Friday, November 09, 2007

Magic Sponge!

The rugby world cup of 2007 was a strange affair. Games that promised little delivered epic encounters. Games that offered huge match-ups fell flat.

The presumption prior to the tournament was that the ‘small’ teams would be swatted aside in a series of meaningless group games, leaving the big boys of the rugby world to entertain us in the knockout stages. Was that presumption ever wrong. Have the warm-up matches ever been more deceptive as to the final outcome?

Argentina sprang upon the world cup stage first, playing the hosts France, and delivered a statement of intent that could not be misunderstood by anybody. They took a disheartened-looking France apart. The Argentinians have long been on the wrong end of the world rugby system – getting hideous schedules in these tournaments while things are made easier for the so-called ‘big’ teams. Not allowed in the southern-hemisphere tri-nations, not allowed in the northern-hemisphere 6-nations. The black sheep of the rugby world, they came with a serious point to prove.

You knew that something was up before a ball was kicked. As the camera panned across the Argentinian team faces during their national anthem, you could sense something massive coming. The intensity of their expressions was on a different level, even for a competitive international game – some looked ready to burst, some looked furious, some were glazed, lost in thought, some had tears streaming down their face. Could they control their emotions? While you worried for the Argentinians if they couldn’t, you could only fear for the French if they could. Of course, they could, they did, and they humbled France, throwing the group that also contained Ireland wide open.

The Irish, inexplicably, self-destructed almost from the first game. A team filled with some of the most incredible individual talents in world rugby somehow managed to lose shape, direction, form, and ended up adding up to significantly less than the sum of its parts, submerging from the competition in the group stages. The Irish coach (having signed a four-year deal just prior to the competition) is presumably pleased that the crisis which exploded in Irish football immediately after the RWC diverted the national spotlight away from the immediate aftermath of his teams failure. Wales similarly foundered in the group stage, although they had the dubious compensation of participating in a deciding game with Fiji that could be used as an advert for rugby for the next 20 years. Scotland scrabbled out of their group after a nip-and-tuck decider with Italy, but were put to the sword in the quarters by Argentina.

Other great moments lit up the competition. France / New Zealand was a defining moment - the hosts taking on the favourites. While it’s difficult to like the way that New Zealand collect the cream of talent from the South Pacific, one of the appealing things about the All Blacks on the field has always been their refusal to lose, their relentlessness, their single-minded desire. One of the appealing things about France has always been their unpredictability – their mental imbalance. One half of a game they can be destroyed, hideous, a shell of a team. Then they can turn it on like it’s a tap – suddenly, the French flair is there, and they are the best team in the world. They did it to the All Blacks before in a world cup – and in 2007, they did it again – fighting back from behind to mug New Zealand in a massive show of heart, an incisive break from Freddie Michelak, swift hands and a killer try.

So as for the highlights of the world cup? I have four.

First is Argentina, bursting with pride and determination, turning France’s world upside down in the opening game.

Second is France, holding on by their fingernails for almost an entire match, staying in touch, and then finding a few minutes of inimitable French inspiration with the introduction of Michelak, and overturning an All Blacks side everyone had pegged to win the final.

Third is Sebastien Chabal. From a publicity point, the player of the tournament. But I pick him not for a moment of play, but for the expression with which he regarded the New Zealand ‘Haka’. There are many ways to stare down the Haka, but this was beyond intense. Check out the charged up expression Chabal has for the All-Blacks – and the raised eyebrows from the French player just after the end of the Haka is a nice touch too - here.

There’s a clip from the stands showing just how up close and personal it got here

(Note the All-Blacks crowding up in the French faces as it goes on – and the French sneaking over the halfway line (which you’re not supposed to do). No quarter asked for and none offered)

And just to confirm that the heroically violent sport of rugby is watched by gents, check out the crowd scenes in Cardiff before the match, as a large group of French encounter a large group of Kiwis. Brilliant.

Finally, as I was a lock forward, one for the real rugby players out there.

One of the latter Irish group games (possibly against the Argentinians, although I’m not sure). A ruck is on the ground, ball coming back on the Argentinian side. An Irish player is trapped head-and-chest on the wrong side, legs buried in the ruck. An Argentinian is trapped head-and-chest in the ruck, legs sticking out the Argentinian side.

As the Argentinian scrum-half comes in to collect the ball, the Irish player trapped in the ruck grabs an Argentinian leg (belonging to the buried Argentinian), and as no hands are allowed if you are on the ground, uses the spare Argentinian leg to poke the ball at the critical moment. The referee is unsighted by the bodies, and sees only an Argentinian foot poking the ball. The Argentinian scrum-half is subsequently faced with a ball zipping out of the ruck under his feet when he wasn’t ready for it, and onrushing Irish defenders.

While it wasn’t a decisive moment, it’s a great reminder of the hidden, beautiful moments that make rugby such a fantastic game.

Here’s looking forward to the six nations!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Chavez and media spin

On Friday, the Irish Independent published this article on the subject of Hugo Chavez and Venezuela.

It struck me as so biased and skewed, I wrote a letter to the editor, which was published yesterday (only in the print version)

The original text of the letter is below - the version as printed (nearly identical) is in the image on the right.

- - -

Your article “Chavez’s idea of democracy – it’s a job for life” (Friday 17th August) showed bias on a number of counts. You categorically state his reforms would make him “president for life”, but later in the article clarify that the reforms actually remove a limitation on the number of terms the President can serve. Is there some limitation on the number of terms the same person can be Taoiseach of which I am not aware?

Having misrepresented the reforms, you tar his speech as “rambling” and “reminiscent of his close ally and friend Fidel Castro”. Is there a genuine purpose to this comparison in the context of the Venezuela reforms, beyond an attempt to associate Chavez with Castro so that criticisms against one (factual or not) might be implicitly perceived against the other?

You then dismiss the assembly debate as a forgone “rubberstamp”, claiming the assembly is 100% “Chavista” due to the opposition boycotting the 2005 elections. The opposition boycotted these elections because they would have lost and their best hope against Chavez was not a fair election, but to undermine the legitimacy of his government by refusing to compete. The bias against Chavez in the west allows the opposition to engage in such undemocratic tactics, and then label themselves (with the support of our media) as the democratic martyrs.

The reforms must then go to the population in a referendum, which you assert he is “unlikely to struggle to win, as he has spent millions of dollars in oil revenue enlarging his power base by bolstering the ranks of state employees”. Nowhere is there any mention of the dramatic improvements in healthcare and education that Chavez has brought about, and no hint that he might be popular due to policies that favour the poor majority of the country.

In one short article, you have presented reforms which bring the Venezuelan electoral system closer to the Irish/UK model as a lifetime power-grab, ignored the assembly debate by implicitly blaming Chavez for the oppositions refusal to compete in elections, and ignored the results of a referendum that has not yet happened on the basis that the only way Chavez could have become popular is by corruption and bribery.

Is this what the Independent considers fair and impartial journalism?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

White Light

A couple of months ago, I stumbled across a track that took me back to the days that people were writing truly astounding electronic music. It seems to happen less and less these days, but this tune is really beyond belief.

It’s called “White Light”, and it’s by Funk d’Void and Phil Kieran.

Setting up with quirky lofi walking-pace drums, spacey swirling chords, and wobbling tuning, it sets a solid foundation for a minute and a half, before setting sail with a three-chord cycle that circles you through the deepest of emotional 7 minute journeys, rising and falling, talking and listening, giving and taking. It’s the most amazing, gentle and delicately crafted piece of dancefloor friendly warmth I can remember.

One thing that I have always found myself doing with electronic music, is trying to find a way to release the soul, and the heart, and the emotions from machines – to get them to love you, to tell you a story. The greatest of these moments is when music flows out from these electronics, that balances on the knife-edge between optimism and melancholy. When you and the studio equipment can somehow combine, to release some of that emotion, the result can be special.

When Funk d’Void released “Thank You (slowly)” on his debut Soma release, I wasn’t sure that for pure heart, he would ever trump it – and despite some blinding records since, I’ve always felt that there was something very special about that early, little-talked-about track.

White Light, nothing short of unbelievable, lays that to rest.

A classic for today, and tomorrow...

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Maltese Double Cross

Hugely important news today - The Times reports here that the screw is really now on for a full review of the conviction of Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi in the Lockerbie bombing.

Edited highlights include the nuggets that the positive ID of al-Megrahi by a Maltese shopkeeper (crucial to the prosecution) was hideously flawed and unreliable, and that evidence logs showing times of evidence being collected had been altered, pages renumbered, and pages of evidence added at a later date.

There's a huge deal more dirt that surrounds Pan Am 103 and Lockerbie - for those of an inquisitive bent, some internet searches for the PFLP-GC, Abu Talb, Tony Gauci, Edwin Bollier, Marwan Khreesat, Thomas Thurman, and crucified whistleblower Lester Coleman should help put things together.

The UK government has been working very hard over the last few months on a deal that would allow al-Megrahi to return to Libya to serve the rest of his sentence - most likely an attempt to deflate desire for an appeal against the conviction, and once more bury the truth about what really happened. Hopefully, the judicial process will this time move more quickly than the political one.

On June 28th at noon, the Scottish Criminal Cases review commission will present its report on the Lockerbie case to the Scottish Parliament. Surely now, finally, the case will be sent back to the appeal court, and the conviction will be thrown out.

After that?

Hopefully, we can start looking publicly for the truth at last. The families of the victims, such as Jim Swire (who has fought endlessly and with humbling dignity for the truth) can hopefully have some closure. Scotland can start to make amends with Libya for the shame of a wrongful and politically motivated conviction.

All the parties who buried this in the first instance may wish to start thinking very carefully about their stories at this point.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The capitals of tin

The Irish election is one week away, on the 24th of May.

As a declared neutral country, the current party in control of Ireland have allowed Shannon airport in west Ireland to be used by the US military – both for transporting troops, and also for military contractors to Iraq.
Not even counting the paradox of allowing military reinforcements to be allowed free passage and use of your facilities whilst declaring yourself ‘neutral’, the furthest that Ireland has gone towards checking that none of these military transports nor contractors are shipping untried people for torture in third-party states (the practice of extra-judicial kidnapping and transportation to a country where torture is used – euphemistically referred to as ‘extraordinary rendition’) is to seek ‘assurances’ from the administration in Washington.

Given the track record of the current Washington administration in abusing human rights and eroding civil liberties (so hard fought for by the founding fathers and many American citizens before and since) to suit their purpose in the case for confrontation with perceived enemies in any corner of the world, Ireland is well within its rights to demand inspection of any aircraft landing or using Irish ground facilities.
According to the current Irish government, they are satisfied with the ‘assurances’ that they have received that US planes are not engaged in renditions through Shannon. A nod and a wink could not be more explicit explanation of what is happening here.

This isn’t just for hanging on the current Irish government – many of the large opposition parties make no promises to change the situation with regard to the use of Shannon. However, a few small parties do oppose and would work to remove use of Shannon by the US military and their contractors for these odious and barbaric purposes.

It is now up to the electorate in Ireland. Is their opposition to the occupation in Iraq and the terrible brutality and inhumanity that has sprung up in the name of the ‘war on terror’ strong enough that they might be prepared to do something concrete about it in their own country, using their own votes?

As the late, great Johnny Cash once sang – “I stopped outside a church house, where the citizens like to sit. They say they want the kingdom, but they don’t want God in it”.

We shall see.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Say it all...

There is something about music that wobbles along the balancing line between melancholy and optimism, something captivating about music that seems in a moment miserable, and in a moment hopeful.

It's very rare to hear this kind of atmosphere in a song that makes it to the mainstream - vaguely depressing ambiguous expressions of emotion tend to lack the killer hooks required to move units in the way required to hit the top of the charts.

“Say it right” by Nelly Furtado captures this indicisive acheing better than any track I can remember, and could almost stand entirely without lyrics and be just as powerful. Impossibly magnetic, the desolation of her latest single is a level beyond and above anything she has previously produced.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Three chords and the truth

When you’re involved in music studio equipment every hour of your day, sometimes it is easy to forget that the technology is simply a means to an end. Every so often, you see artists that remind you that the music was the reason you got involved in the first place. My January visit to the fourth dimension that is Los Angeles provided two artists who do just that.

Bjarne Langhoff from Denmark, is a guy who can sing. Boy can he sing. I’m not normally one to be taken by singers, although there are certain famous ones I’ve got a lot of time for. Well, Bjarne can really do it, and it’s something else. In particular, there’s nothing more impressive than listening to him moving up the gears, from a brooding verse into an expansive chorus for example – I mean, when this guy lets go it’s out of this world. He was *cranking* it for four days solid, 8 hours a day, and it sounded as amazing at the end as it did at the start. Stunning. Check him out here.

Laura Clapp from the US is a singer/songwriter, and has a brilliant voice used to great effect on her own tunes. The tunes are fantastic (some of them are almost beyond belief), with killer lyrics and devastatingly good musical arrangements combined with fantastic singing. For my money, Laura is even better live than on recording. For me, one of the magically engaging things in a performer is when you believe – when they look like they really mean it. Well, she looks like she means it, and I believe. Check her out here, or here.

If there's any musical justice in the world, these two artists should be huge...