Whatever | September 2008

Whatever | Festivals If blanket TV coverage of music festivals is to rival sport, where’s its equivalent of Alan Hansen? WhateverGlasto2008 Back in the studio after a lacklustre nil-nil draw in Group C between France and Romania, BBC pundit Alan Hansen looked set to bust out of his pressed white shirt as he declared, with a degree of overstatement, “That was the worst game I’ve ever seen in my life.” Harbour a grudging respect for him or hate him, his assessment must have chimed with the thoughts of many Euro 2008 viewers at home. Punditry in motion. As it happened, three weeks of goalmouth incident, questionable pronunciations of Xavi and jibes about the astrology-based decisions of the French coach later, the Euro 2008 final coincided with blanket TV coverage of another heavily sponsored outdoor summer spectacle, Glastonbury. While BBC1 showed the entertaining clash between Germany and Spain in one field, over on BBC3 it was the Fratellis, Kings of Leon and Buddy Guy in another. The constant refrain of those committed enough to attend major sporting events and/or music festivals is, “You had to be there.” But for the majority, television is our best chance of a ringside seat. Since I stopped going after Glastonbury ’95, I have been the target armchair festivalgoer as the Beeb’s coverage has expanded like cosmic insulation foam to fill all nooks of the digisphere. As with Wimbledon, you can even press the red button and select from a multi-screen menu which game, set or match you wish to view. In many ways – most of them logistical and hygienic – it really is better than being there. WhateverGlasto2008 However, this comparison between sport and live music on TV throws up a problem. As one gradually morphs into the other – slick, branded, omnipresent, relentlessly cross-promoted and with saturation point never too far around the next corner – the big difference between the two becomes ever more apparent. There is one crucial element missing from festival TV. I’m talking about its total dereliction of critical judgement. Imagine if, during this year’s fulsome Glastonbury coverage, Mark Radcliffe had swivelled round on his backstage hay bail and exclaimed to Jo Whiley, “Well, that was the worst set I’ve seen on the Pyramid Stage in my life.” It’s unthinkable. Alan Hansen can call the Polish defence “abysmal”; Radcliffe must describe Shakin’ Stevens as “a trooper.” This is not a criticism of Mark or Jo or any other presenter, whose job it is to talk everything up, in order to justify the vast sums invested in securing rights, setting up outside-broadcast shop in Pilton for a week and supplying content to BBC2, BBC3, BBC4, BBC News, Radio 1, 5 Live, 6 Music, 1 Xtra, BBC online and BBCi. But I can vouch for the fact that, once a broadcaster is onsite, the tendency is simply to cheerlead. “The atmosphere is amazing!” “It’s shaping up to be a vintage Glastonbury!” “It’s not just about the music.” It’ll be the same for T In The Park, Reading and Leeds, Cambridge … TV and radio coverage is less like editorial, more like advertorial. The irony in all this round-the-clock, welly-wearing Pollyannaism is that music fans are no strangers to music criticism. Whether old enough to have been raised on the sturm und drang of the weekly music press or new enough to be fluent in the snap judgements of blog and Facebook, the type of person who will actually sit down to watch Glastonbury on TV (and there are 1.9 million in peak-time, down to a respectable 500,000 after 11pm) is exactly the type who would welcome at least a heated debate on the merits of Jay-Z, rather than to hear the party line parroted (ie. that he “won the crowd over”). WhateverGlasto2008 Sporting pundits are there to dissect a match; to marvel at the way Torres lifted Xavi’s pass over the keeper’s legs, but also to bemoan the ref’s decision not to book Silva after that surreptitious headbutt on Podolski. Why are we not grown up enough to hear the same degree of expert critique from football’s festival counterparts? In fairness, this won’t come from DJs like Jo or Zane or Fearne, ambassadors for the Corporation with future guest bookings to protect, but can a substrata of critics not be arranged in a studio to offer something a little more incisive? “The atmosphere seems oddly corporate and stilted this year.” “Is there a festival the Verve aren’t playing?” “Is Beth Ditto still at it?” Actually, a couple of years ago, Jo Whiley did break ranks and offer a unique glimpse of editorial. After the Alison Goldfrapp set, she said, “It just goes to show that you can be thin and still have cellulite.” Not even Hansen would be that incisive.

Published in Word magazine, September 2008

Whatever | November 2008

Whatever | VE Day with Vodafone
Can any anniversary, event or initiative go by unbranded?

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The carnival atmosphere on VE Day, 8 May 1945, was hastily improvised on a ration-hardened whim and spread by word of mouth. The ad hoc spirit was summed up when, lacking a public address system, the Lord Mayor of Birmingham put a radio on the window sill of his office so that the gathering crowds could hear Churchill’s speech. But the pianos, gramophones and trestle tables gamely manhandled into the middle of the street would not be enough for today’s civic cheerleaders.

It was Mark E Smith who famously listened to a Verve record in the early 90s and muttered, “God help us if there’s a war.” A generation later, one can’t help but echo his sentiments, but for different reasons. Should some new Reich threaten the security of Europe, Britain would stand no chance; not because of the unfit state of its indie conscripts, but because our priorities would now surely be with forming a steering group to put out to tender the contract for branding of the war and a series of sub-committees to forward-plan the Public Private Partnership-funded post-war celebrations, scheduled for Christmas, naturally.

What a shame we would never get to experience VE Day Party In The Park with “top bands, special guests and Fearne Cotton”, and blanket live coverage on BBC1, BBC3 and Radio 2. The flypast and firework display would remain an idealised, computer-generated mock-up in a media pack, as would the walk of champions, the satellite-linked giant screens in major cities, a living memorial created through contemporary dance, a special edition of Strictly Come Fighting and sponsored livery on banners, buses and wristbands: “V FOR VICTORY WITH V FOR VODAFONE.”

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Because no event, anniversary or initiative can pass unmarked, unnamed or unbranded in this autistic age we live in, whether it’s 9/11, 7/7, Liverpool 08, Love Music Hate Racism, Concert For Diana, Broken Britain, America Decides, The Big Food Fight, The Big Read, The Big Clean Up or National Take Your Dog To Work Day, all competing for our already foreshortened attention spans like unlicensed cab touts. Even the latest recession has been branded: the Credit Crunch. Does that mean giant foam rubber hands for anyone evicted or laid off?

The worst of it is London 2012, the year itself logo-stamped (“because now 2012 isn’t just four digits,” states the Royal Mint, imperially, advertising its Handover Ceremony £2 Coin from just £6.95). As we hurtle towards it with all the speed of an Integrated Environment and Sustainability Management System-audited JCB full of East End dirt, we’re expected to stay not just enthused but patriotically so, for four years, thanks to what has already been branded the Cultural Olympiad, divided into Ceremonies, Major Projects and, I quote, Inspire Mark Projects (whatever that means – and who’s Mark?). It’s not all fun and games.

Rarely do I see something on TV which makes me want to re-enact the legendary protest of lorry driver James Holmes of Waltham Abbey, who kicked in his £380 colour television set on 1 December, 1976 when the Sex Pistols swore at Bill Grundy. “I was so angry and disgusted with this filth that I took a swing with my boot,” Mr Holmes told the Mirror. My own boot hovered within inches of the flat-screen during the 2012 Olympic Handover Concert in the Mall, sponsored by Visa. Never mind 9/11 – the world changed forever in the three minutes it took “indie pop” three-piece Scouting For Girls to cover London Calling by the Clash.

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Before a 40,000-strong afternoon crowd of mostly tourists, this mostly harmless bunch, dressed for the garden, nonetheless crystallised our own proud nation’s addiction to event coordination. The theme of the gig was songs about sport and winning. We Are The Champions and Nobody Does It Better had been taken, so Scouting For Girls opted to turn the greatest rock song of the punk era into a mayoral, flag-waving credit-card singalong. London Calling was not dredged from Joe Strummer’s angry guts to commemorate a geographical decision by an international committee; it is a howl of pain about the impending apocalypse, as foreseen from angles as diverse as flood (“London is drowning”), famine (“the wheat is growing thin”), and accident (“a nuclear error”). This Chas & Dave-style rendition was extraordinary indeed. The haunting line about “the one with the yellowy eyes” became … and I can’t believe I am about to write this … “the one with the 19 gold eyes.” Yes. Because Team GB won 19 gold medals.

Get it? If not, a media pack will be forthcoming. Meanwhile, send extra Sustainability Management System-audited JCBs of dirt, because Joe Strummer is turning in his grave.

Published in Word magazine, November 2008

Whatever | June 2010

Whatever | The Great Volcano Inconvenience
God help us if there’s a war

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Wanda Jackson, the 74-year-old First Lady of Rockabilly, was stuck in Germany and couldn’t make an interview on my 6 Music show; the comedian Sarah Millican had to cancel an Edinburgh preview I had tickets for at a North London theatre pub because she was unable to fly back from the Melbourne Comedy Festival; and my asthma was slightly aggravated for a few days. Welcome to my Volcano Crisis.

It all started when, in the early hours of Wednesday April 14, Shetland Islanders detected the smell of rotten eggs in the air. By the next day, like an errant child, Britain was “grounded”, as the sulphuric cloud of volcanic ash caused by the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland started pluming across Europe. The Great Volcano Inconvenience had begun, and nothing would ever be the same again …

Until the following Tuesday, when a BA flight from Vancouver touched down at Heathrow, the skies started to refill with metal birds and Sky started to fill with scintillating footage of ordinary people coming through arrivals halls looking a bit inconvenienced. Willie Walsh, union-intolerant CEO of British Airways admitted it would take “weeks” to resume normal service, but promised, “we will make every effort to get our people back home,” as if perhaps he really was airlifting refugees or troops, not running a £8.9bn business for profit.

During the Six Day Inconvenience, 95,000 flights were cancelled and an estimated 150,000 Britons trapped on holiday. I am not without sympathy for those who missed weddings, or lost money, or, in the case of the Kenyan flower farmers, had to sit and watch tonnes of roses bound for our Tesco Metros and BP Connects rotting under the Nairobi sun, but for the majority of us, it was lovely. Not a single plane In the sky for the best part of a week. As Stuart Jeffries hymned in the Guardian as he lay on the dewy grass at Kew amid magnolias and witch hazel, “The sky is filled with good news. One of the world’s busiest flight paths, that normally sullies much of west London with howling jet engines from 6am, is silent.”

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What prelapsarian paradise was this? On the Thursday, ITV suspended all adverts for the 90 minute duration of the first leaders’ election debate, merely adding to this surreal glimpse of a frankly more agreeable world. The word “chaos” reigned. Not actual chaos, just the word. Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles was stuck in New York. The Cribs, Delphic and Frightened Rabbit failed to make Coachella in California. Whitney Houston discovered that there is a lower ebb than appearing in the Bravo reality show Being Bobby Brown when she took the ferry from Holyhead in order to make a gig in Dublin. The Iron Man 2 world premiere was switched from the Westfield Shopping Centre in London to a presumably less rubbish Los Angeles. My friend Stuart Maconie, stuck in Venice, switched into travel writer mode and provided Twitter followers with a witty, illustrated commentary on his journey back to Mark Radcliffe by train, via Milan, Zurich and Paris (“Erstfeld station. The Didcot Parkway of the Alps”).

Come Saturday, when constant plane noise over my neck of London usually taints the summer’s first glass of rose on the patio, I’d stopped feeling guilty for enjoying the respite. A hyperventilating media and our glad-handing politicians had combined to turn the ash cloud into a new Dunkirk (“no-fly misery”), with Gordon Brown promising warships and the Daily Mail fortuitously selling World War II In Colour DVDs off the page. We Brits do not have a lot to be proud of these days, but we still have “pluck” and “resilience”, a myth reliably peddled in any self-started crisis. We certainly showed some world-class queuing with bags at Calais and Santander in our darkest hour.

WhateverVolcano22010

The clamour to present the Six Day Holiday Extension as some kind of duty-free 9/11 masked the real story: our perverted view of cheap and easy air travel as a basic human right. (Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, one telegenically stranded celeb, was rare in admitting that the experience of having to endure five unplanned days in Mauritius had made him realise that flying is “a privilege”.) I’m not the planet’s most assiduous green but I have read a lot of books on environmental matters, including a couple of particularly terrifying ones on peak oil, and it doesn’t take a genius to foresee a foreseeable future where there’s not actually enough fuel to support our decadent devotion to economic growth and stag weekends in Prague.

The Six Day Chillout – quickly blamed on overreaction by the “health and safety” brigade – was an unprecedented and glorious glimpse of a post-Ryanair world. Like the “marooned” holidaymakers, it was all brought home for me in the words of Samson Lukoba, legal and ethical trading manager at Oserian, a vast floral factory perched on the shores Kenya’s Lake Naivasha: “The British, they want flowers every day, even just for their houses, not necessarily for special occasions.”

This was a special occasion. As if choreographed by James Lovelock, whose Gaia theory it so beautifully illustrated, April’s volcano – or “vilecano” as it was anthropomorphically christened by the silly old Mirror – showed us a world in which we must eat tiny bags of dry roasted peanuts and get deep vein thrombosis at home. And grow our own bloody flowers.

Published in Word magazine, June 2010

Andrew’s Columns

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There once was a magazine called The Word, although I always called it Word, as that it what it was originally called. Had I never written a single word for Word, I would have been its most ardent admirer (and subscriber), and would have lamented its passing with the same moistened eyes. As it happens, I did write for it, but I looked forward to the new issue arriving every month for 114 consecutive months between February 2003 and August 2012 not just to see how my words looked on the hallowed page, but to read all the other words by all the other smart and witty people on all the other pages.

Records show that I began writing a regular page column for Word at the very end of 2004, initially about TV and called Telly Addict. (Not a bad name.) In November 2006, that column’s brief was expanded to include … everything. It was renamed Whatever to reflect this. Whatever ran until the end of 2010, when it stopped. I was sad about this, but pulled myself together and carried on writing reviews and features for my favourite magazine until its final issue, including the third before last cover story, about the Stone Roses. (My only other cover story was Elbow, both pictured.)

As the magazine did not reprint its articles or reviews on the website (which instead predominantly acted as a water cooler for the Word massive), I find I am sitting on an awful lot of my own published writing that I remain very proud of. With the passing of the years, some of it even takes on a socio-historical sheen. So, without rhyme or reason – and mainly because I chanced up a random column from 2010 about the disruption to life as we know it caused by an Icelandic volcano while clearing out my email’s “sent” folder this morning – I thought it might be fun, if not necessarily an actual public service, to reproduce some of these columns here.

I hope you enjoy them, and that they bring back some fond memories of an era when you could publish magazines and a loyal knot of the discerning would buy them.

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An index of columns randomly posted so far:

June 2010 | Memories of the Great Volcano Inconvenience
November 2008 | The branding of everything
September 2008 | Unquestioning TV festival coverage
March 2007 | Health food packaged for idiots
June 2009 | The age of the overstatement
April 2009 | Choosing a daily newspaper
November 2010 | The death of the printed word
April 2010 | 3D or not 3D?
August 2008 | Barack Obama
January 2009 | Grey squirrels
July 2007 | Indie and the charts

The morning after

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We are still picking up the emotional pieces in the immediate morning after the disaster before. Dazed, confused, barely able to appreciate the long, insurmountable task ahead. But if, amid the actual chaos, you want to understand why the election result is such a grim and terrible thing, check the stock market.

The “markets”, that celestial sphere of imagination and speculation where no actual goods are sold, reacted with nervousness before the election results were in, as the “markets” feared a Labour victory. They need not have worried.

Cameron’s smarmy victory calmed them all down and offered a happy finish, and all the bad guys got rich. The luxury property market for foreign investors; the large corporations who employ slave labour; the arms dealers; the private rail companies; the foreign-owned utility companies. See how many times you let out a triumphant cheer and effect an air-punch when you learn that Sports Direct, which has 15,000 of its employees on zero-hours contracts, added £95m to its share price overnight; the private rail operator Stagecoach added £140m to its stock market value as the “threat” of putting the East Coast mainline back into public ownership vanished; Babcock International and BAE Systems, war hawkers by appointment, celebrated the disappearance of the “threat” to Trident with rising share prices to the tune of £460m added to Babcock’s; shares in estate agents Savills, the London-based Foxtons and “upmarket” housebuilders Berkeley jumped upwards; surprisingly British-owned energy giant Centrica went up 8%; RBS and Lloyds added £5.5bn to their combined value (the Tories plan to sell their shares in both) and “cheers” were heard on the trading floor of the City when Ed Balls lost his seat (mind you, I cheered too, for different reasons); perhaps most galling of all, useless outsourcing companies G4S and Serco all benefited on the stock market as the Tories are gung-ho for farming out more public services to private companies, who will fuck them up; oh, and Ladbrokes, those arm’s-length destroyers of men, added £96m, as Milband had been planning to cut down on the number of fixed-odd “betting terminals” allowed in betting shops – and a continued Tory Britain will guarantee more people desperate for money, the bookies’ best customers.

That’s who’s going to benefit from five more years of this. If you’re happy about that, fine. Actually, no, if you’re happy about that, fuck off.

See you at the bottom.

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I warn you not to fall ill

ElectionDCpumped Tomorrow in this country we vote in a general election. I hope you’re going to vote. You should vote. Even Russell Brand has done a U-turn on this issue. And unless you have literally not a single thought or care for anyone but yourself and your immediate family, then you must not vote for this man.

There is a high probability that this man, who is called David Cameron, hates you. He wouldn’t care if you died – in fact, if you are not a “wealth creator”, he’d probably prefer it if you did die, as you are probably in the way and more likely to put pressure upon the state. He hates the state. He can see no better way of running a “society” than on the lines of a private company. He does not care about you unless you are already well off, or would be prepared to do anything to become well off (including voting for him – or at least, for his party, as he’s already confirmed that he’s not even going to stick around for the full five years).

He is not interested in politics, simply in feathering his own nest and the nests of those whose nests are already also pretty well feathered, but could always do with some extra feathers. In the far-off days when the Labour party meant something but found itself unelectable in the new Thatcherite climate of self-interest (except in places like Wales and Scotland), Neil Kinnock made a speech on 7 June 1983 in Bridgend, Glamorgan, that belatedly touched me deep inside and shaped my adult politics. Speaking two days before the election, he said:

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.

It still rings true today, except perhaps even more so. Whether you vote Labour, or Green, or Plaid/SNP (depending on geography), or for an independent, you will be voting against David Cameron and another five years of destruction: of the state, of communities, of the NHS, of the BBC, of the ordinary, the young, the ill and the old. I am neither young, nor ill, nor old, but I’m voting for more than just me and my immediate family.

I am pumped up, actually. The Tories do not believe in compassion, or a safety net, or assistance, or local services, or local amenities, or loving thy neighbour. They would happily see a library close if it wasn’t profitable. The only useful public sector to the Tories is one that’s shriveled and decimated. They would privatise the health service on Friday if they thought they could get away with it. (They’ve already privatised the Royal Mail, something Thatcher wouldn’t even do.) They hate the arts. They hate humanities, and humanity. We know they’re going to cut £12bn from the welfare bill. We don’t know how, but we know they will. They’ve actually announced it. I can’t think of a single pound of that bill that isn’t going to make someone’s life less worth living. Possibly someone ordinary, young, ill or old.

He bangs on about the “chaos” of Labour, because it’s a soundbite and it works on a very basic level, which is the only level politicians like to work on (the deficit, immigration, jobs, waiting times). Such binary thinking is unquestioningly broadcast by the print media it owns until people in vox pops on the news actually start to parrot stuff about “getting the deficit down” without knowing what the deficit is, or why it needs to be “got down”. These same people think Nicola Sturgeon is the most dangerous woman in Britain. And that Labour caused the global financial crisis of 2008, which they didn’t, but were too timid to say so after Gordon Brown, because he had – it’s true – failed to regulate the banks and a cloud of embarassment fell upon the centre-left. The people who read the Sun and the Mail and the Telegraph think Labour will bring “chaos”. But I see “chaos” now. It’s going to be messy on Friday and in the weeks after, but let’s just do what it takes to keep this man out.

He is Margaret Thatcher without the ideology. Margaret Thatcher without the effort. Margaret Thatcher without the struggle. I did warn you.

It’s not easy being Green

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There is a general election in 15 days. That’s just over a fortnight. Assuming you registered, there are only two ways to vote: with your wallet, or with your heart. (Actually, three: tactically, which feels like beating the system but might equally be a case of being beaten by it – then again, I’ve never lived anywhere marginal, so it’s not been an option for me personally.) Now that all the manifestos are in, and we’ve all read them – right? – we can make an informed decision where to put our cross. I will be putting mine next to my local Green Party candidate. Why? Because the Green party stands for most of the things I stand for. Or vice versa.

They are, it has to be said, a utopian party. And yet, they have had one sitting member of Parliament since 2010; also, one peer, three MEPs and two members of the London Assembly (I live in London). They finished fourth at last year’s European elections, beating the Lib Dems. Realistically, the Spock-like Darren Hall could win Bristol West in 15 days’ time, but the Greens are standing in around 90% of seats in England and Wales, compared to 50% five years ago (search for your local candidate here), and the recent “surge” in membership, which doubled last year, has been something to behold. (The party has more members than the Lib Dems and UKIP.)

Many consider a vote for the Greens, or any of the other “smaller” parties, as a protest vote against the Westminster cabal. In many ways, my own preference for the Greens is a two-fingers to the disgusting Tories and the ruined Labour party (the Lib Dems were a spent force the day they formed the Coalition). In my fevered dreams, the Labour party would make these manifesto promises. In reality, the Green party does.

  • End austerity
  • Introduce a new wealth tax on the 1%, a “Robin Hood” tax on the banks and close tax loopholes
  • Increase the minimum wage to reach a living wage of £10 an hour by 2020
  • A publicly-funded health service, free at the point of use (remember when it was actually like this?)
  • Ban fracking
  • Invest in renewable energy, flood defences and building insulation
  • Scrap tuition fees
  • Bring Academies and Free Schools under local authority control
  • Re-nationalise the railways (frankly, if they just promised this, I’d vote for them)

You can read the Green manifesto in full here. If you’re one of those people who likes to tear things apart, I’m sure there’s plenty here that doesn’t quite add up to the last penny. (I expect you also lapped it up when Natalie Bennett had a “brain freeze” on LBC, or was railroaded by Andrew Neil on The Daily Politics – a privatised railroad, of course – as it’s easy sport to debunk what is still thought of as a single-issue party and whose ideas go beyond bean-counting and deckchair rearrangement.) But since when did sums that don’t add up stop the bigger parties in their race to the bottom line, parties who are funded by corporations, while the Greens are not. You can guarantee that no party funded by big business and lobby groups will tackle climate change, or re-nationalise anything, or tax the super-rich because the super-rich are their donors. And although two MPs (pleeeeeeease!) doesn’t quite add up to a Parliamentary majority, I’m thinking with my heart here, and inside my ribcage, I can feel the steady beat of progressive thinking.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, and I’ll be proud to swell the figures for a party that speaks directly to me. And if we didn’t labour under the yoke of First Past The Post in this particular democracy, some of the smaller parties would have a louder voice, without all the blackmail and manouvering that’s afoot as we speak. I would happily consider a vote for Plaid Cymru or the SNP if they’d bothered to stand a candidate in my area – and I certainly welcome female leaders, who have already, between the three of them in the TV debates, made Ed Miliband’s “Hell, yeah” posturing seem pretty pathetic. So the Green Party it is.

I have gone back to my constituency to prepared for not having voted in the government. And although it’s not easy to be Green – they’re always begging for a fiver, for a start! – it feels right. If the majority of the comments under John Harris’s latest election film for the Guardian prove anything, it’s that the Green party has a target painted on its back and a sign saying, “Mock me.” I remember when I was a member of the Labour party back in the idealistic 80s and was accused by a firebrand from the SWP of supporting “a racist party” (I never did inquire why) for my audacity to sport a “Vote Labour” sticker on my coat. To make a choice is to draw fire. But an election is all about making a choice. Unless you follow Russell Brand, whose first-past-the-postmodernism refusenik stance has found traction since he put his head above a parapet it would be much easier to hide behind, and I feel the pain of any young voter disinclined to vote for the yes-minister dinosaurs. But no vote at all is a negative form of protest, like atheism: it is an absence, not a stance. Polly Toynbee insists disaffected Labour votes put a peg on their nose and vote for them anyway. A vote for the Greens requires no such protection. The air’s cleaner over here.

Oh, and by the way, to save your typing fingers, I know the bin collection has gone awry in Brighton Pavilion.