My all-time favourite interview

“So what’s the best interview you’ve ever done, then?”

Just about everyone who interviews people for a living gets asked this at some point, usually at dinner parties after you’ve just volunteered information about your job to whoever you’ve just been introduced to in the name of ‘small talk’. It sounds innocent on the surface – and I’m sure that the person asking it means no harm by it – but it can be quite a loaded question.

How do you measure “best”, exactly? The most famous person? The most powerful? Most infamous? Or just the interview you were happiest with when you did it (for technical reasons that mean nothing to the civilian questioning you)? And it’s always funny when you mention a name and get a blank look and a “never heard of him/her, mate” in return…

But I digress. I have been asked ‘that question’ (or some variant of it) enough times to pay for a holiday in Cuba if each questioning had been accompanied by a tenner (maybe I should charge?). The answer tends to surprise people, because most people know me for music journalism and the subject of my all-time favourite interview is not a musician. So who is this mystery person?

Well, since you ask – my most favourite interview out of all the hundreds that I’ve done is the one I did with (drum roll): Charles H Townes.

If you’ve just said “Charles who?” you’re not the first person to. No worries…

Charles Hard Townes
Charles Hard Townes

There are a ton of reasons why this is my favourite interview. Back in my school days, I was inclined more towards science subjects than the arty stuff I’m into now, and having the privilege of spending half an hour chatting to one of the modern world’s most eminent physicists kinda took me back to those days at some level. Then there was all the history. THIS MAN INVENTED THE LASER! How could meeting someone like that be considered anything less than ‘absolutely awesome’? And he played a part in making Threads and the Day After not come true. Again, what’s not to like? (I do realise that at this point, I’ve probably lost everyone under 25 who’s reading this. But those of us who lived through the 80s can remember how much effort the media put into putting the fear of God – or rather, of nuclear war – into us).

But above all, I liked this interview because it gave me a picture of how I want to be when I’m, er, older than I am now. Retirement is a concept that I’ve never really grasped. That could be because of the nature of what I do; I don’t get why I should hang up my pen or switch off my computer just because my 65th birthday’s here (and anyway, by the time the ConDems are through with us, the retirement age will be 80). When I met Charles, he was just a day or two away from turning 90, and yet he was as into science then as he was back in the 40s when he made the discovery that made him famous. I asked why he was still working and he replied, “I’ve never worked. I’ve just been having a good time!” The man was a living embodiment of why it pays to make a career/vocation out of the things you are most passionate about. And for that, he has my respect.

Charles celebrates his 99th birthday today. Initially, I’d planned on putting my interview with him online on his 100th birthday. But then I thought, why wait? And so, here it is: my all-time favourite interview. And happy birthday, Dr Townes…

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Things I’ve learnt (or been reminded of) during my time in Barbados

So – Ive barely unpacked my bags, having arrived back home from my first ever trip to a Caribbean island. I’m halfway through writing a “seeing Bajanland on a budget”-type piece that will be up later. But for now, here’s a list of random things I either learnt or was reminded again of during my trip to sunny Barbados:

  • “In these harsh economic times.” How many times did I not hear that phrase during my time in Barbados? Thing is, the phrase “trouble in Paradise” is very much a reality for a lot of Bajan people. Kudos to them for their resilience in rising above it whilst acknowledging its existence – and for their humour in the face of it.
  • ‘Caribbean Time’ really is a thing. When you’re in the Caribbean, just go along with it. No point in making your time here a stressful one…
  • ‘I do not get lost’ is a worthy rule of life to live by. And there are ways of avoiding getting lost when in an strange land. Not being afraid to ask for help is a big one…
  • Don’t be afraid to try new things.
  • Free wifi is your friend (except, that is, if you’re an easily distracted writer with a deadline).
  • In many ways, Barbados is SO like Sierra Leone, it’s unbelievable.
  • Nothing is wasted.
  • The human body is a battery. And the sun is an ideal charger for it.
  • That ‘battery charger’ thing above also applies to the mind.
  • I can swim in just about any depth of water.
  • Perception is a funny thing.
  • Life – it really is an adventure.
  • Solar power and iPads don’t get on well together.
  • Age really ain’t nothing but a number. And sometimes your body and the years you’ve lived in it simply do not match.
  • Life is a gift. Enjoying it might not always be an option available to you, but making the most of it always is.
  • Anthony T. Barrow is an awesome poet.
  • It’s fun to explore.
  • People are great (when they’re not being complete poo-buckets, that is).
  • There are white people with Bajan accents. Don’t look so surprised…
And another thing: Everyone should see a Bajan sunset at least once in their lifetime.
And another thing: Everyone should see a Bajan sunset at least once in their lifetime.

 

Rules, resolutions and screwing up (aka “the blog post wot I’ve just wrote”)

There’s a poster stuck on the wardrobe in my bedroom; one of those ‘motivational’ things that do the rounds on TwitFace and other such places. I first came across it via our fundraising manager at work, who had it on the wall in front of her desk. It’s a list of 29 ways to stay creative.

29_ways_to_stay_creative_by_edhallNothing on the list is particularly new, but two things stuck out for me – so much so that they’ve formed the basis for the closest I’ll get to a New Year’s resolution for 2014. I say ‘resolution’; it’s not so much a resolution as a rule of life I intend to live by.

Along with tips such as “sing in the shower”, “dance” and “drink coffee” (no urging needed on that front!), the poster also urges you to “allow yourself to make mistakes” and to “quit beating yourself up”. It’s from these two that I’ve derived my rule of life for 2014. You could sum it up in three words: DEATH TO PERFECTIONISM.

We’re all our worst critics. As someone put it at a creative writing workshop I once attended, “We’ve all got that little demon sitting on our shoulders, telling us we’re crap”. Well, I’m done listening to mine. Done with expecting to get things right at my first attempt, and especially with getting frustrated and angry when I can’t pick something up. Of course I’m going to do my best and aim to do well at stuff, but no-one ever gets something completely right first time round (or second, or even third). Stressing yourself out over it helps nobody.

So, with that in mind, George Luke is hereby permitted:

  • to play as many bum notes as possible in piano class. In fact, invent a few new bum notes and play them too. Haruko and Sara won’t mind…
  • to be as ‘dos pies izquierdos’ as one can possibly get in salsa class. After all, as Etian says, “It’s just a move”. You will get that ‘setenta like an octopus’ right eventually…
  • and to get as many words wrong as possible when parleing Francais or hablando Espanol – or having a go at any other language I decide to learn (and anyway, no mistake I make could ever top “I had boobs for breakfast” or the infamous BSL ‘tent incident’).
  • As for writing – well, it goes without saying that it’s all about the rewriting, and that the first draft of anything is pants. So just get on with it.

typoDo feel free to adopt this as your New Year’s resolution, if need be. And remember – if at first you don’t succeed, breathe slowly and do it again.

Happy new year.

Film review: ‘the Quickener’

The time has comeBirmingham, Saturday 21 September, 8.10pm: My train home leaves in an hour, and I’ve decided to spend my last few minutes in our second city doing a brief review of the film I’ve just been to see in the Midlands Arts Centre. I find myself fired up, having spent an afternoon in a cinema full of very talented, slightly Bohemian people. They included Joel Wilson, director of the short film The Quickener (whose premiere is taking place here) and various members of the cast and crew.

Joel Wilson, the director
Joel Wilson, the director

The Quickener is one of those films that would leave people scratching their heads and muttering “Yeah… right” if you tried to explain it to them. It’s set in Medieval times, but the entire dialogue is done in a hip hop style. That’s right – Medieval hip hop. With a poor artisan couple on the run from a loan shark who speaks something akin to Parseltongue (for which he needs one of his heavies to act as his translator), corrupt officials, a power-hungry gangster and a friendly hermit, this is really an urban street movie with chain mail. And bubonic plague…

Osbert, a struggling artisan. Very good at sculpting scary statues. A bit broke.
Osbert, a struggling artisan. Very good at sculpting scary statues. A bit broke.

Joel got the idea for the film from another project he’d been

Tipharah, Osbert's missus. You don't want to mess with her when she has a sword in her hand...
Tipharah, Osbert’s missus. You don’t want to mess with her when she has a sword in her hand…

asked to work on. He’d written an epic poem about a gargoyle being decommissioned, so to speak, having lived on a church wall for about 600 years. Writing about the gargoyle’s last day on the wall, he wondered, What would its first day have been like? Cue a fantasy tale about a poor sculptor and his wife – who, having been commissioned to make the gargoyle, then being told on completion of the job (and a huge debt incurred in the process) their services were no longer required, and that they wouldn’t be getting paid for the job they’d done. It’s only half an hour long, but it’s a very fascinating half hour, full of passion, tension and quite a few dead bodies.

"Hiss, hiss, hiss" (translation: "We'll cut off your fingers")
“Hiss, hiss, hiss” (translation: “We’ll cut off your fingers”)

Life begins…

My home during Greenbelt. A man's got to camp in some style...
My home during Greenbelt. A man’s got to camp in some style…

This time last week, I was at Cheltenham Racecourse with a few thousand other folk, taking in (and contributing to) the 40th annual Greenbelt festival. The first one since 1995 or thereabouts that I haven’t attended as a member of the Press (although I was on reporter duty for Surefish and did do some festival coverage for them). This was my fourth year of being involved with Greenbelt as a volunteer, and I’m still learning a lot about the inner workings of this crazy festival I’ve been a devoted fan of since 1990 (as those who’ve seen the interview with me in this year’s festival programme will tell you).

In some ways, ‘#GB40’ (as it’s known on Twitter) was a smaller Greenbelt than usual. Cheltenham Racecourse is in the early stages of major renovation work and parts of it are yet to recover from the almighty flooding that made last year’s Greenbelt so ‘memorable’. As a result, the festival site was shrunk a bit. That, coupled with the fact that some of the regular traders had either gone out of business or stopped doing festivals, meant that a few regulars from previous years – Nuts Cafe, for example – weren’t around this year (it probably also explains why Higgledy Pies ran out of my favourite mash so quickly – but let’s not dwell on that).

Extra Curricular doing their 'thang' on Mainstage.
Extra Curricular doing their ‘thang’ on Mainstage.

But ‘smaller’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘of lesser quality’. And as far as the programme went, Greenbelt delivered goodies a-plenty. Both Extra Curricular and the London Community Gospel Choir were a joy to watch on Mainstage on Saturday (and as the DJ between the Mainstage bands that evening, I was privileged to see both gigs from side stage). Amadou & Miriam were great too – as were those mad folksters Folk On, the Austin Francis Connection (of whom, more later) and the ‘oldies’ who played each afternoon: the Fat Band, Fat & Frantic and Why? (I’m actually wearing my XL dark blue “Giggle, ‘cos it’s fun” T-shirt as I write this; a T-shirt that got completely soaked in cider on Sunday afternoon).

The LCGC 'bring it' on Mainstage, Saturday evening.
The LCGC ‘bring it’ on Mainstage, Saturday evening.

The line-up in the newly relocated Performance Cafe was just as great (not that I’m biased or anything) and included stellar sets from Eska, Eliza Carty, Jacob Lloyd, Daughters of Davis and a poetry showcase curated by Harry Baker.

As far as talks go, I found the short talks in GTV easier to get in to see than some of the others (I took one look at the queue for Vicky Beeching’s talk and knew I wasn’t getting in). I was able to see Sami Awad speak, and enjoyed a talk Catherine Fox gave offering an insight into the novelist’s craft – plus short talks from Andrew Howie, Sara Batts, Cieran O’Reilly, Steve Lawson, Vicky Walker, Jonty Langley and Jim Wallis.

I mentioned the AFC earlier. Their Sunday afternoon Mainstage gig was also their swansong, the band members having decided earlier in the year to disband. I interviewed founder and front man Edi Johnston for Surefish; you can hear an edited audio version of that interview – plus a few of their most popular songs – here.

The Austin Francis Connection: One Last Chat by George Luke on Mixcloud

My other jobs over the weekend included co-hosting a GTV talk show with Chine Mbubeagu, interviewing a few of the Israeli and Palestinian speakers at the festival. I also had another stint DJing at the silent disco in the Big Top on Monday night. I did record the set (mostly world music for the first two hours, plus some soul, some more Latin music, and a couple of what my rival DJ on the night described as “low blows”). The plan was to put that out on Mixcloud, but it appears that the audio file needs some work before I can do that.

Greenbelt, it was a pleasure celebrating your 40th. Life begins; let’s see what life has in store…

Tools of the DJ trade: my IDJ deck on the side of the Mainstage.
Tools of the DJ trade: my IDJ deck on the side of the Mainstage.
...and of course, one must always be prepared.
…and of course, one must always be prepared.

“Black traveller duty”

I’ve been on the road this past couple of weeks (in fact, I’m in a coach somewhere in Israel as I write this). I don’t get to do as much travel writing as I would like to, so I’m really enjoying this time – and there’ll be a few articles appearing in different places at some point in the near future. This short blog post sprang from an outtake from the diary I’ve been keeping whilst on the road. it’s about something I sometimes find myself having to do from time to time whilst travelling; something I call my ‘black traveller duty’. Let me explain…

Back at home, whenever I meet a Spanish or Latino person, I use the opportunity to practise my Spanish. Something similar happens to me when I travel to certain countries – and judging by stories I’ve heard, a lot of black people have had similar experiences.

‘Urban’ culture is a global phenomenon; no-one can deny that. One side effect of this is that as a black person trekking through foreign climes (especially countries not known for having large black communities), you will, sooner or later, meet a local who wants to ‘practise their Urban’ on you.

I normally don’t get offended when this happens; the people involved mean well and it’s usually light-hearted and certainly not mean-spirited. And anyway it usually amounts to nothing more than a daft handshake – like yesterday in Shef’amer, when I had to fist-bump a young Palestinian man who works in the restaurant I had dinner in. Sometimes, though, it does get a bit weird. In Turkey last week, a market trader in Turgetreis introduced himself to me as AJ – “A to the mother____ing J”.

Ah, well – it’s all good (strangely, no-one’s said that to me yet). And I should remind myself of this next time I meet Alvaro from Cali and want to launch into “Oye, hermano – como te gusta Londres?”

“Too many Latinos”

Yesterday I attended Day 1 of the Big Church Day Out – a two-day Christian music festival on the grounds of a stately home situated at the foot of the South Downs, on England’s South Coast.

One of my reasons for going was that Salvador were playing. I’ve interviewed their lead singer Nic Gonzales several times in the past (and also his wife, the singer Jaci Velasquez) and a follow-up interview was, in my mind, long overdue – especially since I’ve now kind of started playing in a Latin band myself…

A few days before I was due to see Salvador, the Internet threw me another good reason to want to speak to them. A certain right-wing commentator had decided to spew some bile on immigrants (again), and had written a column basically claiming that there were “too many Latinos” in the USA (I’m not even going to dignify such nonsense by naming the person or posting links to their writing; I suggest you google ‘too many Latinos’ yourself if you want to know who it is and what he/she/it wrote). And so when it came to my turn to fire a question at Salvador during their press conference, I knew exactly what I was going to ask.

“As a multi-cultural Christian band that plays Latin music, how do you respond when someone says ‘there are too many Latinos in America’?”

Step forward Nic Gonzales and saxophonist Craig Swift:

NIC: “I think that any time people talk about there being ‘too many’ of something, it’s spoken out of frustration. We certainly give grace where we believe grace would be given. People who speak that way have obviously come into a bad encounter with a person of Hispanic culture, or maybe they’re frustrated by something. Any time you’re overwhelmed, or feel like you have a lack of something, you’re looking for someone to blame.

“Being Hispanic is one thing. But being Christians overall, we certainly feel that grace needs to be given. Maybe they just don’t understand. Personally, those comments don’t hurt my feelings because I probably don’t dig into them as much; I kind of live in a bliss that I’m working as hard as I can, and I’m going to do the best that I can by my family and my bandmates. And I think that as long as I do that, I can certainly feel good about who I am and the colour of my skin.”

CRAIG: “As a white person, I think it probably offends me more than it would offend them [cue laughter from the Hispanic band members]. I think Chris (Bevins, the band’s keyboardist) would probably feel the same way. It kinda baffles my mind, the small thinking of some people.

“Being around Latin culture, as a white person I’ve gained a lot. I love how Latin people place such a high priority on family. It’s beautiful to me to see that. Loyalty is another thing I see throguhout the Latin culture. I think that’s something that we all gain a lot from. We all need to put more emphasis on our families. And we all should be loyal friends and loyal husbands and wives and churchgoers. So as a white person, I probably shoulder more offence and am in more of a ‘fight’ mood than these guys.” [cue more laughter]

Oh yeah – I also mentioned to the guys that I’d started playing in a salsa band, and asked if they could offer me some survival tips. Percussionist Alejandro Santoyo offered this advice:

“I would go back and listen to Santana. Listen to the rhythm section that’s going on; it’s very simple. as you start to listen to more salsa music, the montunos get more and more difficult. As far as percussion goes: if you have the rhythm here, and you learn the two different claves, you’re on your way.”

Muchisimas gracias, hermanos. And now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time I got some montuno practise in…

Salvador at their press conference. Nic Gonzales is second left (in the blue shirt); Craig is on the left. Alejandro is at the other end; on the right.
Salvador at their press conference. Nic Gonzales is second left (in the blue shirt); Craig is on the left. Alejandro is at the other end; on the right.