Shortly after I started my job here in Guildford, I was offered the opportunity to accompany a couple of hundred teenagers from across Surrey on a trip to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland with the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET).
Nick Clegg came along too. It was an extremely unusual and moving day, one that will stick with me for the rest of my life, as I’m sure the experience of visiting Auschwitz does for all who set foot there.
I was perhaps only three or four months into my job by the time the trip came around and I still look back at this piece with a degree of pride, if only for somehow managing to collect myself and my thoughts before regurgitating them in a vaguely coherent manner.
Before I wrote this post, I had perhaps cast an eye over this article once since it was published back in October 2012. It’s somewhat strange to read it more than two years later, and arguably, two years wiser.
Today (January 27) is Holocaust Memorial Day. It’s some 70 years since the liberation of the indescribably vast Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, and 75 years since the town of Oswiecin – then, ironically, something of a beacon of inter-faith tolerance – was so cruelly cemented into the history books.
We’ve all seen pictures of the various Nazi death camps. They are, thankfully, a part of our common conscience in 2015. At best, they serve as a reminder of an atrocity the world simply cannot allow to be repeated. At worst, they hark back to an atrocity the horrors of which echo to this day, having since been repeated in Congo, Armenia, and at Srebrenica during the Bosnian War, among others.
But nothing, absolutely nothing I’ve ever seen, compares with gazing out of one of the central guard towers at Birkenau, the biggest of all the Nazi death camps. It is simply breathtaking. You can’t process it there and then. The fact I can recall it so vividly more than two years later is perhaps an indication of the time is has taken, and continues to take, me to rationalise it.
“I’d rather die standing than live on my knees,” Stéphane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier told French newspaper Le Monde in September 2012.
Always defiant in the face of authority, opposition – even death threats – Charb was, until today, editor of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, the magazine responsible for publishing a caricature of the prophet Muhammad in November 2011.
It’s perhaps fitting tributes were today led by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop after Charb was among 12 people, including fellow cartoonists or satirists, who were gunned down at the magazine’s offices in Paris.
“I am appalled and shocked by this horrific attack,” said Hislop. “A murderous attack on free speech in the heart of Europe. Very little seems funny today.”
It is thought the three attackers were Islamic militants. Witnesses said they heard cries of Allahu Akbar, ‘God is Great’, as they stormed the building, reports The Guardian.
French President Francois Hollande was quick to condemn the attack – “no barbaric act will ever extinguish press freedom,” he said.
As I write this, people are gathering in city centres across France and in other European countries to decry this heinous act that many, like Hislop, rightly describe as a direct attack on free speech.
United under the Je Suis Charlie slogan, it’s a reminder of the vast fortune we share living in a society where free speech is overwhelmingly accepted, even when we overstep the mark.
It is a cornerstone of the industry that is, currently, my life – barely a day goes by when a journalist doesn’t have to make a judgement call of one kind of another, often moral or ethical. Occasionally, we get it wrong.
When we do, we expect to be criticised, to be lambasted, to be pilloried – not executed. And I should stress I am not for a moment suggesting Charlie Hebdo should have toned down their acerbic, raucous editorial stance. It should be celebrated.
At 10.28am today, despite the numerous threats made against the publication in recent weeks and months, Charlie Hebdo posted its final fateful tweet – a cartoon featuring a depiction of the self-proclaimed caliph of Islamic State (IS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“Meilleurs voeux, au fait,” it read, sardonically – ‘especially good health’.
The four Charlie Hebdo cartoonists killed today, led by Charb, consistently swore they lived and worked by no law but French law, while also refusing to be cowed by threats from any extremist factions, Islamic or otherwise.
For Charlie Hebdo; everyone was a target – politicians, religious icons, society at large. Their crosshairs did not discriminate, unlike those of the three gunmen who witnesses, it was widely reported, said went from person to person, seeking out their targets individually.
The thought of my life being at risk for adopting a standpoint that is contrary to or even offensive to others is not one that unduly concerns me; it is the thought of living in a society bound by an ideology that does not tolerate my right to express such views.
It’s been a long, troubling, emotional day and frankly, Simon Jenkins has already articulated most of my thoughts far more accurately.
This morning, I tried to buy tickets to see Royal Blood.
For the uninitiated, Royal Blood are a hugely talented two-piece drum and bass act who properly rock. In 2014, this is something of a rarity.
Their self-titled debut shot straight to number one this week, the first rock act to score a UK number one in the best part of three years. This morning, they sold out a two-week UK tour in just two minutes.
So far, so good. It’s been a meteoric rise for bassist Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher – and it is richly deserved.
I caught the duo at this year’s Glastonbury Festival and they put on a truly exceptional show. Like their forebears Death From Above 1979, they make enough noise between the two of them to put most other bands to shame.
But here’s where things turn sour.
Come October, it will be ten years since I went to my first ‘proper’ gig – Franz Ferdinand at Exeter University Great Hall, if you were wondering. Their debut album had just come out, it was great.
Since then, I’ve travelled all over the country to see bands, and rarely – if ever – have I been unsuccessful in bagging myself tickets. Now, that does not in any way go to say I am somehow ‘deserving’ of a spot at any show that’s going.
I’ve mashed the F5 key for hours on end, orchestrated teams of friends to get the tickets we need, and even paid a touch over the odds to get the tickets I want.
So at 8.45am this morning, I was online, ready, Seetickets and Ticketmaster tabs open, wallet on standby, and with another friend at home doing the same.
I knew it would be a bloodbath (‘scuse the pun); Royal Blood have become an almost overnight sensation. They are riding the crest of a bloody tidal wave.
By 9.02am, tickets had sold out, although not before I’d managed to enter all my details on Seetickets and hit ‘Buy Tickets’.
With a relieved sigh, I lent back in my chair, only to be told tickets had in fact sold out and that my transaction could not be completed. What kind of two-bit ticket retailer doesn’t hold your order while you enter your payment details? In fact, I’m sure Seetickets USED to do this. Hmm.
Suffice to say, my friend had similarly scant fortune. We were buying on behalf of two others too. Our little group weren’t off to see the band. Boo-friggity-hoo. It happens.
It was then I noticed Twitter was bursting at the seams with people sharing our frustration, spewing their spite, bile and vitriol over websites like ViaGoGo and GetMeIn.
If you haven’t heard about these sites, they are – in short – a pernicious, evil blight on Britain’s live music scene. While I stop short of saying they actually sound out people to buy up dozens of tickets to flog at grossly inflated prices, this is nonetheless the result.
Within minutes, there were HUNDREDS of tickets for sale for Royal Blood gigs up and down the country, with prices ranging anywhere from £50 to £100+. Face value, the tickets were £15.
Excuse me while I simmer down a moment.
Here’s a snapshot of ViaGoGo I took shortly before 9pm tonight, a full 12 hours after the tickets ‘sold out’.
This is legalised touting. There is no other way to put it. And that snapshot is only the cheapest end of the scale. Some ViaGoGo users are quoting up to £150 for a single ticket for Royal Blood’s second show at the Electric Ballroom in Camden on November 7.
When I counted them up at 9pm, there were 85 tickets available – Electric Ballroom can only hold around 1,000 people. That’s nearly ten percent of all the tickets sold being touted. And that’s before you include all the ones desperate fans have already snapped up (there were as many as 150 on ViaGoGo earlier for this gig alone), all the ones being sold on other sites like GetMeIn and eBay, plus all the tickets that will be touted outside the venue.
I’d say that means around a quarter of all the tickets for this show will likely be sold to fans above face value which, if you remember, was just £15. I can feel that red mist descending again.
A couple of years ago, ViaGoGo fought tooth and nail to stop Channel 4 airing its terrific Dispatches documentary, The Great Ticket Scandal. They even took out an injunction. This is how lucrative this swizz is. Thankfully, Channel 4 won. There was clearly a strong public interest reason for showing this piece.
Stand outside any sold out gig for a couple of minutes and you will no doubt be serenaded with a chorus of ‘TICKETS! BUY OR SELL!’. Transpose this onto the internet and you have ViaGoGo and GetMeIn. They rob genuine fans of the opportunity to share a moment with their idols and their fellow fans. They are pricing out the average gig-going member of the public.
When I first started going to gigs ten years ago, a club show in some grotty toilet venue would cost you £5, a typical academy or university £10-£15, an arena £25-£30.
You can double if not triple those prices these days. Yes, lessening revenue from album sales has played a part in this, but nonetheless, live music is now a huge money-spinner. It has also an increasingly trendy – dare I even say bourgeois or yuppyish – way to spend an evening, irrespective if you give a toss about the music. For some people strolling into work and being able to say, ‘yeah, I went to a gig last night’ gives them the same insta-kudos Gordon Brown thought he would get by chucking his Arctic Monkeys fandom around willy nilly. Eugch.
Heck, GetMeIn is, and I quote, Ticketmaster’s ‘official ticket marketplace’. ViaGoGo, meanwhile, is affiliated with Festival Republic, one of the country’s premier festival organisers (they put on Reading and Leeds, among others).
These sites are being condoned by the very industry selling the tickets in the first place. This is blatant, vile collusion. I’ll save their utterly ridiculous ‘booking fees’, ‘transaction fees’ and now ‘printing charges’ for another rant.
Actually, no, seeing as a printing charge is a new one on me, I’d like to take this opportunity (or I would have, had I got a ticket) to thank-you Ticketmaster for charging me £3 for the privilege of printing my own ticket at home, with my own paper and my own ink. I just hope that £3 is enough to compensate you for your troubles.
The catch, sadly, is the great British public. People will readily pay these prices and these charges. I have, I admit, on one or two occasions, paid a few quid extra to swag a ticket off eBay – but never from these so-called official resellers. A sea-change could only be effected if we, en masse, stop giving these sites our money.
But that won’t be enough. The Government has tried to act on this but failed miserably, although why should it care, really? It’s a small fry, so far as issues go.
The acts themselves? Yeah, good luck with that. A few bands have tried some increasingly innovative ticket selling methods, but these are usually logistically cumbersome and tricky (read: expensive) to operate and police.
No, this is a revolution that must be led by the gig-going public. We must embrace ethical ticket exchange programs (RIP Scarlet Mist), we must not pay these hugely inflated, extortionate prices, we must not be bullied by these sites.
Of course, the sooner the acts themselves, the venues, the industry and the Government puts their oars in too, the better.
EDIT: Contrary to the above, I’ve just discovered Scarlet Mist is still going. Use it.
It has been a week of contrasts for California ska punk icons Reel Big Fish.
Their show at the vast Sonisphere festival at Knebworth House was duly followed by an appearance at the intimate Boileroom last Friday night (July 11).
But then Reel Big Fish have always been something of an enigma.
Like their peers, Less Than Jake, Sublime, and so on, they have carved a career from a style of music which arguably saw its heyday while the band were still in short trousers.
But despite never enjoying a ‘hit’, per sé – save for the popularity of 1997 single Sell Out – it’s hard to argue with a career that stretches back the best part of a quarter of a century, spawning eight studio albums.
Ska has always been the preserve of the outsider, of the also-ran, and it is this underdog mentality that seems to chime with the hordes who packed into The Boileroom on Friday.
Following lively warm-up acts, The Magnus Puto and The Jellycats, a heady haze of steam, sweat and anticipation hangs over the sell-out crowd. There is no pretension; everyone’s here for a good time.
It’s an intoxicating feature of The Boileroom, a venue, which over the best part of a decade, has established itself as arguably the last bastion of live alternative music in Guildford.
It has built a reputation for giving top acts a reminder of the club circuit where they made their names.
The band’s infectious enthusiasm as they bound onto a stage, barely big enough to accommodate them – let alone their brass ensemble – is testament to the kick they still get out of performing.
Delving deep into their fulsome back catalogue, the band’s hour-long set draws as much from the likes of fan favourites Beer and Trendy from 1995 debut Everything Sucks as it does from 2012’s Candy Coated Fury.
But it is the blinding finale, featuring hit covers Monkey Man by Toots and The Maytals and A-Ha’s Take on Me that bring the house down.
Limbs flail and beers are spilled as the skanking and the po-going reaches a crescendo. It may be just another night on tour for Reel Big Fish; but it feels like The Boileroom has scored a coup.
While the band may have been selling out much bigger venues more than a decade ago, Reel Big Fish come over as a group enjoying their twilight years.
And if the dozens of smiling faces who trouped out of The Boileroom are anything to go by, they will be welcomed back any time.
Last week, while idly sitting in the customary traffic jams in and around Guildford, I heard a brief report on BBC Radio 5 Live from a cricket match between the Birmingham Bears and the Northants Steelbacks.
Now, it must be said that county cricket long ago bowed to many of the tropes of US-style club franchising. Indeed, my own beloved Somerset bizarrely became the Somerset Sabres rather than the Somerset Wyverns (the wyvern being a well-documented symbol of the county) – evidently because alliteration is far more important than hundreds of years of history, even if the shirts from the time did feature a wyvern wielding a sabre.
(And I can attest that, having been mascot at Somerset in 2000 and being given a shirt that was, then, 17 sizes too big. It’s still roomy to this day.)
Yes, that is Aussie legend Matthew Hayden. And Aussie, erm, player and former Somerset captain Jamie Cox.
With all due respect to Northants (who, as it happens, were the team Hayden was captaining the day I was mascot), I can’t say I know why they are the Steelbacks but the point being their side still carries that most distinguishing feature – the fact they’re from Northamptonshire.
But I’m sorry, the Birmingham Bears is an insult. I am, and have been to this point, just about okay with the incessant franchising, even if it rarely made any sense – I mean, while I doubt swooping, winged Wyverns have ever truly descended on Somerset, as a symbol, it’s still steeped in more history, folklore and mystery than a ‘Sabre’.
I guess after a few pints of our famous ‘fightin’ cider’, a bunch of old boys out on the levels armed with a few sabres might make a good job of each other, but Somerset is not exactly Mordor. There aren’t Nazgul circling overhead riden by sabre-wielding wraiths. Think the Shire, with more venereal disease.
(No more Lord of the Rings analogies, I promise.)
The bear, however, is the symbol of Warwickshire and as someone who, despite growing up in Somerset, is half of Warks extraction (an Aston Villa fan, no less), it saddens me to see the county become the first to reject its regionality and embrace, instead, its big city credentials, although I’d hasten to bet it’s far easier to market Birmingham than Warwickshire…
But it’s the WARWICKSHIRE bear, it’s the symbol of the whole county, not just its dominant city. Good luck misappropriating old Will Shakespeare, Brum.
It’s not as if this is uncommon though. Working as a journalist in Surrey, you quickly put aside the truth that county hall is, in fact, in Kingston – in the Royal London Borough of Kingston upon Thames. This sort of thing is endemic.
Indeed, just a few hours before the broadcast that irked me so, I saw a tweet about Hull City Football Club revealing its new crest, devoid of the club’s historic name and instead, simply bearing the club’s black and gold colours – and a fearsome tiger.
Hull’s Egyptian owner Assem Allam has made no secret of his desire to rename the club the Hull Tigers, so much so he threatened to pull his investment should his rebrand be thwarted. Strangely, 60% of season ticket holders who took part in a referendum on the issue actually voted for the change – so what do I know.
All I’d say to Allam is; take note of Vincent Tan’s antics at Cardiff City. I don’t think any of us want a repeat of that. Having spent five years in Cardiff, and invested an element of myself in supporting the Bluebirds, I have, to date, been pretty appalled by his actions. I can’t imagine how torn some lifelong fans must have been after decades in waiting, watching their team finally ascend to the Premiership with millions of Malaysian Ringgits behind them (fact of the day for you right there) only to see Bond villain-in-waiting Tan almost single-handedly engineer his team’s own demise and relegation back to the Championship just nine months later.
How would I feel about Villa becoming, say, the Aston Lions, the Aston Villains, the Birmingham Clarets, the Aston Aces, etc. Hmm. No doubt it would come with buckets of cash – and with Villa up for sale at the moment, it’s by no means beyond the realms of possibility a hungry foreign business man might fancy giving the club a bit of a shake up on and off the pitch – but no, not for me thanks.
Back to cricket. Essentially, what I really do not want to see is English county cricket debase its own history and chase the £££s that make the Indian Premier League such a leviathan – and such a bore at the same time, for me.
I’ve said this before countless times, but first and foremost, I identify with being from Somerset and after that, from Europe. And while the World Cup was enough for me even to splash out on an England shirt (of sorts), our swift exit has already put pay to that flash of patriotism.
As I sit here writing this, I’m wearing my Somerset shirt. There’s an Aston Villa flag up on my wall. These are venerable institutions, let us not forget, each dating back far in excess of 100 years.
The solution? Well, there ain’t one – because we all know the sheer amount of money in sport these days is enough to win over not only the boardroom, but also the fans as well.
What I would like to see, however, is constituted clubs. I would like to see each and every club agree some kind of untouchable constitution, which dictates its name, its colours, its crest and so on. I still cling on to the belief an established institution is infinitely preferable to, and marketable than, a quick rebrand for a quick dollar. I’d bet after decades in the leagues lower tiers, Cardiff City fans would have been willing to wait another couple of years to make it to the Premiership in blue shirts.
Whether we should put history and heritage before ‘success’ (as for every Cardiff, there is a Man City) is a debate for another time.
If you need me, I’ll be on my high hors- I mean wyvern.
Rome, June 3, and Queens of the Stone Age (QOTSA) have just walked on stage at Rock in Roma, one of Italy’s biggest music festivals.
Led by the band’s daunting frontman Josh Homme, they rip into Millionaire from their 2002 hit album Songs for the Deaf. Thousands go wild at the city’s Capannelle racecourse.
The same night, more than 1,000 miles away, another man has just walked on stage and kicked into Millionaire.
But in stark contrast, former QOTSA bassist Nick Oliveri’s audience is little more than 100 devotees, packed into Guildford’s rock and roll refuge, The Boileroom.
Does he care? Not a bit of it.
Now touring his all acoustic one-man solo show, Oliveri – complete with his distinctive shiny bald head and trademark six-inch goatee – paints the picture of a man finally at peace.
In January 2004, he was unceremoniously booted out of QOTSA after his relationship with Homme broke down.
While the band has ascended to headline status, due to top the bill at this year’s Reading and Leeds festival in August, Oliveri’s career has been characterised by false starts.
Tuesday’s show at The Boileroom (June 3) was the third in a 19-date tour in support of his new single Human Cannonball Explodes and new album Leave Me Alone, due later this year.
It’s a refreshing new beginning for Oliveri.
His 50-minute set draws variously from his 20 years in the business, including Kyuss classic Green Machine, while a handful of new material is well-received by the knowledgeable audience.
But it is Oliveri’s QOTSA numbers they have come for, having co-written the band’s 2000 album Rated R and the aforementioned Songs for the Deaf with Homme.
Cheers greet acoustic takes on songs like Gonna Leave You, Another Love Song and Auto Pilot, sparking what feels like a boy scouts’ campfire singalong, only with far more beards.
Oliveri invites a dozen or so fans up on stage with him for a rousing rendition of QOTSA drug anthem Feel Good Hit of the Summer, which features the rhythmic chant of ‘nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol’.
But opening gambit Millionaire remains Oliveri’s most distinctive contribution, one he performed with QOTSA in April for the first time in 10 years during a gig in Portland, Oregon.
While his exile from the band seems set to continue, Oliveri’s career and outlook appears the healthiest it has been in the best part of a decade.
His show at The Boileroom underlines his talent to go it alone.
Originally published in the Surrey Advertiser, 06/06/14
For anyone who follows Richard’s blog, you’ll know how keen he is on exploring what journalists can do with Freedom of Information legislation.
This is a prime example. Off the back of the social media phenomenon that was the Northampton Clown, the paper was canny enough to fire off a FOI request to the Met Police to uncover the amount of ‘clown crime’ being dealt with by the force on the streets of the capital.
And the results are staggering, with the word ‘clown’ cropping up 117 times in police reports during the last three years across a range of, in some cases, startlingly severe offences – including robbery, burglary and assault.
Proof, it were ever needed, that with a little considered thought, a seemingly trivial topic can be turned into something with a far harder edge.
I was saddened to discover today Benjamin Curtis, American musician and founder of the Secret Machines, died on December 29. He was just 35.
The Secret Machines were one of my earliest musical ‘discoveries’, so to speak, combining all the brilliant psychedelia of Pink Floyd and pomp of Led Zeppelin into often long, intricately thought-out stompers.
Their debut album, Now Here Is Nowhere, remains one of the very best albums of this millennium, a flawless 50-minute ode to the bands who inspired them paired with a generous slice of 21st century precision and attitude.
No song encapsulates this with greater aplomb than First Wave Intact, the opening track from Now Here Is Nowhere. A nine-minute romp, perhaps even a modern take on Zeppelin’s sprawling Kashmir.
I was fortunate enough to catch The Secret Machines at Thekla in Bristol on February 15, 2009, following the release of their third (and final) album. A week later, I was still idly strumming the opening salvo of First Wave Intact to myself.
For them, it was probably by no means an extraordinary gig, just another stop on the tour. But the power with which they delivered their set from soaring, heavy highs to calm, sombre lows was incredible. I’ve since seen bands sell out arenas and stadiums yet fail to land a punch with such ferocity.
Curtis went on to found School of Seven Bells after before announcing earlier this year he was undergoing treatment for cancer. He died on Sunday after a year-long fight.