My indecision is final

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In 2002, I interviewed Michael Moore, a strident, striding leftist, onstage at the National Film Theatre. He inspired me then, and he inspires me still, and you get the sense that he’s born to be in opposition, which suits him fine. His reputation solidified under George W Bush, and seems to be doing the same under Donald J Trump. One of the questions I put to him was about his apparent certainty. I asked him if he ever had any doubts that he was right. He said that if he discovered he was wrong, he’d change his opinion and he’d be right again. It was said lightheartedly but there is something profound about that willingness to be guided by events.

On January 6 last year, I wrote a blog entry on the morning after Jeremy Corbyn’s “revenge reshuffle” (as the rightwing press gleefully dubbed it). He was not yet a year into the job of leading the Labour Party and I was very publicly right behind him. The media was not; it threw up its hands in horror when Corbyn courted what they called “the hard left,” and threatened to cause a “lurch” in that direction. (You always “lurch” to the left; you never skip, or saunter, or waltz.) Kim Howells, a former union man turned Blair loyalist who stood down at the 2010 general election, helpfully described Corbyn’s reshuffled team as “superannuated Trotskyite opportunists” and “lunatics.” But you didn’t have to read the Standard or the Mail to find anti-Corbyn propaganda. Even the Yvette Cooper-supporting Guardian seemed hell-bent on sending him back to the back benches where he belonged. (Like Michael Moore, he seemed perfectly suited to being in opposition – that was his blessing and his curse.) I wrote this:

This was supposed to be the dawning of a new era for British party politics. The idea of a “left-wing” Labour party seemed like an impossible dream before Corbyn’s democratic ascent. It’s still within Labour’s grasp, but they have to stop fighting each other, unite under their leader or fuck off to the back benches. I am a potential Labour voter. I haven’t been one of those since the Bernie Eccelstone/Formula One back-hander and Blair’s pack of lies in October 1997. I can’t be the only one.

I felt that after the embarrassing farrago of Ed Milliband, the second of two consecutive “unelectable” Labour leaders – a description that was technically true, as both he and Gordon Brown had lost general elections – Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate signified hope for the future of the party, and his new style of doing business felt refreshing and honest. New Labour had tried everything else; maybe this “socialism” thing had swung back into fashion and relevance as the Tories tore up the welfare state and prepared the NHS for sale. What better time to have an old-school lefty in a woolly tie with a Lenin hat in charge? I almost considered re-joining the party (I’d last been a member in 1992, and last voted for them in 1997), such was the passion Corbyn seemed to inspire, especially in younger voters, who are literally the future.

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I reacted violently against the press war on Corbyn, the cheap shots, the Blairite bias, the obsession with his clothes. The alternative to Jeremy Corbyn seemed to be Owen Smith. I clung with perhaps unrealistic optimism to Corbyn’s mandate among the rank and file, the support he had in the unions, and the calamitous failure of those MPs who refused to work with him to field a candidate anyone took seriously enough to vote for. I wanted the Bennite right to shut up and knuckle down to the job in hand. But it was not to be. I wrote this:

He’s too quiet, too reasonable, too low-key – all qualities that should be refreshing in the bellowing Bullingdon that is Parliament, but do him no favours with so many louder voices around him. But I also despair of the Labour party. All we hear about are internecine struggles and knives in backs, petty bickering, negative briefing, unnamed moderates firing shots across their leader’s bows. I’m not sure what the answer is. Take better media advice? You don’t have to join them, but you must occasionally beat them.

Despite a number of reasons to abandon ship, I stuck with him right the way through the leadership contest in September 2016, which he won with 313,209 votes, increasing his share of the vote from 59.5% to 61.8% compared with the result of original 2015 leadership election. He received around 62,000 more votes than in 2015, in fact. What a loser! If Corbyn was “unelectable”, then Owen Smith and Angela Eagle weren’t even electable enough to find out if they were electable or not. Their combined failure to inspire repaired any doubts I had. It was clear that nobody within Labour was better qualified than Corbyn to lead. His enemies had had enough chances. But Brexit made failures of us all. And it finished Corbyn off, I think.

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Here is the news. I have changed my mind about Jeremy Corbyn. I stuck with him for way longer than most in the approximate vicinity of the Left. I kept defending him in heated arguments when deep inside I knew he was doomed to fail. In the end, I weighed up the facts and the evidence and I did what I knew Michael Moore would have done. I altered my opinion, which had become wrong, and I became right again.

I aired this revelation on Twitter last night, frustrated with Labour’s failure to even lodge a unified protest against the Brexit bill. At the same time I expressed my fond admiration of the noble 47 (out of 167) Labour MPs who voted against triggering Article 50, defying Jeremy Corbyn’s hypocritical three-line whip. For the record, here are the 47 in full. (This list includes Owen Smith, so I have to adjust my opinion of him, too. Try it – it’s liberating.)

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At the same time reassuring any Labour MP who resigned over the issue (stand up, Tulip Siddiq, Jo Stevens) that they could just come back afterwards was a parody of Corbyn’s woolly-tie style. On the one hand, he’s so reasonable he strays into passive-aggression, and on the other, he’s a dictator who seems to be dictated to by his media handlers. Maybe the media made him this way. Maybe he, too, wishes he was back on the back benches. He’s never seemed comfortable walking out of his own front door and discovering that the media outside seems to be interested in him, and he will not trim that climbing plant that always whacks him in the face, but I think a piece of me died when his aides prevented an ITV reporter from asking him a simple, unthreatening question in November. It’s worth watching again.

I wonder if there is an image of Jeremy Corbyn’s downfall more tragic or poignant than the sight of him hiding behind a glass door, claiming to have been “harassed.” I could no longer defend him after that. It was a dick move by him, and by his aggressive, high-minded minders. I had bigger political fish to fry with Brexit and Trump and a world in flames to worry about an old man’s feelings any more.

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I think it’s OK to change your mind. I didn’t like the first episode of period hospital drama The Knick when I saw it, but I returned to it and gave it another go, then changed my mind about it; and I now consider it to be one of the great TV dramas of all time. Someone Tweeted that it was “big of me” to admit I had changed my mind about Jeremy Corbyn, but it isn’t big, it’s just clever.

Oh, and please don’t ask me, “Who’s going to save us now?” If Labour continues to dig its heels in and refuses to form any kind of coalition with the Greens, the Lib Dems, the SNP, and rise from the ashes, it is doomed to fourth place, or worse. I look forward to having my mind changed on this.

Happy holidays

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Today is the shortest day of the year. It was the darkest when you woke up, and it will be the darkest when you go to bed. Dark thoughts propagate in the darkness. I give you Alan the black cat, who was behind Door #18 of the Cats Protection advent calendar. No matter what ailed Alan before he was photographed by the charity – malnutrition, abandonment, cruelty – he’s better now. That’s empirical. Hold that thought.

I entered a shop that sells records at the weekend and purchased a CD, Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the band’s sixteenth. It was always intended to be a stripped-back album about death, but the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, during its recording has clearly influenced some of the more improvised lyrics. When I bought it, the woman working behind the counter told me that the staff had put it on the shop’s PA when it was released in September and their manager begged them to take it off, as it was driving customers out of the shop. I can’t stop playing it.

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I had it on my headphones as I walked across Hungerford Bridge at around 7.30am this morning, on the shortest day, when London was a long way into the process of waking up, the sky fading from black to blue. It comforted me, oddly. This has been another year in which the prospect of spending much time in Central London, or indeed in any major city in Europe, has filled me with dread. The likelihood of being gunned down, or blown up, or deliberately run over, seems to be much higher than it has ever seemed before – and I’ve lived in London for 32 years, I ought to be immune to it by now! But … you go about your business – and most of my trips into Central London are for business – and beat those who seek to harm by not thinking about them. Think instead of Alan, and the profound way his life has been changed by kindness.

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Last night was one of the few guaranteed to bring warmth in my “more selective” social calendar: the annual Word Magazine (2003-2012) reunion, valiantly organised by Nige Tassell, who has much further to travel than most, and is someone I might not have met without Word. Numbers have dwindled since the first such gathering in a pub in Islington, but certain troopers tend to form a quorum: David Hepworth, Fraser Lewry, Andrew Harrison, Mark Hodkinson, John Naughton, Caroline Grimshaw, Steve Yates. It was an oasis of something more meaningful that the ubiquitous modern fallback “banter”: stories told, memories shared, a year of professional and personal updates, craft beer, pizza, winter coats, and all within the sound of the old Word offices. I have to venture that last night’s get-together had an almost imperceptible air of mortality about it – much talk of whether or not certain beloved musicians of the post-punk era had turned 60 yet; the sharing of employment anxieties; actual news of ailments. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, of course.

Nobody is about to get out the violins for a bunch of media operatives, mostly self-employed, in their forties and fifties, bemoaning the paucity of opportunities in a business that once thrived on human interaction and having a desk, but is now run from home, and via email, if at all. (John still works for GQ and confirms that there are no shortage of people gainfully employed in the fashion magazine sector, and Radio Times, too, lines a lot of journalists, editors, designers and sub-editors up with lockable drawers and phone extensions in the cause of producing a content-heavy listings magazine, but a lot of the old certainties are falling away elsewhere.) It’s not just manual work that’s being taken over by machines. The machines have been decimating “old media” for years, and with it, the living human beings who once suckled at its colourful teat.

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I’ve spent a lot of the last two weeks using social media to promote an online auction for Cats Protection, wherein celebrities (and I use that category with caution, as one of them was me) donated customised “paw print” artwork and bids were bid via eBay. The scheme raised a cumulative £1,215 for injured, abandoned, mistreated and poorly cats and kittens: the Alans. (Black cats are a special case, as they are statistically less likely to be rehomed than more colourful cats because it’s harder to read their faces.) I was proud to play my part. The whole thing framed social media in a celestial light. But Twitter and Facebook are increasingly becoming distorted by hate. If 2016 can be said to be characterised by anything, it’s online bile.

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Lena Dunham, a provocative figure with a large audience for someone on HBO, said something inflammatory on her own podcast Women of the Hour on December 15 and the media seem to have discovered it. A fervent supporter of Planned Parenthood (under threat from Trump’s rabid misogynists working under the banner of family values, the sort that meant something under Eisenhower), Dunham said that she had never had an abortion but “wished she had.” Taken in a spirit of understanding and empathy, you can sort of see what she means. But it’s a bit like me saying I wish I’d worked down a Welsh coalmine so that I could more meaningfully offer my solidarity with miners. It sounds silly. And unnecessary. But what she said was that appearing at pro-choice events had implied to some that she, too, had experience of abortion, when in fact she didn’t. She wanted to make this case plain. But in saying she “wished” she’d had an abortion, they courted trouble. And she’s smart enough to know that it would be reported, and likely out of context.

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Glancing through social media this morning to track the story, and to track the outrage, most of it from women, much of it from anti-abortionists, I was dismayed, as ever, by the crudity of the dialogue. People made abortion jokes against her. They joked that she should have been aborted. They called her sitcom an abortion. They attacked her “clothing choices” (this came from a woman, naturally). They called her a “limousine liberal,” which seems to be the US equivalent of “champagne socialist”, and yes, I can see why. But what is just today’s passing storm of outrage reflects horribly on the state of discourse in the social media age. While some are raising money or awareness, others are calling people they’ve never met and will never meet insulting names. And then running away. (I used to observe this – that it’s like knocking on somebody’s front door and running away – but they don’t always run away any more, emboldened as they are by electoral affirmation.)

There is a lot to be concerned about in the world as it is today, rent asunder by military misadventure, religious extremism and the relentless grinding of humanity’s bones by capitalism. I can barely bring myself to read the newspapers or watch the news. But let’s go back to those cats and kittens. Thanks to Joey Essex and Danny Mac and Elaine Paige, money has been directly raised this Christmas for Cats Protection, an organisation reliant on volunteers and donations, and one among hundreds of equally deserving causes. It’s been another year whose atrocities are the names of the cities in which they were perpetrated: Aleppo, Berlin, Ankara, Brussels, Lahore, Istanbul, each briefly prefixed with the hashtag #PrayFor (tough luck expressing keystroke empathy if you don’t have a God to pray to). A presenter on the nightly Press Preview on Sky News struggles to establish what she keeps calling “the narrative” after the latest carve-up of human life. The “narrative” doesn’t change much from one execution to the next: pissed-off young man seeks to find meaning in a meaningless world using blunt instrument.

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’Tis the season to be jolly, but it’s harder than ever this year to block the “other stuff” out. Which is why I return to Alan the cat. He may have no teeth and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, but someone saw him, read his expression amid all that black fur, and took him in. Gather your loved ones around you, whether two-legged, four-legged, three-legged, one-legged or no-legged, and concentrate on what you can do. Unless you work for counter-terrorism, or are harbouring a disaffected young man on a hair trigger, you can’t stop the next terrorist attack, or indeed the next appointment of a women-hating, climate change-denying, Roe Vs. Wade-repealing nutcase to Trump’s cabinet, or the next Daily Express headline howling in the wind about Brexit. But you can be nice to those around you. And those you pass in the street. After all, if Nick Cave can process the unfathomably tragic loss of a 15-year-old son in an accident and turn that tragedy into beautiful music, as he has done, we must cling to the possibility that good can come of bad.

And there are the animals. Be nice to the animals.

 

Thinking allowed

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It was announced that David Bowie had died, aged 69, at around 6.45am. I found out, as is the usual way of things now, via social media. I logged on to Twitter at around 7.15 and the first tweet I saw was by Gavin Hogg, which had been retweeted by Nige Tassell. I didn’t, at first, get it.

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So I scrolled down and confirmed it. This was devastating news, not least in light of the fact that we bought his new album yesterday, and purchased the recent Mojo with him on the cover, to have a good read about the making of said album (and of Scary Monsters in a separate feature). Certainly, he looked a little wizened in the new photos, and especially in the video for the single, but nobody outside of his family and close friends can have known that he’d had cancer for 18 months. Not as shocking as someone famous you admire dying in a car crash, for instance, but shocking nonetheless. We shall hear no more new David Bowie music in our lives.

Anyway, I will pay tribute to my all-time favourite musician elsewhere. I blog herewith about David Cameron, who had this to say.

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What David Cameron, or David Cameron’s office, says via his Twitter account impacts on way more people than anything I will ever say. He has 1,327,911 followers. He is the Prime Minister of a country. His party were voted in at the last election. Of course he has 1.3m followers. Many of these followers will take everything he or his office types at face value. And indeed, I am not saying he didn’t “grow up listening to David Bowie.” David Bowie is always on the radio. Unless you only listened to Radio 4 or Radio 3, or don’t listen to the radio at all, you’re going to hear David Bowie’s hits. I’m not even saying that David Cameron doesn’t think he is a “pop genius” or a “master of reinvention.” But when I saw the tweet (I follow David Cameron as you must know your enemy), I felt indignant.

I read the comments under David Cameron’s tweet, posted by his office within around ten minutes of the official announcement by David Bowie’s office, and this was the gist: “Fuck off … Fuck off, you twat … You prick … Oh do fuck off … Fuck off, dish face … Bowie was the antithesis of everything you stand for … Piss off … Twat.” Rather than join this jolly mob of abuse the Prime Minister will never read, which would be water off a prick’s back in any event, I simply retweeted his tribute with a footnote of my own.

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Note, I used the epithet “Sir,” to distance myself from any foul-mouthed abuse. This was intended to back-reference what Johnny Marr said when David Cameron voiced his appreciation of the Smiths. He “forbade” him from liking the band, as I’m sure you remember.

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Anyhow, my “You are not allowed to comment” comment was passed around by those who agreed with the sentiment. I felt strongly and passionately about the insidious and hollow way our Prime Minister uses social media to attach himself to what he thinks are issues that will endear him to the electorate. Jumping in with a personal tribute to David Bowie, on the great man’s untimely death, felt particularly ghoulish to me. Part of my problem is the motivation behind it. I have plenty of evidence that David Cameron’s motives are not always sincere or honest. He was on Andrew Marr only this weekend explaining why selling council houses would be good for people living in poverty and at no point actually told the truth, which is that he despises anyone without the get-up-and-go to be rich and if they can’t afford to buy their council house, then all they’re doing is preventing less lazy people from buying it.

I see David Cameron as a hateful figure. A dimwit without the empathy to understand what it’s like to grow up without a helping hand. He lacks the intelligence to see how much ire he stirs up when, say, he turns up in his wellies to be interviewed about the floods in Cumbria when it’s his government that has cut flood defence spending, and engineers his photocall so that he doesn’t have to speak to any ordinary people who have been flooded out.

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That’s the background for my tweet, something most people who care to follow me understood. But a few took violently against it. I took abuse from individuals who called me, variously, a “fascist”, a “totalitarian”, and, in one illiterate case, a “fuck whit”. Before blocking them, I checked to see if they were Tories, but it was hard to tell. One compared me to Donald Trump in my haste to disallow one elected man from commenting on the cruel passing of my favourite artist from cancer. I’m pretty sure you can’t be a fascist if you are against one single person? And it would be a pretty useless totalitarian state that oppressed one citizen.

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My dislike – and disenfranchisement – of David Cameron is not based on his race, or ethnicity, or his political views, or his detachment from the country he is chopping up and selling off; it is merely based on his being David Cameron, and a grudge I have been building up for five years. One rather more reasonable person on Twitter claimed to also “dislike his politics” but remained affronted that I had disallowed the PM from commenting on David Bowie (as if perhaps I had some kind of administrative or legislative power to do so). Mind you, “disliking his politics” does not quite go far enough to describe my feelings about David Cameron.

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So, RIP David Bowie. And do shut up, David Cameron. Someone else sarcastically asked me to provide a list of those who can and cannot comment. Easy: everybody else can; David Cameron can’t. Hope that clears it up.

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Now you’re getting my opaque typographic titles. (Remember Essay1, Essay2, Essay3 at the South African World Cup?) The final group stats are now being carefully felt-tipped into my Guardian World Cup Guide. It’s like I’m ten years old again. When I was a boy, I was football crazy (hard to credit now that I am such a stranger to the leagues, but it’s ultimately down to a lack of available space in my brain and hours in my days). I made my own football quiz books, in which I challenged imaginary readers to name the first division club by a pencil drawing of its badge, or by its stadium, or nickname. I would do players’ name with letters removed and you had to fill in the blanks. I also collected whatever stickers or badges were on sale and diligently swapped them and stuck them in. I remember fondly a set of metal circular badges that came free with Esso petrol and were mounted on a stout card display. I rather expect one of you to now jump up and offer a scan of this long-lost heirloom.

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The seemingly disgraceful, infantile and possibly mentally unstable behaviour of Luis Suárez – a very good footballer, whose rehabilitative PFA Player Of The Year award presentation keeps being looped in news reports – has cast an evil-chipmunk shadow across the tournament as we near the end of the groups. The Mexican ref didn’t see him mime sinking his teeth into the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in the 79th minute of their group game when the score stood at 0-0. Those of us watching in telly couldn’t believe we’d just seen what we thought we’d seen. (Not following club football, I didn’t realise Suárez had previous in this unpleasant area, although sub judice reports are being careful to put speechmarks around “biting”.)

Uruguay’s Diego Godín scored from a Suárez corner – oh, the irony! – before the dust of controversy had had time to settle, and an understandably aggrieved Italy were out. Chiellini pulled down his collar and displayed what looked like human man bitemarks but could have been from a large South American insect who fancied some Italian, and FIFA are investigating it, with the threat of a long ban hanging over Suárez’s baffled, squirrelly head. Amazing how a moment of madness can resonate so odorously across such a magnificent ocean of football.

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Ouch. I have picked up on the larger narrative that Suárez went “from pariah to hero” with the PFA last year. I fear he’s just gone back to “pariah” – maybe he’ll be more comfortable there. Tensions run rampant in these high-stakes games. Italy – four-tiimes World Cup winners, of course, who only needed a measly draw to go through – were already a man down, after midfielder Claudio Marchisio was sent off for an upwards-studs incident (the same kind that would put Ecuador down to ten men in last night’s game against France). It’s hard to cheer on a plucky side like Uruguay when they have such a wild card in their pack.

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Here’s Ecuador’s captain Antonio Valencia petulantly tearing off his armband on being sent off for pointing his boot in the wrong direction during a tackle. This transgression – an accident, potentially, but the same outcome in this black-and-white disciplinary case – effectively signed their return ticket, even though France were unable to get a single goal past spectacularly lanky goalie Alexander Dominguez, surely the man of the match.

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His ability to deflect or absorb French shot after French shot was phenomenal, from Pogba, Benezema, Sissoko, Griezmann, Matuidi, even the cupcake-headed Giroud, the back of whose shirt looks like it might say Girls Aloud if you uncreased it. Where were all these goals we’ve grown used to?, we asked ourselves as we thrilled to Dominguez’s octopoid skill set. But his impermeability was not enough to secure the South Americans a win. Although, to be fair, Switzerland were simultaneously making Ecuador’s life increasingly difficult with each new goal Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri concurrently scored against the bottom-bound Honduras in Manaus.

BBC commentator Steve Wilson hid any hint of facetiousness when he pointed out that Ecuador had 30 seconds to score two goals before the end of injury time. Perhaps because it never seemed totally out of the question. (They had a Valencia to spare – relentless striker Enner – and he continually looked like a miracle might rest on the end of his foot.)

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I’d pinned hopes on Nigeria, as I love to see African clubs in the knockout, and their high-energy 3-2 defeat to Argentina didn’t stop them qualifying, thanks to Bosnia beating Iran in parallel. They now face France next week, which will not be a walkover, as France are the side who couldn’t score a goal against ten Ecuadorians. With Cameroon (seemingly officially dubbed “the hapless Cameroon”) and Ivory Coast knocked out, and Ghana dependent on beating Portugal in Group G tonight, it may well be down to Nigeria and possibly Group H’s Algeria (if they can beat Russia like they beat South Korea) to carry that mighty continent’s hopes and dreams.

Nigeria certainly gave us our money’s worth against the fancied Argentina, with Ahmed Musa equalising within minutes of Lionel Messi’s opener, the first time in World Cup history that opposing sides have both scored within the first five minutes. That tells you something about the even match. Musa would open the second half with another goal, keeping things interesting. As with Ecuador’s Dominguez, Nigeria’s keeper Vincent Enyeama did them proud, keeping out Di Maria and Messi, most of the time. (And one of those that defied him was from a free kick.)

WCNigArgMessiMessi, with the look of a young Liam Neeson, is an incredible chap. He’s scored four goals in three matches in Brazil. Not to dwell on England, who are long gone, but they lack a Messi, or a Balotelli, or a Neymar, or a Robben/Van Persie. One superhuman striker doesn’t make a team, I know that, but it helps. I’ve heard the word “talisman” a lot this tournament, and that’s the voodoo that counts, I think. Post-Beckham, England haven’t really had that magic.

Rooney is a singular force, with a unique, almost classical look about him and eyes to hypnotise, and the notches on the goalpost and caps to prove his usefulness. Minus the tabloid baggage (I note that the Daily Star has been desperately trying to sell Big Brother with headlines about current female inmates with spurious Rooney tales to tell), I feel sure I’d have greater affection for him if I supported Man United (Fabio Capello said he only played well in Manchester), but in terms of England, a yet-to-heal foot put him off form in his first World Cup in 2006, and he was red-carded in the quarter final. He’s always scored like a demon in the qualifiers (which of course I tend not to watch), but only scored in a World Cup for the first time last week. I was pleased for him. But with Gerrard and Lampard eyeing the garden centre now, England will surely have to rebuild from the ground up, and find a new talisman.

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A word about Philip Neville (second from left) – maybe even “the hapless Philip Neville”. The BBC received 445 complaints from Daily Mail readers with nothing better to do about his co-commentary for England’s game against Italy, which was deemed “monotonous” and elicited the usual hoots of armchair derision. Well, being typically behind the curve, I’d wrongly assumed it was Morrissey’s long-lost cousin Danny Murphy who was wingman to Steve Wilson for last night’s Ecuador France match, and it was only at half-time that I was dissuaded of this incorrect assumption. It was a newly invigorated Phil Neville!

Surely it is the greatest compliment that I could pay his ability to learn and improve on the job to say that I didn’t realise it was him. Once the penny had dropped, I could hear him straining to enthuse and modulating his tone. He gave pertinent insight on cramp, too. Good on him, I say. He works in a snap-judgement culture, with Twitter acting as judge, jury, executioner and grave-dancer – and it’s not as if the TV channels don’t constantly promote social media interaction – so to take criticism on the chin and turn it to his advantage shows great character. (He was even funny about it on 5 Live: “I will get better – it was my first live gig and I’m just glad I helped everyone get to sleep back home!”)

Now, back to the action …

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Currant affairs

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Unlike David Loftus, who was in the year above me at Chelsea School of Art in the mid-80s and is now Jamie Oliver’s go-to guy, I am no food photographer. But I’m quite proud of the above snap of this weekend’s experimental Lemon and Grape Muffins. I’d love to say I “pimped” the recipe in Linda Collister’s Great British Bake Off: Learn To Bake book (with foreword by Mary Berry), but all I did was replace 200g of blueberries with 200g of grapes. This seems to have been a controversial move within the home baking community. I threw out a call for advice via Twitter, and @-ed in @BritishBakeOff for luck, asking if I could use grapes for blueberries in muffins. (I’ve only ever made muffins once before, without a dedicated muffin tray, and they came out like muffiny pancakes: lovely, but not muffins. I was keen to use my new tray.)

A few decided to greet my sincere query with withering responses along the lines of, “This is what bakers call ‘raisin muffins'”, which were atypically unhelpful and snidey, two qualities I do not associate with Twitter’s bake-iverse. Most people kind of said, “Hell, why not?”; one supplied a link to a British Heart Foundation recipe in which grapes were the number one choice; others cautioned against the grapes sinking the muffin (I had always planned to cut the grapes up); and Ali, current contestant on The Great British Bake Off, wished me well and advised me to peel the grapes. (Currant contestant, more like.)

Home bakers are, on the whole, nice. This is my nuanced conclusion. (On the wholemeal, more like.)

I peeled the grapes. It was a fiddly, but worth it. I then quartered them and threw them in at the point where the blueberries would be thrown in. I enjoy baking muffins and cakes, I find: the arm-breaking creaming of the butter and sugar (and lemon rind), and the follow-up workout with the beaten egg, adding a gloopy spoonful at a time. The addition of lemon juice to the natural yoghurt. The ethereal dust of sieved flour and bicarb. I don’t use the Magimix when baking. I don’t know if this is martyrdom, but I like to feel like I have added the air myself, with my bare hands. It’s not a macho thing. And there is an element of laziness: can’t be bothered to clean the dishwasher-unsafe mixer parts.

LemonGrapeMuffinstraySep8It’s a thrill when you finally blob the mix into the paper cases using a succession of spoons. It’s even more of a thrill when you “discover” that you have just enough “spare” on the spatula for a good lick: the ultimate perk of the home baker. Recognise: these are only my second batch of muffins ever. Allow: I’m quite proud of them. Ali was right; peeling the grapes was worth the effort (I envisaged the horror of curly tomato skin in homemade soup). What you get is little, jelly-like bombs of grape flavour, not too sweet, not too sour, perfectly encased in the muffin mix. Unlike blueberries, there’s no attractive “bleeding” of purple, but it’s still a worthwhile experiment. Jamie’s all about pricing up portions on his disingenuous Money Saving Meals, and I started home baking in order to fend off any evil temptation to spend money on pre-made carbohydrate parcels in the Outside World. Shop-bought muffins, which are mostly air – industrially pumped factory air – cost a fortune. Mine – and I got 15 out of a recipe promising a dozen – cost pence.

I don’t have a team of “girls and boys” like Jamie does, to calculate exactly how many pence, but I do have a freezer drawer – if not the massive chest freezer Jamie assumes to be in every dream home – and I’ve already entombed 12 of my muffins in there, to be removed at a fixed rate of one a day for the next 12 days. That’s how to make these moreish morsels go further. And to save money. I laugh in the face of the expensive cakes and pastries on sale through the Peyton & Byrne concession at the British Library.

Yes, I Tweeted the above pics of my still-warm wares on Sunday. I can’t help it. It feels so right. And it never feels like showing off, merely sharing. Self-raising is the great leveller. And it’s sweet when bakers on the other end of social media type, “Save me one,” or “Send me one.” It’s enough that the request is made. No cake need actually change hands; we never need to meet, we Twitter-connected home cooks. It’s enough to know that others are creaming, beating and pricking with a cocktail stick for victory.

While I’m here, I feel moved to publish this spring and summer’s other baking highlights: the lemon drizzle cake of June 2; the trayless “pancake” muffins of July 20 (don’t inspect them for too long; they tasted super); and the flapjacks of 4 May.

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It’s amazing what some flour, butter, eggs and sugar can do, along with the willpower to self-ration, as if there’s a war on (which there always is, somewhere). By the way, I have eaten one muffin today, and I ate one muffin yesterday. My evil plan to beat George Osborne is working. He’ll never take away our freedom to save money and – get set – bake!

Marine biography

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At last. I can review one of the best books I read last year. The reason I didn’t review it when I read it is that it’s published this year, and there’s no advantage to showing off that you’ve read a book before it is available in the shops. It is published now, in fact, in fancy hardback. Tracey Thorn very kindly sent me an advance copy of her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen and I devoured it quickly. (Sorry, The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke, you had to be put to one side.) If you lived through any of the pop years covered in this book, but especially the early ones in the 80s, it will ring a bell, and possibly warm your cockles. It will almost certainly provide a cue for a song. (I found myself mainlining my old EBTG albums while reading it.)

Tracey, whom I’ve only ever met twice in the flesh, was kind enough to include me in her publisher’s advance-reading list as we’d corresponded as far back, I think, as 2007, when she was first researching her own life in pop. She wanted to know if I had a copy of the NME in which I’d interviewed Everything But The Girl in 1990. Sadly, I didn’t. (My NME archive is patchy, at best – I only kept the issues for which I’d written the cover stories after a scorched-earth loft clearout, although I ended up re-purchasing some from eBay, to replenish my self-vandalised collection.)

I’d been a card-carrying fan of Everything But The Girl – and Tracey’s first band the Marine Girls – since the early 80s and Pillows & Prayers. Their first album, Eden, and their second, Love Not Money, got me through my first years of college, and their fourth, Idlewild, is one of the albums that marks my post-graduation year and the first days of living on my own in a studio flat. (I will always regard Eden as one of my “homesickness” albums. I taped it off my first next-door neighbour at the halls of residence on arrival for the first time in London, and its jazzy melancholy was a perfect fit for the way I felt, as well as a tub of emotional balm.)

So, when I got to meet and interview Ben and Tracey in 1990, when the disarmingly slick, LA-recorded The Language Of Life came out, it was one of those big-tick moments: all my years of fandom could be pressed into professional, journalistic service. I’d love to say I met them at their house – the first journalists to interview them got to go to their student flat in Hull! – but alas, it took place at somebody else’s smart mews house in West London, as I recall. (A dastardly trick used to this day by celebrities on Come Dine With Me.) Tracey remembers the interview, perhaps too well, in her book.

Andrew Collins came to interview us for the NME, and he too focused on the fact that the best aspects of the album were our songs, and more specifically the caustic lyrics to a couple of them … We were lucky to get off as lightly as this with the NME, to be fair. By now the acid-house revolution, and the Madchester scene it had given rise to, was no marginalised alternative fad, but dominated both the rock press and the charts. Andrew Collins had turned up for that interview wearing baggy dungarees and a smiley badge, and I remember thinking, ‘Bloody hell, the game’s up if this how they dress at the NME now.’

In the interests of New Yorker-style fact-checking, I must stress that Tracey confirmed with me the possibility that I might have been wearing dungarees. I’m afraid it’s all too likely, smitten as I was by the Stone Roses style. I’m prepared to concede the smiley badge, which I suspect may have been affixed to this “scallydelic” top. (Here modelled by a lake in Hultsfred, Sweden, circa 1990, with Tim Burgess.)

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Now, as you can sense, I have a personal connection to the Tracey Thorn story. We’re of a similar vintage. We were in higher education at roughly the same time. (There’s a couple of years in it, which is how come she was already in a band making albums that helped me through my exams, as it were, in her immediate post-graduation years.) And that’s the beauty of the book. She simply tells her own story, and allows the observations made from the vantage point of the end of her forties to contextualise what she was going through at the time. When she first forms the band with Ben, she remember asking herself many speculatively melodramatic questions about their relationship, and concludes, from the distance of almost 30 years, “I didn’t really have the answers to any of these questions, and I’m not even sure I asked them.”

Bedsit Disco Queen is not raw with confession and emotion, which suits the private person Tracey has always been, but it is at all times honest. Her first memory of seeing Ben at Hull University is “blurred” (“What was he wearing? Levi’s probably? A white shirt?”); her early brush with leftwing politics is driven by interviews with other bands, like Gang of Four and Delta 5, who “introduced me to concepts and political theories which I was too young and inexperienced to comprehend fully – nonetheless, I agreed with every word”); and when she and Ben move to the country in 1989 to escape the rat race, she speaks of “a time-wasting fury of DIY mania” and confesses, “It took us about half an hour to discover we weren’t cut out for country life.”

Nobody is expecting self-aggrandising myth-making from a Tracey Thorn autobiography. After all, her songwriting has always been painfully honest and plain-speaking – and the full song lyrics seem especially suited to the chapters they now open: “I’m getting too used to this way of life” … “Now you’re feeling hopeless, now you’re looking older” … “Sure, I’d love a wild life, but every wild man needs a mother or a wife.” But this is not to say her rise-and-plateau-and-rise through fame and fortune is not without profound truths (that Massive Attack are locked into “playground relationships”, for instance), or, frankly, rollickingly entertaining insights. It ends on a hilariously random moment involving some younger female pop icons, for instance, which I won’t spoil.

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In yesterday’s Guardian interview, Decca Aitkenhead observed, “In another life Thorn would have been a brilliant columnist” (which rather unfairly precludes the possibility that she could become one now), and this is no truer in the book than when she ruefully reflects upon the advice given to contestants on The X-Factor by Lady Gaga after performing “inside a giant ten-foot bathtub” wearing “a tight, reflective leather cat costume” – “Be yourself.” From this spark, Tracey reflects upon the disconnect between authenticity and the pop industry, and her own struggles with truth and artifice.

She covers the big issues with candour, such as motherhood (admitting that, aged 25, she became broody over her sister’s little boy, but ruled it out at the time due to being “a singer in a pop group”), and Ben’s near-fatal illness (she poignantly remembers sitting by his bedside in hospital “doing jigsaw puzzles and reading PG Wodehouse”), but leaves out anything that might cheapen or coarsen the picture she wishes to carefully and diplomatically paint. (I innocently asked her about the absence of a particular player in email correspondence and she privately gave a perfectly decent and thoughtful reason for leaving them out.)

And my favourite passage of all is one about Twitter. Tracey has built a life-affirming community of souls around her on the social networking site, and, if anything, has raised her own profile by accident. (The Guardian piece was astutely headlined The Accidental Pop Star.) She wishes she could go back in a time machine to her and Ben’s lowest ebb, in 1987 – Idlewild, a harsh verdict from the record label, wrangles over the first single, career stalemate, boredom, self-doubt, anxiety – and “invent Twitter.”

I won’t quote it in full, as you should buy the book and read it in context, but it’s the most persuasive argument I’ve yet read for the positive effects of the sometimes maligned Twitter. She thinks, at that time, it would have been her “salvation,” imagining coming out of a depressing meeting at WEA and getting it off her chest by Tweeting about it. “You would have all Tweeted back with supportive comments, witty put-downs and descriptions of similar experiences in your own workplace,” she retro-fantasises. Back in 1987, of course, there was no direct way of communicating with fans, or like-minded souls, without a telephone or a stamp. You, too, will wish that you could go back in a time machine and invent Twitter for the 1987 Tracey Thorn.

I won’t put a link to the high-street-destroying Amazon, in the usual kneejerk fashion. You can find Bedsit Disco Queen your own way. Maybe you could order it via a local bookshop, or find one online, without using Amazon as a third party, and do it in the spirit of Cherry Red, who launched Tracey and Ben’s career. But this is her publisher’s website.

Drinking outside the Bucks

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If I was less busy trying to earn a living, I’d blog every time I had a passing thought that I wanted to solidify, get down and expand upon. Because I don’t have the luxury of spare time at the moment, I often take to the immediate medium of Twitter and type sentences that, at best, come out as pithy aphorisms and, at worst, cheap slogans. I wrote this about Starbucks and the corporation’s notorious UK tax-avoidance doctrine on Monday morning. I enjoyed typing it.

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As you can see, its deft combination of jokey tone and serious message struck a chord with 99 people, who passed it on. (Like Oscar Wilde in a donkey jacket, I cooked it up while walking past a Starbucks that morning and wondering what the patrons inside it thought about the economy they were in.) However, once you’ve dropped a pith-bomb and you are followed by more than a manageable number people, you must expect a percentage of antagonistic responses from people you have never met and will never meet, most of them reasoned and fair, one or two of them simply patronising, insulting, or borne of what seems like misunderstanding for furious effect. I sincerely believe in the power of the consumer. It is the predominant power we have as individuals when there’s not an election taking place.

If we accept – without prejudice – the reality that big business runs the world, because it does, and that politicians largely do the bidding of big business, whether by oiling the wheels, relaxing regulation or, more fundamentally, running an economy based on “growth”, which naturally favours more business and never less, then unless we are on the board of a large global corporation, we live in a world shaped by large global corporations.

Starbucks, which began as a local store in Seattle in the early 70s, arrived in this country in 1998 and, through a successful programme of aggressive expansion, it quickly made a mark on our high streets. A Starbucks coffee was probably the first takeaway coffee I’d ever gone out of my way to buy, not really being a coffee drinker at that point, and certainly no connoisseur.  I enjoyed the drink, albeit mostly the fluffed-up milk, and the relatively new experience (“experience” being the key to the brand’s success, of course). The proliferation of Starbucks, followed by the others that bloomed in its wake, did indeed change the way a nation of tea drinkers viewed coffee. You have to hand that to them. But this soon went sour.

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Before I could settle into a new routine of buying lattes on my way to Broadcasting House, for instance, I read Naomi Klein’s No Logo and my head was turned. Overnight, I despised Starbucks for the way it did business, along with what had become the new usual suspects of corporate greed, sharp practice, exploitation, non-unionisation and bullying: Nike, Gap, Coca Cola, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, you know the drill. I have, in my adult life, given money to some if not all of these corporations. I am not a saint.

But when I feel a boycott is called for, I only have my own conscience to deal with. And the recent exposé of Starbucks’ tax affairs in the UK, the payment of which has been deftly avoided by sleight of hand involving licences, the Netherlands and declaring losses, has put the chain in a lot of people’s sights. It may be that pressure from the MPs – led by Margaret Hodge – who sat on the select committee flicked the switch, and forced the corporate hand into face-saving reparationary action, but it was surely the fear of loss of custom and attendant share price threat that sealed the case.

Give or take the odd exception since 1999, I’ve hardly given any money to Starbucks, so they won’t have noticed my total blanket boycott since the Reuters report into their UK tax-avoidance, but as I always say, if enough people make what seems like a futile gesture, it might just amount to a meaningful one. I once read an interview with Klein, in which, admirably, she admitted to occasionally grabbing a Starbucks if it was the only concession in an airport, say, and she really wanted a coffee.

I admired her candour. It’s easy to avoid Starbucks in any UK high street, as there’s usually another chain nearby, if not an independent outlet. (I understand that Whitbread, the UK hotel and restaurant firm, which owns Costa, pay their full UK corporation tax, so if you must use one of them … ) However, that’s not what I intended to blog about. I was more interested in the nature of the way Twitter extends a dialogue, and why it’s foolhardy to do as I do, which is type in cheap slogans.

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Having published my call-to-arms on Twitter on Monday, I spent way too much of the following days counter-arguing my case with nitpickers and, in some cases, outright apologists for corporate tax-dodging. (There was also one rude bastard who began his reply, “FFS, wake up, man …”, which guaranteed him a blocking. As Billy Bragg says, freedom of speech comes with the freedom not to have to listen.) Most people hit back along the lines of, “Don’t boycott Starbucks; pressure government to close tax loopholes and force HMRC to hit the corporations harder.” This rather assumed that in being angry with a corporation, I was fine with HMRC’s timidity and failure to act, and with the government’s protectionism with regards tax loopholes. I’m not fine with it. (Oh, and I’m not angry with the people who work at HMRC, like the wife of one affable plaintiff on Twitter – “she’s lovely” – I’m angry with the management.)

So, that’s that argument dealt with. Others reckoned my boycott will only harm individual franchises who do pay tax, and throw ordinary, hard-working UK baristas out on the street. Nobody actively wants this. But in the same way, let’s say boycotting a bank because it invests in murderous regimes might ultimately affect those blameless individuals working in the bank who have no control over what their corporate employer does with its money. This kind of joined-up thinking is always enough to push you to the conclusion that it’s better to do nothing. Most people, after all, do nothing. (Except in Syria. And Egypt. And Palestine. And Greece. And so on.)

Other people – nigglers, really – said that if you’re going to boycott one corporation you have to follow through and boycott all corporations who avoid tax, and then they list the other offenders. Hey, the BBC have been caught out encouraging their contracted stars to set up limited companies, through which they are paid, thus reducing tax on both sides, so surely, if I’m so bloody righteous, I should boycott the BBC, too! (And my friends who are contracted BBC employees! Presumably by altering my Christmas card list?) Again, if you tie yourself up in knots, you will end up doing nothing. “They” would much rather you did nothing. We got into this recession by running up credit, and “they” seem to wish us to spend out way out of it by running up even more credit. Where will it all end?

I do not believe in criminal damage, so will not be smashing Starbucks’ windows in. I think UK Uncut’s planned series of civil disobedience sounds admirable, and witty and clever – turning coffee outlets into refuges for women, and creches, which are the worst hit by the cuts, which are linked to our failing economy, which is linked to the very rich not paying their fair share and being given a tacit blessing to Carry On Avoiding, so I’ll be interested to see how that works out tomorrow.

Having just spent a couple of days with Billy Bragg, researching a new chapter for his official biography, I am dangerously fired up with progressive left-wing ardour. His message these days is simple: it’s all about accountability. I’m cutting down on caffeine anyway.