Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Rise of the Machines

The reviews of the forth film in the Terminator series, Terminator Salvation, were frequently scathing and opened up many questions as to the technology of the machines (who builds the machines and why can’t their weapons be more hardcore?), but what kind of cyborg technology is actually available?

Surely by now we are close to inventing robotic eyes that can see in the dark and mechanical legs that can run super fast? If I wanted to shed this mortal shell and climb into something a bit more, well, futuristic, what could I hope to get for my pains?

A “cyborg” is a cybernetic organism, or any organism that contains technology to replace or enhance part of the natural body. This theoretically entails that wearing contact lenses or wearing a hearing-aid makes one a cyborg, but a more accurate definition would be an animal who has bionics or robotics implanted into their body.

With troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for prosthetic limbs has increased massively in recent years. Prostheses technology is now capable of allowing somebody with no arm or leg to control an artificial limb with their thought alone. The replacement limbs not only look relatively natural but allow them do many of the simple tasks previously unavailable to them as a result of the amputation.

The C-Leg, developed by prostheses pioneers Otto Bock Healthcare, is an example of a neurally-controlled artificial limb. Its multiple sensors receive signals 50 times a second that are processed into a determination of where the amputee wishes to move their limb. A microprocessor then sends the signals to a hydraulic cylinder that can rotate and extend the knee accordingly. The revolutionary technology essentially guesses your next move and adjusts accordingly. It stiffens to support you if you seem like you will trip or stumble and relaxes to a natural gait while walking. It enables the amputee to change speed and tackle hills without any awkward jerks.

The iLimb is a prosthetic hand that reads electronic muscle signals generated in the remaining muscles of the amputee’s arm and moves accordingly. Each finger moves independently and has a high degree of sensitivity. Scottish manufacturer, Touch Bionics, explain: The “built in stall detection tells each individual finger when it has sufficient grip on an object and, therefore, when to stop powering”. The technology is a huge leap from that which proceeded. Never before have amputees had the option of such a visually realistic prosthetic with such a degree of manual dexterity.

Any machine needs power. A mechanical heart is available, but currently only for patients with very particular characteristics: they must be older than 18 and suffer from heart failure so severe that, despite the height of medical care, they are expected to die within 30 days. The AbioCor artificial heart is the first self-contained and implantable artificial heart that can keep people functional. The patient would not need tubes protruding through the skin and would not be bedridden. Only a small battery pack, worn on a belt, is needed to keep the AbioCor pumping. The first one was implanted in July 2001 and the patient lived for an extra 151 days. The second patient was given less than 20% chance of surviving 30 days before the operation, but lived for 512 days after receiving the new heart.

There is technology available, pioneered by a team from the University of Southern California, that restores some vision to those with certain forms of blindness but it is currently reliant on the user wearing large dark glasses that house a small camera. To simplify, the camera sends information to a retinal implant via electrodes. The message is received by the brain allowing the user to make out dots of light and dark equal to the number of electrodes. The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System has so far been successful in clinical trials using 16 electrodes and it is currently being tested with 60.

The Boston Retinal Implant Project has an even more remarkable mission statement. Their aim is to develop an implantable prosthesis to restore vision to patients with certain forms of blindness. Their website claims that they have already created an “ultra thin (several times thinner than a human hair), flexible, wireless micro-electronic device” which houses a chip that will control delivery of electrical pulses to the retina. They have performed hours long electrical stimulation studies in humans and are waiting for authorisation to fix long-term implants into patients. If successful, sufferers of certain forms of blindness will face having their vision restored with technology that will not be visible on their body.

Most of the body can, amazingly, now be exchanged for an artificial counterpart. Artificial livers, new skin grown from stem cells, pneumatic muscles and bionic lungs and stomachs are already a commercial reality and, as ever, the technology is getting better rapidly. Maybe our kids and grandchildren will save money to buy eyes that can zoom and see in the dark, or lungs that can deal with having water inside them. Watch out John Connor- the machines may be coming!


C Leg:




Testing Times for the Printed Page

It is a question that has been mulled by many; sitting in the office while scrolling down, or riding the underground with a LondonLitelyinteresting, or flipping through that glossy mag, or even curled comfortably, captured by the words on paper pages being turned by calm fingers. It is a question laced with ominous undertones. Is the internet going to destroy print?

Jeff Jarvis, journalist and blogger, certainly thinks so. He wrote on, his controversial blog, that books, “Are frozen in time without the means of being corrected or updated.” He continued his diatribe: “They are expensive. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches. They aren’t searchable [or] linkable. They carry no conversation.” A pertinent point: “They try to teach readers but don’t teach authors.”

In Fast Company, a glossy business magazine, Jarvis makes a point that rings loudly at this time when Whos Jack has recently made the move to print: “Is our conversation better for being on this slick paper? No it’s not because only two of us are in it when we know that the collective wisdom of the people holding this page is greater than our own. We should be having this conversation together.”

Although holding weight, I think his arguments miss some points. Apart from economical / ecological issues, I see no problem with print being “frozen in time”. In fact I consider it a benefit. Opinions and ideas change over time and one can gain a deeper understanding of an author by how they evolve. If the articles are deleted from the internet due to vanity or politics, the reader will be denied this.

Saying books “Carry no conversation” is like saying watching sport carries no conversation. Neither offer a chance of audience reciprocation but they do offer something to think about, put faith in and, indeed, have a conversation about. Viewers absorb both sport and text and, if they are interested in what they are watching or reading, they will want to talk to others about the subject. Authors’ opinions offer something to think about and it only shows a lack of maturity in the reader if they accept what is written without question.

But is print currently in decline?

A survey from the National Endowment for the Arts, in the USA, had a shock effect back in 2004 when they published results claiming that, “Literary reading is in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults reading literature.” The survey also found that there had been a fall in literature readers of 10 per cent between 1982 and 2002. The then NEA chairman, Dana Gioia, mongered some fear with the stark claim that the findings, “Document a national crisis”.

Could this represent an international trend and does it signify an ailing print industry? Apparently not. A Publishers Weekly article documented that commercial publishers worldwide published 39 per cent more books in 2007 than 2006. Elementary economics suggests this is responding to a higher demand. Furthermore, according to UNESCO, new titles published in the UK had risen by 28 per cent in 2005-06 (although in the ‘States they had indeed dropped by 18 per cent). The UK now leads the world in number of books published per annum.

Electronic book readers and ebooks have proven themselves to be popular, with over 30 000 readers and more than 100 000 ebooks being sold by Waterstones bookstore since the store first stocked the range in September of last year. The Amazon Kindle, an ebook reader sold exclusively on, apparently sold out within five and a half hours when it was released in the USA in November 2007. The device shows pages from books and newspapers, which are purchased and downloaded. Now in its third generation, the gadget has proven to be immensely popular. Sites such as allow users to download from a selection of more than 100 000 ebooks, with over 30 000 of them for no charge.

But these stats don’t imply that a majority will forget about paper books altogether. A spokesman for Waterstones bookstore was vague about whether the company felt the ebook to be a real threat to the traditional book: “Books as we know them have been around for hundreds of years and we expect them to be around for many more to come. Ebooks offer another way to enjoy them and we anticipate that books in both print and electronic form can look forward to a long future.”

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Squatall Street

Got a job? Lucky you. But is it a good one, or one of those tedious ones that don't take you anywhere useful? A means to pay the bills and nothing more? One where you gain no social life, your boss treats you like a lab rat, you travel an hour and half to get to and from the restaurant / bar / office / salon that swallows half your life and gives you nothing back... I mean, do you resent your working days and think you should be spending your time doing more personally fulfilling stuff? You know, like hanging out with new people and strumming a guitar and that.
If this sounds like you, then you are one of many who sound like they should sort it out and get involved with squatting.

Ah, squats- the world of the grimy floor and the Eternal Laze. Where everyone is high while the atmosphere is low. Or it's buzzing with speed junkies listening to hardcore who keep borrowing your laptop and forgetting to give it back. Is that a familiar impression?

It's probably not and maybe you feel patronised but reading such nonsense. But in case you don't already know- it isn't like that. Rather, it doesn't have to be like that. I've just had a refreshing cuppa from a nice clean electric kettle that sits on a tidy work surface in a hygenic kitchen with a working fridge and cooker and everything and the kitchen is next to two smart and spacious bedrooms with another down the hall, just next to the flushing toilet that has a bathroom next door. And it's all behind a secured locked door in the fine location of Bethnal Green. And it's all free. So there.

Whether you already know it or not, squatting can be an ideal solution. And you get to learn stuff about fuse boxes and plumbing that, if you're a guy makes you look like a real guy and if you're a lady makes you look feckin' hardcore cool. Knowing your DIY is well attractive to the opposite sex. It's a fact and I read it.

There are loads of squats in London. In fact the capitol is a haven for them due to the many "emptys" and the relatively relaxed laws about inhabiting them that date back hundreds of years. In the eyes of the law, there is no difference between some people who have made an empty property their home and a tenant who refuses to pay the rent. A landlord must go through a legal procedure which may take some weeks before forcing anybody out of their building. The law was made to prevent landlords from bashing the door down and getting the heavies involved to move on problem tenants.

Back in January there was that £30m mansion squat on Park Lane. It made the national press and also probably made a lot of people very jealous. In the 70s heyday of squatting there were roads blocked at either end by buses and every house was a squat. St Agnes Place in Kennington was a street first squatted in 1969 that managed to stay fortified until 2005.

Cotall Street, just south of Mile End and next to the canal, has a block of flats that look out across a spacious park to the rigid, linear form of Canary Wharf. Every flat in the block of 97 has now been squatted by English, Hungarian, Polish, South African, Spanish etc men, women, kids, babies and dogs and cats. Some people have been there since the end of last year.

Andreas, a resident on Cotall Street said: "There were just a few of us to begin with. A group of about 10 needed a place to go after being evicted from another place. We opened three of the empties. There were still a lot of tenants here then but they all moved out over the weeks."

The reason the whole block had been made empty is the Olympics. The area has been swept up in the gentrification push that is aiming towards hundreds of plush new homes. Tower Hamlets council is moving on residents in the blocks that they plan to knock down. To deter squatters, the council smash many of the empties up.

Frank has been on the estate since January. He said: "Loads of the flats had been totally gutted- the electricity cables ripped out, doors ripped off their hinges and windows smashed, the plumbing all pulled apart and the toilets hammered into pieces. Some of the flats were a real project to get sorted, but it's been fun because everybody here mucks in and helps each other out. A couple of days working on a place and it becomes totally hospitable."

The majority of the flats on Squatall Street have fridges and cookers but if they don't , the residents just go to their neighbours. Most of them cook and eat with friends from other flats.

Frank said: "The vibe here is really friendly. Pretty much everyone gets on well. We're having more and more communal barbeques and we're starting to screen films in the communal flat. Now that the weather's picking up people hang out on the roof, just sharing stories and learning from each other."

Natalya from Hungary stays in a ground floor flat with Tractor, her rottweiler puppy. She came to London last year but didn't know what she was going to do once she arrived.

"I knew a couple of people here before I came but I lost my phone and their numbers before flying. I didn't have a place to stay but wasn't too worried about it. I know other people who had managed to do the same thing. I just wanted to be in London and thought I'd figure out the details as I went along. On the 'plane I started talking to the girl next to me. She asked me what I was going to do in London and when I told her she immediately said, "Well you can stay with me." It was so sweet of her! We became good friends and I ended up staying at her squat for weeks. Then we were all evicted and came here and we still live together. The very first person I spoke to on arriving in London and we still live together over a year later!"

It does not look as if the Cotall Street squatters will be moved out anytime soon. There is a block currently being built across the canal and the council are not planning to knock down the squatted flats until construction is complete. Judging by the rate of progress on the building work that won't be until around the winter.

And when the council do start proceedings to get the flats empty again they are going to be in for an absolute nightmare. Each flat will have to be dealt with individually. The process of issuing eviction, going to court and finalising a date to get people out of a home takes time. Sometimes it takes a few weeks and with 97 flats to deal with, the courts are going to be very busy.

Frank said: "We are prepared to put up a fight, should we need to. Hopefully most of us will have a new place sorted for when we have to leave here, but if we don't then we're gong to do our best to buy us some time. It's never fun being homeless, especially if it's wintertime

The East End is peppered with empties. Walk five minutes from Squattal Street towards Langdon Park and you will find whole blocks of empties. They are probably going to get opened into squats soon because many squatters are being evicted from the Ocean Estate in Stepney. If you open one and it is not in the best condition then take your pick and simply open another.

It's quite straight forward to make an empty your home. Once you've found a place that looks abandoned (i.e. it's got boarded up windows, cobwebs over the door, no furniture inside etc) just find a way in. Sometimes a window can be forced open. If the doors and windows are boarded up you may need to get physical with a crowbar and bolt cutters. Make sure you don't get caught though- you could get done for burglary or criminal damage.

Once inside, make sure the place is secure so no unwanted company can join you. Hang your Section 6 on the door to show you're clued up with the law and then sit on the floor and eat some fish and chips. Lovely.

Furthur info. about squatting can be found at the Advisory Service for Squatters on the Whitechapel Road. They are on 020 3216 0099.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009


Bleech claim they were “formed from a packet of pro-plus pills”.

Well, like the caffeine pick-me-ups, they ain’t sweet and, however much they make you sweat, you are bound to want more of them.

The young East London based three-piece are composed of sisters Jen (guitar and vox) and Katherine O’Neill (bass and BVs) and pounding drummer Mat Bick, a friend from school.

They have been likened to The Subways and have the energy and backing vocals to match, but the riffs are more crunching and Jen’s voice has a kind of sweet but sassy swagger reminiscent of Elastica’s Justine Frischmann.

They played the fantastic monthly F.L.U. night in Camden’s Proud bar on March 19 and their uncompromised grungy ‘90s set, coupled with front girl Jen’s stunning disregard for glamour caught the trendy tight-jeaned, coiffed crowd off guard.

She hid behind a long mess of brown tangles and gave her all to the mic as Katherine, the yin of Jen’s hair‘s yang- short, styled and blonde- interspersed her backing vocals with violent flicks of her torso.

They are fast and they are strong. And they have a packed next few weeks, including five London gigs in four London nights between March 26 and 29.

They are also releasing their debut single “Is It True That Boys Don’t Cry” through Ban*Jam, with a launch at The Monarch in Camden on April 14.

Steve Lamacq hailed them as his Unsigned Band of the Week and XFMs John Kennedy claimed: “You are about to witness Rock History in the making!”

Their simplicity and power did it for me- get yer jeans on and give them a go.

Homelessness Pt.2

My experience of living on the street for only a week was an easy one. I was well fed, clean and I got enough sleep. But I wanted to find out why some people find themselves unable to get out of their situation and onto some kind of ladder of progress. In an East London park I found some answers. By no means are they representative of many homeless people: they do not touch on mental health problems, issues with language and immigration or any other reasons over what they are. But this is what I got from a couple of hours talking.

There was Buzz, 37, Chalky, 41, and Quicksand, 26, and me with them sharing a mid-afternoon drink.

Not undercover this time, my cards were on the table and they knew my agenda. To get to know these homeless folk and learn why they are still on the streets when the city’s facilities appear so accommodating. I had found through sleeping rough that the longest a healthy and ambitious person should be on the streets of London for is only about 25 days.

Buzz, Chalky and “Quicks” did not look healthy and if they had much ambition they must have been keeping it private. “We are not well, you might say,” said Chalky, before closing the sentence with his’ “Heheheh!”. “We drink, it’s what we do, our thing you might say.”

Chalky, the most articulate and open of the three, gave his story with little prompting. “I’ve a missus and my three girls living over in Shepherd’s Bush. I still see ‘em every couple of weeks or so. We all get on fine, you know, but it’s best not to see too much of each other. It’s the fuckin’ booze- I say things I’ll regret.”

He told me how he used to be a successful amateur boxer in his early twenties. He trained in one of the East End’s famous gyms, Repton, and was about to turn pro when he had a motorbike accident and shattered his left leg. He started drinking and the rest is a hazy plummeting of fights, hangovers, social security cheques and booze-numbed regret.

“I won’t be getting off the streets any time soon. I’ve been trying on and off for seven years, but I’m the bars of my own cage. I won’t allow myself to get out of this situation ‘cos I keep fuckin’ up and drinking away my chances. I don’t last in a hostel for long before they chuck me out.”

He keeps himself reasonably hygienic, using the drop-in centres like the Whitechapel Mission on Whitechapel Road to shower, shave and brush up. Many of the centres hand out free clothing on a daily basis and have washing machines.

“The cold and wet nights are obviously a pain, but you get kinda used to them. Sometimes I get to kip on the sofa in a mate’s house, but mostly I bed down in my sleeping bag. I stay up on Kingsland Road most nights.”

Quicksand’s drinking mates nicknamed him because of his stark self-destructive streak. They say he will keep sinking down until he kills himself. Defensive and confrontational, he kept smirking and then looking nervously at Chalky and Buzz for help whenever I asked him a question.

“’Cos I ain’t got no home, do I,” he said when I asked why he is on the streets. After some pushing, he conceded: “I can’t really be bothered with them hostels. The people there tell you you’ve gotta have your lights out at a certain time, not shout about. It’s like prison or something.” It is clear he is the kind of person who does not know how to compromise. When being tried for ABH in 2001, he called the judge a, “Fucking dingbat” in the courtroom. No doubt that extended his 100 day prison sentence.

Buzz, like Chalky and Quicksand, likes a drink. But he is trying to keep a lid on it and, counter-intuitively, that is why he chooses not to stay in a hostel. “Too much temptation,” he says. And to be fair he kept sober in the park, drinking only one can of Strongbow. “I also don’t claim benefits. I know what I’ll spend the money on if I do. I just get by, surviving rough and trying not to drink. I also volunteer at a couple of the day centres. I like to keep busy.”

Chalky, buoyant, Quicks, nervous, Buzz, sober and I drunk our cider and talked sport a while. Chalky closed the get together: “Right ho, we better go. Gotta see a man about a dog. You know. Heheheh!”

Monday, 18 May 2009

Garage Living

Further effects of the credit crunch- a couple from Kent have been living in a garage since they both lost their jobs in April.

Paula Lacey and Michael Ward were forced to move out of their house when it was repossessed after they became unable to afford the mortgage payments.

The new home has no running water or electricity but the relatively secure roof over their head costs £10 per week.

They claimed they had “nowhere to go” and now use shower and toilet facilities at the local swimming centre.

Mrs Lacey said: “If we’ve got the money we go to a local pub we know that do really nice meals for £1.50.

Their local authority, Swale Borough Council, said in a statement: “We advised them how to make an application for homelessness and will now look more closely at their application.

We will weigh up the information provided and will decide in due course if the council has a duty to house them permanently.”

The landlord of the garage has issued them with a notice to quit but has also tried to help the couple find somewhere better to live.

He said: “I didn’t know it [the credit crunch] could narrow to this but I think there are probably people all over the UK living like it.”

Monday, 23 March 2009

A Week on the Streets

The credit crunch. Again. For hell’s sake, stop banging on about it. We know, all is lost- everyone will lose their jobs, pensions, family pets. We are all going to face abject poverty with only a tarpaulin to keep the rain off our attempts at slumber as we cradle down in some Waterloo alleyway.

You see the charity pictures of drained phantoms huddled hopelessly into their fraying sleeping-sacks, holes in their shoes and a soul sucked dry from endless nights on the street. That will be us.

After hearing a statistic from the Council of Mortgage Lenders that home repossessions are going to soar to 75 000 this year, I decided to taste homelessness for a week to discover how one could survive in the capitol with no money, job, contacts or place to stay.

It may become a reality for some. Research by homeless charity Crisis tells us 1 in 10 people are struggling to keep up with their rents / mortgage payments and a YouGov poll recently found that 41% of people questioned know someone who has recently lost their job. The charity Simon Community said in November that the number sleeping rough in London had nearly doubled in the proceeding six months, blaming the figures in part on the economic downturn.

The Pavement, a monthly magazine for and about the homeless, said that in February, Alan Gibb from the West Midlands was found living in a tent near a bypass after losing his job and being evicted from his home. Stories like this are going to become more frequent in the next few months.

The week began on a Monday morning, when I handed over my Oyster card, my phone and spare change to Louise, the Who’s Jack editor. I had 5 pairs of socks, toothbrush and paste, spare t-shirt, notebook and pen, and a harmonica for busking- all in a rucksack- a sleeping bag and the clothes I was wearing.

I mulled over what a week is. 168 hours. 21 meals. £280 if you work 40 hours at £7 ph. About 35 cups of tea. About 90 hours of darkness at the time of year (beginning of March). And the potential to rain, snow and hail tigers and flippin’ hyenas. “Would this be hard? Am I going to freeze, starve and get foot leprosy?”

I headed to Booth House- a Salvation Army hostel on Whitechapel Road. I was undercover, so had to spin a story about losing my job and getting kicked out of my girlfriend’s Southampton flat. “I hit the bottle and did things to that forced me to leave town.” The manageress told me they were full but “Please take a copy of The Pavement- there’s a list of shelters and drop in centres that could help you.”

“The List” in The Pavement told me everything. 14 places dotted around town were listed as offering free food and many others sold it cheaply. There were places to shower, have your eyes tested, get a haircut or free change of clothes, do the laundry. The List goes on. I was flabbergasted. The facilities for the homeless in the capitol are fantastic.

The first night and two others were spent under a pentice on Leather Lane, just off Holborn Circus. I had met Luciano in the Holy Cross Centre in King’s Cross (a club mainly for recovering addicts where there is a T.V, pool table, internet, free food and a relaxed, social atmosphere). He had been on and off the streets for seven years and told me over coffee that light, open areas are better to sleep in than dark doorways or alleys- you can see people coming and can easily run away if needs must.

Each night on Leather Lane was comfortable, wrapped in sleeping bag and clothes, lying on cardboard. The night cradled in some Waterloo alleyway was also ok, but I did wake up a couple of times to voices squabbling aggressively in a council estate that was, fortunately, the other side of a wall and locked gate.

One night was nearly sleepless- I made the dumb decision to kip in London Fields. It was chilly and dewy-damp on the soil and a fox tried to piss on me in the night.

The easiest night was in the Russell Square flat of Mini- one of the volunteers at The Holy Cross Centre. She is 56 and has been on the streets for 40 years, most of that time a junkie. She came from a good background but ran away from home at 16, got into drugs and settled into a life of scoring and stealing. She cleaned up and sorted her flat only 18 weeks ago. An amazing woman- generous, determined and strong. She has helped out others on the street with a place to live and said I could stay full time for a tenner or so a week.

Before the week began I thought this article would be a write-up of a touch-and-go experience, where I’d be hungry, exhausted, and possibly attacked. Far from it. People were polite and incredibly helpful. When I asked the manager of the Gray’s Inn Road Coffee Republic if I could use the toilet he said: “Of course” and as I left: “Have you eaten today?” I said no but no matter as I would buy a fry-up in the Whitechapel Mission for 50p. He took a hot bacon and scrambled egg ciabatta out the microwave: “I didn’t wrap it as I thought you’d want to eat it on the go.”

A man handing out flyers in Camden gave me four quid for finishing the half hour job. The Crisis Centre on Commercial Street let me use internet and offered free painting classes, bike maintenance, music lessons and more.

Outreach workers in the Dellow Centre on Wentworth Street, Aldgate, put me in touch with reps from Emmaus- a scheme where those homeless willing and able to work are given a flat-share and £35 p/w for working five from seven days on furniture repair. They said it would take a maximum of two weeks to organise but then I would have a job and stable shelter. They said the longest a mentally healthy person with no addictions would be on the streets in London for is 21 days.

So the nights were easy and the days were fine- free food, hygiene and enough sleep. There was a lot of walking and that is about it. My experience on the street was an easy one.

Clearly mine is not the reality. I knew I could finish when I felt and I had a life beyond the street. In this sense I was not vulnerable. Luciano had said: “It’s easy to get into drink and drugs when you know you’re stuck on the street for even a couple of weeks. The temptation’s all around and they help you sleep and feel safe.”

The boredom and alienation surely encourage inebriation. Also, the endless queues for charity can dent confidence. They can make destiny feel out of your control and forces a meekness. Some people are proud, leading them to crime for food.

Still, I found it reassuring to know that, should you become homeless, it would not take too long before your life is back on track.

Next month I will explore why some people find it so difficult to get off the streets.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

This is England- Review

This is England is a coming of age story about twelve year old Shaun who has lost his father in the Falklands War. Lonely and frustrated, he meets a gang who help him escape, firstly through adolescent fun but then into racism and ultimately extreme violence.

Shane Meadows’ Bafta Award winner is set against the backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain and cuts to the core of confusion in a boy trying to be a man when unsure of which role model to follow. Poignant and engaging, Meadows cuts a sensitive portrait of the fragility of youth.

The film starts with Shaun waking on the last day of term, a picture of his uniformed father placed proudly on the alarm clock. It’s home-clothes day at school and Shaun lashes out at an older boy when his flared trousers were jeered. Miserable on the walk home, he comes across a gang of skinheads- the early kind who listened to ska music and enjoyed spending time with any coloured skin, not the tainted racists that evolved from the jeans, boots and braces style.

The leader of the gang, Woody, takes a liking to the feisty kid and takes him under his wing, introducing him to a group who like fun, running wild, drinking, hanging out and listening to music.

But the tone sours when Combo, Woody’s old mate who’s been inside for three years, is released. Combo forces the gang to divide over his racist beliefs and Shaun, thinking he is doing his dad proud, joins him instead of Woody.

The manipulative and violently unpredictable Combo crafts Shaun into a National Front sympathiser, with sickening consequences.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Meadows’ film is up there with Trainspotting as unmissable British cinema. Well scripted and acted, and with a killer soundtrack, the film is undeniably involving from the start to the painful climax.

Thomas Turgoose, also an award winner as Best Promising Newcomer, is sterling as Shaun, delivering a disconcertingly natural performance from a fifteen year old with no previous acting experience and Stephen Graham does a frankly intimidating job as Combo.

It deserves to be seen and is an encouraging nod to the calibre of Brit film. Nine out of ten. Let’s hope for more of this quality.

Friday, 20 March 2009

The Independent Traveller Section


We have rented cottages and villas in various parts of France for our summer holiday for several years, but are looking for somewhere different this year. We are a large family (five children aged four-15) so staying at a hotel isn't really an option. Our children are fair, so we don't want to go somewhere intensely hot like the Mediterranean. What do you recommend?


Denmark has a temperate climate that ranges between around ten to twenty five degrees centigrade in the summer. This, coupled with an expansive coastline, makes an ideal holiday for a beach lover who doesn't aim to bathe in factor 50 each morning. Its 7,314km of coastline ensure that you're never more than three quarters of an hour's leisurely drive from the sea, where one may find many Danish beaches that are renowned for their width, cleanliness and sweeping fine white sand.

The country is composed of three main areas of land. Zealand is the eastern island and the one that houses Copenhagen. Funen is the 50 square km that constitutes the central island. The only part of the country that is connected to the mainland is Jutland- the large peninsular to the west.

On the north coast of Zealand is Tisvildeleje - a charming old fishing town with a cinema, art gallery and decent shopping. It also boasts some stunning strips of beach that stretch east for 5km down to Rageleje. The sea is calm and has a lifeguard who keeps a steady eye on the water. Denmark holds the third largest number of the internationally respected 'Blue Flag', which indicates clean, safe waters. The beach Tisvildeleje Strand possesses one of the prestigious flags. Be vigilant about accidentally towelling down in a nudist area, however, as certain stretches of the sand are marked off for naked bathers.

Close to the sea at Tisvildeleje is one of Denmark's most famous natural springs, known as the Helene Spring. Legend claims that the sick should come here on 23 June- Midsummer's Eve- if conventional treatment fails them, as drinking from the water should cure their ailment by morning.

Denmark's coast is dotted with cabins and cottages, which provide a relatively cheap alternative to hotels whilst also offering independence. Danhostel Tisvildeleje (00 45 48 70 74 51; is 500m from Tisvildeleje beach. The site boasts numerous facilities including a playground and extensive sports equipment that should entertain even the most energetic child, or indeed a keen parent who isn't content with walking through the dramatically beautiful Troldeskoven, or 'Witch Wood'. The wood is 800m from the cabin site and is so named because of the witch's fingers twisted shape of the trees, formed by decades of sculpting by the wind.

A four-bed cabin at Danhostel in the high season would cost DKK530/£48 per night, working out at around £670 for two weeks, while a cabin with five single beds and one double would go for DKK11,500/£1,036 for the fortnight. All cabins come with a kitchenette. The town can be reached in less than an hour by train from Copenhagen, but taking the bus along the coastal road shows off stunning views of the water.

If you plan to spend much time in the north of Zealand it would be worth investing in a 'Copenhagen Card'. This offers free transport on trains, buses and metro, free entry to 60 attractions, discounts on car rental and restaurants in the greater Copenhagen region and a comprehensive guide to the city. The cost for a card valid for 24 hours is DKK199/£18 for an adult and DKK129/£11.60 for a child. 72 hour cards cost DKK429/£39 for an adult and DKK249/£22 for children. They can be bought online at and two children between the ages of two and ten can go free with each adult.

The capital is certainly worth at least a day's visit before making for the coast, since it's a cultural hotbed - home to palaces, galleries, exciting museums and, of course, plenty of fantastic restaurants and shops. The Amalaienborg Palace (0045 33 40 10 10; is the official residence of the Royal Family and presents a traditional tourist opportunity in the changing of the guards. The ceremony begins each morning at 11.30am at the Rosenborg slot- a Renaissance castle in the centre of the city. Be sure to check that the flag is flying from the roof of the palace, however, to be certain that the beloved Queen Magrethe II is in.

The children are sure to enjoy the Zoologisk Have (0045 72 20 02 00; where they may view the polar bears and lions from a safe vantage point, or head to the children's zoo where they can play with less predatory creatures. A highlight of the zoo, located in the Frederiksberg municipality, is to climb the zoo tower which, cloud dependent, may offer views to neighbouring Sweden. The zoo is open all year round and in June the gates open at nine in the morning before shutting at 6pm. During July and August the hours are from 9am - 9:30 in the evening. Admission is DKK95/£8.60 for adults and DKK55/£5 for children

The Experimentarium (0045 39 27 33 33; is a futuristic interactive science museum that is aimed at children but is fascinating for adults. The principle themes are technology and nature and the exhibits are mainly very hands on. Experience an earthquake that measures 5.5 on the Richter Scale or discover what you're really made of in the 'You and Me' exhibition. Opening times are 9:30am-5pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and 9:30am-9pm Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday. Admission costs DKK105/just over £9 for adults and DKK70/£6.30 for children.

Bakken (0045 39 63 55 44; holds a likely claim to being the world's oldest amusement park. The 4000 year old centre is to be found about 12km north of the city centre and boasts more than a hundred rides and a total absence of cars- a horse-drawn carriage is the preferred mode of transport here. Entrance to the park is free but one must pay for the rides. Times vary but generally it is open from 2pm-10pm.

If all this excitement is too much then the Louisiana Museum for Modern Art (0045 49 19 07 19; may well soothe the head. Surrounded by lush gardens that stretch to the shoreline one may contemplate the contemporary pieces in tranquillity. There is even an area especially for children and the gallery has proven itself to be popular with the young. Adults pay DKK74/£6.70, students DKK67/£6 and children DKK20/£1.80. The museum is open 10am-5pm everyday except 10am-10pm on Wednesdays.

Contact the highly helpful Copenhagen Information Tourist Bureau (0045 70 22 24 42; to get extensive information about this vibrant capital.

Arhus is the second largest city in Denmark and the capital of Jutland - the largest section of the country. There's a wealth of possibility here and in the surrounding area, with beaches, a large church and many varied museums.

1.5km west of Arhus centre is Den Gamle By - 'The Old Town' (00 45 86 12 31 88; - where one may stroll along cobbled streets and enter the 75 restored buildings from over the country, all of which date from the 17th and 18th centuries. Tickets are DKK75/£6.80 for an adult and DKK25/£2.30 for a child and from June to August it is open from 9am to 6pm.

How does plunging through 35m of air without the security of a parachute, bungee chord or even an umbrella sound to you? If you like the idea then you could spend your afternoon jumping from The Sky Tower in Tivoli Friheden (0045 86 14 73 00; Set in a beautiful beech forest with colourful plants, stunning lakes and natural springs this amusement park has to contain the highest concentration of adrenaline in Denmark. It can be reached easily from Arhus by taking bus 4, 18 or 19. Prices are €8/£5.40 for adults or €24/£16.10 for a multi-ride ticket, enabling entrance to many off the rides. Children pay €5.30/£3.60 or €21.30/£14 for the multi-ride. Those under the age of three go free.

Other attractions close to Arhus are Randers Regnskov and Legoland. Randers Regnskov (00 45 87 10 99 99; is a tropical zoo that contains a rainforest of 4000 species of plants and 250 species of animals living under domes. Be cautious as you walk, as many of the animals live freely and hide from humans if disturbed. The six ever-hungry Nile crocodiles would not be scared of humans but they're kept in an enclosure. From June 30 to August 12 the park is open everyday between 10am and 6pm and from August 13 to September 2 it is open daily from 10am to 5pm. Adults pay DKK130/£11.70 while children get in for DKK70/£6.30 . 0s to 2s go for free

Legoland (0045 75 33 13 33; is Denmark's most popular tourist attraction outside of Copenhagen and it's easy to see why. Enjoy indulging any fantasies of towering over some of the world's most famous buildings in Miniland, where 45 million plastic Lego bricks create cities on a scale of 1:20 to the real thing. If the prospect of world domination doesn't suit then one can obtain their Lego Driving School licence, but not before a reassuringly difficult test. Advance booking is recommended as this park gets very busy. From Arhus it is easiest to reach by taking the train to Vejle and then catching the bus 907. Admission is DKK180/£16 for adults, DKK160/£14.40 for children and the park is open from 10am-8pm everyday from April to September, apart from mid July to mid August when it is open 10am-9pm.

If you are looking for a holiday at the lower end of the price scale then Blommehaven Camping (00 45 86 27 02 07; will make a trip of real value for money. The site boasts its own stretch of white sandy beach and is only 4km south of central Arhus, easily reached by buses 6 and 19 that go right to the door. Prices are DKK660/£5.60 per night for adults and DKK33/£2.30 for children. A bath, kitchen and hot water are provided.

If spending your summer nights surrounded by canvas doesn't suit your sensibilities then you could rent a holiday cottage. Novasol (0045 73 75 66 11; advertise a cottage for seven in Tversted, right in the north of Jutland and one of the most popular tourist areas in the west of Denmark, for £660 per week in mid July and £530 each week in August. The cottage is set in woodland and there are beautiful lakes nearby where one may go fishing. A sauna, solarium and satellite T.V. are among the extensive amenities.

Dansommer (0045 86 17 61 22; is another useful site for booking holiday homes and advertises a house that sleeps eight, near Hejlsminde in Southern Jutland, for €1065/£715 per week in the high season. The medieval town of Kolding is a 20km drive up the road and the website ( describes it as 'one of Denmark's friendliest towns' that is a mix of a small village and a` contemporary city. A castle and a modern art museum are among the many attractions.

Other companies that advertise holiday cottages in Denmark include Sol Og Strand (0045 99 44 44 44; and BookCottages ( and it is advised to book early as holiday homes are very popular in Denmark and become fully-booked very quickly.

Obituary- Jack Lawrence: Songwriter Extrordinaire to the Stars

With a back catalogue of recordings by Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Crosby, King Cole and Holiday, Jack Lawrence is credited with being one of the most important song writers of a generation.

Born to an Orthodox Jewish family, Brooklyn, April 7 1912, the young Jack Schwartz was pressured into enrolling in the First Institute of Podiatry. He graduated in 1932, and changed his name the same year, with his first published song.

His sights set higher than the human foot, and with no musical training, he followed his passion for songwriting. At the age of 20, his “Play Fiddle Play” earned him membership into American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers- then the youngest in ASCAPs history.

“Linda”, published in ‘46, was named after his attorney’s daughter- Linda Eastman, future wife of Paul McCartney.

He launched The Ink Spots to fame with “If I Didn’t Care” and Sinatra’s first solo hit was Lawrence’s “All or Nothing at All”.

His songs catapulted many careers- “Yes, my Darling Daughter” shot Dinah Shore to public recognition and Rosemary Clooney’s career began with his “Tenderly”.

He wrote for the screen and Broadway and “Hold my Hand”, from the ‘54 film “Susan Slept Here”, was nominated for an Oscar.

The prolific songwriter died after a fall in his Redding, Connecticut, home on March 18, aged 96.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

History of Blues-3. Leadbelly

Huddie William Ledbetter’s music was the earliest country blues to gain international recognition. The first American to see European success with the style had a life and personality as varied and exciting as the huge repertoire of music he left behind.

As a young man he gained the nickname “Leadbelly”. It is generally agreed he received the moniker during one of his many stints in prison. It may have been a reference to his physical toughness, his ability to drink moonshine, or him taking buckshot lead in the stomach after being shot. Or it may have simply been a play on his name. Blues singer Big Bill Broozny claimed it was because of his tendency to lay around with a “stomach weighed down by lead“ when he was supposed to be working in the chain gang.

He was born on his father’s plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana some time in the late 1880s. Dates vary, with the earliest being in 1885 while his gravestone says 1889. Jan 1888 is currently accepted.

His family moved to Texas when the only child was five. His uncle gave him his first instrument- an accordion- and the boy immediately took to music. He soon turned to guitar and by 1903 he was making a living playing in the red-light district of Shreveport, Louisiana, where he developed his individual style of clear, forceful singing over percussive guitar lines picked and strummed on “Stella”, his trademark 12 string guitar.

His love of music took him to leave the family farm, and his first wife, and in his early 20s he begun wandering Louisiana and Texas, paying his way with the guitar and his notorious capacity to work hard as a labourer. Legend has it that he could pick 1000lbs of cotton a day.

But his fiery temperament and drunken, womanising ways kept landing him in trouble. He first went to prison in 1915 for “carrying a pistol” and he was sentenced to a chain gang. Amazingly, he escaped the shackles and ran across a ploughed field to safety, where he lived in hiding for two years under the pseudonym Walter Boyd.

In 1917 he met another blues musician, Blind Lemon Jefferson, who, although younger, was more masterful of the style than Leadbelly and the man on the run took the role of “lead boy” for Jefferson- shadowing the blind man, guiding him and looking after him on the streets of Dallas. Leadbelly learnt a lot about musicianship and performance from Jefferson.

This wasn’t to last for long though. In 1918 he was imprisoned for shooting Will Stafford- the husband of a cousin- dead, in a fight over a woman. He served only seven years of a thirty year sentence before he was pardoned and released by the infamously hardline governor Pat Morris Neff. When running for governor, Neff had claimed that he would never issue a pardon, but Leadbelly gained a lucky exception in 1925, after impressing the governor with a song he had written especially:

“Please Governor Neff, be good ’n’ kind
Have mercy on my great long time
I don’t see to save my soul
If I don’t get a pardon, try me on parole
If I had you, Governor Neff, like you got me
I’d wake up in the morning and I’d set you free”.

He was free for five years, but in 1930 he was back behind bars, this time in the notorious Angola State Prison for attempted homicide. He had stabbed a white man in the neck.

Fortune came from his incarceration, however, when musicologists John Lomax and son Andy discovered him while trawling the South to record the dying folk songs for the Library of Congress. They recorded hundreds of his songs from a repertoire including prison songs, blues, folk songs, field songs, ballads, children’s songs and others. The Lomaxes ultimately took him to international recognition.

The Lomaxes petitioned governor O.K.Allen for his early release and, once again, Leadbelly was lucky. On August 1st 1934, the musician was once again a free man. He was subsequently taken around college campuses and showcased to students where he and his music were received with fervor.

On New Year’s Day 1935, John Lomax and Leadbelly arrived in New York City where the singin’ murderer drew immense excitement. He became one of the first traditional folk musicians to sing for a city audience and Time magazine made one of their earliest filmed newsreels about him.

The next week he began recording for the American Recording Corporation (ARC), but did not find commercial success from this, possibly due to ARC’s insistence he record his blues and not folk songs.

He split ways with Lomax at the end of February 1935, after Lomax had lost patience with Leadbelly’s temper and aggressive nature. During a disagreement over pay, Leadbelly threatened Lomax with a knife.

After a final stint in jail for stabbing a man in a Manhattan fight, Leadbelly made friends with folk musicians Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Brownie Mcghee and others on NY’s folk circuit. Together they played labour unions and political rallies.

In 1949 he began a European tour with a trip to France but he was unable to complete it. Before completion he was diagnosed with Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. All the muscles in his body began to waste and he could not play without pain.

His last concert was at the University of Texas on June 15th 1949 and he died aged 61 in the December of that year. He is buried at Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery in Mooringsport, Louisiana.

He never enjoyed the fruits of his work. Pete Seeger said: “It’s pure tragedy he didn’t live another six months, because all his dreams as a performer would have come true.”

His influence has been acknowledged by many artists, including The Beatles, Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. He has left behind a vast catalogue of songs- over 500- including the most famous Midnight Special, Rock Island Line, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? and Goodnight Irene.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

History of Blues- 2. Blind Lemon Jefferson

Blind Lemon Jefferson- The Cornerstone of Country Blues

In the mid 1920's, a new style of American music came to national prominence. The popularity of Country Blues was propelled by the success of Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Dates as to Jefferson's birth vary, but it is generally accepted that Lemon Jefferson was born blind on either September 24 1893 or October 26 1894. He was one of eight children and the birthplace was on his family farm near Coutchman in Freestone County, Texas. His parents, Alex and Clarissa Jefferson, were sharecroppers.

There were few career options for the blind, so he learnt the guitar at a young age and began performing in his late teens, around 1912. Jefferson was influenced by the singing of the local cotton-pickers and guitarists, but he also heard the flamenco-fused playing of Mexican workers, which probably influenced his intricate style of guitar playing.

Blind Lemon Jefferson Meets Leadbelly

He played picnics, houseparties and on the streets of Dallas, where he met Leadbelly. The bluesman was older than Jefferson, but was impressed with his musicianship and the two played together, teaching each other some of what they had learnt. For the next few years he would travel to Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama and Louisiana.

In 1925, a Dallas record store owner recognised Jefferson's rare talent and convinced Paramount Records to set up a recording session. The label obliged and even paid for him to journey to their offices in Chicago. Under the pseudonyn of Deacon L.J. Bates, he recorded two spirituals: "I Want to be like Jesus in my Heart" and "All I Want is that Pure Religion".

Blind Lemon Jefferson and Paramount Records

Paramount were pleased and arranged the recording of four more songs, including the hit that gained him national success, "Long Lonesome Blues" (released in May 1926). He went on to record around 100 tracks between 1926 and 1929. Of the 43 tracks issued, 42 of them were for Paramount. His success was instrumental in making paramount a major label in the 1920's.

In 1927, the musician had become disatisfied with his royalties from Paramount and he recorded and released two of his most popular songs-"Black Snake Moan" and "Matchbox Blues" with rival label Okeh. The superior sound quality on these tracks prompted Paramount to re-record new versions of these songs.

In September 1929, Jefferson recorded the last of his tracks with Paramount.

The Death of Lemon Jefferson

A couple of months later, in December, he was found dead in the Chicago snow under mysterious circumstanes. Some say a jealous lover poisoned his coffee, others that his chauffeur crashed the car, killing the artist. Some maintain that he was killed after somebody stole a large cash royalty payment from him. The most accepted theory is that he had a heart-attack and froze in a snowstorm.

Paramount paid for his body to be taken by train back to his Texas home. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Wortham Black Cemetry (now Wortham Negro Cemetry). In 1967, a metal Texas marker was erected close to his burial site. There were still people alive at that time who knew approximately where Jefferson was buried and the marker stood on the spot they pointed to.

By the mid 1990's, the neglected headstone had become dirty and damaged and a new granite marker- paid for by fans, along with a donation to the cemetry- was erected. The stone stands today and the inscription includes a line from one of his songs, "Lord, one kind favour I'll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean".

In 2007, the cemetry changed its name to the Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetry.

The Legacy of Blind Lemon Jefferson

Blind Lemon Jefferson became one of the most popular blues artists of that time. He has been named the "Father of Texas Blues" and has influenced many, including Leadbelly, Lightnin' Hopkins, Louis Armstrong, Jefferson Airplane and The Beatles".

He had a unique style, with intricate, fast guitar playing that is often vastly different from his vocal lines. His voice is high-pitched and has a two octave range, with lyrics displaying an emotional complexity. He was also the first Country Blues singer to gain a national audience.

History of Blues Music- 1. The Founding of a New Genre

Blues music is at the foundation of nearly all modern popular music, from soul and Hip Hop to rock music and heavy metal.

It is taken that the form "Blues" music evolved from the vocal traditions that the black African-American slaves brought from their homelands such as Mali, Senegal, Ghana and Gambia. As the slaves toiled in the fields they would sing a "call" from one slave and a "response" from a number of others.

The word "Blues" itself was used to describe the Deliriem Tremens and as a synonym for the police. Letters sent by soldiers in the American Civil War have recorded it used in this way. The first copywrited song with the word "Blues" in the title was "Dallas Blues", recorded by Hart Wand in 1912. "Blue" is a feeling of depression and many of the songs are about problems the singer has- often with the law, with women or with alcohol.

W C Handy is accreditted with being the Father of the Blues, not becuse he was the first to play it, but because he was the first to score the music down and get it published. Handy was an educated musician, not like the many others who played in the American South, and in 1912 he published the song "Memphis Blues".

Handy's story of coming across the Blues is that he was waiting for a train in the station of Tutwiler in Mississippi, 1903. He heard the sound of a man running a knife against the strings of his guitar while singing, "Goin' Where the Southern Cross the Dog". Handy descibed the music as unforgettable.

In the early 1920's, "Classical Blues" was popular. It was mainly sung by female artists who often had the music written for them. Mamie Smith's recording of Crazy Blues sent the style to the forefront of entertainment. It cost $1 and sold 75 000 copies in the first month of release.

In the 20's, the classical blues record companies sold exclusively to blacks and the genre was termed "race music". Companies started hunting classical blues artists, leading to the popularity of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Ethel Waters.

The record companies began to make excursions away from the cities and into the South, where they came across "Country Blues" singers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson. The music impressed them and they set about recording it, either by travelling to them with a studio or taking them to their city offices.

Jefferson was one who was taken to the Paramount offices in Chicago to cut a record. The May 1926 release of his "Long Lonesome Blues" marked the rise of Country Blues and set the stage for artists like Blind Willie McTell, Barbeque Bob and Charley Patton.

A new demand for Blues music sparked major record label interest and in the 20's, seven large labels- Paramount, Okeh,Victor, Gennett, Vocalion, Brunswick and Columbia began recording the new music.

World's First Pregnant Man?!

He has been billed as the "World's First Pregnant Man". He is a "man" with a baby. Shock! Horror! I think not. Thomas Beatie is only a man by gender. His sex is still female, i.e. his reproductive organs are those that he was born with- a woman's.

In late March this year (2008), Thomas Beatie announced his pregnancy to a television audience of millions.

“World’s First Pregnant Man”, Beatie revealed his truth on the Oprah Winfrey show. He told the audience how he and his wife Nancy did the artificial insemination procedure themselves to avoid complications with doctors and that now he is pregnant with a baby girl. He has claimed that, “It’s not a male or a female desire to have a child… it’s a human desire”.

So, sensationalism aside, what’s going on?

Beatie was born Tracey Lagondino. She says that she never felt “trapped in a man’s body” but she was a tomboy and when a boyfriend at college told her that she was, “Not feminine enough,” she began to question her sexuality. During the three and a half years shared with her first girlfriend, Tracey did a lot of research into sex change operations and after the split, she began taking testosterone. She then began dating current wife Nancy and later had her breasts removed and legally changed her name and sex. He married Nancy and they decided that they wanted children.

But Nancy was unable to have children, as emergency surgery after a severe ectopic pregnancy had left her infertile. “Why shouldn’t Thomas have the child?” the couple wondered. After all, although he could claim to be a man, he had kept his female reproductive organs.

The couple approached nine doctors in all and they were consistently turned away, frequently because of the doctors’ religious beliefs. They decided to do the insemination themselves and eventually found a doctor who would give check-ups and ultrasounds. Dr. Kimberly Jones considers it, “An average pregnancy” and treats the imminent parents as she would any other. She is pleased to say that Thomas and Nancy’s girl is totally healthy, with regular hormone levels (Thomas has done extensive research and stopped taking her bi-monthly testosterone two years before trying for a baby. He didn’t need to take any hormone supplements or drugs to aid the pregnancy).

On the Oprah show, Thomas made the claim that, “Different is normal and love makes a family. That’s all that matters”.

The news was first made public in an article Thomas wrote for gay magazine The Advocate. In it, he is quick to cite the treatment the couple received from health care professionals. Some refused to call the future mother by a male pronoun and many have laughed at him, asking him to cut his beard off before they’ll treat him as somebody who wishes to get pregnant.

In the eyes of the law, Thomas is male. His Advocate article says that, “Unlike those in same-sex marriages, domestic partnerships or civil unions, [they] are afforded the more than 1 100 federal rights of marriage”. He could keep his “reproductive rights” because sterilisation is not a requirement of changing gender.

But the appearance on Oprah has angered many of her fans. The message board on her website is full of furious posts from viewers who see the story as worthy of Jerry Springer but not for a serious talk show. The crux of the point is that sexually, Beatie is NOT a man. “He” is sexually a woman, i.e. her reproductive system is that of a woman. He is a “he” in the sense of his gender, i.e. how he feels. Beatie is legally a man because the law recognises him for how he feels. That’s why he’s referred to as a “he”. But he’s genetically a woman because his reproductive system is sexually the same as the one he was born with- a woman’s.

So, although initially weird and exciting, there’s nothing biologically interesting about Beatie’s pregnancy, apart from the fact that his ovaries are not damaged by testosterone treatment. The story is one of a woman who decided to become a legal man and then decided to have a child. And the story seems to be selling. The 20 May edition of England's Daily Mirror dedicated a double page spread and other publications are quick to sensationalise the story. And on Oprah, the couple made repeated plugs of Beatie's new book "Love Makes a Family: A Memoir of Hardship, Healing and an Extraordinary Pregnancy". His appearance on Oprah may have helped to get his opinion on pregnancy across and it was bound to help book sales. But her pregnancy is not amazing, only novel. Either way, the photos of a bearded man with a baby-bump are quite amazing!

Thomas and Nancy expect the girl on July 3.

Ultimate Fighting's Rise to Number 1

Fans of any combat sport are set to sweat as the newest in fight entertainment- the "Ultimate Fight Championship"- verges on breaking the international mainstream

The UFC is the major organisation that promotes regulated bouts of Mixed Martial Arts. MMA encompasses exactly what it says- any style of fighting goes, whether wrestling, boxing or kung-fu. The aim is simple: two fighters face each other in an octagonal cage, 30 foot in diametre, and can employ any style to defeat their opponant by either knockout, submission or by the referee calling a stop. Most organisations of MMA allow three 5 minute rounds. The UFC (being the organisation promoting highest caliber fighters) allows five 5 minute rounds.

Unsurprisingly, the sport has taken heavy criticism since its conception in 1993. There was far less regulation back then and it was marketed as "No Holds Barred" fighting instead of as martial arts. Bouts were frequently bloody and the sparse rules resembled those of the wrestling in Ancient Greece- no biting or eye-gouging. The US senator John McCain described it as "human cock-fighting" and four years later it was forced underground as cable televion Pay-per-View providers axed any ties with the sport. Many, perhaps rightly, even maintained that it wasn't a sport anyway but a kind of glorified satisfaction for primative blood lust.

After a reworking of the rules, a definitive set of 31 fouls and regulations such as mandatory glove wearing and not kicking a floored opponant, the public is beginning to accept MMA as a serious contact sport. McCain admits that it has, "Grown up" and that athletes now have, "Better protection". Fighters now cannot wear shoes and are not allowed to strike the back of the neck or head.

Facts speak for themselves and it's a fact that there have been zero deaths from Mixed Martial Arts since it was born. Although there are far more boxing fights, this is still a pertinant point considering that an average of eight people have died each year for half a century as a direct result of boxing. The injuries are usually superficial, such as skin cuts, abrasions and bruising.

And the popularity is on a rapid rise. 2006 was a landmark year for UFC as it took the record for highest buys ever for Pay-per-View, topping all wrestling and boxing bills. One particuler fight (between Matt Hughes and Royce Gracie) took a staggering 600 000 buys minimum.

The number of fans for MMA is on the up, with regular fights aired on Bravo and Setanta Sports and even an imminent page dedicated to UFC in the sports section of Telegraph online. UFC 85, billed as "Bedlam" is coming to the O2 Arena in London on June 7 and the 20 000 tickets are expected to sell out quickly. The card includes "Great British Hope" and current UFC light-heavyweight champion Michael Bisping. The Lancastrian has dropped down a weight division to Middleweight and is taking on Canadian Jason "Dooms" Day.

Tom Cruise

Born on the 3rd July, 1962, in Syracuse, NY, Thomas Cruise Mapother IV spent his first fifteen years aiming to become a priest. The sensitive, 5’7” man has come far since those humble roots, winning three Golden Globes, achieving three beautiful wives (Mimi Rogers, Nicole Kidman and Katie Holmes) and somehow being found as the world’s most powerful celebrity by Forbes magazine in 2006, possibly due to his strong influence in the Church of Scientology.

The actor favours heroic roles where the character single-handedly overcomes threatening forces and saves the day. It seems he was quite the action man in his youth. Wikipedia tells us he was a “ruthless” hockey player and somehow chipped a tooth. During a game of British Bull Dog, he even hurt his knee.

But his life hasn’t all been grit and glory. He had a tough relationship with his father and described him to People magazine as: “a bully” and a “merchant of chaos”. He was also teased at school.

A famous philanthropist, Marketing Evaluations reports still reveal Cruise as the celebrity least wanted as a best friend.

Scientologist opinions have alienated fans and led him to claim in Entertainment Weekly that psychiatry “is a Nazi science”. He also stated that the “religion” has cured him of dyslexia.

Perhaps most embarrassingly of all, he infamously jumped up and down on the couch of the Oprah show, pumped his fists in the air and waxed like a schoolboy his love for then fiancé Katie Holmes.

The future looks bright for this small and hugely successful man.

The Phantom Band

Glasgow based sextet The Phantom Band (Duncan- Guitar and Vocals; Rick- Guitar and Vocals; Andy- Keyboards and Vocals; Greg- Guitar; Gerry- Bass and Vocals; Damien- Drums) have been receiving plenty of restrained media excitement following January’s release of their debut album, Checkmate Savage. Mojo and Clash mags have both billed them as a big band to watch in ’09. They’re pretty feckin’ exciting, but let’s not get carried away- they’re not “The new Radiohead” or anything.

Thankfully. Every time some new musical messiahs are hailed by an over zealous gun-jumper, the sorry band invariably implode in a pressure of scrutiny, expectation and reactionary opinion. It’s probably easy to become hazy and unsure of direction and integrity when you’re pressured to become something you never set out to be.

So it’s maybe a good thing these guys took the initiative and hazed their own direction by settling on a moniker that labels as ambiguous and evasive. The reviews have been positive but it seems bets are being hedged, probably precisely because the music is coming from so far out into leftfield.

They’re a difficult lot to pin down. Their name suits them- like some Scottish crag clouded by mist, they’re bold but hard to define. I found them at The Macbeth on Feb 21 before they played at the monthly Twisted Licks.

WJ: You changed your name loads of times before settling on The Phantom Band. What’s the deal?

Andy: “We didn’t want to be known as something in particular before we were well known as the thing we wanted to be.”

Rick: “We’d drop the name after a gig if it didn’t go too well.”

Duncan: “It also helped bring an element of spontaneity. We want to try and keep the unexpected. We consider those early gigs as being like practices and we didn’t want to be well known when we were just practicing. When we were happy with our songs we thought we should stick to one name for a while.”

Rick: “The name now sort of sums up what we’d been until we settled on The Phantom Band- just farts in the wind.”

WJ: The album’s brooding and ominous but also uplifting. Is the feeling of doom a reflection of deep sentiments or is it more tongue-in-cheek?

Andy: “It’s a bit of both really. We’re all really into Led Zeppelin who often deal with gloomy subjects but they clearly have fun with it.”

Gerry: “We find dark and brooding music uplifting and really jolly music kinda depressing.”

Andy: “Our lyrics are dark but the music is quite happy. I like that contrast and the friction it causes.”

Rick: “Seeing Godspeed [You Black Emperor] is such a spectacle. They are so visceral and exciting. It’s great when you can see a band that has that effect on you. There’s nothing else like it. They could be considered gloomy but seeing them really picks you up.”

Blending their nihilistic introspection and ominous anticipation with tunes often joyful and amusing has the effect of shaking and comforting, questioning and answering at the same time.

The Phantom Band don’t seem to prefer sitting alone in a curtained room over hitting town. Their MySpace pic shows the band strutting down a Scottish street, proudly flaunting their costumes of full medieval armour, resplendent with swords and shields. This surely isn’t the behaviour of individuals who while away the hours wondering what it’s like to be covered in earth, even if the lyrics to I Like My Hole include: “There is no water, there is no light, there is no food. I love my cave, I like my pit.”

Many of the lyrics delve into a kind of murky spiritual realm: “Say your prayer in the twilight, to be an open door, to rise from hands and knees and walk as dogs no more,” is the break in Halfhound, Duncan’s warm and weary voice supported by a choral 3-part harmony.

The Howling builds up to the words: “There will be ghosts on the day I die, following following dust I try to live beyond my lust and lie- it’s all I want- Carry my body on the reckoning wind- Howling! Howling!.” Set against the backdrop of an upbeat, catchy and hypnotic tune it evokes a weird scene where shadowy souls dance carefree and drunk, laughing at the fickle fruitlessness of the daily mundane. A dance of the dead and a jest at the living.

It all sounds rather serious. As does one of Duncan’s comments: “Over population, dwindling natural resources and the yawning void inside every one of us caused by society’s unnatural social contracts and mass sexual repression means one thing: It’s checkmate for the human animal.”

WJ: Is that where the name of the album comes from- saying humans are only beasts and our apparent advances are really just trappings that destroy us?”

Rick: “No! Duncan said that after we decided on the name. What happened was that our producer [Paul Savage from The Delgados] made a pass at Andy’s girlfriend. Andy found out about it, rang him up and just left the words, ‘Checkmate, Savage! We don’t really like the whole naming process. It’s difficult to label something that means so much with so few words.”

Duncan: “Yeah, I also like the way the phrase sounds. The words sound good together- loads of consonants.

WJ: Your tunes are often epic. How do you set about writing them?”

Duncan: “Usually they form through layers. Someone starts by playing a riff and then we all build on top of that.”

Gerry: “It sort of just happens. We fill in with what sounds good and try to out do each other!”

Duncan: “We’ve talked a lot about atmosphere and decided that was the thing we want to create. We want a cinematic feel. So we have a lot of jams in the studio and record them all. Someone will come up with something good and we’ll play around with that for a while.”

Rick: “The songs existed in lots of different forms for quite a long time. We kept changing them. We had to learn how to play the album when we came to record.”

Andy: “A few of the vocal lines were written just a minute before pressing play.”

WJ: Do you do anything in particular to help inspiration? Any long walks? Sitting in caves? Chanting?”

Jerry: “We get most of our inspiration from each other.”

Duncan: “Being hungover usually helps. It brings a weird medium and a focus. Except when you laugh so much you fall off your stool.”

Andy: “It’s like your brain takes a straight line. And Rick’s blindingly funny when he’s hungover.”

Gerry: “Rick’s blindingly funny when he’s blindingly drunk!”

WJ: Do you have any rituals before going on stage or superstitions you have to fulfil, like wearing two pairs of socks or turning around three times anti-clockwise?”

Andy: “Getting drunk.”

Jerry: “We used to huddle together and psych each other up, put our hands together and that sort of thing, but it isn’t needed and we just felt stupid.”

Greg: “Pee, cigarette, pee, gig”

Jerry: “Greg has a problem if he has to go 45 minutes without a pee. At one gig he looked in real pain.”

Greg: “Yeah, I’ve learnt to keep to my ritual.”

WJ: Finally, what about all the positive publicity- has it affected you in any way? Do you feel any extra pressure?”

Rick: “It’s a strange feeling and I can’t help but get the impression that the writing is about a different band.”

Duncan: “Obviously we know the album’s in the public domain and people are positive about it but it’s hard to translate that into seeing the audiences at gigs who have heard our stuff before. We record the music we want to make and wouldn’t allow the external expectations to get to us. It can make you mad thinking about it.”

Jerry: “I just think- What! How did that happen?”

The gig itself showcased a massive range of influences. Some German mag claimed they have no less, or more, than 27 (which the band wholeheartedly agree on and deny at the same time). There was techno, kraut-rock, ballad, gospel, metal and more.

They come across as a monster of contradictions, but an engaging and endearing monster. Fortunately they’ve got a sense of humour and don’t take themselves too seriously.
Andy, the organist, described them as: “The most self-destructive, directionless, negative collection of argumentative individuals I know, who go out of their way to mess up anything that might be working in their favour.” When questioned on the seriousness of this comment he said: “The thing about that is it’s sometimes true but it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy. I said it, so it makes me that, but it’s definitely not true of the band all the time. I only actually know these five people so I guess that makes us the most happy, directionful, syncronised group too.”

Hopefully they will keep making the music they want and not get caught in a haze of expectation, even if that means they may need to change their name again in a matter of weeks. They are not the new Radiohead or any musical messiahs, so 2009 may well be a year of immense achievement for this strange and interesting band.