Self suffiency

What does it mean to be self sufficient? Does it just mean finding a solution to how we meet our ever escalating personal needs, preferences and demands by creating new solutions for energy and food ? Or using smart technology to cut the monetary and environmental costs of consumption? Or does it mean those who have already acquired assets and equity cashing in their chips to ‘downsize’ and seek redemption (atoning for their consumption sins?) by ‘buying’ a more sustainable lifestyle? And what about the global poor and excluded who just want to push their way to the gaming table and have a chance at winning a personal jackpot? Surely the conversation starts from the wrong presumption? Self sufficiency starts from a dialogue amongst people about what is ‘sufficient’? In all senses. It must speak of winners and losers, but above all it must encounter humility and a sense of responsibility that extends beyond the personal to the societal. ‘You cant always get what you want, but if you try sometime you just might get what you need’ . Is that spirit as irrelevant as the singer that sang the song?


Thirty something

I was driving in the car listening to the ever mournful, melancholic tunes of Paul Buchanan (more of which another time) when I thought to myself -‘ he must be one of us, the ‘Thirty Something’ generation’..

If you are of a certain age and began to put down roots, leave your youth behind and maybe have kids at the turn of the 80’s/90’s you will know what I am talking about. Maybe the first prime time TV series to really take seriously the doubts and dilemmas of heterosexual couples coming of age in a world without the fixed and certain points of religion, cold war politics, prescribed gender roles and a lifetime’s employment in the industries of the post war boom

With filmic production values, gorgeous lighting and carefully scripted scenarios that consistently tugged at the heartstrings without avoiding the darker sides of the thirty something life – illness, death and parents.

Hope and Michael were the central couple that we followed through the visscitudes of parenthood and the new work situations that the Nineties were starting to explore – such as advertising ,where even the physical layout of the ‘office ‘ spoke of the ‘new man’ and the breakdown of old certainties of hierarchy and restraint (the basketball net hanging from the wall so Michael and Elliott could hang out and get creative) . Elliot and Nancy provided the counterpoint to the beauty and gloss of the prime couple and in the wings Melissa with her sub Madonna goofiness masking unmet yearnings and ,last but not least, Gary who had yet to reconcile himself to ‘the man’ and outwardly nurtured a semi coherent ,rag tag hippiness that Michael and Elliott secretly wished they had maintained.

We followed them on their oddysey , for that is what the programme makers were claiming for the transition from late youth to adult hood – a  modern day journey of self discovery that would allow us  to better understand how to find love and fulfillment in a world that held few clues and even less role models.

Naturally those claims were over stated – it was TV drama after all. But nevertheless it did speak to those of us who were wrestling with some of the same issues and dilemmas and it arguably gave birth to a medium and a language that could allow for the exploration of that set of problems.

Sure, the existential angst portrayed on the screen was and still can be caricatured as just another set of rich kids gazing at their navels while overlooking he all too obviously privileged lives they led.

But it was more than that ! Not for nothing was it made by a production company called ‘Bedford Falls’ , with each episode’s credits ending to the refrain of ‘buffalo girls’ (..’and dance by the light of the moon’ –  from the movie ‘its a wonderful life’ if you havent got the clues!) . And the perfectly pitched theme tune from ‘Snuffy’ Walden who not surprisingly went on to write the theme tune for the West Wing. (in which of course ‘elliott’ appears!).

It was clearly a successful formula and spawned many imitators such as ‘Cold Feet’, but its true succesor was in fact  the West Wing in which our two couples d two singletons at last find a government of pleasant yet steely liberals ready to remake America in their image.

And of course it gave birth to the very phrase ‘thirty something’ , which has since been adapted to ‘any decade something’ and entered the modern English language.

The real shame is that the series has never been released on DVD and we only have our memories and in my case an old ‘tape’ of one episode (one of the most touching).

But maybe the real challenge is to bring the cast back together for ‘fifty something’ and let us who would be ‘their’ age recognize through a new set of fictional and yet at the same time all too real predicaments ways in which we can come to terms with our kids growing up, our parents dying, our friends retiring and our dreams being fulfilled or not. I can think of no TV series that has taken as its central theme such a set of issues. I believe that those of us who came of age as partners and parents through watching and reflecting upon ‘ThirtySomething’ would be all too ready to tune in and take stock.

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No consequence consumerism – or how online shopping undermines sustainability

Yesterday I was at the North West annual Mayday summit for business with a focus on sustainability. These summits – held around the UK- are the most public manifestation of the work of the network established by the Prince of Wales to encourage business to address the environmental challenges we are facing network, supported by Business in the Community.

As ever there were excellent examples of the ways in which leading, serious companies have made great strides to reduce carbon, increase sustainability and work with both supply chains and customers to raise awareness of the need to take corporate and personal action. One interesting topic was the extent to which in the eyes of the public there is more trust in the concrete actions of companies and the evidence of the impact of their work than in the often empty rhetoric of governments. With our own UK Government ‘flip flopping’ all over the place on the ‘green agenda’ the knowledge that business was still focused on the action needed to reduce waste, improve energy efficiency, generate and use renewable energy etc could be a source of strength for those wanting to argue the case for change.

Then – doodling away – I had one of those ‘yes but’ moments .And in the margins I wrote ‘no consequence consumerism’ as I started to think about shopping online.

Because it was clear that the brand promotion work, the public information, the clear labelling and all the other ways in which the leading companies are changing and encouraging us to change are located  primarily in the old world of physical consumption. What we might call the ‘going to the shops ‘ experience, with goods and services stationed in front of us and with time available for deliberation and weighing up of the claims made by rival brands.

Not the breathless, screeching world of internet shopping as enjoyed by so many – especially younger people.

There the search is for price ( the optimum being free)  and the use of mediating and sifting search engines that pay no heed to sustainability/labour practices/CO2 impacts .You can sort your selections by price and relevance – but I haven’t noticed any categories for CO2 impact or air miles.  All those £2.83 CD’s flown in from California!  Click the button, feel the rush as you get hold of that top notch release at a ridiculously low price  and not a moments thought about anything else. A morally weightless purchase and a transaction in which the consumer feels no responsibility for the actions (good or bad) of the provider.

Let us be clear -this is what online does to us all if we are not careful – it allows us the outlaw thrill of  beating the market on price and getting our hands on untold goods and services at a fraction of what ‘they’ want us to pay.The most obvious examply of this is the bogus moral campaign to gain free online access to music and  media in the name of ‘liberty’ with no regard to any other issue ( a world in which the consumer expects to get paid by their employer to buy music, but the notion of paying the  musicians to get hold of the fruits of their labour is anathema).

What worries me is that this ‘no consequence consumerism’ is integral to the appeal of the internet. It ‘frees’ us from entanglement in the messier world of  real time shopping or consuming, in return for our being to get what we want, when we want it at the cheapest price in town.(although of course we are far from being in any town at all). And speed is seen as an advantage – sure products are reviewed and some sites such as Argos even post critical reviews – but have a look : where are those health labels, those air miles, those CO2 consumed in production, that information about recycling? With no physical product there is nothing to be seen (unless it is tucked away in that terms and conditions information that nobody on line ever reads).

So while we work away above ground to ‘save the planet’, underground the trolls still continue to undermine the foundations of our fragile eco system, cloaking their actions in all too plausible appeals to ‘freedom’,  flexibility and ‘saving time and money’.

Yet like so many on-line activities, this is not an organised ‘conspiracy’  funded by climate change deniers and greedy, unscrupulous  capitalists , but the culmination of countless ,seemingly individual transactions each of which takes no account of collective or societal consequence.

But all of our actions have a consequence and if we cannot begin to find ways of involving on-line consumers in thinking about and taking account  of these before they ‘place their order’ then we may be unwittingly storing up more problems for the future to add to those that we are already seeking to resolve.

This piece is ,as they say, very much a ‘game of two halves’, one half empty, one half full.

I am thoroughly enjoying life as a freelance consultant and , joy of joys!’  am even bringing in some income from the kind of work I hoped to attract when I stepped off the conveyor belt.

I meet talented, intelligent, stimulating people with innovative ideas and incredible passion.I attend events that inspire and motivate..I am even getting used to the idea that for much of the time I won’t be paid! And that networking or becoming connected is how to grow the business.

However, I also have this nagging feeling that can turn into a worry -not the kind to wake me up at four in the morning and force me to watch reruns of la liga matches to banish it!

But enough of a worry to sometimes make me stop and think.

What do I think?

Well, in the world in which I now move, many of the entrepreneurs, consultants, freelancers and kindred spirits used to make a living in what I now call the ‘Blair’ world, that public and semi public sector that came into being on the back of the cash injected into the British  economy after 1997 via national,regional and local spending programmes and other NGO initiatives.

They were the Class of ’97 who truly wanted to tackle structural inequality , bring back life to our ailing cities and towns ,create a vital and connected cultural scene which was not all about elite events in the capital cities  and show that the best of the public sector was at least as good if not better than anything the private sector could offer.

Many of them were  not funded from within the the ‘mainstream’, so not surprisingly,as the austerity cuts bite they find themselves  out of work, starved of funds and ignored by Whitehall.

This coming together of the  Class of 97 (not all of whom are old enough to have been with the  ‘programme’ since 97) can be seen in two ways.

Looking into the glass half full, we can perhaps see this as  a real opportunity to harness the talents and skills of some of the countries brightest and best to work alongside local people, formal government structures and private business to find new and radical ways of tackling many of the problems we face.Freed of the constraints of public sector bureaucracy,forever filling in forms for the next funding round and twisting and turning to align with the latest ‘bright idea’ from some Whitehall think tank, these people can develop their own unique, dynamic and often local approaches that connect with the real lives of people.They come to rely less upon funds than the release of latent energies and talents.

At the risk of being controversial, I might say that this is a burgeoning and necessary growth of the Big Society – informal,intuitive,networked,energetic and passionate.

Business cards mount up, emails to Jane and John take the place of  emails previously sent to

If you want to see how these new entrepreneurs work, you have to go not further than the pages of linked- in, very much the medium of choice for all of us .

But then I see the glass empty out.I notice that most of those linked-in entries and retweets are nothing more than some form of online Reuters or AP news bulletin alerting us to information that we either don’t need or previously lived without.

HR companies and others selling often idiosyncratic ideas and products swamp the medium so that sorting the wheat from the chaff becomes laborious to the point of potential disengagement. Online entires are increasingly  designed to say ‘ hi, its me, look at me ‘ in a world where grabbing attention and indulging in self promotion is believed to be a  necessary precondition of finding work.

Then I begin to notice that many of these entrepreneurs lack money – simple wages and income for either themselves or their projects.

And then I start to think maybe this is the  beginning of a new bubble of the dotcom variety.

Government tells us to start up on our own rather than wait for somebody else to create the job.(ignoring the appalling failure rates of new start ups ).We all congregate in our coffee shop huddles and more formal workshops fueling our own self belief  and reinforcing our sense of purpose and destiny. Mostly we find that we are not in sympathy with what the Government is doing and we are still committed to the same ideas and beliefs that sustained us as the Class of 97.So we are oppositional entrepreneurs – mostly very polite, often circumspect in our opposition and not to be confused with naked political activism (although we may support that at times).

I am one of these people and wonder where all this activity is going? Are we the generation that will find out that in the end  one’s livelihood still very much depends upon the fortunes of the big beasts of the formal economy, both private and public ?And that this new and brave show of spirit and endeavour will be shoved aside as the real agenda is revealed to be a drive to establish ‘business as usual’ ?

Then the bubble will burst and be revealed, as was the dotcom bubble, as being built upon sands that were shifting in the opposite direction, although at the time we could not see that?

But I want to finish on a positive note.. Maybe the route to a more sustainable. ethical economy and society that can coexist with the market   is through harnessing the talents of the many people that I meet who are not motivated by the size of their financial bonus but by a desire to contribute.

I have written before about the need for the idea of ‘contribution’ to become part and parcel of what it is to be a citizen.Sure, we all want to make a living;many of us have children and other dependents to care for and enjoy  the pleasures that money can often bring. But how we build an economy and society to make that opportunity available for all ,wherever they live, may not be a question that can be answered simply by the actions of Government and the ‘big beasts’.

Maybe its by harnessing the energies of the growing number of  @me.coms   that new approaches and ideas will emerge that can begin to suggest fresh ways of tackling seemingly insurmounttable problems? So rather than  the bubble bursting, it gains altitude and recognition for the important social phenomenon that it could be.

As for me, I’ll keep blogging,posting, networking and meeting over coffee.Maybe Ill become more discerning and focused on the real opportunities rather than those that are simply aspirational. What I will be doing is spending as much time as I can working with committed economic and social entrepreneurs .

On contribution and respect

‘Silicon London is first choice of base for Google, Facebook and other tech giants

The capital’s young workforce and wealth of start-ups are behind last year’s doubling in demand for office space for IT firms’

The Guardian 02/02/2012 

The Notts-Derby coalfield,the Lace triangle,Crewe loco works, coal in the valleys,shipping on the Tyne and Clyde,pots in the Potteries,cars in the midlands, specialist light engineering in Birmingham,cotton in Manchester, fishing in Hull, Terrys and Rowntree in York……….the economic roll call of honour that formed the backbone of this country even in my lifetime.Learnt by rote for what was then Geography GCE.Places, people, industry,productivity,culture and respect.

Recently I happened to see some of the films made by the Government during the Second World War about life in Britain and watched for the umpteenth time the GPO film unit shorts, including ‘the Night Mail’.

What struck me as a theme running through was that in spite of the received pronunciation of the narrators  and the obvious London perspective on the world (every other place but the capital is ‘somewhere else’) there was clear respect to be accorded to the workers of the English regions for the contribution they made to the national economy.It was clearly understood that the lives of the comfortably off in the South East of England could not be sustained without the toil and graft of  those living elsewhere.Naturally this respect did not extend to anything like sympathy for their politics or culture, but however grudging it might have been, there was a real sense that unlike today ‘we were all in it together’ in a very real and inter connected way.

Those in the regions were not seen as ‘dependant ‘ (either on welfare or public subsidy)  .People living in proud towns like Bolton,Gateshead, Walsall and Hartlepool  had authentic,productive and meaningful lives of their own, however tough the conditions in which they lived. They could hold their heads high in the   publicly recognised knowledge that their contribution was valued.

So to today and the headline story that begins this article.Most if not all coverage of exciting,valid new economic activity focuses on the South East ; stories to do with industry elsewhere focus on contracts lost (Bombardier,BAE) and asset stripping takeovers (Cadbury).There is no  sense that what people are doing in their day to day working lives in Middlesbrough or Kilmarnock is in any way linked to the fortunes of those savvy hip entrepreneurs huddled over their americanos in cafes around Old Street.Their eyes are on each other and their counterparts in the US and China.They may have grown up in  Knowsley or Cumbernauld, but have migrated to make their contribution  to the global economy in the only place in the UK that is recognised as counting – London.

And for those who choose to live in far flung Bury and Consett, what do they make of their lives within this hyped up, M25 centric world they now live in? What do they see as their contribution to this new world economy?

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We may be the architects of our own downfall

Just before Christmas – in keeping with the sentiments outlined in my ‘Bedford Falls’ blog post – I decided to go and do my shopping in our local town centre, Stockport.Admittedly it was a grey, wet morning and I knew in advance that in a recent survey of town centres it has the highest percentage of vacant shops in the UK.

Like many other northern UK towns and cities it once performed a vital function for its surrounding community and for some – the less mobile, the less well off and  those employed locally – maybe it still does.But that cohort of people is clearly not enough to sustain it in good health  and other social groups show no sign of returning or going to the town for the first time.

It is by and large unremarkable – scarred in places (the M60 orbital motorway cuts through it  and the Sixties were unkind to it architecturally) ; but it also has a historic market and some anchor stores that are surprising for their endurance – HMV,Waterstones ,Body Shop for example.

But it was a nevertheless a bleak experience and – coming on the heels of the Portas report – the shops that seem to have close since my last visit were just the type that Mary P was advocating towns like Stockpot needed more of : the niche ski wear specialist, the musical instrument shop.

I intended alerting my readers to the fate of towns like Stockport before now, but by coincidence I was recently able through the  course of my work to hear an eminent German academic speak about a new phenomenon – how the middle class are building virtual tunnels through cities and the consequence of their actions.And she did not mean narrow minded, devil may care turbo shoppers and hothouse parents – but people much you and me I suspect.

What is this tunnelling ? Well we get up and we have a route to school/nursery, then to work, then home , then to our favourite stores  via the internet and from time to time at out of town centres or the larger city centres.Exhausted we make our way to our favourite restaurants and pubs where we meet and spend time with people just like us.And so it goes on.

What we don’t do is work/play/relate in our local community as such – we no longer need to for much of the time and so we don’t.Maybe at various times in our life cycle we have to – our children may go to the local primary school (though many more may may not) , parent and todddler groups are usually local and of course in old age one comes to rely on the community more than one could ever guess!

If you plot all the journeys we make (and in a negative way those we no longer take) then what we see is a large cohort of the most able/mobile/resource rich in our cities making their way down spatial tunnels across and through towns and cities.And guess what ?Not only do we abandon towns like Stockport virtually en masse, but we also become what my academic termed ‘blind’ to the spaces that surround our journeys (often poorer neighbourhoods).At its most negative we may no longer care or have any interest in what happens in them as such since they are no longer part of our lives.So we also lose touch with  a traditional politics that assumes we are interested in the broader comunity we live in beyond the fulfillment of our own desires !

This is of course just a sketch and I can hear the ‘yes,buts’ lining up!

But it perhaps explains how hundreds and thousands of decisions made for very rational reasons by often very concerned and liberal individuals add up to the very social phenomena that lead to those same people all too often bemoaning the state of our towns and cites!

In line with my Jimmy Stewart riff, what I am trying to get at is that it isnt all about Tesco – it may be about as much about us!Freed from the constraints (at least for times in our lives) that previous generations faced (time/money/mobility), we begin to create a city that is segmented, if not gated in any literal sense.

In my bleaker moments I see us as the unwitting victims  of forces that tap into our very hopes,desires and wishes for ourselves and our families and turn them into behaviours that we may be faintly appalled by if we sit back and reflect.

It may be that a very new and specific form of  desire for individual fulfilment for us and our nearest and dearest is now so embedded into our psyche that we have to begin to imagine future states in which those behaviours are taken to their logical conclusion .Maybe we need one of our best authors or playwrights to show us that future as robustly as Orwell showed previous generations 1984.

Over Christmas I watched an old Doctor Who with the family in which the Daleks  were attempting to intertwine the DNA of themselves with humans to create a new creature that would be part human/part Dalek.I now worry that we are becoming like those creatures in that the forces of commercialism and consumerism have linked themselves inextricably to perfectly reasonable desires for self self-fulfilment and created a new strand of DNA (at least for the middle classes)  to the point where we no longer recall who we used to be.


The world turned upside down or a tale of two cities

Some curious worrying things I learnt in the Guardian today:

  • The proportion of stock owned in UK companies by individuals fell from 47% in 2008 to 10% in 2008
  • The percentage of stock in foreign hands rose from 7% to 42%

Yet I am convinced that if you asked a reasonably well informed person in the street what they thought had happened to ownership over that period, they would recall the heady days of ‘Sid’ and Thatcherite popular capitalism and believe that the opposite was the case with ‘the people’ now having a greater  stake in companies.

And further in this vein:

  • the share of national income captured by the top 0.1% rose from 1.3% in 1979 to 6.5% in 2007.

Again to many that might seem counter intuitive.

And even more curious, Giorgio Armani reported a rise in sales of 50% between 2010 and 2011 and Valentino’s couture sales rose by 80% over the same period.This decidedly robust upturn in the couture market while everywhere else the economy was plunging was nicely summed up by one of Armani’s people who said ‘Couture customers are better equipped to face economic uncertainty’.Indeed I’d go so far as to say they arent facing any uncertainty.

What are we to make of all this at a time when the Social Fund is being cut and the undeserving poor are lambasted by the Mail and such like for being the architects of their own personal downfall .While the PM berates the unemployed with fatuous talk of ‘going out and getting a job’.He clearly doesnt get north of the M40 very often.

What I do know is that we are a long way from Bedford Falls!

Some burning questions for 2012?

After a quiet break followed by a nasty bout of something that had me coughing my way through all too many nights, something like a New Year is starting to emerge, although for me any new year only starts with my birthday( which is testimony to my endless capacity for egotism I guess!)

A lighthearted start to 2012 with three questions that have been worrying me this year :

Firstly, why does nobody talk about Jefferson Airplane? This was prompted by a review of yet another book about the Doors whose influence has cast such a long shadow (think the Editors,the National etc and the provocative posing of all too many an indie band frontman!).There would be no Americana scene without the groundbreaking music of the Band, everybody wants to recapture the harmonies of Crosby Stills and Nash and the jangling guitar chord signature  of the Byrds  (stolen from  those stalwart Merseysiders the Searchers of course!) is ubiquitous.Every contemporary female singer song writer references Joni Mitchell while Dylan is still up there on his throne for many of the Sixties generation.

Lets us recall that in the mid sixties it was the Airplane that were most aligned with the counter culture of west coast America and particularly San Fran. For me, in spite of being very young back then, it was ‘White Rabbit’ that alerted me to the fact that something not quite ‘business as usual’ was being  put together on the streets of Haight- Ashbury.It was the Airplane that appeared to be the real representatives of  the anti war  movement and with songs like ‘Volunteers’  seemed more than most to embrace its remarkable if fleeting counter culture.

Sure their albums are still selling on Amazon and in places like Fopp for a respectable price which indicates that they are still seen as significant enough that new customers will buy at less than giveaway prices.But I never ever hear them spoken about, referred to, shown in TV documentaries etc.

Why might be ? Well they fell from grace (excuse the pun)  with their mid 70’s descent into something like maintsream pop (think of ‘we built this city’).Rather like Brahms, their primary sin may have been to go on for too long ,unlike most of their contemporaries, and have to deal (unsuccessfully maybe) with the loss of artistic relevance in middle age.

But I have another theory – name another significant, popular, influential rock band still selling albums at 8.99 that were fronted and led by a woman? (and take it from me Grace Slick was always a woman, never a girl!).Do I see a patriarchal conspiracy of  forgetting ?

Or maybe their music has just dated and their influence isnt obvious to the naked eye?

Second – and even more provocatively- why isnt Bruce Springsteen seen as a symbol/hunk by most women? (or have I got that wrong?).  Bruce sings about men to men, but then so did Jagger.He sings often sympathetically and with insight about relationships and the existential dilemmas of life much like any foppish singer songwriter has done from jackson browne onwards.Yet it would seem to me that he hasn’t won  the adoring female following that so many of those others have. Im sure Bruce cares not a jot for this and I dont have a pet theory this time so would welcome views.

Thirdly -and this will not come as a surprise to my friends – what is it with Mayo?! Where did it come from and why is it everywhere? Of course I have a real axe to grind since  I cannot eat products with raw eggs in  and hence the M&S sandwich counter is effectyively a no go area for me.But even those of you who profess to like the stuff must surely draw the line at cheese with mayo?! N0, for me the triumphant march  of mayo (from the dollop on the side of the plate with a salad to the essential bulking ingredient of every snack) is the very best example of how the market and its advertising power can create, shape and then meet a need that never before existed. And its such a dream result for the catering industry – a very cheap, very high fat cheap as chips agent that can dramatically cut the cost of any real sandwich .And you the public now want and demand it in your every lunchtime take away.Remind why you havent woken up to that and when will you start going back to real food?

There – three very different questions to kick off 2012.More serious and considered material is waiting in the wings….

PS there is a 4th question – why did the BBC bother with that outrageous production of Great Expectations this Christmas? As some wily critic wrote ‘ it was Dostoevsky not Dickens’. In their desire to say something ‘new’ they ended up saying nothing.Thank god the makers of Sherlock have had the good sense to keep faith with Conan Doyle.While watching it I could hear John Mills turning in his grave.



Why do we still laugh or cry when we know the ending?

It may be that one of the hallmarks of a great work of art (or at least literature/theatre/music) is its ability to constantly move, surprise and entertain us even when, after our first experience, we know exactly what will happen and how it will end?

I thought of this today after having seen a tremendous performance of La Traviata at Covent Garden this weekend.As ever, grown men – including this one –  cried! Yet having either read the programme and/or seen it before, we all knew Violetta would die and that on the way to her death she (or rather Verdi) would move us, tug every one of our heartstrings and make us want to believe that her final reconciliation with Alfredo would give her the strength to carry on.

So it is with Woodward and Bernstein in All the Presidents Men- a film that most of us will watch armed the ‘facts’ of the history and know that Tricky Dickie gets his just deserts.And we all know by now that Cary Grant  will see off Martin Landau on the face of Mount Rushmore   and get to travel in the sleeping car with Eva Marie Saint in North by North West, but still we experience the tension of that moment.

And as tis the season of goodwill, what of Scrooge? Only a very young child can possibly be ignorant of the fact of his repentance and the redemption that Dickens grants him.Yet with what is essentially the major truth of the story known to all, the drama retains its ability to grip us and somehow make us believe the outcome is in doubt.Similarly with Pip and the true identity of Magwitch in Great Expectations.

And of course Shakespeare loses little of his power through the universal use of  ‘spoilers’ in any review of a new production of one of his plays!

What is it that the artists is able to do and what is it that we collude in that allows us this ‘groundhog day’ like approach to the emotions that lie at the heart of our major works of art?

It has to be said that we know it to be a skill since there are notable instances of this effect not being made to work.  Returning to opera, I am less moved say by La Boheme because the plight of Mimi looks to be too predictable  and never in sufficient doubt   to move the listener after the first performance.In films, the otherwise enjoyable Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid of Redford and Newman never has the impact of its first viewing because the shock of the ending can never be forgotten or replayed. By way of contrast, many of us watch The Great Escape again and again when we know there there will be no ‘great’ escape! In literature,I personally have found it hard to read the works of Hardy more than once because the fate of the central character is usually sealed with such finality after having been foretold with such dramatic power.Yet books I have read often – the Great Gatsby, the key works of Greene for example – are no less final in their judgement.

The quality of the performance, the music or the writing clearly makes a difference, but are there any essential ground rules?

In the end, it may come down to our own relationship to the theme, our experience of the music or writing, yet I tend to think that there is more involved.

I’ll give it some thought as I watch Singing in the Rain for the umpteenth time , listen as I do every year to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, play Born to Run and Hejira once again and pick up a well thumbed and much loved novel to read!

By the time I get to Phoenix

Galveston, Alberquerque, Amarillo……. the sublime Wichita Lineman

What is it with place names in American music?

This is a question that has been exercising my mind for a long time. Whatever music you like, it cannot be denied that place performs a function in American music that is not replicated on these shores:.

We could visit five places in New England and take in the  Appalachian Spring

Meet  in  St Louis or dance the Harlem shuffle

And there are entire songs that revolve around place and street names – from  the appalling ‘What did Delaware?’  , to New York New York, Manhattan( arguably the greatest of all place name dropping songs) , Chicago, Route 66…..

Songs that let us know of exotic never to be visited places like Tacoma, Winnemucca, Lake Charles, Mendocino

And did you ever go to San Francisco ? Or back to Massachusetts? Crossed the Wainsborough County line on the way to Darlington County?.

Been frozen out on 10th avenue or danced on 42nd street?

There have been songs that are simply tributes to whole states: California girls, sweet home Alabama, that’s the way the girls are from Texas, oh Atlanta, carry me Ohio, Michigan, Colorado.

I could go on and on …Ill leave you to guess the songs. Feel free to suggest more but believe me – the list is very very long!

I’ve thought long and hard about our paltry contribution to this phenomenon. Too often trite, with misplaced humour – think of Winchester Cathedral or Billericay Dickie.

Sure we’ve had the Streets of London, left old Durham Town and caught the ferry cross the Mersey. Squeeze took us Up the Junction and we heard tell of the Hersham boys (with their rolled up corduroys!).

The evergreen and dependable Richard Thompson has made an effort to ground his songs in place – think of the Cooksfeery Queen, the free and fey heroine of the sublime Beeswing picking fruit in Kent or living on the Gower and that unforgettable Lightening Black Vincent 1952 taking Box Hill in its stride!

Manchester bands Doves have given us the M62 and Shadows of Salford, while Villiers Terrace was immortalised by Echo and the Bunnymen.

There is of course a distinct English/British folk and pastoralist tradition that has its root in places and villages, but so often the places depicted do not in themselves add colour or suggest a mood to the listener in the way of the American tradition. Rather the place simply acts as a label.

Of course I don’t want to over egg the pudding .There have been some real gems such as Waterloo sunset, Penny Lane and Guns of Brixton where the character of the place evoked by the song is central to its theme. And of course the heartfelt poetry of Housman set to music by Butterworth and Vaughan Williams, but it could be argued that’s cheating as the lyrics come from a literary and not a musical tradition.

I don’t want to suggest we Brits are not aware of place. But feel I am on strong ground in proposing that for our American cousins it’s a whole different ball game!

Why should this be the case?

Is it maybe because the States is such a vast continent compared to this little island of the North West coast of Europe and this allows the distinctiveness of each place to stand for something? Does place do for American music what class or accent does for ours?

I have no firm conclusions to offer just yet.

But one day I am going to compile a definitive list of all the places name checked  in American music and wager that  I can find a song for every state and major city and a fair few towns along the way. And that’s before I get to streets and avenues. Just going back over the Springsteen and Dylan catalogue will take some time!

Then I’m going to cross the pond, rent a Winnebago (or maybe a Cadillac) and visit some of them. If can persuade my old friend Richard (a great photographer and a music aficionado) to come with me even better. And I’ll get to the bottom of this phenomenon. And while we’re waking up to a Chelsea morning, catching the A train to Coney and eating Baloney,  or figuring out what they do on State Street that they don’t do on Broadway, we’ll also think about why Hull, Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds don’t have a firm place in the language of song in England.

By the way, if there are any publishers out there that maybe want to advance me a few bucks to get the project underway (we can leave the TV rights to later), do give drop me a line!.