Thursday, 1 December 2016

Friday, 24 June 2016

On The UK Referendum ... and its Result.

Well, David Cameron and his cabinet of privileged bubble dwellers have masterminded another stroke of shear genius, their own undoing! Or have they, perhaps, been so clever with their PR machine, that this is the result they actually wanted all along? Will they yet steal victory from the jaws of defeat, by turning their devious attention on furthering their own interests, knowing full well that they can say: "Well the people of this country voted for this, so this is what we must do!"..?

What is clear to me is that their own arrogance over the past six years has unleashed a massive backlash from a population of people who are clearly fed up, but, perhaps because of the state of political democracy, are also feeling a little rudderless. It occurs to me from the figures that it cannot simply be about the immigration issue on its own; there must have been some deep, considered thinking going on in households across the UK beyond the misleading sound bites ... or has there? Has there? 

Or has a crucial proportion of the UK's electorate simply allowed itself to be ruled, nay possibly manipulated by an emotional response to what is a game changing vote, with what must be a record (72%) turn out? Have the 'Leave' voters allowed themselves to be swayed by a desire for change, for the sake of change, from the relentless poor bashing' self-serving policies of a right wing elitist government? Have they allowed themselves to be moved to roll down their protectionist shutters in the belief that we will 'take back control'? Have they missed some crucial facts about the benefits of our membership of the EU? 

Have they missed the fact that, and I quote from a statement by Professor Michael Dougan, a leading light at Liverpool University, who is an acknowledged expert on EU Law: "a significant majority of the foreign nationals living in the UK (2/3 at the last national census), and over half the net immigration each year, come from outside the EU". Professor Dougan also says: "as regards those EU nationals who come to the UK: it is completely dishonest of prominent Leave campaigners repeatedly to claim that there is some sort of unconditional right to move to and settle in another Member State" ... that (my words) they presume will continue after our severance from the EU. And "Against that background, it is unsurprising to find that – according to all the objective social science research – EU migrants are significantly more likely to be younger, better qualified and economically active; they pay far more into the country in work and taxes than they take out in public benefits or services".

The full text of Professor Dougan's statement on European migration and the further link to his full talk on the legal aspects of our membership of the EU are to be found here.

The only objective thing I feel can say about the result of the UK Referendum, at this moment in time, is that it has engaged 72% of an electorate, a significant proportion of which is normally thoroughly disengaged from the political process. I also note that this referendum has effectively been conducted using proportional representation! I wonder what the result of the last general election would have been with a 72% turn out? I wonder what it would have been under proportional representation? There is a clue here, from those who habitually do not vote in local and general elections, that, perhaps, just perhaps the system needs changing! 

There is only one certain thing that will ... that would ever have ... come out of the vote to leave. It is that the future is very uncertain! At least more uncertain than if we had voted to Remain a member of the EU. These are very worrying times.

One last thought: the legal profession now have the unenviable task of disentangling ourselves from European Law and redrafting UK law! Well, perhaps it is enviable for your employment prospects, if you happen to be a lawyer, who specialises in European Law! What now for those European Laws that have come about as a direct result of our membership of the EEC / EU over the past forty years? Those laws that help protect our environment, help keep our food safe to eat, that give us employment rights, maternity leave etc. etc..?? What of all those charitable, cultural and caring organisations that rely on EU funding for their livelihood? In whose hands will this rehashing of UK laws be placed? Not the UK parliament, because they will simply not have the time and resource to digest and redraft the gazillions of pages of legal documents that cover a generation's worth of legislation! Legal groups appointed by government, manned by private lawyers, corporate lawyers ...?

What now!? One thing for sure that you can count on: we will not be better off. The 190 Million per week (NOT 350 Million) NETT contribution to the EU will not be available to find its way into the NHS and other public services, not least of all because, if the leaders of the Brexit campaign have any say in it, the NHS will be dismantled faster than the current government was attempting to dismantle it! And it is going to cost us to negotiate trade deals with other nations, country by country. 

Why in God's name, apart from to satisfy personal political ambitions, did we waste all this valuable time and money in holding a referendum in the first place!? What do we really hope to achieve by this separation!? I guess God only knows! 

Sunday, 10 April 2016

A Mass for Peace

I spent the first part of today marshalling a walk for Barnsley Hospice at Wentworth Castle this morning. Not that I wasn't also sparing thoughts for those who have been unfortunate, yet fortunate enough to have benefitted, directly or indirectly, from the services of a hospice, but I couldn't help but reflect on how much of an assault on the senses Karl Jenkins' "The Armed Man", a Mass for Peace, represents. Such an experience for the over one hundred members of Waldershelf Singers and Stannington Mixed choirs, who performed this powerful hour long piece last night!
I'd like to say I am thankful that I went to the Victoria Hall in Sheffield to witness this. Even though I am very familiar with this piece and have heard it many times over the past few years, last night It moved me more than I could ever have expected; and this is simply because it was performed so very, very well. I am feeling very proud to have been and still to be associated with the Waldershelf Singers and many of the performing musicians and singers. The fact that Waldershelf Singers' musical director, who conducted this performance, almost broke down at the end out of shear emotional exhaustion, is testament to the fact that this piece of music is undeniably a powerful tour de force; so well done Rachel! This was your own tour de force. Soloists: Hilary Osborn, Emily Doreen Atkinson, Daniel Timmins, Thomas Baycroft; to the musicians of the Inyerface Arts group: Joseph Shaw, Jack Chapman, Martin Thiselton and several other key and talented musicians; the back stage and front of house crews, Steve Osborn, Emily Needle and MANY more! Such a huge effort for a production that raised a lot of money for Contact the Elderly and British Red Cross. 
As a postscript, of course, it cannot be forgotten why this piece of music was written at the turn of the millennium, at the end of a century dominated by the most distructive of wars. We are also in the midst of the centenary commemorating the first of those wars, WW1. Karl Jenkins intention was to embrace all faiths and religions of the world, not forgetting the presence last night of an Imam from the Sheffield Mosque, who 'sang' the second movement, the Call to Prayers. These aims are very much in keeping with those of the Bardo Group, founded by G Jamie Dedes ... reminding us of our need to rise above the polarisation of politics and religion across the world.
I leave you with this ...

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Fortune Favours the Bold ... and the Fortunate!

Of all the songs that I remember Joan Baez singing, there is one that I always recall first ... "There But for Fortune". Written by Phil Ochs, but made famous in 1964 by herself. Have a listen to the simple but effective lyrics ... 

Several events this year have reminded me, poignantly, how much we are at the mercy of fate. Whatever we do to try and gain and retain control of our lives, there are times when we cannot possibly achieve that. We may all suffer bad luck from time to time, but, fortunately, for many of us, we will escape severe, life changing misfortune.

Since the beginning of this year, my wife has lost a close, career long friend at far too young an age; my son and daughter-in-law lost their baby, Samuel, at four weeks of age; my daughter lost a baby at thirteen weeks gestation; my niece's husband, whilst doing something as inconsequential as cleaning out their refuse bin, slipped a disk in the lumbar region of his spine.

But this was no ordinary slipped disk! Mark suffered the severest slippage the senior surgeon reported that he had ever seen! His medical condition is referred to as 'Cauda Equina Syndrome'. He spent over four months in hospital, for more than half of which he was at that world renowned centre of excellence in spinal injuries, Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England. He is now home, but in a wheel chair and, for short distances on crutches. He is a sporting, physically fit young man in his early forties. He is also very bright, but occasionally under confident and inclined not to push himself forward, which is partly why I am writing this now. I think he is also inclined to underestimate his abilities and his value. He and my niece have two children, a boy of three and a girl of nine years old. Mark has lost substantial motor and sensory response in his left leg, whilst his right leg is barely half way useful. He cannot even stand without support.

We called in on Mark on Friday, and he has clearly adopted a remarkably positive attitude. He is very busy trying to organise and sort out the rest of his life, along with Sarah, his extremely hard working, very supportive and utterly dedicated wife. Their attempt at getting some expected assistance from Social and Occupational Services, with the sort of equipment that he will need to resume his life at home, met with little or no help at all. Had they not been advised to push a little harder and complain, we might have assumed that this would be one more depressing impact of the 'austerity' that is so badly affecting the needy across the country. 

The response to the complaint met with a better response and some basic equipment has been provided, like a ramp to get in through the front door and crutches. This is beside the fact that he is a 'patient for life' at Stoke Mandeville and can therefore call or visit them anytime, albeit by appointment, to seek help from their expert outpatient team. But they are a three hour round trip away from Stoke Mandeville. 

Underneath the positive facade, there is the occasional glimmer of a young man haunted by flashes of disbelief and he himself admits he does regularly suffer those moments. 

I am posting this because I feel very fortunate ... and because Mark and his young family have not been. It is becoming very clear that Mark will still need to raise funds for equipment to give himself a chance of recovering and making adjustments to life with a revised set of abilities. One of the (many) objectives is a FES (Functional Electrical Stimulation) machine. The FES is rather like a TENS machine, only bigger. This is designed to tackle significant muscle wastage, which is particularly prominent in his left leg, and is having all sorts of side effects. One side effect is that the muscles and core support in his back are suffering an imbalance, which, apart from causing pain, will affect his mobility and his morale, and does threaten additional problems that he can really do without. The FES machine is relatively new in the UK and, you've guessed, expensive. 

Amongst the activities that are most likely to motivate him, Mark is intent on maintaining his involvement in sport. He used to enjoy football (and did some coaching at a local school), squash, badminton and, perhaps his first love, golf. He may not be able to involve himself in these again, in the same way, but he has talked to the wheelchair basket ball fraternity and, as luck would have it whilst he was at Stoke Mandeville, he was able to watch the Para-Badminton World Championships at the Guttman Sports Stadium (adjacent to Stoke Mandeville Hospital) and to meet and talk with some of the competitors. Professor Ludwig Guttman was asked by the government in 1943, to establish the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and is credited with being the founding father of the Para-Olympic movement in the 1950's, which started out as the Stoke Mandeville Games.

An additional challenge for Mark is that viable clubs around the country are few and far between. A common story seems to be one of how hard disadvantaged people have had to fight (and pay) for their desire to be involved in their chosen sport, let alone for equipment they need to live any kind of of normal life. 

To this end, Mark's squash club, the Hinckley Squash & Racketball Club, have set up a JustGiving fundraiser for him, having expressed in their mission (on the JustGiving page), that they want to help to buy Mark the right sort of equipment to enable him to participate in sport. In the words of the the Club, the value to Mark in both physical and psychological terms, is massive! The Club have organised a 24-hour 'Squashathon' starting at 7pm (GMT) on Friday, 16th October and finishing at 7pm on Saturday.

It might help to read the explanations under the following headings, lower down on the right hand side of the JustGiving page: "What's the problem we're trying to solve?"; "Why do we care about this?"; "How will the money be spent?" and "When will the supporters see the difference?". I think this effort by the Club reveals chiefly how popular and how much liked Mark is as a person, not to mention his skills as a sportsman. 

The JustGiving appeal page is here: 

For those, who love sport and were fortunate enough to be active in it, but who have been so quickly disadvantaged in the middle of their lives, Sport is truly a lifeline. It is easy to see why and how the Paralympics have become so important and so popular.

I applaud the spirit and courage of both Mark and Sarah and our thoughts (and actions when you need them) are with you always.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

A Weekend in the Heart of the British Barbershop World

As I sat looking out over the bay in Llandudno, late on Sunday afternoon in the last weekend of May, I was struck by
Venue Cymru, overlooking the bay at Llandudno
with the grand Venue Cymru on the right.
the darkening grey skies, threatening rain as they had done for most of that day. What was most striking of all, though, was my mood. Influenced as we Brits are by the state of the weather, it occurred to me that I was, at this particular moment, quite the contrarian. No kind of weather could have dampened my spirits that weekend.

The location was the Venue Cymru, the venue, this year, for the British Association of Barbershop Singers National Convention in 2015, a meeting of all the greatest musical minds, voices and hearts that this nation's barbershop community can muster ... and a good deal of talent from a few other musical communities for good measure. To be singing in this kind of company may be fine enough, but to be singing with the Chorus, Hallmark of Harmony, who were and, it could be argued, still are the best in the UK, is something else altogether! 

We arrived on the first day of a four day fest, to perform as current gold medal champions in the Friday night show in the theatre that seats 1,500 or more and it was to a capacity
The Theatre at the Venue Cymru
audience. Our opener was a new arrangement, by our resident genius, Sam Hubbard, of an intro appropriately called "Overture", a song with a touch of show business parody, set the pace. Next, two songs, new to Hallmark, were that Marvin Gaye classic, "I Heard it Through The Grapevine" - voted recently the best ever Motown song - and the towering not to mention drama filled, David Wright arrangement of "The Impossible Dream". We finished with the competition set, which we will take to the International Convention in Pittsburgh at the end of June: the Rogers and Hart, Adam Reimnitz arrangement of the 
beautiful ballad, "My Romance" and our up-tune, that Hammerstein, Harbach and Kern song, to an arrangement written specially for Hallmark by the remarkable Liz Garnett, "I Won't Dance". 

The Arena at the Venue Cymru
As if that wasn't enough, we were treated the following day, to some magnificent singing in the Chorus competition, aimed at finding out who, out of thirty-six entrants (fewer than the forty-eight that competed last year), would  be the pretenders to Hallmark of Harmony's crown. Because current champions are not allowed to compete the year following their triumph, we did, however, perform a shorter set starting with Grapevine, at the end of the chorus competition in the Arena that evening. They call it the 'mic cooling' session. We had also asked the bank of twelve - yes, TWELVE - judges to score us privately, to check where we are, so to speak. For reasons of propriety and etiquette, I cannot tell you what that score was, nor where it would have placed us, had we been competing this year, but suffice to say we were very, VERY pleased with the result ... the winners of the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals were Bristol's very impressive Great Western Chorus, Bolton's Cottontown Chorus, who have been great supporters of our efforts this year, and Nottingham's Grand Central Chorus, whose up-tune was an ambitious and, in my view, a magnificent take on The Wizard of Oz. They were all very worthy medalists.

Some of the boys of Hallmark after their
Mic Cooler, waiting for the results ...
As a footnote to the chorus competition, and the winners in particular, we had noted the flattery in Great Western's up-tune, which was a parody of barbershop singing. In the concluding passages of this performance, there was a very deliberate and obvious imitation of some of the moves in Hallmark's own performances, which were considered to be innovative and ground breaking in the barbershop world. So in the hour's warm up before our own performance as mic coolers, we slotted in a small and subtle change to one of our own moves in "I Won't Dance" as a return compliment. It was noted, with a few whoops of appreciation! 

On Sunday morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed, we were scheduled to have a coaching session with the music team of the best chorus in the world, current international Gold medalists from Texas, Vocal Majority (apparently there's a long waiting list of budding singers wanting to join them, not surprisingly it turns out). However, far from being a quiet coaching session, it turned out to be a Masterclass held under glass in the Hall at the Venue Cymru, to a capacity audience, standing room only. And what a session it was! So much of value came out of this, not least a little moment towards the end of the hour-long masterclass. Following a suggestion from VM's Musical Director about how we might sing a part of the tag (the closing dramatic section, aka the coda) in "I Won't Dance", the way in which we responded to this suggestion brought a spontaneous whooping and applause from the (albeit very knowledgeable barbershop) audience before we'd even finished the song! Lump in throat moment.

If it were possible to cap this, going to see the Vocal Majority perform their own show in the Theatre, on Sunday afternoon did this. At one minute, hugely entertaining, the next stirring, watery eyed moments. Shear class. This is what we are aiming for!

And later that afternoon, the final of the quartet competition. Four of the six finalists had Hallmark members singing with them. And the Gold medalists, who seemed to be genuinely far more surprised at the result than most of the audience, our very own Tagline, comprised entirely of Hallmark members, present or recently past ... and maybe just about to rejoin us. Very well done to them and to our own bass section coach, Rob Foot, who is the anchor of that winning quartet.

In conclusion: I ask myself how much have I learned about singing in the past few months since joining Hallmark of Harmony? The answer is: "loads!".  And how much more have I got to learn? ... Loads!!  

Only one musical instrument made an appearance throughout the weekend, perhaps the cheapest and most amazing instrument that ever existed, the human voice. A perfect contribution and conclusion to the musical experiences that contributed to my mood last weekend ... and not a metaphorical cloud in sight.

We'll be back for this next year!