Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Police Road Blocks Around Christchurch

Last month I blogged what I felt was the likely timescale for the construction of a police state in the UK something the Blair government and now the Brown government seemed set on doing, for example through extending the period of detention without charge to 42 days. Maybe I was optimistic in how long all of this would take as today I encountered the first police checkpoint in the UK that I have been aware of since the Miners' Strike of 1984-5 when police had the right to stop anyone anywhere (including infamously in the Blackwall Tunnel in London, scores of miles from any coal mine) if they suspected them of going to a picket around a coal mine. What I encountered this evening trying to drive through Christchurch which I thought was in Hampshire, but it turns out is in Dorset, reminded me of the one-off TV drama 'Party Time' (1992) written by Harold Pinter and starring Barry Foster. It was set in the near future in which the UK is a police state and many of the guests coming to the party are delayed by police checkpoints. Time passes so quickly that it is odd to think that here in 2008 we are in fact in the 'near future' of people living in 1992, so I guess it should not be too surprising that some elements of that play have already come true. Pinter is an astute playwright.

Anyway, if you have to drive anywhere near Christchurch (and I only had to because an accident had blocked the main road I was taking West), my advice is do not. It may only be temporary but these evening there are police roadblocks on all of the main roads into the town and they seem to be stopping everyone. They are heavily staffed with ten officers at each checkpoint. I saw them with car boots open, they were clearly searching cars. When I questioned the officer he denied there was any terrorist activity in the area. That may be what they always say but more alarmingly, it may suggest that this is now 'normal' police behaviour around the town. I think I was particularly pulled over because people often mistake me for a Pole. Around 1 million Poles moved to the UK in 2006 and the number for 2007 was probably not much less. In the city of Southampton around 20 miles to the East of Christchurch with a population over 220,000, 10% of the people are now from Poland. There has not been any real racial tension, though I see a BNP (British National Party, a fascist party) candidates is standing in Bournemouth next door to Christchurch. This is outside the BNP's normal area of operations in East London and Lancashire, but may represent that they feel a way in there if there is racist behaviour going on.

Anyway, when the policeman spoke to me and heard my middle class English accent he let me go. This suggests that not only do we have roadblocks as normal behaviour in the UK now but that the actions taken at them (for example whether to search the car or not) depends on the nationality or ethnicity of the driver. So, I advise all drivers to stay clear of what seems to have become a mini-authoritarian state of Christchurch in Dorset and especially if you happen to be of East European origins (or, presumably, Middle Eastern extraction too given how obsessed the UK remains with al-Qaeda).

I always hope that when I see signs of the growing police state in Britain that they are an error, that Christchurch police had a slow day and decided to exercise their powers. Who can blame then when you find Poole Council (hang on, that is next to Bournemouth, is there some kind of testing ground for an authoritarian regime going on in South-West England) was using anti-terrorism powers to put surveillance on three families trying to get their children into a particular state school. Anyway, I hope these things are an error, but how many errors can you accept before you have to recognise that the police state is already here?

P.P. I did wonder why Christchurch should be the focus of such police activity and then I looked on the map and realised that it lies very close to Bournemouth Airport and in fact the road I had been diverted on to runs right to the airport. Furthermore, Bournemouth Airport (along with Prestwick Airport) has been one of the airports at which CIA rendition flights on their way to Guantanamo Bay have been stopping. So, though I still believe that the police state is creeping up on us quickly, in this case it looks like the British police were actually acting on behalf of the Americans. Presumably they suspected protests or something at the airport and were keen to keep people, that in their eyes looked suspicious, away from the location so as not to embarrass the Americans.

P.P. 16/08/2010: I have now found out that these road blocks are an annual event, we are told, simply connected with monitoring traffic flow.  Apparently, they are not mentioned on local radio or television traffic reports so that people do not alter their route to avoid them.  I also, found that I was in my rights to refuse to speak to them. Despite the presence of the police and their assistants wearing a kind of uniform and official badge, you are not at all obliged to talk to them, the best thing is simply to sit in your car with your window closed and simply look ahead.  Wait until they have finished with everyone else and then simply drive on when the car in front of you does.  In spite of these road blocks (and I will call them nothing else as they do block the road and prevent you driving on) being given an innocuous spin, I would ask why is one stretch of road, close to an airport used by the CIA checked year in/year out.  What is so significant about Christchurch, Bournemouth even, that needs such attention?  I could understand it better around Southampton, Portsmouth or Bristol, but two holiday resorts?  Maybe I have been lucky and have missed out on such other road blocks around actually important urban centres.  If you have encountered some let me know and we can start a list of the black spots and the time of year they are likely to have road blocks, for whatever reason we are told we need them.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Goths and Discrimination - Leading to Death 2

This posting is really simply to record that five boys were sentenced today for the murder of Goth woman Sophie Lancaster in Bacup, Lancashire on 11th August 2007. Brendan Harris aged 15 and Ryan Herbert, 16 both received life sentences and Harris must serve a minimum of 18 years and Herbert 16 years, the judge said. Three others were sentenced for greivous bodily harm: Joseph Hulme aged 17 received five years and ten months, Danny Hulme aged 16 received five years and ten months and Daniel Mallett aged 17 received four years and four months.

Robert Maltby, Sophie's boyfriend, the intial focus of the attack, and put into a coma for it is now terrified to leave the house. Adam Lancaster, Sophie's brother thanked people for their support. Sylvia Lancaster, Sophie's mother said justice could not be done because any sentence could not bring her daughter back.

The judge noted how the attack had been mindless and had stemmed from almost a kind of entertainment for the five boys. The only ray of hope is that these boys were caught and will serve long sentences and hopefully the message of the consequences of such violence will penetrate the thick skulls of other boys tempted to behave in the same way. However much these boys might have thought they were tough men, they never understood that forever they will remain boys, because a man keeps control of his emotions and does not use his strength to cause harm, especially in the name of entertainment.

You can find pictures of the five boys online and it is clear that they are chavs. Much has been made of the Chav-Goth conflict, but in general it has always been more talked about and imagined than carried out. It is about definitions of young people, the thuggish, brainless youth despising those with a little more brains and a lot more culture. It is about choosing between going with the crowd, increasingly into drugs, underage sex, binge drinking and violence from both sexes or choosing a more distinctive path in order to make your statement about who you are. The bulk of UK society no matter what age they are pick the Chav option and as a consequence British society is sick. It helps foster the evil in boys like Brendan Harris and Ryan Herbert and let us say their names but only associated with what they are: utter scum.

The killing of Sophie Lancaster has to be seen in the context of numerous violent deaths of young people in the UK, some of the most notable being the murders of Stephen Lawrence, Damilola Taylor, Rhys Jones but these are just a few of the most prominent. The internet and local newspapers are filled weekly with stabbings and kickings to death predominantly of young people. In one town I was staying in recently two young men were kicked to death in the same street on the same evening in separate incidents and this was a southern English resort town, not inner-city Manchester or London. In the UK you can now be killed for being keen on football, going to a library, being the 'wrong' colour, being gay, in the wrong place at the wrong time, glancing at someone, or dressing in black clothing and dark make-up and walking home with your boyfriend. These 'offences' are sufficient in the UK to warrant your death at the hands of multiple killers.

Yet these killers will lose, they will not stamp out the spirit of youth and the courage of people to live the life they want. Think of Sophie Lancaster and what she could have been and what she could have enjoyed. Use that sense to dismiss the moronic thugs who are trying to crush who so many people in the UK are. When you emerge from your homes visibly a Goth, feel her spirit with you and walk proud.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

No Surprise that Another Town Wants to Leave England

After commenting yesterday about the difficulties of having pride in England and last month on the town of Berwick-on-Tweed which announced that it wanted to become part of Scotland (which it lies very close to) rather than England it was interesting to note that a referendum in Audlem in Cheshire in North-West England the people voted to move the town into Wales. Cheshire does border Wales, but Audlem lies East of the A41, 10 miles (16Km) from the Welsh border and there is the city of Chester and towns like Oswestry which is pretty large, Malpas, Coddington and Tattenhall which lie nearer to Wales. An alternative suggestion was that the town become part of Shropshire and that that whole county move into Wales, though obviously that would need a far greater level of support. Most of the commentary seems to feel that Audlem's decision is just another example of English village eccentricity. However, as with Berwick, you may start asking why do these places want to leave England.

Just under 3 million people live in the whole of Wales, and 66% of these in South Wales, whereas Cheshire borders with northern Wales. Wales covers 20,700 Km2 compared to 77,925 Km2 for Scotland and 130,200 Km2 for England. Thus you could imagine that the people of Audlem would like to be a small fish in a much smaller pool. Whereas England does not have its own parliament, Wales has an Assembly which has powers in particular in the areas of social services and education, and as with Scotland its laws on such things are increasingly diverging from those of England. A third of the population of England lives in the South-East (about 18 million people if you include London) in an area almost the same size as Wales so you can see why people in the rest of England may feel overlooked. The key issue for Audlam is that services in Wales are better and cheaper. There are not prescription charges whereas in England they have just risen; you do not have to pay to park at a hospital in Wales whereas you have to pay a great deal to park at English hospitals. So as with Berwick it seems to be the costs that particularly affect the elderly that impinge greatest on which state people want to live in. There are other benefits of being in Wales university students do not have to pay the fees (set at £3000 at present but set to rise sharply) that they have to pay in England (Scotland has also scrapped them); the same goes for the SAT exams for 7-year old children which have also been abolished in Wales.

Wales has a rich culture. The number of people speaking Welsh has risen. In 1981 only 18.1% of the population (around 400,000 people) spoke Welsh, now with it being a compulsory part of the National Curriculum and with more programmes in Welsh it has risen to 21% (about 611,000 people). Wales has a rich musical and literary culture that many English would be happy to become a part of. The country was independent until 1282 when it was conquered by English King Edward I and in 1532 it was absorbed into England. Consequently the development of its laws has not differed as sharply from English law as those in Scotland have always done, so it is far easier for a teacher or a solicitor being transported from living in England to living in Wales to continue in their job without the need for retraining which would be the case if they moved into Scotland.

The point that seems to be being missed by the bulk of England, and by those of us who cannot leave this state for another (the nearest one to me would be France, we could return to the control of Normandy!) is why people want to get out of England. The stated reasons are all around social welfare policies. In England we have no way to protest about these through regional on English elections and we seem saddled with policies which are unpopular and hit the people who need help (the elderly and pupils/students) more than anyone else. I think this is partly due to the fact that the bulk of the super-rich of the UK actually live in England and are unfussed if Wales or Scotland adopt a more balanced educational or welfare policy but are loath to tolerate it in England. We already have campaigns for an independent Cornwall, which was absorbed by England in the 10th century and are you suprised. Wales and Cornwall would never be rich countries but they would have, no doubt more popular policies than England. When doing the posting on proportional representation I came across the Wessex Regionalist Party formed in 1974 which still stands in elections and pressed for an independent Wessex. Wessex is assumed to include the south-western English counties of Berkshire, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon and Somerset though historically in the 9th century it was expanded North and East. The WRP also include the Isle of Wight which at times has been part of Hampshire and recently included Gloucestershire to the North West and Oxfordshire to the North East into Wessex so fitting the 9th century picture.

Ironically attempts to get regional parliaments in England, an idea favoured by New Labour when it came to power in 1997 have constantly failed. Interestingly if the government continues to pursue policies that upset people in the average town or village especially those who do not border with Wales of Scotland may start reviving these old earldoms and kingdoms of England to give them a chance to adopt more amenable policies. As I suggested, there are enough patron saints of regions to adhere around culturally, for starters.

What would be a better approach, though, I believe is for the UK government to actually listen to the ordinary people in England rather than the super-rich and adopt policies which satisfy normal people. It is unfair that we should suffer bad policies which the Welsh and Scots have managed to escape from and it is likely that we as a consequence, despairing of any movement from the government towns across England are going to look for border changes to help them out.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

The Little Death that can Kill a Decent Life

The other day I heard that the term 'the little death' was applied to orgasms, and I will start by stating clearly that that is not what I will be discussing in this posting. My view is that the term refers to fear. Given that I am affected greatly by movie references, I probably gathered this from the movie 'Dune' (1984) in which characters refer to fear in this way. Maybe that is drawn from US culture (or given the nature of that film, Arabic culture). The premise of this posting is based on another movie quote, this one taken from 'Strictly Ballroom' (1992) in which a character says, apparently translating from Spanish, that 'a life lived in fear is a life half-lived'. Throughout my life I have aimed to shape my behaviour by such tenets and even the statement by Dolores Ibárruri ('La Pasionara'), a female Spanish politician and soldier who said in 1936 that 'the Spanish people would rather die on its feet than live on its knees' and this was translated into a statement for individuals as on the mural of 'La Pasionara' in Glasgow painted by Arthur Dooley 1971-7. I must say that throughout my life I have utterly failed to live up to any of those statements and in fact have always bottled out of even mildly challenging situations, to the extent that I have a phobia of seeing people embarrassed on television and will turn away or even leave the room.

I can speak in public, talk with strangers, but certainly am phobic of any circumstances even leading to mild embarrassment let alone humiliation. People also believe I am a pessimist, though as you will see from this blog I am very unfortunate in the number of minor things that go wrong in my life and the unnecessary hassle from people. This element is exacerbated by not being very co-ordinated so dropping and breaking things, even walking into furniture, doors, etc. and having a poor memory so I forget to do things and where I have left items. Writing all these traits out actually makes me feel less condemnatory of myself and actually recognise that it is quite an achievement to get through the average day at work.

Maybe it is not simply my fear of what could go wrong which has hampered my life, but that is the one element I can alert you to and encourage you to reflect on what a fear of embarrassment and/or failure might be stopping you doing. In addition, when doing the posting about songs that trigger off nostalgia for me, I recognise that a great deal of it stemmed from missed opportunities in my life. These fall into two broad categories, giving up on establishing relationships and not travelling.

I have always got on well with women and am told that when I write female characters in my stories they are done well. I have always had both male and female friends. Some of the latter, naturally I have hoped would turn into girlfriends. Astoundingly given my unattractive appearance and unpleasant scars on my body, I actually attracted quite a lot of interest from women.

When I was 10 I actually had a 'girlfriend' to the extent that we held hands and kissed each other on the cheek and called ourselves girlfriend/boyfriend to the extent that we knew what that was. We would sit together and play together at break time. However, 10 is too young and I had to endure increasing ridicule from other boys who at that age would have nothing to do with girls. If I had waited four years they probably would have been jealous. Helen was beautiful with lovely long black hair, pale skin and freckles and was very intelligent and had a spirit of adventure, but the ridicule kept me awake at night and I began to spurn her, having no knowledge of how to break off a relationship. She did not understand why I was behaving that way and I was grilled by her parents and my own. Fortunately she went off to a private school. I met her again nine years later, with the hair cut short, and apologised and of course she said it was nothing, her life had moved on a great deal and whereas I in my terribly introspective way still felt guilty for the upset I had caused her, for her it was by now a tiny element of her childhood days. The last I heard she had been in Japan for six years teaching English, suggesting she had retained her adventurous spirit, but that was probably 14 years ago.

That incident then stopped me asking a woman out ever again until I was in my mid-20s. I knew that I had little chance if I asked a woman out and that even if I was not humiliated by her, then I would be by other people or I would screw up the relationship and upset her. I also felt that any other man she would encounter would be preferable to her than me, so I would withdraw even in a basis of a relationship began whenever any other available man appeared on the scene. My feelings of not being able to get it right began fading in the mid-1990s when I was living in Oxford, but were totally reinforced by my treatment at the hands of two women I asked out there. The first rejected me because my job was as a civil servant earning only £8,500 per year and she was incredulous that I worked in such a job and made it clear she could not date anyone who did such a lowly profession. The second was worse. She felt offended that I considered myself to be worthy to ask her out and insisted angrily, via her housemates that I make an apology to her for doing so, in writing which I did.

Such incidents set me back ten years. There were women who were interested in me, but of course I always seemed to go after those who seemed to despise me for one aspect or another. At the time when I rejected advances from women I gave no thought to what impact I made on them I just selfishly thought about why I kept behaving in the same way and how I had avoided some imagined mistake I would have made that would have distressed the woman even further than my rejection. I guess for most modern women, being rejected by one man features very minimally in their life experiences, if at all, and that thought consoles me.

At the age of 16, having had six years with no sight of any relationship (bar some girls at school who when I appeared ill seemed to want to nurse me, not the sound basis for a teenage romance) there was Fahana whose political views were in step with mine (a rarity in my home district). Again, she was very attractive and intelligent, and for some reason and I cannot identify why I reacted so negatively whenever she came and sat near me and made it clear she wanted a relationship. I guess it had to come down to irrational fear, but that made me appear to be so badly behaved. I seemed to be a racist because I could give no rational basis for not wanting to go out with her and she probably felt rather rejected as she was a quiet soul and of course that was the last thing I would have wanted to make her feel, given as teenagers we were all feeling awkward and to some extent spurned by society.

I did not learn from that lesson. When I moved on to college there were a number of women I was interested in and may have been amenable to being asked out, but I could never do it. Then there was Liz, probably the biggest mistake of my life. She was a quiet but fashionable and to me appeared a sophisticated woman with her own style. We chatted easily and she asked me out three times, once via a friend and then twice directly. I do not know why but I always made excuses despite the fact that I was burning to go on even just one date with her. By this time I was 18 and was conscious that compared to the other male students around me I was inexperienced in the ways of women and I always feared I would be a disappointment. I imagine now that actually most of the other students both female and male were less experienced that I envisaged, but no-one tried to convince me of that at the time. Being no good at football in the preceding years at school I had fallen in with the nerds on computers and playing 'Dungeons & Dragons' so there were no friends around to encourage me with Liz. Fortunately after realising she was not going to get anywhere with me she moved on which heartened me a little.

The problem was that I missed yet another opportunity to get any experience in a relationship and time was beginning to run out as once you pass your early 20s no woman is going to pay attention to a man who at least has the basics of kissing, sex and being a reasonable partner. In fact the first woman I slept with was furious when she found out that I had been a virgin when I slept with her. To finish off my college years there was Heather but she was too obsessed with horses to have any time for men and I was not the only one rejected by her. All I got was some pleasant cycle rides home with her.

University followed the same pattern of me chasing unsuitable or disinterested women such as Belinda, Judy, Saskia yet at the same time, notably with Barbara and Rachel, ignoring until they had lost interest women that something could have started with. The one I messed up most with was Anneli, an initially shy woman two years below me, who quickly transformed into a sweet but trendy woman that I fell head-over-heels for. I kept doing odd romantic things that never really came off and that I never followed up. We even went on a date to a university ball, but when she encountered a male friend, I assumed that she would be better off with him and so left them. They did go for a walk by the lake afterwards, so maybe I read his signals better than I read hers. After I had moved on to Oxford she invited me back and it was clear she had a lot of male interest. She wanted me to stay the night, though not to sleep together, but I went home in the evening and wondered what would have happened if I had stayed. I recognise now that that was probably my romantic nature and nothing would have happened, I had screwed up any chance I had had the year before, probably bewildering the poor woman. I do search out these people occasionally online and found the only reference to her was that in 2002 that she had married a wealthy Oxford graduate from a family of admirals and scientists and property developers, so I hope life is treating her well.

Another was Gabrielle who I had met in Germany, a friend of the Liz on her way to Hungary who I mentioned in my last posting. Gabrielle was often in unsuitable relationships so unavailable, but when we both ended up in Norwich we were naturally friends and I ended up in a weird role where I would go shopping with her and do domestic things even buy crockery and household supplies, go to cafes as if I was her husband (or maybe I got it wrong and she saw me as simply like a female friend). Then when between relationships she asked me to stay the night, but knowing me, the minute I saw her contraceptive pills by the bed I ran off, fearful that my incompetence in sex would annoy her. Of course she might not have wanted sex anyway, but what I am saying is that fear stopped me even finding out or seeing if the kind of marital relationship could gain other aspects. Of course many relationships never get very far, you may have a few dates and it come to nothing, but two things: at least then you will know rather than wonder, and even one date is better than none at all.

To go to university with no sexual experience can be a disadvantage, to leave it with none is really too late. The next decade was very lean with me asking out a number of work colleagues and receiving polite rejections with sweet smiles and mad rushing up to women on the underground or in car parks and asking them out because I had been attracted to them in the queue in the supermarket, probably very scary for them. There was Kashifa, but she turned out very quickly to have very politically unsound views regarding Jews so I dropped her not only as a potential girlfriend but as a friend too. Illaria a seemingly very sweet woman who I loved from a distance at work until she revealed actually that she viewed me as very child-like, unsophisticated and the only interest she would expend on me was in a pitying way in order to teach me how to do something I was clearly incapable of doing. She saw all British very much in the same light anyway.

Things did not turn around until another Helen, this time in London. She was in an established relationship that led to marriage but a relationship between us developed, throwing her into doubt about whether she was naturally promiscuous and had been unaware of the fact and a whole lot more. We worked together and then lunched together and things grew from that. I knew a relationship with her would be immoral and I broke it off with her before anything physical developed though she had told me she had been thinking about it. It was not anything to do with pride about not wanting to be 'the other man', more I kept thinking about how I would feel if I was in her partner's position. Even then I bottled out sending her a letter breaking it off, but she ran into me on the way to postbox and it all came out. Her partner was incredibly good about it, unsurprisingly rather prickly, but his manner seems to have enabled him to have got through it and 13 years later they are married parents. The thing about this Helen was that she showed me that I had characteristics that could actually attract a woman, which I had been increasingly unwilling to believe and after her I got into dating agencies and so on and quite a few different dates and even short (sexless) relationships that stop loneliness. I think these days if I saw a woman I was attracted to I would have no fear of asking her out and certainly if one asked me I would not run away in fear, after all what is one date, the worst that can happen is that it goes badly, the best quite a bit more. Many women work on a 3-date principle, they actually have no interest in seeing you in the long-term but like to have 3 dates with you to have someone to accompany them to a restaurant/exhibition/movie they otherwise would not go to. After Date 3 is when things begin to shift either to a conclusion or the beginning of a real relationship.

So fear certainly screwed up my relationships, upset in the short term a number of women and meant that I was ill-equipped for being a male adult in the decades I lived through. Relationships can be fearful, but never turn your back on anyone who shows an interest in you. Many times it will not be the love of your life, but remember if you feel uncomfortable then they must feel ten times worse, go out with them you might have fun. I have found that the women I get on with best in relationships are always very different to the ones I expect so I recommend being open to all the sorts of women you might encounter. Adjust the gender in these sentences as appopriate for your orientation. If you really cannot bear to envisage going out with a person who asks or are attached and they are oblivious to the fact, be firm and snuff out any embers of hope straight off, but ensure you are tactful and polite, never be angry or demand an apology or treat them as if they were scum not fit to even be on the bottom of your shoe, they are only trying to make their way in life after all. See their interest as a compliment not some kind of insult.

The other aspect in which I feel my life was held back by fear was in terms of travel. In terms of disposable income I had far more at certain times in the past than I do now, yet worried about money I turned down invitations to attend weddings in South Africa, Malta and Germany which would have been interesting experiences and in the case of South Africa and Malta those are two countries I have never been to. Even when I was abroad my social unease and my appalling lack of ability with languages stopped me going to events, notably in Germany. Occasionally I would have flashes of courage as when really exploring Berlin's Goth scene and I can only attribute that to the warmth of the people I met on the scene. The only other occasion was in fact when I was at my poorest in that room over the chipshop when I simply set off on my bicycle to France and toured around the Nord, Pas-de-Calais and Somme departements stopping at youth hostels and in rooms over bars. I have no idea where the courage for that came from.

I know in the UK we get horror stories of people being killed or dying abroad but you can be run over in your own home town in the UK. Despite at the age of 24, paying to train to be teach English as a foreign language I found immediately that I had no courage to go abroad and try and get a job. It could have taken me anywhere, into Europe, to Asia, South America, even Africa if I had chosen, but I did not even get to Slovakia. I simply ignored all the jobs on offer that family members and friends passed on to me, saying that I was constantly rejected (in fact even if I had applied that may have been the case as even now I only get an interview for every 25 jobs I apply for and usually have to apply for over 120 jobs before I get one) but in fact I never applied for any of them and instead got a job moving furniture which paid £104 (€135; US$208) per week, which was bad even in the early 1990s. I worried I would be lonely in a strange country with people speaking another language, but in fact I was pretty much like that wherever I ended up in the UK (especially Milton Keynes). I know it would have been tough because I do not make friends easily and relationships as noted here were even harder, so I certainly would not have had the experiences of friends who met their future partners while teaching in France or elsewhere. Yet, at least I would have experienced a different life. I suppose the difficulties I experienced in West Germany with the authorities (I was almost drafted in the Army) where in fact I made loads of (British and Irish) friends probably also weighed heavily against me. Instead I lived at home with my parents and this added to the real sense that I had not really grown up which simply further undermined my ability to deal with women and life's challenges. I suppose you have to face some hardships and discomfort to mature (this is going to be a major problem for current schoolchildren even more cut off from the challenges of the real world as they grow up than even I was).

Even putting aside working abroad, in terms of going on holiday, fear of crime ,especially in Eastern Europe scared me off going to visit Prague and Budapest (both of which I really wanted to visit) let alone going into Russia in the late 1980s to the mid-1990s when things were all still changing. In fact when I heard from two younger women about their exploits unharmed through Russia in fact I felt even more humiliated that I had not done what they had done and came to the pig-headed decision that I could go nowhere without being totally robbed and murdered (I think scare stories on the television did not help), consequently I had only one holiday between 1990 and 1999 and that was in a house rented in Normandy for a week, hardly adventurous (when I went to Prague in 2003 with my work, I found it had far less crime than I had even seen in the UK and people were very friendly and I had a great time. Even then it was still incredibly cheap to stay, visit places and eat out so would have been ideal when I was on a student-sized budget). I once saw an advert on an underground station showing a dreary elderly couple saying 'we almost went to Istanbul once' and I used to take that as a warning to me. As the advert said, 'you never regret the place you have been only missing out on those you have never been to' or some such words. I have never been to Istanbul, St. Petersburg or Budapest.

I used to say it was my friends, all of whom were unadventurous and even more disorganised than me, so never sorted themselves out to get on holiday, bar that trip in 1995 to Normandy. They did not like 'roughing it' in the slightest and on the other hand I was never going to be as robust as my brother spending six months in an army truck going coast-to-coast West to East across the middle of Africa. I alway assume it is me who will get food poisoning, malaria, be robbed or shot. It might be but most of those things (bar malaria) certainly could happen to me here in the UK. I did have some bad experiences such as losing my inter-rail ticket in West Germany in 1988, but I got home quickly and safely, so even my much commented upon bad luck did not entirely ruin things. Trips to the weddings would have been even safer and yet at least exposed me to some other countries, people and cultures.

I regret the lost years of the 1990s when fear stopped me exploring more of the world at a time when I had the time to do those things and also could access discounts for young people. Instead I sat at home, bored and lonely watching programmes reinforcing my fears. Of course if I had found the right woman (any one of the two Helens or the Liz for Hungary would have suited admirably; though of course trips with a partner can severely strain relationships, I know one woman as a consequence who always leaves her husband behind and holidays with female friends) or even just some friends of either sex to go with it would have been very different, but I never mix with people who have any enthusiasm to stray outside the UK. Their fear is greater than mine I recognise or maybe it is simply disinterest and my problem has been the desire to travel and yet not having the courage to do so. Now it is too late as the Belgian fiasco proved. I recommend ignore all the media horror stories, get out there, see places, be the person that when you turn 70 you can say 'do you remember that time when we were in Istanbul?' and not be like me, resembling the dreary couple on the poster who never went anywhere.

This posting has been about facing fears, because they are the little deaths, they chip away at the potential richness of your life until what is left is a dull mundane thing which is not worth living anyway, a state, which as regular readers will know, I have got to. Asking out a couple of people each year, going on one decent trip per year, these are not great tasks, but they could lead to having a much richer existence and hence one that is worth living.

Songs/Tunes That Make the Hairs on the Back of My Neck Stand Up

I have been thinking about this posting for a while, in the way that, in the past, you would make up compilation cassettes (or, these days, ipod playlists) for your girlfriend. It is based on the fact that there are some songs or pieces of music that if I hear I will stop dead and listen. In those minutes I am swept away from wherever I am into a really nostalgic place which is rather timeless but generally looks back. They say that the sense of smell is the sense which most stimulates memories, but of course hearing can also do that and in fact given all the music around us you are more likely to hear a random piece of music as you turn on the car radio or walk past a shop or it comes on when you are in a bar, probably more often that you see, smell or taste something reminiscent.

I have tried to identify if there is a particular type of music which does this for me and I think there are some characteristics. The notes have to be long and either soaring or lingering. The theme of lyrics is usually about lost opportunities and are generally very wistful. While thinking about this posting I realised that if I had written it a few years ago I would have included a lot more songs and pieces of music. I think that, without realising, whilst I may not have a positive view of my future I have shaken off some characteristics that I had probably from my mid-teens to my mid-thirties. Throughout the period I had an immense amount of regret about many of the choices I had made in my life, especially in terms of relationships with women which I did not follow up or messed up right at the start, and, to a lesser extent regret about not having the courage to go and see places.

Obviously those regrets often combined with me imagining what it would have been like to have gone to some of these places with the woman in question. I always had a particular vision of picnicing by one of those long avenues of trees in the sunny French countryside, surrounded by green meadows and the sounds of birds with the woman I love and then hurrying back to the farmhouse where we are staying and scrambling into a huge brass framed bed to watch the thunderstorm outside. I am very stereotypically sentimental in these things. Of course I have learned that it is not always a good idea to go on holiday with a partner. I read this in 'The Guardian' in 2003 and the same day booked a holiday with my girlfriend of the time which ended in an utter fiasco as the article had predicted. I suppose dreams often do not feature practical concerns and yet we are willing to pursue them over what common sense might suggest.

Anyway, in that twenty years or so, I regretted so much of my past and had utter fear of the future. Nowadays I think weariness has taken over and the regrets have been worn down like marks on a rock over time, and I still fear the future but am just too tired these days to panic about it. So, in that phase many tunes pricked me to remembrance of mistakes I had made. Sometimes, as with so many people, it was because they were playing when the incidents were going on, they were to coin a phrase, 'the soundtrack to my life'. These days they have lost the power to stimulate nostalgia. That does not mean I no longer like the songs or music, but they do send me off spiralling into that cupboard of wistfulness in my mind.

Ones that have lost the power are ‘First Picture of You’ by the Lotus Eaters (1983) an explicitly wistful song about Summer days. 'Vienna' by Ultravox (1980), in fact a load of things by them, 'Passing Strangers' (1980), 'Visions in Blue' (1983), 'Lament' (1984) and 'Dancing with Tears in My Eyes' (1984) which has lost a lot of strength for me since we are no longer under threat of nuclear destruction. Ultravox, I feel intentionally tapped into that wistful sense especially with a kind of central-European film noir ethic too. The songs remain good and different from a lot of pop music of the time. Maybe I have shaken off that kind of art studenty ethic, maybe I should revisit the songs one of the wonders of YouTube is you cannot only hear the music again but see the videos you remember too.

'Golden Brown' by The Stranglers (1982) is another to have lost force, maybe through over hearing it. Other songs that have lost the impact include 'Real Gone Kid' by Deacon Blue (1988) which was tied to the time when I was living away from home and college halls for the first time and the 'never now' lyric I always misheard as 'living out' and the reference to 'all the old 45s' chimed in with the (unpaid) radio DJing I was doing at the time and the station had loads of old vinyl singles. Similary 'Everybody Hurts' by R.E.M. (1992) was out at a time when I was failing my course (from Spring 1993 onwards) and my future looked even more uncertain than usual (I moved into a room which was so narrow that I could touch both side walls simultaneously), but now just seems over the top in terms of sentimentality. 'In Dreams' by Roy Orbison (1963) was influential on me at the time I heard it in the movie 'Blue Velvet' (1986) and then Orbison's death in 1988. It is a very wistful song about lost love and again it seemed to fit with how my relationships went, but as time has passed I have become discontent with some of the lyrics notably 'the candy-coloured clown they call the Sandman tiptoes to my room every night' though it is probably still the only ballard that I know all the lyrics to by heart; similarly the movement through three octaves in Orbison's rendition of the song makes it impossible to sing along.

Other songs that had a strength on me in their time but lost it as life moved on include 'Never Let Her Slip Away' by Andrew Gold (1978) and ones from my really young years, notably 'My Sweet Lord' by George Harrison (1970/1), 'Yellow River' by Tony Christie (1970), 'Proud Mary' either the Creedence Clearwater Revival version (1969) or more likely the Ike & Tina Turner cover (1971). I suppose I was absorbing these off the radio in my youth even before I was very conscious of pop music and no doubt they take me back to those more innocent times, but more with a warm nostalgia rather than the goose-bump kind the other songs I refer to here do.

Some music and songs have retained the strength to kick me into reverie and those are the ones I discuss here. I will start with the music before moving on to pop songs.

O Mio Babbino Caro - from 'Gianni Scicchi' by Giacomo Puccini (1919)
Now, the first time I heard this piece of opera ('Gianni Scicchi' is the third in Puccini's 'Il Trittico' triology of one-act operas; Puccini lived 1858-1924) was on the soundtrack to the movie 'A Room With A View' (1985 - directed by James Ivory) which in itself, being set in late Victorian/Edwardian Italy and England, aspires back to a kind of golden era. The electric trams of Florence mentioned in the original novel by E.M. Foster written in 1908 and set contemporaneously, are removed from the movie to move it back a decade or to emphasise that element. There are lots of luscious rural landscapes and the story is a pleasant romance with some memorable scenes such as the kiss in the middle of the Tuscan cornfield. The movie divides critics sharply but for a romance it is popular with men, including myself.

Given the setting and the style, it is thus unsurprising that they used Italian opera on the soundtrack and this extract 'O Mio Babbino Caro' (Oh, My Dearest Papa') was already often played as a separate piece. Like most people I like to hear the most dramatic bits of operas rather than being able to sit through the whole thing; this is one reason why 'Nessun Dorma' extracted from Puccini's opera 'Turandot' (1924) was such a success when Luciano Pavarotti released it as a single in 1994. Puccini's work seems well suited for extracting pieces for this soundbite generation. The piece used for 'A Room With A View' has the soaring vocals and music that one expects of a passionate opera piece, reinforced for me with dreams of sweeping an Edwardian lady to kiss her boldly in an Italian field. This I guess then is one of the lingering tunes from my youth when I fantasised about the romances that I hoped I would have (and I have now missed the opportunity to have).

'Gnossienne No. 1' by Erik Satie (1893)
Erik Satie (1866-1925) was a French composer and pianist who came up with what he felt was a new form of music, hence his creation of the term 'Gnossienne'. These are very soulful tunes, serious in tone, though occasionally with cheerful elements. Whereas the last piece reminds me of warm Italian fields this one conjures up rainy French streets going back to a flat with the one you love and looking out over the grey city. They are often used for theme tunes and I first heard this as the theme to a science programme called 'Connections' (1978) presented by James Burke. In those days there was no logging on and finding a free copy of the tune to listen to as you can do now. (I think all of the music I list here you can access freely via the internet, I keep finding access whenever I search for them). I had to sit in front of my television with an audio cassette recorder larger than a brick and record it. Fortunately they used it again for an episode of 'Poirot' in 2003, 'Five Little Pigs' and I was able to pause the credits and finally find out the name of the piece and the composer. That story is about investigating a crime that occurred 14 years earlier and the music again, for me, sums up looking back in time and at possibilities that never came true.

'Concierto de Aranjuez' by Joaquín Rodrigo (1939)
You may have noticed that my tastes in classical music are pretty mainstream and I make no apology for that. They are pieces I enjoy and as this posting outlines, ones which definitely touch me. This guitar concerto was another one that I had heard and loved long before I knew what it was. Then some time in the 1990s I saw a documentary on Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-99) a blind Spanish composer.

My love of this tune was deepened when I heard him explain that it was written following the death of his child during birth and in the music he is morning that child's loss and begging God to spare the life of his wife, Victoria. Until recent times death in childbirth was a common reason for women dying. There is a real strength in this music as commentators note as the guitar goes against the strength of the rest of the orchestra and that strength really taps into you.For this reason, ironically it is now often performed on brass instruments (see the movie 'Brassed Off' (1996) for an example). It conjures up for me sweeping Spanish hill sides in a golden early evening light. This piece takes you through despair into triumph. This is an orchestral piece that holds my interest right throughout.

'Carmina Burana' by Carl Orff (1937)
'Carmina Burana' is the first of a 'triptych' of music (the others being 'Catulli Carmina' and 'Trionfo di Afrodite') and is based on twenty-four medieval poems collected in the book Carmina Burana which come from from Benediktbeuren in southern Bavaria. The poems are secular but the chanted singing makes them sound monastical, though the poems themselves have what is termed 'racy' content rather than religious references. In fact the full (Latin) title of the music refers to them as being sung 'with magical images'. Carl Orff (1895-1982) has been accused of collaboration with the Nazi party though he also knew members of the German Resistance to the Nazis. Possibly he just tried to survive in the circumstances in Germany of the 1930s-40s.

What is certain is that at the time the music was produced there was a strong interest in Germany about German or Teutonic medieval culture. The 'O Fortuna' section of 'Carmina Burana' became incredibly well known at least in the UK when it was used to advertise Old Spice aftershave in the 1970s. The very thundering dramatic music played against images of men surfing on huge waves. It is very stirring music that fits the image of medieval armies going into battle that clearly appeal today even as they, unfortunately, appealed in Nazi Germany. These days with less coverage in the popular media you can listen to the music and feel both stirred and almost as if you are part of some secret ritual to invigorate, no doubt tendencies that appealed to the advertisers.

'Montagues and Capulets' or 'The Dance of the Knights' by Sergei Prokofiev (1936)
This is similarly a heavy, pounding piece written in the 1930s, this time for the other side of the political spectrum, the Soviet Union. It is the music for Act I Scene 2 of Sergei Prokofiev's ballet written for the Kirov Ballet Company based in Leningrad in 1936, though it was not performed in the city until 1940; the first performance was in Brno in Czechoslovakia in 1938. The piece lives up to its titles, bringing to mind the entrance of two powerful families or a procession of armoured knights. In recent times it is often associated in television programmes with images of large machinery and structures. Like 'Carmina Burana' it gives you the urge to stamp around and declare something without caring what people think. It is ominous but also empowering to listen to. This is a piece that I think like 'Carmina Burana' was over used in the popular media in the 1970s and 1980s and benefits from being heard less often and in contexts in which you can enjoy it for the strength of the music more than for the weight it adds to the images you are being shown.

Now I turn from modern classical music to more popular brands of music most of it of the last thirty years.

'The Persuaders Theme' by John Barry (1971)
John Barry (born 1933) is renowned for writing movie themes notably for many of the James Bond films. 'The Persuaders' was a television series run in the UK first in 1971. It featured Hollywood star Tony Curtis and British actor (at the time soon to be James Bond) Roger Moore. Watching it now it seems terribly camp, tongue-in-cheek and with lazy acting from Curtis and Moore who generally get acted off the screen by that week's guest stars, often quite leading British actors. However, at the time, it was seen as glamourous and exciting being about two millionaires: Danny Wilde and Lord Brett Sinclair solving various mysteries in locations like the Riviera as well as Britain.

When writing about boring Sundays I forgot to mention that this was one of the highlights of Sunday viewing in the UK and you would hurry home to ensure you did not miss it. Given the low quality of the stories and acting, you can see how little we had to go on for Sunday viewing.

The most excellent element of this series was the opening credits and in particular Barry's theme. The images showed dossiers of the two men's lives from their childhood to the present day with an insistent theme of a piano and strings in the background. It summed up excitement but also the combination of the imagery and the skill of Barry also that nostalgic sense of a past gone through, efforts made to reach today's success. There are loads of recordings of it on YouTube, I recommend you taking out 2 minutes to go and listen. I was fortunate to hear a band play this tune in 1987. Even across the crowded bar and down a floor to the stage, it really cut through the noise and chilled me.

Theme tune to 'The Water Margin' by Masaro Sato (1973)
I am going to devote a whole posting to the importance of the TV series 'The Water Margin' in my youth. However, in the meantime I have to say that there is something incredibly stirring about the theme tune. It starts like something from James Bond movie, really building up the excitement to a crescendo, while Burt Kwouk intoned the information about the series. The opening theme is just musical and is followed up by a sung version at the end which we could never understand, there were also two versions of that, I believe sung in Japanese, as, though the series is set in China (and was the first outside filming done in the country since 1949) it was produced by Nippon Television of Japan. The singing emphasises the sense of struggle against oppression which seemed very relevant at the time of the Thatcher regime in Britain when the programme was shown in the UK. This theme even today makes me feel as if I should run out and start a revolution, very potent. You can hear it and see the credits on You Tube:

Theme tune to 'Teachers': extract from 'The Boy With The Arab Strap' by Belle and Sebastian (1998)
'Teachers' was a series which ran for four series on Channel 4 from 2001 to 2004. It was a kind of comedy drama set in a school in Bristol and starred Andrew Lincoln. The series lost its way by the third series, but the first series is truly engaging. It is humorous, but why I think it really got to me was that it portrayed relationships between adults whether as colleagues, friends or lovers in a way that I found realistic. This seems ironic given the surreal elements in the programme, but that was probably what made it so striking and the increased reliance on the humour and the surreal getting out of balance with that more serious aspect is why it began to fade. The series was renowned for using pop music of the time by trendy British groups like Feeder, Coldplay, The Dandy Warhols, The Dandys (a different group), Shed Seven, Reef, The Supernaturals and The Longpigs. This gave it a contemporary flavour and helped it move along briskly. It was the theme tune, the instrumental section from 'The Boy With The Arab Strap' by Belle and Sebastian which used to really hit into sentimental part of me. I suppose because for me it encapsulates a positivity in the face of daily challenges.

When I was living in one room above a chipshop doing numerous part-time jobs here was a programme saying to me that people of my age could have a solid job and relationships plus fun too (including sex and alcohol) all things that were missing from my life at the time. So, to some degree this is one of those tunes tied to a time, but I think its upbeat but mature nature is why it stays with me. Not that I can say I have ever heard the tune on the radio (at 5 minutes 14 seconds for the whole thing it is probably too long for most stations usual playlists).

'The Unforgettable Fire' by U2 (1984)
This song is both important for the time and place in my life when it was current (I had just started Sixth Form College which should have been a great time to be young and free, but of course I screwed all that up) and because it really plugs into that sense of missed opportunities that characterises so many of the tunes and songs that haunt my life. I totally misunderstood the song, which is about victims of atomic bombings, something controversial at the height of the Cold War in 1984. Of course, I always assumed that the 'unforgettable fire' was love, being the foolish romantic I am. I thought this reached Number 1 in the UK, apparently it was only 6, but it certainly was played a great deal. The lyrics and in particular the music with a really strong string element (not overly common in pop songs) make it incredibly stirring.

I find myself lost in thought whenever I hear this song and swept back through my life. I used to put it on as the first piece of music I played when I moved to a new house and would sit and listen to it right to the end. In particular given that I thought it was about love it always made me reflect on what I had done wrong in that field. In 1984 I had made a couple of mistakes in that area, but was on the brink of making far more foolish and serious ones. Perhaps if I had stopped myself wallowing in romanticism and got on with more romance it would have been better. Even 24 years on this song is still both powerful and moving, distinctive even in U2's catalogue let alone more widely in pop music.

‘Dakota’ by The Stereophonics (2005)
This is often viewed as the best song to come from The Stereophonics. It stayed at Number 1 for one week. The song itself is set up for nostalgia. The lyrics are about 'thinking back' to a lover: 'You made me feel like the one' and references to Summer. As such it stirred up in me a late burst of that sentiment about all the potential relationships that had never happened for me (I will have to go into this at some time but to summarise throughout my life I have usually run away when a woman has asked me out even if I have spent weeks dreaming of being with her). The subdued singing with an air of tension running underneath it which comes out not as anger at the end but almost pleading, obviously taps into such feelings. Again it reminds me of the adult life that somehow I missed out on. Ironically it was playing when I was packing to move to a new life in a different town, so maybe it could have come to represent a positive change in my life, but I doubt in fact I will ever have one of those, so it remains wedded to the 'what ifs?' of my own life. This one, maybe because it is comparatively new, still has the power to send me back into all that reflection about my mistakes, my lack of courage and all that those things have denied me.

‘Feels Like Heaven’ by Fiction Factory (1984)
This one is a hangover from my love affair with wistful music of the mid-1980s and my attachment to this one endures when that for tracks such as the Lotus Eaters one and many things by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Ultravox have been shaken from my nostalgia triggering senses. For some reason I hear this song still played a great deal on the radio. I think it is Kevin Patterson's vocal range from the deep intense at the start to the soaring notes towards the end. The lyrics too plug into that place of thoughts of discovering a mutual affection and it changing your life, though with the unease of getting it wrong, but a price worth paying, though usually I was too scared to pay it. Fiction Factory were effectively a one-hit wonder in the UK, this single got to number 6 in the charts, but what a one hit to have if people are still playing it 24 years later. A rather spooky, gothic video in white colouring is visible on YouTube.

'Fade to Grey' by Visage (1981)
This one was there back in the teenage years prompting me to think about relationship possibilities and even 27 years later (!) it pricks me that way. Partly it is the music itself: that kind of electronic pattern fading into the distance and the references to standing in the rain of an English summer and then the lyrics being repeated in French by a sultry female voice. To me, this song promised bittersweet relationships with exciting, artistic European women (usually Dutch or German rather than French) as I travelled around Europe by train making use of the Inter-Rail tickets that were appearing at the time.

In fact I did encounter such women especially when I was living in West Germany but of course I am appalling at foreign languages and lacked the confidence to talk to British women let alone these seemingly far more sophisticated foreign ones who were intimidating in that they seemed so perfect looking attractive and being so intelligent and into so many interesting things. Marion of Leverkusen, in particular always comes to mind, no doubt a 40-year old doctor by now. Even the title 'Fade to Grey' seems to sum up that disappearance of ephemeral opportunities and all that they represent. With the reference to standing on a platform with a suitcase, it seemed to me to indicate a British man having to leave the Frenchwoman to both of their regrets. Sometime in the late 1980s when the Cold War was ending I saw a one-off drama about a young British man falling in love with a Hungarian woman and having to return home, but in the closing seconds he stops the car and runs back to her whatever the consequences. That kind of sentiment is still, so far unshakeably, contained in this song.

Another reason this song stays in my mind was that in 1988 I found a shop cassette that had Visage's two albums: 'Visage' on one side and 'The Anvil' clearly thrown from a car, it still worked perfectly and so I seemed fated just at that time (about four months before I left for Germany) to have the song in my collection, though thinking back if it was some kind of sign, as I noted above, I pretty much took no heed of it.

'Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover' by Sophie B. Hawkins (1992)
Sophie B. Hawkins looked like the kind of woman I thought it would be great to go out with. In 1992 I was moving to Oxford where I imagined one could find lon- haired women in white poet's shirts and long black jackets strolling through fields as Sophie appeared on her record covers. She is the same age as me too. It reached Number 14 in the UK and Number 5 in her home country, the USA.

Despite her US background the song has quite a lot of UK references such as using the word 'bloke' for man; though 'shucks' betrays the US background. What appealed to me about this song was there was a sense (one that I certainly did not have at the time) that you might meet a woman who would come chasing you, wanting you to be their lover, rather than the other way round. Of course, reflecting now I can see that I had experienced that with Fahrana, Liz, the other Liz and Anneli, at least, if not a couple of others, though, unfortunately, I had been oblivious to that at the time. It is ironic that what I was seeking had actually occurred to me. About three years later, another Helen was even more proactive, very much in line with the flavour of this song. I have no idea if any of those women sung along to this song, but to some degree I behaved to them like the man does in this. The mix of passion and a desire to care for the one she wants to be the lover of is very alluring.

Of course, it had controversy at the time as it comes over as a lesbian song with the singer putting herself in the 'male' role of 'bloke' and 'hero', but, as Sophie has noted in interviews, the song also appealed to men. In fact, it ran into more trouble in parts of the USA for having the word 'damn' so prominent in it. Overall, it is an anthem for anyone who feels that there is someone they cannot believe is not their lover, knowing in their heart that they could be so wonderful together. Of course, we can often be mistaken, but that does not dent your certainty that this relationship should be; that it should overcome all obstacles to exist. Thus, for me, it has shifted from the sense of regret that I had missed opportunities to one of feeling I should be clear and active in seeking a relationship with someone I love. Sophie's work is always jammed full of lyrics but this has a great chorus to shout out too.

'The Dark End of the Street' performed by The Commitments (1991)
'The Dark End of the Street' was written in 1967 and performed first by James Carr. It has been covered numerous times by people such as Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Elvis Costello, Deacon Blue amongst others. My favourite version came from the artists performing as the band in the movie 'The Commitments' (1991) on the soundtrack released that year. I listened to the album again and again. This song is about poor people, it is about getting away from the views of family, hiding your affection in public and meeting secretly with the one you love. It seemed to fit so well with the Irish setting of the movie which I suppose fits with what one of the characters says about the Irish being very similar in standing to the Blacks of the USA and so associating with soul music in the same way. Fortunately I have never had to conceal my relationships, but again this was a very wistful sentiment with real passion too, that the couple were risking so much to be together and Andrew Strong's rendition of it really touches the heart. How such a large man, young as he was at the time (16) could sound like a very experienced soul singer I have no idea, but he does and it is a really touching song. The rest of the album is excellent too, but this track really does stand out.

‘Song to the Siren’ by This Mortal Coil (1984)
I was going to come to this one later, but given that I have mentioned my time in West Germany in 1989 it now seems appropriate as this was where and when I first heard it. It was echoing around the corridor of a block of flats where I lived. The sonorous singing of Elizabeth Fraser (of the Cocteau Twins) really suited that setting. I tracked down the single by luck on my return to the UK. Again it has all the elements of a wistful, hair prickling song. The words are almost chanted with music which seems to follow rather than lead them, probably not unusual given the Cocteau Twins' vocal-music approach.

The lyrics are about dreams and very much have the sea imagery (the Sirens in Greek myths were female monsters who would lure sailors to their death by their beautiful singing) leading to 'let me enfold you'. So there is speculation there on the chance of a romance: 'Did I dream you dreamed about me?' the singer asks. So this one for the beauty of the music and vocals and for the sentiments about the chance of romance again still haunts me to this day. I must say I was far less impressed by the rest of This Mortal Coil's work.

‘My Immortal’ and 'Bring Me to Life' by Evanescence (2003)
Now, these are two very different songs and deserve separate treatment, but as they came from the same band in the same year there is probably good reason to bracket them together. I still think Evanescence is one of the best Goth bands around. There is something about the mixture of good lyrics avoiding cliches and use of music styles spanning across the whole spectrum of what could be considered Gothic that makes the difference. In style they look like a score of other Goth bands but their quality, I feel, is why they were able to crossover into mainstream sales when others have failed to do so.

'My Immortal' is probably one of the most discomforting, bittersweet songs you will ever hear. It is a real requiem for a lost love who really haunts the singer's life. These are core Gothic themes presented with a real strength by Amy Lee's singing and again music which follows and supports rather than drowns important lyrics. I have not felt emotions laid so bear with any other song. This one differs from the others listed here as it is almost a future nostalgia song for me, something I hope there will be someone to play at my funeral and that I may one day have a love this intense that it would be suitable to play for her, though of course hoping I would not witness her death. This song not only pricks up the hairs, it really digs into your heart and knocks you back with the strength of the feelings it is communicating.

'Bring Me to Life', maybe should have preceded my comments on 'My Immortal'. This a real rock song and as in many Goth tracks counterpoints the female and male vocal parts. This song heartens me because it is about someone who can shake you from the mundane and literally wake you up to a new life one that is shared with them and in that it is exciting. I guess this is the updating of my desire to find the ideal woman to travel the world with, to go to the coolest Goth clubs with, to really discover life with. This song both taps into that sentiment and empowers me for three minutes or so to go out and find that kind of existence.

'Who Knew?' by Pink (2006)
This is the second newest song in this list and enters a very strong field. Again it is wistful and sad. I have increasingly been impressed by Pink's work which straddles so many types of pop music and in herself she remains distinctive and challenging. Despite her name she actually does more to challenge the pink obsession which is plaguing so much of the young women of our society. She can be playful and mischievous and yet at the foundation she seems to know that life can be fragile and complicated. This song with 'Uh huh, that's right' shows that even tough girls (she threatens to 'stand up and punch them out' anyone who would have questioned the relationship) can get their hearts broken. She mourns the loss of a relationship which seems touching and which it suggests she went into whole-heartedly, but it also challenges the man.

I think that is important as it is saying that it is not right for young men to trample all over young women. She accepts that they might not have sustained the relationship and 'I wish I could still call you friend' so there is a realism about her, but still that does not make you immune to love. She seems to be haunted by the relationship even three years on, and not so much because it ended, but because of the throwaway approach the man adopted to her when she was investing so much. This song is sad and affecting, but it also makes you angry too. As I have noted before (young) men seriously need to grow up if our society is going to have any hope of survival. This song shows the impact of male immaturity on one woman but it is a story that is replicated right across our society. With time, this song may have less impact on me, but for now, I find its maturity and its message has a strong impact.

‘Look Away’ by Big Country (1986) and ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ by Thin Lizzy (1972)
Now it might seem strange to put these two together, a Scottish rock band of the 1980s and an Irish one of the 1970s and 1980s, but partly it is because they are both strong songs that seem to cover a similar theme, or so I envisaged. 'Look Away' was Big Country's biggest hit, reaching number 7 in the charts though many of their songs are still played pretty regularly today. They are often bracketed with Simple Minds as a kind of strong voiced, strong music bands of the mid-1980s pumping out anthems and spirited pop songs. 'Whiskey in the Jar' reached number 6 in the charts. It was a cover of a traditional Irish song and the story in it seems to be set sometime in the early 19th century. A version had already been released in 1967 by The Dubliners and Smokie, The Pogues, U2, Metallica and Pulp have all done versions, none of which I must confess I have heard, but I doubt they could match the suitability of Phil Lynott's voice.

Both songs are about a man being hunted down and imprisoned and all that means for the relationship with a woman. In 'Whiskey in the Jar' it is a confessed robber who is lamenting his situation in prison whereas in 'Look Away' we know he killed a man but never intended it and we imagine it might be in a cause of conscience. In addition, in the former 'sleeping in Molly's chamber' is a pleasure whereas in the latter she 'lay with me when there was nowhere safe to go' and they lament that they never found the sun. I suppose that I always wanted to die for a cause and could envisage myself battling against some injustice escaping across the hills of Scotland or Ireland. This is sentimentality combining not only a wish for love as with so many of these songs, but a wish to count and to do something noble or at least daring. Probably a common sentiment for so many of us stuck in mundane lives. The forcefulness of both tunes is also a reason why they stir the spirit as I noted with 'Bring Me To Life'. It is different to the soaring melancholic tunes, but for me carries a similar force.

‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles (1977)
Now, this is a song which fascinated me.  There are not many pop hits featuring haunted hotels or ghosts at all (I can only think of 'Uninvited' which I commented on recently and 'Under Your Thumb' by Godley & Creme (1983) about a haunted train). However, I think why this song has stuck in this list rather than being relegated is because of the guitar music in it. That really adds an atmosphere especially the jangling bits at the start which really conjure up this image of a hotel appearing in the darkness ahead. Maybe this song does not fit in this category alongside all the others that really tap into particular sentiments that I have, but it is hear because the physical effect parts of the music have.

'I Believe in Father Christmas' by Greg Lake (1975) and 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' by Band Aid (1985)
Again in part Lake's song probably stays with me as it was around in my youth. Probably too because Christmas is an influential time for thoughts about the future. However, both of these two songs, even with age, stand out among all the Christmas schmaltz. They are realistic, they put all our celebrations in a context that partly what we are celebrating is that we are alive and well enough to enjoy Christmas and it is about those things rather than anything glitzy. I suppose both songs are anti-sentimental and so why they wake me up when I hear them is because they strongly push against that nostalgia and naturally that can give you that shiver as much as stirring up thoughts of lost opportunities.The arrangements also helped to bring this home. The deep tones of the singers on each, the use of an adaptation of the 'Lieutenant Kije Suite' by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev to give that 'sleigh ride' feel to the end of Lake's song and the line 'thank God it's them instead of you' from Bono, all make these two strong songs. Both songs, being against the commercialism and complacency of Christmas, especially the Band Aid one, are hard on our consciences but I believe that is why they endure. Certainly last Christmas they were featured a great deal: Lake's reached Number 2 and Band Aid's Number 1 for many weeks.

White Lines (Don't, Don't Do It)’ by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel (1983)
Now, we have moved a long way from the senses of lost opportunities and wistfulness, but in a very different way this song hits home and dominates my consciousness just as much as these others do. There are soaring lyrics, a wonderful crescendo and break, plus lyrics you can really get with, it is not impossible to rap along with this, unlike with many contemporary rap songs. It was a one-hit wonder effectively and yet it really endures. The music in itself pricks you even before you start engaging with the anti-cocaine lyrics. One of the best tunes to dance to in a disco that I have ever heard. (Probably with Colonel Abrams 'Trapped' (1985) in second place: now we are talking old school).

'20th Century Boy' by T-Rex (1973)
Despite the age of this record I only caught it when it was revived in the early 1990s as result of an advertisement for jeans which starred Brad Pitt and came out in 1991. It is in sharp contrast to many of the songs in that though wistful it is for me about happy times rather than missed opportunities, it takes me back to a (very short) time when I was living life to the full. The strength of the guitar riffs in this song just drag you in and carry you away. It is an excellent song to drive to and is really energising all round. I thoroughly enjoy hearing it. For me, it always conjures up an image of a well-built woman (who looked and dressed like an opera singer) in blue silk full-length dress with a white lining, amply showing her cleavage, standing on a window sill in a small bar in Green College in Oxford shaking her head back and forth to this tune (which was re-released on the back of the television advertisements) as everyone in the small room danced madly to it. This was sometime late in 1992 or early 1993. I was training to be a school teacher and failing, but the nights in that college bar just took me out of time and I could be mad and happy in those few hours and forget about the rest of the world. This time takes me back to the few occasions in my life when I feel I have actually not missed the opportunity to do something that made me happy.

'Love is a Stranger' - The Eurythmics (1982)
There are loads of great tracks by The Eurythmics straddling a range of different types of pop music. They were challenging, notably with 'Sweet Dreams' (1983) and their whole album '1984' (1984), but this song is the one that snatches attention. Again the music soars, this time to tie in with the sound of a car speeding by you (as in the lyric 'love is a stranger in an open car it tempts you in and drives you far away') and Annie Lennox's voice is almost cajoling, brutal when it reaches 'it touches and it teases as you stumble in the debris'. Of all their singles, with this one, they announced a new style of music seemingly sharp and technical and very suited to an image of the 1980s as we were to experience it: with harshness and yet a cold elegance. Again, this is a song you find yourself hearing above other noise, and again it is not one which jabs at me with memories of what might have been, but rather because it thrusts quite hard feelings and views at you about love as 'a dangerous drug' which is 'savage and cruel and shines like destruction': very harshly poetic.

'Just Another Day (Without You)' by John Secada (1992)
This was pretty much a one-hit-wonder though I know he had had success performing with other artists. This is certainly one of those songs that can rise about the hubbub in a crowded room or a car. I think it is because he communicates the agony of being separated from the one you love so effectively. He really seems like he was going through the mill when singing this. There are hints that it might not be final, but it is just at that moment when she is slipping away from him and he is willing to do anything to keep her around. The music is forceful in a way which was different from the power ballards of the time and the most potent part comes when it goes acapella at the end really showing off Secada's voice. There are versions in both English and Spanish. Unfortunately I know insufficient Spanish to compare what the lyrics say in each language. The wistfulness here is different, it is more active, more a rage against the unfairness of the world that denies you happiness. Perhaps this is why it still affects me when I have become immune to those songs that used to bite hard on me and I still find it a very moving song. If you are going to have one solo hit, then you want it to be as good as this.

'Romeo and Juliet' by The Killers (2007)
This song was first recorded in 1980 by Dire Straits and has been covered by a range of different artists since, though all of them, bar The Indigo Girls (who did it in 1992), are unknown to me. I was rather against Dire Straits in my youth. In their pre-Brothers-in-Arms manifestation they had been what is now termed 'Dad rock' and my father liked both 'Sultans of Swing' and 'Twisting by the Pool'. He liked their references to every day life, the delight of getting away on a cheap Spanish holiday and the guitarist 'with the day time job'. Then, of course, with 'Brothers in Arms' in 1985, they became so pretentious it was painful. I avoided their album but apparently an older friend of mine said that eight people living either side of him at university all had the album and one evening played it simultaneously. Now, Dire Straits are not bad, they are rather bland and safe. I like the concept of 'Romeo and Juliet' which like a lot of their early stuff aims to be about ordinary people, in this case teenagers whose relationship seems to have ended but the man (boy) wants it to continue and serenades the woman. It references that other working class reworking of the Shakespeare play, 'West Side Story' (play 1957; movie 1961).

Anyway, recently I heard the version by The Killers, who are a band I find difficult to place, but I suppose they are rock with a bit harder edge than Dire Straits ever had and so it works perfectly for this song, sounding rough and realistic, almost like something you might hear someone singing on the street (when I lived in East London groups of 3-4 girls used to collect on street corners near my flat and sing stuff from the charts acapella, it was a bit weird, rather like that musical episode from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but pleasant). This version of the song really punched me and I felt captured what the lyrics are supposed to be saying. Well worth a listen for really hitting at your emotions.

'Sour Times' by Portishead (1994)
Following on with another single which is on the bitter side of bittersweet and like 'Love is a Stranger' is quite harsh, almost brutal and certainly challenging and thus stirring for the listener, well certainly when it is me, is 'Sour Times'. The clanging, plinky piano and the shivering percussion really draw your attention and then it proceeds at a measured pace though a heart-rending song. The whole album 'Dummy' had at once a contemporary feel (this was at the height of Britpop of course) but also referenced mid-1960s stylings, something reinforced by the video ('To Kill a Dead Man' a short movie made to accompany the album) which accompanied this tune and featured a wife of a gangster who fakes his own assassination. The song again likens love to something like a narcotic, promoting an addiction. It is also a lament for a lost love one that may not have been kind but one from which the singer cannot shake herself. Thus, having similar sentiments to 'My Immortal' above. The whole album is filled with touching songs of a melancholic nature and it is too long since I revisited it.

'Florica's Lament' composed by Richard Holmes (1987)
I just wish I knew who sung this song. It is sung in Romanian by a woman and that is all I know, if you could tell me who she is I would be delighted to know. The only place this track ever appeared was on a vinyl EP of the soundtrack to the British TV series 'The Fortunes of War' (1987) based on a series of six novels by Olivia Manning published in 1960: the first half the so-called Balkan Trilogy: 'The Great Fortune', 'The Spoilt City' and 'Friends And Heroes' and the second half, the Levant Trilogy: 'The Danger Tree', 'The Battle Lost And Won' and 'The Sum Of Things'. They are semi-autobiographical about an English teacher and his wife in Romania and Egypt before and during the Second World War. The lead roles were taken by Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (married to each other 1989-95) leading lights of British television, film and theatre at the time. The tune has really soaring vocals though I have absolutely no idea what the woman is singing about, it is clear that it is a lament and with all that that implies, she communicates the emotion very successfully. Not only is this a painfully beautiful song in its own right, at the time I, of course (as you will know if you have read this far) quite envisaged ending up in a job teaching in Eastern Europe (the Cold War was clearly ending and new opportunities were opening up there as they had not done since the 1930s) and, of course, I could see myself going there with some wonderful woman.

Actually, it might have happened or something similar as I met this wonderfully big-hearted woman called Liz while living in Germany in 1989 and she was on her way to work in a hospital for disabled children in Hungary. She and I hit it off almost immediately and apparently she wanted to sleep with me, but being me I missed all the signals until I was told later by her friends. The last I had heard she had met a Hungarian, married him and was having a child. (When I met her the only word of Magyar she knew was 'no' and subsequently I joked she must have either learnt the word for 'yes' or forgotten 'no', not a good joke I know). This was some time in 1990/1 and I do wonder where she is now. Probably not another alternative for me, but it did not stop me wondering when I heard this tune.

'Feeling Good' sung by Nina Simone (1980)
This song was written in 1964 by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for a stage musical 'The Roar of the Greasepaint—the Smell of the Crowd' and it has been covered by numerous artists starting with Cy Grant in 1964.  I was surprised to find that Nina Simone (1933-2003) did not come to it until 1980 and I guess that is because I always viewed Simone in a kind of mid-20th century jazz singer setting and it has that feel to it.  Simone's most successful records in my adult years, notably, 'My Baby Just Cares For Me' (1958 but only really successful in 1987) and 'Ain't Got No/I Got' seem almost like blues influenced songs, though more upbeat.  I think also in my mind she is also associated with the civil rights movement through songs like 'Mississippi Goddam' (1964) and 'Strange Fruit' (1965).  In contrast, 'Young, Gifted and Black' (1970) seems archetypally a 1970s song.  The difficulty in putting Simone's music into an era, though, I think shows its strength.  Certainly since the late 1980s she has not gone out of public consciousness because her music is so often on movie soundtracks and Wikipedia lists 13 movies 1998-2009 which have used her music; I guess she is possibly more widely known now that at the height of her career.  Her music is also regularly used in advertisements and this is how I really first encountered 'Feeling Good'.

Simone suffered from bipolar disorder (sometimes characterised as manic/depressive) and later schizophrenia.  This seems apparent from her songs some of which combine low and high elements, just as her perfomances could.  'Feeling Good' is strong because of this and I think speaks to the listener who might be going through doubts of their own.  It starts quietly, with Simone with her wonderfully rich voice naming the elements of nature that 'know how I feel'.  You get led in thinking it is going to be a melancholic song and then the shift comes and it is almost like a stage musical crescendo building up to 'and I'm feeling good!'.  It turns into such an assertive song: 'It's a new dawn/ It's a new day/ It's a new life/ For me/ And I'm feeling good.'  It is about taking pleasure in simple things and reminds me of 'Ain't Got No/I Got' which is about having a healthy body and that in itself being a reward.  That is a jauntier song and lacks the dramatics of 'Feeling Good' which as a result prickles me in the way all the music here does, whenever I might hear it. I first really encountered this song when living in that room in which I could touch the opposite walls simultaneously and working in a low-paid job.  However, I had two simple escapes, one was to snuggle in my room and write fiction and the other was to go out and cycle through rural Oxfordshire.  This song certainly seemed appropriate to the latter. It is short song and to the point, but packs a really mighty punch in what it delivers.

'La Mer' by Charles Trenet (1946)
Now this song has had a posting all of its own from me, so there is probably no need to repeat it, just to say that it always conjures up thoughts of lovely days cycling along the coast in northern France and the potential that seemed once to exist for sharing such days with someone I loved. Saying that, given the difficulty of just getting to Belgium for a break, I think such a thing will never be more solid than a fantasy dreamt while listening to this incredibly, intentionally wistful song.

Why St. George's Day Remains a Problem

Today, 23rd April, is St. George's Day in England. St. George is the patron saint of many countries, not only England but also including Georgia, Malta, China, Russia, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Portugal, Canada, Aragon and Catalonia (now parts of eastern Spain), Lithuania, Ethiopia and Palestine (and through connection, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation - people forget that there many Christan Arabs). Generally these countries have different days for St. George, but in 1415 today was designated the day he would have in England. St. George was born in Cappodacia in what is now eastern Turkey in 270 CE (AD) and probably spoke Greek as he lived in what was becoming the Eastern Roman Empire (later the Byzantine Empire). George was a centurion and worked as an ambassador for Roman Emperor Diocletian and visited England in that role. When he heard Diocletian had begun executing Christians, George returned to Rome where he refused to denounce his Christianity and was beheaded on 23rd April, 303 CE at Lydda in what was then Palestine. He only became England's patron saint in 1222 when he replaced St. Edward the Confessor (King of England 1042-66).

The English like St. George because he seems to sum up the militaristic attitude that the average English person relishes. He was a soldier and supposedly killed a dragon, probably even better in terms of imagery than St. Michael fighting the Devil. The cross of St. George, invented in 1099 at the siege of Antioch during the First Crusade is the flag of England just as the cross of St. Andrew is of Scotland and the cross of St. Olaf appears in various colours in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. It is even absorbed into the Union Flag for the United Kingdom.

The fact that England ended up with such an aggressive saint probably does not help matters. St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland but seemingly celebrated across the world now, was renowned for banishing snakes from Ireland not for violence. He came from northern England or southern Scotland during the Roman occupation and was taken as a slave to Ireland. He travelled round Europe and was made a bishop before returning to Ireland as a missionary. He died in Ireland in 461 CE at the age of 76. St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, was one of the Apostles and after Jesus's death effectively became a missionary working in what is now Turkey and Greece and crucified by the Romans presumably sometime in the mid-1st century CE. St. David patron saint of Wales, actually lived in Wales in the 6th century CE and became archbishop of Wales and was a missionary among the Celtic tribes of western Wales.

The aggressive nature of St. George has just been added to by right-wing, jingoistic people in England. The flag of St. George has often seemed an oppressor's flag to the Scots, Welsh and Irish that the English conquered. Its appearance in the form of the ensign flag on British naval ships spread that sense far across the world. Whereas other federated countries like Germany and India put up single teams at world events, the English and the other countries of the UK have generally put up individual teams, notably in football, rugby and cricket and so it is the English flag rather than the British one which became associated in particular with football-related violence in the 1970s and 1980s. As in all countries, national symbols have been subverted by right-wing extremists and the National Front in the 1970s was often associated with football violence so drew on the Cross of St. George rather than the Union Flag in its imagery, further discrediting the saint and his day.

Part of the problem is that England has a difficulty establishing an identity which is distinct from that of the UK. England has 49 million of the 61 million people living in the UK and 57% of the area of Britain (i.e. the UK excluding Northern Ireland), so it is difficult to tease out what is English as opposed to British. The fact that leading people in England's history and in the formation of its empire often came from Wales, Scotland or Ireland or from other parts of the British Empire, further complicates an appeal to heritage, so whereas the other states of the UK can look to various glorious periods in their history, such as the Scottish Enlightenment, the English simply fall back on medieval imagery and consequently a further association with violence. This was given an extra boost in the Victorian period with a lot of the invention of English 'traditions' based on false or faked assumptions about the medieval era. In addition, despite being the dominant state in the UK, England has not been ruled by anyone English since 1066 instead a sequence of French, Welsh, Scottish and German dynasties have run the country. What might be more productive is to fragment the celebration of patron saints, for example have St. Piran's Day for Cornwall, St. Aldhelm (patron saint of Wessex) for South-West England; St. Chade (patron saint of Mercia) for the Midlands, St. Robert for Yorkshire; St. Helen for Lancashire; St. Cuthbert (patron saint of Northumbria) for the North of England; St. Edmund for East Anglia; possibly St. Richard (patron saint of Sussex as a Saxon kingdom rather than the smaller county) could be for South-East England, possibly St. Thomas a Becket for London. Anyway, by having regional patron saints days it would break away from the negative connotations associated with St. George and because, as with the Irish, Welsh and Scots, a smaller group of the population would be identifying with the saint it would feel far less generic and regional customs and traditions could be invoked.

Those supporting a greater celebration of St. George's Day (which they admit, is partly due to jealousy of the fun the Irish have on St. Patrick's Day) have naturally distanced themselves from the violent connotations which have been long associated with St. George. However, it is notable that the leader of the campaign in the UK to get today (or in fact the nearest Monday) to be a bank holiday said he hoped it would replace the 1st May bank holiday which he felt was too much of a 'Red' holiday and so out-of-date. The 1st May bank holiday is seen as international workers' day but it was a holiday even before then and certainly celebrated at the time of Edward the Confessor. Yet, for these pro-St. George's Day crowd it seems to have political connotations that they despise, hardly strengthening their case in de-politicising the celebration of St. George. Anyway, why can we not have 23rd April and 1st May as bank holidays. Britain has 5 bank holidays fewer than the next nearest number had by member states of the EU, so even if we had one for St. George, St. David, St. Andrew and St. Patrick, we would still be one bank holiday short of even the baseline of the norm.

Why should we not return to St. Edward the Confessor, he died on 5th January (we do not know his birthdate), and even if that seems too close to New Year, you could have 8th June when he ascended the throne or 3rd April when he was crowned. The day he was allocated for commemoration when canonised in 1161 was 13th October so that would suit those who feel we have two many bank holidays in the Spring. Given that he was the patron saint of
kings, difficult marriages, separated spouses and the British Royal Family he would seem ideal for the UK at the moment and for many of the families of those who are pro-St. George activists. I think the issue for these St. George activists, is whatever they may protest, they could not stomach having a homosexual commissioner of cathedrals as their patron saint as he does not appeal to the macho attitudes that so many of these campaigners espouse. Yet, until we can end the association between the patron saint of England, violence and suppression of workers' rights then it is always going to be difficult for the English really to celebrate St. George's Day without a real sense of unease.