrain from any move to divide us.” The statement adds that “Newham members are united in believing that everything that brought us together still exists and more so now” and that the party locally “appreciate our weaknesses and resolve to move forward and manifest the nation's desire for a political organisation that reflects the most important aspirations for a just society.”

What is interesting about this statement, as with much of the sudden and acrimonious collapse of RESPECT as a political project, is who has signed it and where it has appeared. It is posted on the ‘official’ RESPECT website, which is controlled by the SWP faction, but a number of the signatories were most definitely not SWP members, including Sabia Kamali, the unsuccessful candidate for councillor in Plaistow North, or the Mayoral candidate Abdurahman Jafar, or branch chair Michael Gavan, or Sarah Ruiz, a former Labour councillor who lost her seat after standing as a RESPECT candidate for councillor in East Ham North. But the names very obviously missing included the three RESPECT councillors who were elected - Hanif Abdulmuhit, Asif Karim and Abdul Karim Sheikh. Hanif was also RESPECT's chosen candidate for the Greater London Assembly (GLA) constituency of City and East.

Since the end of October, however, a number of the signatories of the ‘unity’ statement have chosen sides. SWP members, unsurprisingly, have opted for their party's 'Continuity Respect', whilst Abdurahman Jafar and Sabia Kamali have chosen Galloway’s “Respect Renewal” camp. Michael Gavan understandably has more pressing concerns to worry about than which of the two competing conferences on 17 November to attend. Meanwhile Cllr Hanif Abdulmuhit in particular has become very close to George Galloway, hosting a “members” meeting at his home after Galloway refused to attend one at the local RESPECT office whilst SWP members were present (reported in the SWP's internal bulletin Party Notes as “further evidence of a declaration of war against us”).

But others are torn, between the deeply sectarian SWP and the faction led by an MP who has not turned up to a single constituency surgery in 10 months, hardly ever enters Parliament, but is the fifth richest MP in Britain though TV work (that the SWP faction allege includes forthcoming, lucrative adverts for... Domestos).

With the SWP fairly weak in Newham and the Galloway faction more likely to prevail, the likelihood is that a number of these independents, especially those who have never been particularly enamoured with Galloway's raging ego, will drop out completely.

Meanwhile, the local New Labour councillors can barely restrain their glee at the rupture within RESPECT. Many were genuinely concerned at the last local council elections that they might lose their seats and there was a sigh of relief when RESPECT failed to capture more wards.

The Hounding of Michael Gavan

On Monday, Michael Gavan will be fired from his job as chair of Newham UNISON Local Government for alleged "gross misconduct", because Newham council accuses him of "not acting in the best interests of the council" and organising an "unauthorised" meeting against possible privatisation of services.

Newham UNISON has denied the allegation amounts to gross misconduct and moreover argue that this is a direct attack on the union, aimed at gagging their main negotiator as it starts a campaign against the privatisation of the refuse and cleaning service.

Newham Council’s case rests on two allegations. First is the “unauthorised” meeting of refuse and cleansing staff that Michael is said to have organised and attended. There was indeed a stewards meeting to discuss privatisation, but unfortunately for the council, it had been called off the day before it was due to be held. The second allegation is even more preposterous: the allegation of “not acting in the best interests of the council” is purportedly the result of Michael’s representation of a UNISON members who have been suspended for more than a year on an allegation of having committed a criminal offence that the council claim Michael was aware of – and should have reported.

To make matters worse, the council decided to bring in the former head of the School of Management at Westminster University to “investigate” Michael, who subsequently faced a perfunctory interview that failed to address the central claims against him. The appointment of a management consultant to investigate makes clear that the intention is to sack him and remove one of the union’s most effective representatives.

Newham Council’s aim seems to be to intimidate other union representatives by showing it can remove anyone who dares to stand up for rights at work and oppose council plans to privatise. Protests against Michael’s treatment have come from trade union branches all over the country, but although he has formal backing from UNISON nationally, there have been complaints that the London Regional Office has been slow to call a ballot for strike action (action eventually happened on 31st October). And despite the fact that Newham branch secretary Irene Stacey is also a member of UNISON’s NEC, general secretary Dave Prentice has yet to flex his union’s muscle within the Labour Party nationally to stop the appalling actions of a Labour council much-favoured by Whitehall. Could this perhaps be because Michael is also the chair of the local branch of Respect?

Michael is likely to win the inevitable employment tribunal that will result from the hounding he has received from the council, but he will be out of work next week and unlikely to see an outcome in his case for anything up to two years. In all probability, the council will settle at the eleventh-hour, satisfied that its money will have been well spent in breaking the union. Meanwhile, the borough’s New Labour Mayor Sir Robin Wales will be able to plough on with privatisation, resulting in cuts in pay and longer hours for cleansing and refuse staff.

Messages of support can be emailed to the branch at and messages of condemnation sent Robin Wales at

Sunday 11 November 2007

UFFC Remembrance Procession 2007

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.