Category Archives: Far Flung Correspondence

Brass and bacchanalia

 The Big Meet in Durham, which takes place each year on the second weekend in July, is a characteristic North-Eastern blend of sweet music, serious drinking, sentimentality and the odd bout of fisticuffs.

This year’s guest speaker was Ken Livingstone and I was disappointed to miss it, not least to see how Ken’s nasal Lambeth twang went down with the Mackem crowd. I did make it last year whenI went to the one hundredth Miners’ Festival Service. It was a moving spectacle as brass bands from Layburn, Easington, Huddersfield, Dobcross, Westoe, and the National Union of Miners led their banners into the most beautiful cathedral in the world.

Tonight and tomorrow night, as part of the Durham International Festival, a new film about the history of coal mining in the north-east – and the important role of the brass bands – will be shown in the cathedral. Created by Bill Morrison, and Jóhann Jóhannsson, the film contrasts the harsh realities of pit work with the transcendental beauty of the music. The evening will include a live performance by both classically trained brass musicians and brass band players from the NASUWT Riverside Band.

Here is the NASUWT band playing at the G20 March in 2009:


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Do it yourself

Pub Gig

Fire and Water kick out the jams at the Rose and Crown in Low Hesket, Cumbria. Photo credit: Linda Mellor


Whatever happened to the punk ethic ‘Find a guitar, learn three chords, form a band’?  

These days, aspiring musos seem to aim no higher than aping the mannerisms and melodies of their heroes. Inspiration plays second fiddle to imitation in the line up of tribute bands across the nation.  

 I thought the definition of ‘tribute’ was ‘a gift or compliment given as due or in acknowledgment of gratitude or esteem’ not a ‘shoddy knock-off job’, but it seems I was wrong. From No Way Sis to The Fab Faux, appalling puns are only the start of the dreary experience that these puppets on a guitar string are intent on inflicting.  

Like a lot of objectionable trends, the roots of the tribute band can be traced back to Australia. Given the lack of bands willing to haul their gear across the world for a two-night stint in a Sydney pub, it fell to locals to recreate the magic of heavy rock, showbiz schlock and sixties cheese. Following in the wake of Neighbours, INXS and Russell Crowe, these bands eventually imposed their gifts on the world at large.  

Look a likes

Shaz and Ozzy drop in for a quick half. Photo credit: Linda Mellor


North Cumbria has much in common with the land of Oz. The scenery is beautiful, the people have an uncomplicated view of life and there is hardly anywhere for thespians, musicians and other aesthetes to test their talent. During a visit to Penrith recently, I met up with my friend the photographer Linda Mellor and her family and we caught Fire and Water (Free meets Bad Company meets whatever) doing their thing at the Rose and Crown in Low Hesket. Not a natural environment for a night of musical mayhem, you might think, and you’d be right. It wasn’t so much bad as surreal. For a start the crowd had more energy than the band; the lead singer suffered from terminal shyness; and the backing track was doing all the work. If you are going to copy a band, I think you should at least form the original line up. Listening to some guys with a guitar and mix tape isn’t a concert, it’s karaoke.  

By way of coincidence, I happen to part of a team organising a night of open mic, karaoke and other live shenanigans in Brighton later this month. If you are in the area, bring your talent and earn yourself a few cocktails. Be your own tribute.  

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Venezuela and Colombia – a dangerous war of words

Colombia elections

Alvaro Uribe, Colombia's president, may seek an unprecedented third term in office

Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, is one of the few cities I have visited that lived up to its scary reputation. In most places, if you don’t go looking for trouble, it will keep out of your way. In Bogotá in the late 1990s, trouble came looking for you.

Queuing in a fast-food restaurant, I was proffered a self-assembly pistol by a customer in front of me, who assured me I would need the weapon during my visit. I declined his offer. A woman who headed up the sales operation of a well-known hotel chain told me that if she worked later than eight o’clock in the evening, she slept on a fold-out bed in her office – to take a cab was to guarantee that she would not arrive home in one piece.

Law and order in Colombia at that time was capricious and fragile. Entrenched in a civil war with FARC guerrillas and with its cities under the sway of drug gangs, the government seemed  intent on driving the nation over a cliff. The election of Álvaro Uribe in 2002 stopped the rot. While things are far from perfect, Uribe has at least created the conditions where Colombian families can plan for a stable future. Uribe now wants to change the constitution and run for a third term this year, in order, he says, to secure his achievements.

Whoever wins the forthcoming election will have to deal with a very noisy neighbour – Venezuela’s leader Hugo Chávez. As the health and political influence of Fidel Castro has faded, Chávez has stepped into his shoes as Latin America’s most charismatic, dogmatic and, as far as the United States and its allies are concerned, dangerous leader. His gift for getting under the skin of his adversaries was demonstrated when he managed to goad the normally unflappable King Juan Carlos of Spain into telling him to shut up.

Last month Chávez’s decision to close the opposition television channel RCTV provoked riots in Caracas in which two young people were killed . And as his economy falters, Chávez appears to seek the age-old remedy for dictators with internal problems – external conflict.

He severed diplomatic relations with Colombia last year when Uribe’s administration signed a pact with the US government giving the US military access to Colombian bases.

Chávez moved his troops to the border, blew up two bridges linking the countries and urged his armed forces to “prepare for war”. That conflict took another step closer last week when Colombia made a formal diplomatic protest to Venezuela following what it regarded as a violation of its airspace by a Venezuelan military helicopter. Venezuela’s foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro, responded by accusing the Colombians of lying.

So far, the two enemies have contended themselves with a war of words. But Chávez’s dream of fulfilling the revolutionary legacy of Simón Bolivar and creating a federation of states in South America could yet drag the continent into chaos.

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Why it is still the 80s in Cuba

Meet the new boss

 The first port of call for any foreign journalist travelling above-board in Cuba is the International Press Centre in the Vedado District, west of Havana. Outside on La Rampa the sun is blazing, the patched-up Cadillac’s cruise the streets and the air is fragrant with Mariposa. Inside, all is redolent of Eastern Europe in the 1980s: anonymous officialdom, heavy-handed bureaucracy.

On my first morning in the capital, a few years ago, I handed my passport to an unsmiling woman who banged out my press card on a manual typewriter manufactured in the German Democratic Republic. After supplying the same information on three different forms, I was officially accredited and allowed back out onto the busy streets.

Anybody paying a modicum of attention cannot fail to notice that the city is falling apart. The Capitol is an exhausted replica of its Washington counterpart; the cathedral, famously described as a song in stone, has seen its melody muted by years of neglect; even the prestigious Hotel Nacional appears tired and in need of more than a little loving care.

A UNESCO-sponsored restoration programme has focused on the tourist areas in the Old City with some success. But take a walk away from the beaten path into the Central district and you will be confronted with third-world levels of poverty and squalor. The legacy of successive hurricanes and official indifference has left many areas on the verge of collapse. Like all dictatorships, the Castro administration views its polyglot and cosmopolitan port with suspicion and disdain.

It was during an unscheduled visit to Central that I was approached by a friendly woman who seemed inordinately curious about my presence in Havana and keen to have my opinions on everything from Fidel Castro’s image to the popularity of Cuban cigars abroad. She was not one of the ubiquitous “jineteras”; she was well-educated, spoke good English and was more interested in the contents of my notebook than my wallet. I guessed that she was a member of the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution – a kind of “neighbourhood watch” organisation with real teeth. Its main aim is to root out anti-revolutionary behaviour and it is not above doling out rough justice. It is likely that members of the CDR were behind the attacks this year on the blogger Yoani Sanchez and her husband. My questioner, however, was politeness itself and having ascertained that I posed no threat to the stability of the Cuban administration, she said goodbye with a smile and a handshake.

Some days later I visited Varadero, the island’s most popular tourist spot. At the Sandals Royal Hicacos Resort and Spa there is plaque on a wall in the main function room, which reads, in Spanish: “To protect and promote the values of the revolution for the workers is the primary task of the tourism sector.” The sign is redundant. The values of the revolution were compromised from the outset and any lingering idealism was buried three years ago with the de facto military takeover spearheaded by Raúl Castro. For Havana, read Warsaw; for Castro jnr, read Wojciech Jaruzelski. In Cuba, the 80s are still with us.

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