Greenbelt 2010: Why I’m Excited…

And we’re off…

The 09:48 1st Great Western to Cheltenham Spa has just pulled out of Paddington. In about two and a half hours’ time, I should be searching for a nice accessible spot on Cheltenham Racecourse on which to pitch a tent. I’m still pondering whether to go and socialise or just lie in it and sleep once it’s up.

The tent will be home for the next few days while I’m at the Greenbelt festival. I hadn’t realised it before, but this is actually my 20th Greenbelt! All of a sudden, my DJ set tomorrow evening has a whole new meaning.

It’s been an interesting 20 years – in which I’ve gone from being the unsure rookie punter whose borrowed tent fell in on him on his first night in it, to a virtual resident of the press room. These days, I even get to inflict my choice of music on the other punters! Nice…

There’s a lot I love about Greenbelt. Back at the start of the 90s (and the start of me dabbling in this writing thingy), the writing workshops held at Greenbelt’s London HQ were key to my early development as a writer (thanks a lot to guys like Dave Roberts and Martin Wroe, who used to share their insights and expertise with us). The more I went, the more I realised there was more to Greenbelt than music. I’ve discovered an array of writers and thinkers (Caesar Molebatsi, Robert Beckford, Jim Wallis, Phillip Yancey and the late Mike Yaconelli, to name a few), and made lots of friends through my annual pilgrimage to Cheltenham (and to Castle Ashby and Deene Park before that). And of course, I’ve heard more great bands and singers than I care to remember.

On the Greenbelt blog (see my blogroll), there’s a series of “Why I’m Excited” posts, in which people associated with the festival have been talking about what (or who) they’re looking forward to the most. Here’s my “Why I’m Excited” list:

Jars of Clay are playing! So too are Brownmusic, Gil Scott-Heron, Ty, Beverley Knight, Foy Vance, Courtney Pine and Greenjade. Just a few of the acts I don’t want to miss.

They’re screening Africa United on Sunday afternoon (check back here for a review soon after).

A couple of ‘must go’ workshops and panel discussions – including one on storytelling and one on the relationship between music and activism.

The comedy line-up’s brilliant: I have to see Jude Simpson, Milton Jones and Andy Kind (he’s recently been featured on Channel 4’s 4thought.tv – top bloke).

And did I mention that I was Djing? 7Pm on Saturday in the Blue Nun wine bar. Drop by just before Shed Seven on Mainstage…

10 things I’d have liked to see Hitler’s reaction to

It’s been nearly four months since Constantin Films (the company behind Downfall, the Oscar nominated film about Hitler’s last days) got Youtube to take down a rash of “Hitler reacts to…” videos, made using key scenes from the film.

The first one I saw was the Fuhrer’s foul-mouthed reaction to the news of Michael Jackson’s death, barely days after watching his memorial concert. Others followed: Usain Bolt’s 100m win; Kanye West upsetting Taylor Swift; Oasis splitting up… all of varying degrees of hilarity (and tastelessness).

While I can understand why the filmmakers had the videos pulled (they did kind of trivialise what was a really deep, serious film), part of me wishes they were still around, and new ones were being made. I’d have loved to see what Hitler would have made of these news stories:

  • Rage Against the Machine getting the Christmas number 1
  • Heroes being axed
  • Britain’s hung parliament
  • Reception problems with his new iPhone 4
  • The vuvuzela
  • Delirious?’s ‘History Maker’ only getting to number 6 in the charts
  • Robbie Williams rejoining Take That
  • Google Wave not really catching on
  • Naomi Campbell giving evidence at the Charles Taylor trial
  • Usain Bolt losing to Tyson Gay

… And if possible, I’d like those videos to be in 3D.

On Movies, Hoodies, Slums & Messages – Knowotimean, Harry?

The other day, I went – somewhat reluctantly – to a film screening at the Albany theatre in Deptford.

The main feature was Michael Caine’s London-set vigilante thriller Harry Brown. The support act (sorry – music reviewer’s habit) was English, the debut of Tarun Thind, a young British Asian with no formal training in filmmaking. Both Tarun Thind and Gary Young (the screenwriter who wrote Harry Brown) took part in a Q&A session afterwards.

Gary Young describes Harry Brown as “a British Death Wish” and he isn’t far wrong. It’s extremely dark, depressing and very, very violent. Michael Caine turns in a flawless performance as the ailing ex-marine whose life revolves around visiting his terminally ill wife in hospital and having a pint and a game of chess with his old mate Len. The only characters you feel anything for are Harry and Len, whose brutal murder is the tipping point that turns Harry into the Equalizer of Elephant & Castle. The various hoodies, pimps, drug & arms dealers and low-lifes of some description are either so grotesque or so irredeemably evil, they might as well just have giant multicoloured neon signs saying “HATE ME” stuck on them.

As you can probably guess from what I’ve just said, Harry Brown wasn’t my cup of tea (hence my initial reluctance to go to the screening). On the other hand, I cannot recommend English highly enough. The last time I’ve seen such a non-patronising portrayal of deaf characters in a film was in Four Weddings & a Funeral. And that was some time ago…

I found the Q&A session quite insightful. I’ve spoken to a few filmmakers and writers in my time, and as I grow older, I find myself believing in hard-and-fast rules less and less. This Q&A session just reinforced that further. Gary’s viewpoint is that people don’t go to films to ‘learn’ stuff, and he seemingly has no time for any of that “a film must have a message” nonsense. He also didn’t seem to care much for issues such as whether a filmmaker has a responsibility in how they portray certain groups of people. In this regard, he was the polar opposite of Tarun Thind, who set out to make his film with the intention of countering the negative image of ‘hoodies’ so prevalent in the media today. While I can see both their points (and I’m not just saying that to sit on the fence), the difference in the characters in both films is enormous; Tarun’s ‘hoodies’ are a lot more human than Gary’s.

But Gary is right, up to a point. A writer works best when s/he writes what’s on his or her mind – not when trying to “write to order” or deliberately trying to shoehorn a moral into their work. “Write what’s on your heart” is the best advice you can give any writer. And I suppose it is possible to make a film and not have some sort of agenda beyond wanting to create something you find entertaining. I’ve seen some of the work done by filmmakers who claim that “all films have agendas” (especially some of the new breed of Christian filmmakers), and a lot of the films they make do end up being very preachy.

But when it comes to the issue of responsibility in how you portray people on film, there are personal reasons why I can’t see Harry Brown in such an objective manner as Gary suggests: The Heygate Estate where it was shot is literally five minutes’ walk from my home (in fact, I can remember walking through it while it was being prepped for shooting this very film, and wondering if it was 1Xtra shooting another of their “music for the sink hole estate massive” trailers). My brother and sister-in-law had their first home (and first child) there. A cousin of mine lived there for many years with her husband and baby daughter before eventually emigrating to the USA. It might be a dump, but Harry Brown made it look like the tenth circle of Hell (and trust me, if it really was that bad, I wouldn’t walk through it as casually as I do on a very regular basis). I know it’s fiction, yada yada yada – but I bet if someone shot a film somewhere in Newcastle that Gary had fond memories of growing up, and made it look that nasty, a small part of him would go “Hey – that’s out of order!”

The film opened in the US this week, and I’ve already read one review from there saying it was set in a “slum”. That reviewer really ought to see the ‘slum’ being built on the other side of the road…

My first premiere (and Happy New Year?)

It’s been a while, I know, since my last blog post. A whole three months, in fact. And I’m not even sure why I never got round to posting anything during the first quarter of 2010 – but the longer it got, the more I felt pressured to make my first blog post of the year a really good one. Pressure can do bad things to creativity (yeah, I know – sometimes it can do good things to it too). And then the first time I tried to write this particular post, Micro$oft Word decided that it would be really fun to kill it on my first save and leave no trace of its existence (I’m rewriting it with Open Office now, if you’re interested).

Anyway, I’m back now – and I’d like to use my first blog post of the year to congratulate an old friend on two major milestones.

I’ve known Shabazz Graham for over a decade. A friend introduced me to him years ago when he was a comic illustrator and I was just starting out in this writing game. The first time I realised that important people read the stuff I wrote was when I did a piece about Shabazz’s comics for the now defunct Christian Herald newspaper – and received a phone call from Radio 4, asking me to put them in touch with him (even before I’d seen the piece in print myself!). When he had a go at being a rapper, I wrote about his music for some music mag (can’t remember which; there’ve been a few in my career). And when he started to work on his dream of being a filmmaker, I wrote about that a couple of times too.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in BAFTA for the premiere of Malachi – Shabazz’s directorial debut. It was my first premiere (I’ve done loads of previews; that’s part of the job. Premieres – that’s the pretty people’s department). I absolutely loved the short film about a young Sickle Cell Anaemia sufferer who gets a bit more than he bargained for when he uses his camcorder to capture the good things in life.

Malachi was shot very close to where I live, so it felt familiar in a way films don’t normally do. The daughter of an old friend of mine has a small role in it. Luke Carradine’s score was excellent. And in the film says more about love and relationships in half an hour than your average telly soap does in years.

Master storyteller that Shabazz is, even his film premiere had an unexpected twist. We saw the film, the cast and crew came up onstage and talked about the experience, and then Shabazz called out a few people he wanted to thank and give small gifts to in appreciation for their work on the film. Last on the list was Oliveene Whittaker, who had taken photographs on set – and who also just happens to be Shabazz’s girlfriend. She went up to collect her gift and next thing we know, our man’s on one knee in front of her! Yes – he went there… and she said yes!

There’s not much more I can say, really. Shabazz, my boy, I wish you Palme d’Ors, Oscars, BAFTAs, and Golden Globes by the shedload. But above all, I wish you and Oliveene an extremely joy-filled marriage.

“#09 Memories”

About a week ago, “#09memories” was a ‘trending’ topic on Twitter. I’ve never really done the ‘recap of the year’ thing that much in the past (as much as I do like reading other people’s), but found myself spending the best part of an evening sharing my memories and reading those of others. It seemed a bit of a shame just to let one audience see them in short bursts, so I compiled them into a list to post here – expanding on a few where I felt the 140-character limit didn’t really let me say what I wanted to.

So in no particular order (well, maybe slightly chronological, but only just; actually more emotional than chronological), here are some of my standout memories – both great and not-so-great – from 2009:

• Meeting the adopted little sister I never knew I had for the first time.

• The whole Celebration fam going to Hereford and spending a day with Cynthia, barely three months before she passed away.

• Doing the last DJ slot in the Blue Nun wine bar at the Greenbelt festival.

• Going to MIDEM for the first time in 14 years, and discovering great music from Sonnyboy, Ndidi Onukwulu, Yom, Monica Giraldo & Charlie Winston. Also seeing Duke Special in concert, and celebrating Barack Obama’s inauguration with members of the American Association of Independent Music. MIDEM has a reputation for being all about the business and not so much about the music. But it is possible to find decent music there, if you look hard enough.

• Discovering London’s coolestest venue, the Shunt Lounge… only for it to close 10 months later.

• The Operation Christmas Child trip to Swaziland – and the delighted screams of the kids as they opened their shoeboxes.

• Arriving in Jo’burg airport en route to Swaziland; hearing ‘Viva la Vida’ on the PA system and thinking, “Coldplay? This can’t be Africa.”

• Giving career advice to the Swazi schoolgirl who told me she wanted to be a journalist when she grew up.

• The loud cheer that erupted in our minibus as we drove into Mbabne (the Swazi capital) and saw a branch of Nandos.

• My first lunch in India: Domino’s Pizza!

• Painting and decorating the community centre in a Delhi slum; logging on to the internet and wondering who this Susan Boyle woman was, and why so many of my Facebook friends had become fans of hers.

• Riding an elephant up to the Amber Palace in Jaipur.

• Visiting the Taj Mahal – and not really believing our tour guide’s story about how he’d told Danny Boyle off because “that scene in Slumdog Millionaire made Indian tour guides look bad.”

• Being mistaken for Ice Cube by some of the kids in the slum where we were working.

• A pimp in Nashville offering me girls an’ ting. That’s the last time I stay in a Motel 6!

• Driving a van in Atlanta with no satnav, and introducing my passenger (my 11-yr-old niece) to the world of Bill & Ted and their “be excellent to each other” philosophy.

• Lou at the Bridge Bar in Beckenham.

• Several trips to Paris, during which the Starbucks on Boulevard St Germain became my office away from home.

• Curling up in bed ready for a good night’s kip, then receiving a txt msg saying Michael Jackson had just died…

• … and then receiving another text from the same person two hours later, informing me that Farrah Fawcett had also died (at which point, I responded with “You’re really the herald of good tidings tonight, aren’t you?”).

• Being asked to talk about MJ on Radio 4…

• … then receiving another phone call from Radio 4 a few hours later (after I’d prepared what I was going to say), saying they’d found someone else to do it.

• Discovering a new way to watch TV: reading your friends’ sarky status updates and/or tweets about the show while it’s on. Sometimes you didn’t even need to watch the show in question; the running commentary told you everything you needed to know!

• Jedward, Kandy Rain, Mr. “I don’t know how to spell Daniel properly”, Afro Boy and La Gordita in Miss Frank.

• Cave Austin Girl.

• One of the deepest films ever (Downfall) being turned into a series of often sick “Hitler reacts to…” jokes on Youtube.

• Dizzee Rascal losing what little respect I had left for him with asinine comments about the preparations for the 2012 Olympics.

• The realisation that people actually read my blog!

• My big ‘fanboy’ moment: shaking Nile Rodgers’ hand at Chic’s gig at the Forum (I now use his plectrums to play my guitars – when I can be bothered, that is. I must do more of that – and more seriously – in 2010).

• Watching Baaba Maal, Kano & Bashy soundcheck from side stage at the Royal Festival Hall.

Daby, the 'vibe man'

• Africa Oyé in Liverpool. Meeting and working with Maya; ‘vibing’ with Daby Touré (pictured) and doing the most hilarious interview I’ve ever done (with an extremely well-dressed artist who will remain nameless).

• The last ever Delirious? gig – and meeting Mr. Tommy Sims at the after-party.

• “What would we do? Usually drink; usually dance; usually bubble.” (Yeah, I know; I discovered it in ’09).

• Seeing people’s nastier sides come out after certain celebrity deaths. Not nice at all.

• Vampires. Vampires everywhere.

• My first ever purchase of a Hed Kandi CD… oh, wait – that was in ’08. In a Zavvi shop, just before they all closed. My last ever purchase from a Woolworth’s, and my last ever visit to a Border’s bookshop.

• Shelley Ryan.

NEWSFLASH: God tells music award nominees, “Leave me out of it.”

HEAVEN, 6 December, 2009: With the Brits and Grammies just a couple of months away (and a handful of even more insignificant awards ceremonies due to follow), the music awards industry has been shaken to its core by an enormous snub from the Almighty himself.

Yesterday God took the unconventional move of calling a press conference to disassociate himself from every mediocre musician who has ever thanked him on receiving an award, and formally asked all present and future music award nominees not to mention him in their acceptance speeches, should they win.

“For decades, I have wondered why the myth that the devil has all the good music  persists,” God said. “I have now come to the realisation that constantly being associated with naff music the way I am at music awards ceremonies has done my brand image a great deal of harm.

“It’s not just the fact that terrible musicians blame me for their lack of imagination that hurts. There’s also the fact that members of the public validate this by voting for their music to win awards. I suppose they blame me for their lack of good taste too. As the Almighty, I simply cannot have that.

“Besides, as a God of truth and honesty, I cannot take credit that’s not due to me. We all know the real person most of these artists should be thanking is (AutoTune inventor) Andy Hildebrand.”

God added: “I don’t normally deliver personal messages. But Michael says that’s enough tributes, thank you very much.”

News of the divine diss sent shockwaves through the music community. Hip Hop artists in particular were uncharacteristically speechless. MC Kill Murder Dawg is expected to win several awards next year with his hit single ‘Bitch Slap’. “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve seen all my heroes at the Source Awards or the Grammies, or the MTV Awards, up there with their champagne and their hoes, thanking God for it all,” he said. “That’s all I ever wanted to do – and now I can’t! I’ve got to thank somebody! Maybe I’ll join the Scientologists and thank Xenu.”

The snub has created a big dilemma for the organisers of Gospel music awards, as God’s statement says “all music awards ceremonies” and he has refused to make any exceptions. “This is just going to kick up that old debate about whether old hymns are better than modern ones,” said a gospel music spokesperson.

However, there is one group of people for whom the snub from God is good news.

“For my industry, it’s a godsend – if you’ll excuse the pun,” said a representative of the Association of American Advertisers. “Those thank-you prayers used to take up a lot of time – which can now be freed up for us to fill with more adverts when the ceremonies are televised. Maybe I should be thanking God for that! Ker-ching!”

‘Happy Thingymas’

Since I’m writing about a religious topic here, I think I ought to start with a confession.

I may be a God-botherer, but I’m also a pragmatist. If I’m miles away from home and it’s cold, wet and dark outside, I don’t care what’s written on the side of the first bus that comes along; I’m taking it. And that’s exactly what I did one Saturday night/Sunday morning last winter, after an awesome Dele Sosimi gig in east London: I (whisper it) rode home on one of those ‘atheist’ buses several Christian Facebook groups were urging me to boycott at the time.

The “there’s probably no God; now go and get plastered” (or whatever it said) bus ad campaign is now just a vague memory for most of us. But a follow-up to it has been launched to coincide with the festive season… and so it was that a few days ago, I found myself in Foyle’s bookshop in central London, for the launch of a book titled the Atheist’s Guide to Christmas.

Ariane Sherine (the journalist/comedy writer who devised the bus ad and edited the book) was host for the event, along with guests Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, David Baddiel and Derren Brown – four of the book’s 42 co-authors – who read the essays they’d contributed to it. Apart from acquiring a new spiritual dilemma for myself (will I go to hell because I think Ariane Sherine is hot? I’m sure me fancying her is what my team calls “being unequally yoked”), I found the evening simultaneously thought provoking, amusing, and in places deeply tragic.

The thing that stuck out most for me was how similar atheism is to the religions it is so opposed to. Guess what? Atheists argue over dogma and doctrine just like Catholics and Protestants, Sunnis and Ahmadis, or Orthodox and Reform Jews do. Boy, do they! During the Q&A session that followed the readings; in the lift; on the street walking to the Tube station… Even more interestingly, even in a roomful of people generally disposed to believing that faith is irrational, there were a fewwho were brave enough to admit that there were some mysteries cold, rational thinking could not sufficiently explain.

It’s been said that the ‘New Atheists’ (is that the same as ‘New Labour’ or “new Windows operating system”?) are every bit as intolerant in their atheism as religious fundies are in whatever religion they subscribe to. They certainly have an equal amount of smugness about it, that’s for sure. I mean, what’s the difference between David Baddiel’s blanket statement that people who profess a faith are “all wrong” and the ranty Imam who labels all non-Muslims “infidels”?

Derren Brown made a passionate argument for people to be kind to those around them – not just at Christmas, but all year round. The advantage atheists had over religious people, he said, is that religious people did good deeds because they expected a “reward from God” whereas atheists didn’t have any such carrots to motivate them, and so had purer motives for the acts of kindness they did. Sounded good at first – but then he had to go and spoil it by mentioning the “benefits of kindness”… and it was then that you realised that he was basically preaching Karma without the Buddhism. Derren, you say “benefits” and I say “rewards from God”. Tomayto, tomato…

Having said that, some of the contributions made me wonder whether religion (Christianity in my case) wasn’t partly to blame for people’s unbelief – and no, I’m not referring to that lame joke about Dawkins being the second biggest cause of atheism in Britain after Cliff Richard (and on the subject of lame jokes: Richard Dawkins, stick to science and leave comedy writing to the experts. That Jeeves & Wooster skit was terrible). I found myself feeling for Derren Brown when he said he’d been a Christian for many years, but had packed it in because he’d found himself unable to defend his faith intellectually as he had wanted to. The un-intellectual (sometimes anti-intellectual) streak I find in some Christian circles bothers me too, but I’ve stuck with it. I even found myself agreeing with something Richard Dawkins said: that Jesus taking the punishment for sins he hadn’t committed himself “just doesn’t add up.” It doesn’t – but then, forgiveness and love (and the things people do for them) have never “added up”.

On the other hand, I found AC Grayling’s claim that “once you’ve achieved a few major things in your life, you have less of a need for a God figure” seriously lacking. Four years ago, I met Dr Charles H Townes. For anyone who doesn’t know who he is, Charles Townes is a Nobel Prize-winning American scientist, credited with the discovery and development of the laser. In the 80s (at the height of that USA vs. Russia who-can-wee-the-highest contest we called the Cold War), he helped persuade then President Ronald Reagan not to flood the planet with strategic nuclear weapons, as he was being advised to. Those are pretty big achievements by anyone’s standards, yet Dr Townes had an active Christian faith – a faith he still holds on to now, well into his 90s. And let’s not forget Desmond Tutu, who’s still a bishop in spite of his Nobel Peace Prize and other accolades. Maybe “achievement” is just relative…

I received quite a few responses when I reviewed the launch for a Christian magazine. Many of them were positive (and that’s always good to have), but a lot of them simply parroted the usual cliché responses Christians come out with whenever stuff of this nature is discussed: “They would never say things like this about Mohammed”, “Why do they hate Christianity so much?” – you know, the usual…

Here’s the thing (at least, “the thing” as I see it). This martyr mentality isn’t doing Christianity any good, and statements like that only serve to prove that we’re a bit too self-absorbed and not really listening to what’s going on around us. The so-called ‘militant atheists’ aren’t singling Christianity out; they’re opposed to ALL religions. So yes, they do say ‘things like this’ about Mohammed. And about Vishnu. And G_d. And Shiva, The Force and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Enough with the whining already – and can we please have one Christmas without any complaints about shopping malls not having Christmas trees, or someone resurrecting that urban myth about some council somewhere trying to change the holiday’s name to ‘Winterval’? (It’s not true. I’ve checked). This whiny victim mentality does nobody any good; it just trivialises the very real persecution Christians face in places such as Sudan, Eritrea, Burma, North Korea and Turkmenistan.

Happy Christmas, whoever you believe in (or don’t)…