On Joni Mitchell, at 75

Joni Mitchell is 75 today.
If art is a way of negotiating the course of our lives by experiencing the expression of the feelings of others, as channelled through literature, music or any other medium, and then seeing them reflected in our own, then there are events in my life which will always carry a soundtrack from Joni Mitchell.
It looks unlikely, given her health problems, that she will ever perform again. She will never record again – she turned her back on a music industry she regards as deeply corrupt more than a decade ago.
She is not the easiest of people. She has upset some for her views on feminism and other issues. She never slipped into that easy going late career that Leonard Cohen, one of the few late 20th century songwriters who can stand as her equal, managed to enjoy towards the end.
And yet… I suppose those of us to whom music forms part of the structure of our lives, as opposed to those who merely quite enjoy the odd tune, take the odd CD out of the rack, have half a hundred artists we enjoy and half a dozen, or fewer, who are more than that to us.
Readers will know who mine are. Miles, Carla Bley, Ralph Towner, Cohen… and Joni. I first heard Hissing Of Summer Lawns at Uni, courtesy of a fellow student and good friend. I had written off Mitchell as one of those wet, lank-haired female singer songwriters obsessed with their own egos and relationships. I was still in my teenage years. Obsessed with prog rock, to boot.
How wrong I was. At a time when (generally male) musicians were harnessing jazz as a way of demonstrating vacuous if stadium filling virtuosity, with honourable exceptions, here was Mitchell using its harmonic sophistication to enhance her astonishing songwriting craft. While singing about middle aged angst and defeated hopes, the duality of existence, the vibrancy of teenage love as recalled in middle age and the corruption of youth by drugs and prostitution. You will know the songs.
And that was just Summer Lawns. She recorded Court And Spark, that album and Hejira, an extraordinary fusion of jazz, folk, whatever, her most painfully personal work yet, in a short handful of years. An astonishing spurt of creativity. Probably unrivalled since the mid-60s Beatles.
(And yes, Blue was personal, too, I know. Was there ever a jauntier, happier tune than Carey? “I’ll put on some silver…” But Song For Sharon, from Hejira? A summary of a life that took that turn, not this, from the perspective of middle age. Who has never looked back on their lives in that way, from that perspective?)
And she went on. Don Juan, even some of the later, less well regarded stuff. Dog Eat Dog. Night Ride Home.
There is so much you can say about this music, so much to quote, so many memories from the small hours of one’s life, hunched over a muffled speaker.


On Logic, The Constitution And The People’s March

The main argument against a second referendum on the EU – yes, it’s that subject again – is that the people have spoken, it is the will of the people to leave and that any reversal of that would be a denial of democracy. That argument is both logically inconsistent and constitutionally wrong.
Here is why.
Any vote cannot be binding forever. This is why we have regular elections. Labour won overwhelmingly in 1997 and no one said, that’s it, we don’t need another vote ever. The people have spoken. This may sound trite, but it is now clear that the situation has changed significantly since the referendum. The promises made then on freedom of movement, frictionless trade, that £350 million to the NHS, are no longer achievable, and even the Brexit side is accepting that the eventual outcome of talks with the EU will look very different than it did then.
It is entirely appropriate that the electorate should be allowed to take a view on the changed circumstances when and if a deal is reached, or on a no deal scenario, once the implications of this are spelled out. This the government is already starting to do.
There is an argument that 700,000 people marched yesterday, but one million marched against the Iraq war and the Blair government ignored them. Why should May pay attention to the People’s March? Again, logically inconsistent. Two different issues.
Then there is the argument, by some Remainers too, that the frustration of the earlier vote could cause such rage that there could be public disorder and even rioting. One does not construct public policy on the basis that it might make some people angry. That is the rule of the mob.
One suspects some of the opposition to a second vote is down to the fear it might go the wrong way. The demographic has changed; more young people can vote. It is obvious to many, and see the above, that the sunlit uplands being promised look less assured and less attractive than had been promised. Some people have changed their minds. They have the right to reconsider in the light of changed circumstances. This is not a matter of a straight repeat vote on remaining in or leaving the EU.
Constitutionally, it is one of the basic tenets of our political system that Parliament cannot bind its successors. No policy if instituted can not be challenged thereafter. We have no written constitution, no bill of rights. Parliament, theoretically, could restore the death penalty tomorrow, if there was a sufficient majority among MPs,and then abolish it again next Wednesday week.
By one of life’s little ironies, the only block to this would be the European Court of Human Rights, a body unconnected to the EU and which has member states that are not part of it. This would rule the restoration of capital punishment contrary to basic human rights. It could probably then not become UK law. The Brexiters want us out of the ECHR, possibly because some wrongly believe it is yet another arm of Brussels.
Referenda are constitutional anomalies and we don’t generally go in for them. We voted to join the EU. Scotland voted to stay with the UK. We voted to leave the EU. None of those is binding, in the same way that no Act of Parliament, even if duly passed by a majority of MPs, is binding on their successors.
Our system of representative democracy does not allow the electorate, and the majority in any constituency that elects an MP to Westminster, to require that MP to vote in a particular way. We can just throw them out next time if we disapprove of their actions while in office. This is an important check against the tyranny of an elected majority. Likewise the result of a referendum does not bind individual MPs to any course of action.
It is entirely appropriate, constitutionally and logically, therefore that the British people be given a chance to consider whatever deal is struck by Brussels. Or any no deal. And say they don’t like it.
A bit dry and technical, but I would love to hear any constitutional lawyers challenge me on the facts.
I must get back to blogging on mere music again.

On the People’s March

Which I have just returned from, tired and proud. The irony is that most of the people on the march, us included, have the least to lose from Brexit. Either retired or secure in their jobs, in the prosperous south east. It is the ones in the places that more likely voted Leave, the marginalised, the less prosperous, that will suffer most.
As someone unkindly noted, it was less a protest march, more a long queue at Waitrose.
We do not want a straight rerun of the referendum. We want a vote on the outcome of the talks with Brussels that will lead up to any departure from the EU, which may look rather different from what we were promised then. It is not a matter of voting again until we get the right result. It is voting again on the changed circumstances now presented to us.
As John Maynard Keynes is widely misquoted as having said, if the facts change, I change my mind. What, sir, do you do?
It may all be irrelevant. I am going to go out on a limb here. I do not believe this country will ever leave the EU. You can store this one up and read it back to me as and when we do leave. If we do.
It can’t be done. Pretty well every expert has set out the dire consequences on trade, industry, travel, etc of a no deal scenario. No one, in London, Brussels or any other European capital wants this. Only a few swivel eyed madmen think a no deal outcome is an attractive one. You will know the names – rich, and with most of their assets parked or parkable offshore. Not, by any means, the people who voted Leave, who were told no deal would never happen. And were never told of the consequences if it did.
Barnier et al have already indicated we can kick the can down the road by extending the transition period by a year. The hard Brexiteers hate this. Having extended it once, though…
All this is a rosy scenario but not impossible. Brexit just withers in the face of its sheer impossibility.
Let us conduct a thought experiment. The government, for its own mad reasons, holds a referendum on reversing the law of gravity. 52 per cent quite like the idea of flying to work, 48 per cent see that there might be a few practical difficulties. Like your roof blowing off.
Then comes the time to implement the policy…
Meanwhile in this parallel universe Boris Johnson, having engineered it so he no longer has any responsibility for the project, says that if he were in charge, he could achieve it, no problem.
Jacob Rees Mogg explains that the basic laws of physics date back to the Renaissance. And no good ever came of that.
Optimistic, I know. But now is the time for optimism if never before.

On Corbyn, Eventually

I was never going to write this. I have supported Labour in pretty much every election I have ever voted in, but I am not a party member and not a party loyalist. It is not my place, then, to comment on internal party politics. And yet…
Fiona Millar tweeted today that she was not sure how much longer, after 40 years, she could stay with Labour. She is, among other things, the partner of Alastair Campbell. Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin are facing disciplinary proceedings over their respective challenges to perceived antisemitism among Corbyn supporters.
All are core party achievers who had much to do with Labour’s revival and its successes in government after 1997. Others have already left in disgust. The party that helped mobilise support against the Mosleyites in the 1930s now refuses to condemn outright and blatant antisemitism.
This is not so much the tail wagging the dog. This is the dog devouring its own entrails.
Why? Corbyn is eight years older than me. I recall the student politics of the mid-70s, a strident, fissiparous whirl of Trots, Communists, ultra-Trots, anarchists, ultra-anarchists, God knows what. They were forever passing motions in support of Albania, China, wherever, celebrating the death of Franco, condemning Pinochet or US policy, congratulating the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the MPLA in Angola.
None of it meant anything outside that bubble. Most people involved in all that grew up and walked away, or used their undoubted political energy in more sensible ways, the trade unions, mainstream politics.
Corbyn and his ilk never grew up. There were plenty like him. He spent the next forty years swimming in the same waters. His like will have attended any number of events celebrating the Cuban revolution, condemning Israel and the US, in support of various former USSR satrapies, pro-Ghadafy, pro-Saddam, pro-Serbia in the Balkans conflict, even.
He voted for the UK to leave the EEC, as was, in 1975. This is in line with the views of Moscow at the time, as expressed by its then mouthpiece, the Morning Star, and the Communist Party. “Down with the bosses’ Europe!” (One reason I campaigned on behalf of the EEC back then was the view that anything the Kremlin thought was a bad thing, geopolitically, must have something to recommend it.)
In all this time, Corbyn and others like him will have shared a platform, especially at those anti-Israel events, with any number of antisemites, many but not all from the Arab world.
Scroll forward to 2015, and Corbyn becomes head of the Labour party, against all expectations, including, probably, his own, and against the wishes of most of those taking part in the election process. An accidental leader.
Then comes the steady drip of those meetings he had attended, in the company of antisemites and other undesirables. About one revelation a day, at present. There are the unapologetic apologies – I apologise for any offence I may have given from taking part, rather than, I apologise for even being there. Corbyn cannot apologise properly because he remains wedded to those causes.
He never grew up. He could never say, as most would and as would be the most electorally advantageous strategy for Labour today, yes I did believe some silly things in my youth but I have abandoned them. Because he hasn’t. He at least has the courage of his earlier convictions.
The people he surrounds himself with must share those convictions because this is how the far left operated all those years ago. Ideological purity is everything, so expel all those who disagree.
(I suspect John McDonnell knows this, which is why I would take a small side-bet on his becoming leader within six months. God knows what he will do with Diane Abbott.)
It is our misfortune to be alive at the concatenation of three unexpected events. The worst existential crisis to face this country, barring the Cold War, since 1945. The most grotesquely incompetent serving Conservative government since probably well before then. And the arrival of the accidental leader of the opposition, someone unable to abandon his juvenile views even though it is in his best interests, the best interests of his party and the best interests of the country, to do so.
What a state to be in.

On Political Dialogue, And Cults

Some of us are having difficulty understanding how political discourse, in any number of areas including Brexit, Trump and antisemitism in the Labour Party, seems to have moved from normal robust discussion between different viewpoints into something much darker and more violent.
Here is one theory. Take some recent debates. Jacob Rees-Mogg was on LBC the other day playing down any fears that a no-deal Brexit would mean airlines would have difficulty, come next March, flying into the EU because the relevant treaty allowing them to do so would lapse. It could never happen, he said.
A man from one of the biggest UK airport groups, who had helped negotiate that very treaty, had a different view. It could easily happen, he said. We might have to fly from London to Paris via New York. Who do you believe?
The trade body for the automotive industry has warned that a no deal outcome would disrupt the industry’s supply chain because of delays in sourcing parts. There would have to be a huge holding facility to store these. A man from UKIP today said this is simply not true, as have other Brexit supporters before him. Who do you believe?
The food industry, anyone from the farmers to the companies that make sandwiches, has said it is impossible to stockpile food in the way the Government has suggested, because the supply chain is so tight. The Government says there will be ‘adequate’ supplies, delivered by the Army if necessary. The Army says it does not have the manpower to do this. Who do you believe?
Donald Trump says one thing, observes the reaction and then insists he has said the exact opposite. When directed to the taped conversation that has him making the first statement, his supporters say this is ‘fake news’.
Any number of Labour moderates insist their party has a problem with antisemitism. The objective evidence suggests that a number of activists, often Corbyn supporters, have said things that could be construed as antisemitic. The party redefines the definition of antisemitism to take such statements outside it. Corbyn supporters deny there is such a problem.
The definition of a cult is a system of veneration and devotion, often but not always religious, directed towards a particular figure or object. One might add to an idea or political process.
Once you are a cult member, the Dear Leader cannot be wrong. If objective reality runs counter to what he, and therefore you, believe, objective reality is wrong and can be ignored. Fake news, if you wish.
The Polish-born sociologist Henri Tajfel looked at the concept of social identity, and how people bolster their self-esteem by identifying with particular groups. We all do it; I am British, a Londoner, a journalist, say.
Tajfel identified the idea of the in-group, and the out-group. Cult members, my words not his, are within a strongly defined in-group. There is a process called out-group derogation whereby those outside are seen as threatening and may be attacked. This can take society down some very dark routes; Tajfel was a Pole born just after the First World War, so he will have had bitter experience of this.
I am not suggesting all supporters of Corbyn, Brexit or Trump are cult acolytes. Their occasional refusal to accept reality, and the violence with which some of them express their views, does suggest some worrying parallels and might help explain the embittered, rancorous state of political debate now.

On More Rail Chaos Coming Soon

I was reading a tweet from a passenger stuck at Waterloo in baking heat on a South Western Railway train for an hour. It occurred to me that the sheer visceral hatred felt by many passengers for their local train service operator now approaches the feelings of commuters such as myself towards the rail unions in the “heyday” of British Rail in the 1970s.
Services constantly disrupted because of incompetence or pig-headedness. Except today, even though some of the disruption is caused by industrial action, most of the blame falls on the companies themselves and not the unions. That is quite a turnaround. It will get worse. Here is why.
The cynical suspicion must be that some rail providers know the palmy days of making billions out of commuters are over and are tailoring their efforts to serve their customers accordingly. Stagecoach and Virgin are about to walk away from one of the busiest routes, the main line up the east coast, having invested billions in infrastructure they will never get back.
As many as four of the big rail franchises are reckoned to be unviable. The bids the companies put in for those franchises are predicated on rising passenger numbers of a couple of percentage points a year. This has been the case since privatisation. These are now going into reverse. The figures for the latest financial year show a 1.4 per cent fall in usage, and a more than 9 per cent fall in season ticket sales which itself implies diminishing confidence in the network’s ability to deliver.
The fall in numbers is more pronounced on Fridays. This suggests people are increasingly working from home for some of the time, put off by ever higher prices and poor delivery. The latest numbers show passengers were happy with 81 per cent of their journeys, a statistic that has been falling for years. Or to put it another way, one in five arrived at their destination unhappy.
Imagine, for a moment, if one in five of you were unhappy about disruption to water or electricity supplies to your home, or the availability of food. Or any other essential. Pretty unthinkable, isn’t it?
The fall in London and the south east, which accounts for a third of all journeys, was even more pronounced. South Western saw a 7 per cent decline in passenger numbers, which is extraordinary even if it is in part down to the weather and industrial action.
Those declines may not sound much, but in an industry that runs on wafer thin margins a reversal from a small percentage increase to a small decline represents a looming catastrophe.
These are public companies set up to make a profit. If they stop doing so, they have no reason to continue to provide a service or even invest in it. They will, like Virgin and Stagecoach, simply walk away.
The consequences will be threefold. A worse service, because of the inevitable disruption as staff have to be transferred to the public sector which will have to run the trains and because of lower investment.
The Government’s record, on Southern Rail and the current chaos on northern routes, suggests little will be done to alleviate any disruption, indeed it will take several years before anyone admits there is even a problem.
Second, the effective renationalisation of much of the rail industry. Third, higher fares, which will drive even more people off the railways and cut revenues further.
The only solution is higher state subsidy. More money for the rail network will be added to the demands for more spending on the NHS, social care, the defence budget… you will have your own list.
Oh sorry, I forgot. We can fund it all from the magic money tree, aka the Brexit dividend. Problem solved.

On Upskirting

I am having difficulty understanding why some men would risk prosecution for looking at women’s knickers. People are strange, though.
An unreconstructed Tory MP, Chris Chope, has on a technicality blocked a Commons motion making “upskirting”, the taking of pictures by mobile phone up women’s skirts, a criminal offence. He has form on this, having opposed other liberal measures.
This is a big deal for many women and not a party political one. Certain weird individuals, and you would have to be pretty weird, take pictures of unsuspecting women on the Tube or wherever up their skirts, which as most women wear underclothes does not reveal a great amount, I imagine.
(There is a similar practice, “downchesting”. You get the picture. So to speak.)
If I had a serious penchant for the sight of women’s underclothes, which I do not, I would type into Google the words “lingerie catalogues” and be a happy man for some days thereafter, I imagine. Rather than take my iPhone onto the Tube. This is not what this is all about, though.
Women want to make men taking such pictures a specific criminal offence. It is already an offence, probably on public order grounds, but I imagine not a high priority for the police.
This is where male and female perspectives differ.
Most men would probably take the view that if some women wants to engineer the taking of a picture of them in their boxer shorts in the changing room at Debenhams, say, then be my guest. If it means that much to you. Probably feel quite flattered, too.
Women see it differently, and find the practice degrading and offensive. Men have a duty to attempt to appreciate that. In psychological terms upskirting is an example of voyeurism, one of a range of behaviours known as paraphilia. Such behaviours can in some cases lead to worse offences.
The whole business merely demonstrates, yet again, that there are plenty of elected members in the Mother of Parliaments who fail to appreciate what century they are living in.

Being observations by a sixty-something financial journalist on business, morality, the morality of business, and things that make me really angry, This blog does not represent the views of my former employer, The Times. Martin Waller.