The Upsetter – Lee Perry remembered on a rare meeting in Kingston

September 2nd, 2021 No comments

(c) Hugh Thomson 1994. The photograph I took of Lee as he sang to me in the burnt out husk of the Black Ark studio.

 

“Who am I? I’m the Mystic Warrior. Because I am what I am, and I am he that I am.  I am a technological man, I am not a reggae star, I am a technological star.  I am [with an intense look past my shoulder] the Upsetter”.

 

When Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry granted me a rare interview on his first visit to Kingston in years, I always knew it would throw up surprises. Here, after all, was a man who had created some of the greatest and wildest reggae songs of all time and was considered eccentric to the point of insanity.  A man who planted the records he made in his garden and watered them.  A man who wore compact discs glued to his baseball cap and mirrors on his trainers so that he could reflect light back over walls to ‘own them’. Read more…

Nero – From Zero to Hero

May 27th, 2021 No comments

Nero – one of the few statues to survive that didn’t get remodelled after his fall and disgrace – showing his fringed hairstyle that was even more influential than the Beatles

Another week, another fabulous British Museum show – they have been queueing up like buses during lockdown to arrive all at once.

There are similarities between the Nero show and the Becket show which they also asked me to review ahead of its opening.

Both deal with the rewriting of history. In Nero’s case, the argument cogently expressed by the curators goes, the history was written by his senatorial opponents, so blackened his image.

Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned – indeed helped rebuild itRead more…

‘Tuesday’s Child is Full of Grace’

May 17th, 2021 No comments

The Thomas Becket exhibition at the British Museum

There are two interesting revelations at this intelligently curated show marking the 900th anniversary of Thomas Becket’s birth – well it would have been the 900th anniversary last year but the show got delayed due to corona. And it’s the death that gets all the attention.

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Scotland leaving Britain – or Britain leaving Scotland?

May 6th, 2021 No comments

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Why the rest of Britain might want to leave Scotland

I was at dinner recently with a distinguished Fellow of All Souls who had served as a politician and is known for his incisive analysis. The conversation turned to Scotland and their forthcoming elections.

With some relish, my companion, English like me, listed the multiple reasons why the Scots should not want to leave the Union.

They would have problems with their currency. The Europeans would not want them back. Under current arrangements, they were considerable nett gainers from Westminster; independence would see their trade and incomes diminish.  And would Shetland or Orkney then want to secede from Scotland? Or for that matter would some of the border constituencies reconstitute themselves, like the six counties of Northern Ireland, and want to reattach to the United Kingdom, with all the attendant tensions that have occurred in Ulster?

As much to stop him in his tracks as anything else, I asked him if he had ever turned the issue on its head. If the Scots enjoyed so many advantages by being part of the Union, what exactly did the rest of Britain gain by keeping them? If they wanted to go, and certainly if they voted to go, wouldn’t we be better off by just cutting them loose? Surely there was no logical or rational reason for wanting to keep Scotland in the Union, other than the very debatable merits of maintaining a nuclear base at Faslane? Read more…

Neanderthal and Proud

April 28th, 2021 No comments

A little while ago my brother decided to get a DNA test. So far, so good and why not. He discovered, and decided to share with his siblings, without necessarily asking us if we wanted him to, that we were all descended from a mix of the usual British suspects – a bit of Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Celt – and were predisposed to standard diseases and health risks.

But he kept one surprise back to the end. We had double the normal amount of Neanderthal in our genes.

For those who haven’t been keeping up, it’s now well established that we all have a small quantity of Neanderthal genes. This is the result of contact that occurred largely in the Middle East and  Europe when homo sapiens arrived to find Neanderthals already there, sometime before 40,000 BC.  And given that’s a fair while ago, there must been a great deal of what scientists genteelly call ‘interbreeding’ for even some of that still to survive diluted today. Read more…

Afghanistan: No Interpreters and the Dangers of Ignorance

March 25th, 2021 No comments

As the Americans prepare to leave Afghanistan and here in Britain we hold a Defence Review, have we learned the lessons of our own failures there?

Lockdown has given me plenty of time to reflect and I’ve been thinking recently a great deal about Afghanistan – perhaps prompted by the fact that the Americans may be about to withdraw completely from that country after 20 years of largely unsuccessful occupation since the invasion.

I was in the country for a brief and intense time in 2007 when I was filming for Channel 4 Dispatches and CNN. We saw a country that had been brutalised for decades by the Russian occupation, the ensuing civil war and then the American carpet bombing to ensure that their troops met no resistance. And a country which was becoming restive as the Allies seemed increasingly unable to help them rebuild, or for that matter interested in doing so once they had been distracted by Iraq. Read more…

The Dig – A triumph

February 2nd, 2021 No comments

So archaeology can make for a great movie. Don’t be put off by the rather patronising review in the Guardian or some carping criticism about historical accuracy. The Dig, streaming from today as cinemas closed, is an excellent film and worth catching. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it gets a few BAFTA nominations and deserves to.

I did initially approach with suspicion as to whether it was the sort of quiet English period piece which would irritate me for being underscripted and too pleased with itself. Like too much Sunday afternoon television. But this tale of the discovery of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon longship in a Suffolk field just before the war has a quite unexpected and moving performance by Ralph Fiennes – a career best – playing a deep East Anglian countryman with not just the accent, but the staggered delivery that makes the Suffolk voice so memorable. He apparently had a lot of training in ‘suffolkation’ from local expert Charlie Haylock, and it shows.

And he’s not the only reason to see it.  There is some unusually fine ensemble acting, helped by the fact that the Australian director Simon Stone comes out of experimental theatre where he has been much heralded; this is his first film and he manages to get some subtle performances all round, leaving in the silences, helped by a good script from the successful novel by John Preston. Read more…

Back to the Joys of Armchair Travel

January 10th, 2021 No comments

‘Well that’s you shafted,’  said one friend kindly at the start of the worldwide lockdown. ‘Not a good time to be a travel writer…’

Well yes and no. Obviously there’s not much actual travelling possible at the moment. But then the ratio in travel writing between the former and the latter has always been grossly disproportionate – too little time spent travelling and far too much time having to write about it when you get back.

And in my case I only did just get back. I was writing a piece about the sunny beaches and boho resorts of northern Uruguay – one of those gigs which leads to envy and resentment, particularly in March – when  they introduced the sudden guillotine on air travel, so we had to slip over the border to Brazil for one of the last flights back to Europe. I was travelling with my girlfriend and for a moment we thought of just staying, as there are worse places to self-isolate than a low rent beach hut in the sun; but while this sounded fun for a while, if the worldwide lockdown continued for months it might have become restrictive and complicated. Wiser counsels prevailed. Which is lucky as otherwise we would still be there. Read more…

Whatever Happened to Television?

June 10th, 2020 No comments

The suggestion in the BBC Plan that BBC4 is to stop making new programmes and become a largely repeats-only channel, possibly only accessible online, is a depressing reminder to viewers of a very long-term trend.

Oh dear. Whatever happened to television? And in particular, the area that BBC4 was particularly supposed to promote – factual and arts television. The channel that was launched with the slogan, “Everybody Needs a Place to Think”. Has the BBC decided that they no longer do?

Or rather, that it is not for them to provide it, when they can concentrate on ‘youth programming’ like BBC3, with the assumption patronising to both young and old that serious factual programming is only for the elderly.

Time was when working in television was to work in one of the most exciting industries around. I certainly found it so. Read more…

How to Write about a ‘Plague Year’ – 1603 and Thomas Dekker

May 11th, 2020 No comments

All those writers buried away in self isolation and trying to describe what we are all experiencing could do worse than turn to Thomas Dekker’s ‘A Wonderful Year’, his account of living through the plague in 1603.

Dekker was a young playwright around town in Shakespearean London, very much on the make, and constantly in and out of trouble and prison for debt.

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Come the plague in 1603, and all the theatres closed – lockdown was always immediate if deaths from the disease reached just 30 a week – so Dekker turned his hand to pamphleteering to make ends meet.

The challenge was to attract a readership who might not want to be reminded of what they were only just escaping when the pamphlet came out. Dekker’s answer was to try to make much of it as funny as he could: ‘If you read, you may happily laugh; tis my desire you should, because mirth is wholesome against the Plague.’ Read more…