A Flag In The Court to For Emma

PART of my day job is to fill swathes of white space with text. And pictures. A lot of pictures (or just really big ones) if there are not enough words and nobody else kicking around the office to write them.

And, as we always say with a hint of nervous laughter, we have not had to send a newspaper out with great empty spaces yet – although one day a sub will carry out the threat to do just that with a note explaining what should have been there and who failed to produce on time.

But despite what the anxiety dreams would suggest and against fairly hefty odds on some occasions, we get a newspaper out every day. On deadline. Or somewhere near.

Which is more than can be said for this blog.

There’s been a blank white space under the headline awaiting some words loosely linked to the latest chunk of tracks on the A-Z journey through my iPod for so long that the band which kicked it off have changed their name. Again – Thee Oh Sees dropping the Thee.

Bon Iver

There have been plenty of false dawns, sitting down to start filling the space from A Flag In The Court to Bon Iver’s For Emma (which really should have given me a fairly straightforward starting point) or mentally written on the way to work, just never actually transferred to that blank space – two of the next three posts are largely sketched out that way, plus one unconnected travel one so expect a sudden flurry of posting and inspiration.

And a good chunk of it was written down hot on the heels of the last post (when we were reeling in the news of a snap election and my main consideration was where to go to escape it) with the opening paragraphs on the ups and downs – and downs – of being a Gloucester rugby fan.

But while deadlines shape and drive my work self, the attention span of a goldfish and temptation to put off until tomorrow what you could do today away from the office (especially when there’s a to-do list to be drawn up or amended) meant it all dragged on a bit.

The end of the season stretched on with a couple of unlikely wins, giving extra reasons to delay and then before we knew it, something more serious got in the way.

This blog site was set up to write about travel. When shackled to the 9to5 and not actually going anywhere, a friend came up with the idea of blogging my iPod. That took on a life of its own, the musical journey sort of merging with whatever life threw up to write about.

Somehow we had gone from something fun and flippant – my natural writing style – to something a bit more serious. There were even political outbursts (although you do have to stretch it a bit to collate the orange buffoon in the White House to politics).

And beyond just the timing – maybe out of season was not the best time to be writing about rugby – the summer produced a string of incidents which left me questioning about how to deal with them, if at all.

Each one just made it more difficult to ignore but, having seemingly done just done that, increasingly hard to step in to from a standing start.

Borough Market

The attacks on Manchester (was actually tapping away late at night when the news broke) and around Borough Market (part of a relaxed reunion weekend in London just weeks before), the most inept election campaign since somebody managed to lose to Trump, who continues to play at being charge while taking us as close to nuclear conflict as any time in the last 50-plus years, white supremacy marches in the US, the horrors of Grenfell Tower and the ongoing political inertia, finger pointing and lack of clear thinking and communication which has shackled this country since the Brexit vote.

And there’s been more, not least the fact Piers Morgan is still in gainful employment.

So before tackling that white space on my screen, there had to be an editorial decision before moving on. What is this blog? Flippant, furious or something else?

It has taken a while to come up with an answer and, as is usually the case, it has all become clearer – not even sure the question was that evident before – as the words filled the screen.

But let’s rewind a while (and find a link to the previous post). Election day to be precise.

At the moment the polls closed, my only contact with what was going on was via alerts on my phone, sidebars to a lengthy, transatlantic conversation between three different people in a Boston bar. Well, several really.

Dubuque, Iowa – Drive west from Chicago and when you hit the Mississippi, that’s Dubuque

On the one hand we had a Trump-hating actor (there was mention of Two Broke Girls) from California, on the other a Trump-supporting family man, car parts business owner from Dubuque, Iowa, who was as shocked that some bloke from England had been to Dubuque, Iowa, as he was that he was chatting amicably with two people who had such differing views than him. Not as surprised as when his wife allowed him to stay for another few beers mind.

Dubuque, Iowa

It had started out very differently, a varied group (swollen by a hen party) heading out on a guided, historic tour of some of Boston’s old watering holes.

But by the time the history was over and we were cut loose from the confines of the group and the rather sedate rate of drinking, the beer continued to flow and three of us put our views about Trump from both sides of the argument with the foreigner in a not totally unbiased mediator’s role.

What became clear very quickly was that neither side had spent much, if any, time talking to their fellow countrymen about why they felt the way they did, what scared them about what was or wasn’t happening or their voting decisions.

And what became clear as the beer rolled down was that both shared far more in common than split them. But something – circumstances, surroundings, upbringing, media, fake or otherwise – had concentrated on their differences rather than the common decency which was at the heart of both of their viewpoints.

The historic bars of Boston’s Blackstone Block

It all ended in smiles, photos, hugs and wandering off – one back to his wife and infuriated daughter,  one to an improv performance with an actor friend and one to find a bar showing the night’s Stanley Cup match.

Amid all the gloom of the summer, it echoed the message that there is more that unites us than divides us. A message which has cropped up more than once when my travels have crossed paths with other religions.

So that’s the future of the blog – it will remain flippant, it will touch on anything more serious when needs be and it will most definitely take huge detours into something totally irrelevant. Whatever it needs to be really.

And, eventually, it will get round to the music, of which Jason Isbell was the crowning glory in this latest section with Flying Over Water and Flagship (one of my pet subbing hates, how many stores do you know that actually sell flagships?).

Fittingly for the cross-Atlantic nature of this post, we’ve had guitar music from both sides of the great divide with Sebadoh (Flame), Modest Mouse (Float On), Folk Jam (Pavement) and REM (Flowers of Guatemala) countered by Fly Boy Blue from Elbow and Fools Gold by The Stone Roses. US victory I think.

One last thought, really ought to dedicate this belated filling of a white blank space…

Share

Embassy Row to Enemy

He had the makings of a leader, of a certain kind of men
Who need to feel the world’s against him, out to get ’em if it can
Men whose trigger pull their fingers, of men who’d rather fight than win
United in a revolution, like in mind and like in skin
Ramon Casiano, Drive-By Truckers

I AM not a political person. I’ve got my views but would like to think they are based on right and wrong rather than left or right, liberal or conservative, red, blue, orange or green.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always had an interest – wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) last 25-plus years as a journalist without it or a healthy degree of cynicism – and picked up bits from all sides and anyone else with something worth listening to.

All that melded together to form a belief in cradle to the grave provisions for all, but mixed with a capitalist streak that always felt the best way to pay for all of that was not by the state owning the means of production, but by private enterprise reaping the rewards and allowing the masses to share in that prosperity (which would be nice). But as my favourite political argument goes, each belief and political system falls apart as soon as humans and their weaknesses get involved.

And if that hugely-simplified paragraph made no sense and is full of holes, that’s why I generally stay well away from political discussions. Much happier sat in the corner of the pub arguing which is the best Smiths album.

I’ve certainly never felt the drive or the need to go on a political demonstration or march. Until now.

Like many people, I took to the streets in reaction to President Donald Trump and (among other things) his travel ban on people from a range of mainly Islamic countries who have not had the good grace to do business with him.

Protesting Cheltenham journalist style

When I say took to the streets, it was more a gathering on the pavement in sedate Cheltenham than a million man march on Washington or a student blockade of Tiananmen Square, but we’ve all got to start somewhere.

And having got the bug, I’m up for anything you’ve got for me to rebel against – Brexit, the state of the NHS, idiots who stand outside football grounds on transfer deadlines day. You name it.

Being Cheltenham it was all very polite (the major heckle for speakers to deal with was ‘speak up’), well behaved and good humoured – they even had the decency to hold the protest on the opposite side of the road from the bus stop for my journey home from work.

There were several hundred there, rather more than a few sceptics had predicted, and there were some fine impromptu speakers in the middle of the gathered crowd, even if the chanting was slightly self conscious and none of it was likely to have the new occupant of the White House quaking.

So why did I turn up at the protest? And what difference will a few hundred people in Cheltenham make?

Not a lot, I’m more than happy to accept that. And the same can be said for those who turned out in London, Cardiff, Norwich, Boston, Washington… the list goes on.

But put them together and keep going, one day it might make a difference. It just might be what starts some momentum building that becomes unstoppable. Or simply influences somebody in a position to be heard to take the plunge and speak out. And who knows what can happen then?

The National Mall in Washington DC looking towards Lincoln Monument. Non-protest day

Standing alongside me in a picture at the protest is my colleague Aled Thomas who summed up well just why it is important for one person to speak out in his regular column – and like him, this blog will soon be back to the silly jokes and ramblings it normally specialises in

I am not overly comfortable in getting too embroiled in political arguments, so will let better-qualified people dissect the minutiae of this new US administration – besides, by the time you read this, there’ll probably be some ridiculous tweet, declaration, appointment or downright lie that has taken it all to a new level.

Check out Hannah Dunleavy’s take on the first week of the new administration and, if you fancy it, she then tackled the second week. By the third, think it was all too much.

But she’s American I hear at least somebody shout. What’s the American president got to do with a boy from Gloucester, England?

Directly, not a lot. But that doesn’t mean I can’t care and can’t get angry.

Over the past few years, my travels have taken me to a few places that have left me feeling angry, bemused, bereft and struggling to understand my own race.

But time and again, the people who had nothing to give gave it anyway, the places we were warned against turned out to be full of wonderful people and the ones who had nobody to talk for them deserved somebody to shout on their behalf.

In South Africa,  if people hadn’t stood up and made their voices heard (however hopeless it seemed at the time), would apartheid have been swept away?

In Zimbabwe, despite warnings not to engage in political debate as you never know who is listening, several locals were desperate to share their situation as a proud nation continues its slide into even further chaos under Mugabe’s rule.

Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre

And at some point on trips around Auschwitz and the Genocide Museum in Kigali, Rwanda, there are inevitable questions. How did anyone allow this to happen? What would I have done?

Not likening President Trump to any of those regimes. Not yet anyway. But if nothing else, standing out on a cold street in Cheltenham is worthwhile to keep his self-serving lies and bullying tactics front and centre until somebody is in a position to stand up and make a difference.

Starting with some ‘so-called judge’.

It’s been a busy few days away from protesting, which partly explains the delay in finishing this post and also why it was a relatively brief sprint through the A-Z iPod Challenge.

It took us just 50 tracks from Embassy Row by Pavement to, perhaps fittingly, Enemy by Buffalo Tom (via, possibly even more fittingly, a track from Frank Ocean’s album Channel Orange).

It also took in several songs which always take me back to my travels.

Sunset over Lome

Endless Art by A House was on the playlist which was a trusted companion on the Trans Africa trip, while First Aid Kit’s gorgeous Emmylou takes me back to early evenings watching the ships go by as the sun set from the beach in Lome, Togo and Emergency 72 by Turin Brakes joined the select group of songs which have provided titles for blog entries (thankfully, I think, without people realising why in this case).

Even Endlessly by Mercury Rev reminds me of travel, although as the soundtrack for spending 48 hours sprawled on a French ski resort sofa near to the bathroom with food poisoning.

And, perhaps most pertinently, Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind which was pretty much everywhere during six months on the road in the USA and brings back great memories of the country and why it is worth us caring about.

  • Sorry, still no playlist. I’ll launch a protest about why that’s not working, see where it gets us. Until then, relying on videos. Some of which are a bit odd.

photo by:
Share