Monthly Archives: February 2012

Letter to my MP

Rather than write a new blog from scratch I’m going to reproduce my letter to Andrew Jones MP below. I would draw particular attention to the penultimate paragraph which is the point most commentators overlook and is the biggest reason why this issue MUST be kept in the public eye.

Dear Mr Jones

I am writing with regard to the current extradition treaty between the UK and the United States of America which the American government currently appears to be abusing.

You will have read in the press about the recent extradition of the retired businessman Christopher Tappin on arms charges. Hopefully the case has been too well documented for me to need to go into detail here. It is sufficient to say that Mr Tappin was subject to entrapment by the US authorities (such police methods are illegal here but not in America) and at no point were any of his alleged crimes committed on US soil. Despite this, the home secretary (a member of your party) refused to block the extradition and, at the time of writing, Mr Tappin is currently held in solitary confinement in a Texas jail and has been allowed no contact with his family.

Equally concerning is the case of Richard O’ Dwyer, a twenty three year old student from Sheffield. Mr O’Dwyer set up a website that directed people to sites where media might be obtained illegally. His site contained no copyright violations itself, none of his servers were based in the US and he did not direct his website to the US. He has committed no crime under UK or European law and yet the US is seeking his extradition.

The 2003 UK/US extradition treaty was designed to enable the easy extradition of alleged terrorists but the US authorities are using the treaty to extradite any UK citizen they feel they have a case against. Surely, unless an obvious attack on the US people can be shown by probable cause, UK citizens are subject to UK laws, not US laws? Mr Cameron was elected in 2010 promising to review this treaty – a promise he has so far failed to keep.

Leaving aside the legal debate involved, there are also clear humanitarian issues involved. Foreign suspects held in America are frequently denied bail and held in brutal prison regimes for considerable periods before their case comes to trial. The distance involved makes it hard for defence witnesses to be called, thus prejudicing the right to a fair trial.

I am aware that these cases are ultimately the responsibility of the Home Secretary and ultimately the Prime Minister. However Mr Cameron and Ms May failed to intervene in the case of Mr Tappin and there is no indication that they will do so in the case of Mr O’Dwyer which is just one of several cases I could have quoted. I would like to you to clarify your own position on this matter and, if you are in agreement , to undertake to raise my concerns with the cabinet ministers concerned and to pledge you will speak and vote against this treaty in any Parliamentary debate.

Sincerely,

Andrew Zigmond

Band Of The Week – Soul Asylum

With one thing and another I never got around to blogging last week and U2 were band of the fortnight instead. Did anybody notice? No – so that’s not a problem them.

This week my attention turns to Soul Asylum, a band remembered (if at all) as a one hit wonder from the early nineties. This is somewhat unfair – the hit single came from their sixth full length studio album and their career now spans thirty years. However of their nine albums to date their reputation pretty much rests on two records; Grave Dancers Union (released 1993) and Let Your Dim Light Shine (1995).

Soul Asylum began life as an American alt rock band in the early eighties. Their first three albums (Say What You Will, Made To Be Broken, While You Were Out) are fairly inessential, the two that followed (a change of labels and an EP later, Hang Time and And The Horse They Rode In On) are a bit more robust but barely offer hints of what was to come. Since I mention hints I could and perhaps should highlight Closer To The Stars from While You Were Out although the acoustic version on their greatest hits album is better and the blistering Sometime To Return from Hang Time.

But then came Grave Dancers Union. Let me be blunt – this is the best conventional (as opposed to alt) rock album of the era and thus is among the greatest albums ever recorded. Pearl Jam’s Ten, a more logical contender for this title, doesn’t come close. The album opens with its three singles. Somebody To Shove with its refrain of `waiting by the phone, waiting for someone to call me up and tell me I’m not alone` – I’ve felt like that too many times to mention. The lyrics of the mid paced Black Gold are open to interpretation – the most frequent is that it tells the story of a disallusioned Gulf War veteran but I’ve often read it as the tale of a wheelchair bound teenager who is as determined to break away to a new horizon as his able bodied peers. And again there is a line of staggering brilliance, `Sure like to feel some pride but this place just makes me feel sad inside.` I can relate to that as well.

Runaway Train is the hit single (7 in the UK, 5 over the pond) and the story behind it is too well known to mention. Written for and about the world’s legion of runaway children and built around a simple but haunting guitar strum there is perhaps no other song that has so many great individual moments. `You were there like a blowtorch burning, there was a key that could use a little turning` is one, `Promised myself I wouldn’t weep, one more promise I couldn’t keep`. And then the pay off, `A little out of touch never insane, just easier than dealing with the pain`. Put simply there are few songs that have ever moved me so deeply – if I could only have 10 of the 17,000 songs on my Ipod this would be one of them.

Obviously few things could be as good but Without A Trace, the albums second best track, runs it close with its stunning guitar riff. The supporting tracks merit less discussion but all pass muster. There is no filler here.

Let Your Dim Light Shine was the inevitable attempt to avoid having to make Grave Dancers Union 2. It’s highs aren’t quite as high but if anything it’s a more cohesive and direct record and the centrepiece, String Of Pearls is worth the money on its own. Just briefly finishing the story, the next album along – Candy From A Stranger had its moments but felt strangely soulless and their most recent studio effort (in the past decade they’ve released little) The Silver Lining was something of a disappointment for those hoping for a comeback. The strangest thing in Soul Asylum’s catalogue is Live From The Grand Forks Prom, a benefit concert for high school students whose prom was cancelled due to flooding. Recorded in 1997 but not released until 2004 it’s an endearing rip through their hits together with a few surprising cover versions (To Sir With Love, Rhinestone Cowboy) – it’s a very listenable release.

As Soul Asylum’s members (the line up has had several drummers and they lost an original bassist to cancer) near middle age the remain one of the world’s most underrated bands. Their profile is as honest and self effacing as their music – I think that’s how they’d prefer it. Here’s a tune.

ARTIST OF THE WEEK – U2

First of all the brutal truth – with the demise of REM last year and the Rolling Stones having spent the last thirty years trading on past glories U2 are THE greatest band currently recording, both according to my personal tastes and their importance to the music scene. More to the point their most recent album, No Line On The Horizon found them on truly awe inspiring form (compare that with REM who ended their career on a dud).

Of course U2 aren’t the most fashionable band to admire and their nadir has to be Beautiful Day which Tony Blair described as `a great song` – with fans like that …

It’s also noticeable that there aren’t that many hidden gems to be found in U2’s catalogue; anybody with their two Best Of compilations will have most of the stuff that matters. This means that there’s very little point in my running through highlights such as the opening minute of Pride (In The Name Of Love), the shimmering intro of Where The Streets Have No Name. Also overtold is the story of how U2 tore down their own myth in 1991 and started again with their masterpiece Achtung Baby.

What is perhaps forgotten is that the band first formed around an advert pinned on a school noticeboard and the four teenagers who got together as a result are still the same four over thirty years on. There has been inter band tension (Sunday Bloody Sunday was about that) but how many bands of U2’s significance have avoided all the chopping and changing of members that is grist to the rock mill.

U2 are the greatest band writing and performing today. Given that they still have a good decade left to amaze and inspire us they may just be the most important band in history. They’ve never been slaves to fashion, they’ve just got on with creating great music.

And now I’ve mentioned the music we come to the question of which single song to choose. My choice almost fell on Gloria, the stunning opening track to their most underrated album (October). However I ultimately went (and this may prove to be a recurring theme in this series) for the first U2 song I ever loved. From late 1992 this is a remix of a slightly underwhelming album track and its ommission from any album means it is little heard these days. A shame, since this is a beautiful love song and – well as many will know I have never really found my soul mate but when I do the song will probably be about him.

ARTIST OF THE WEEK – Van Halen

Okay – having blogged about wrongly arrested teenagers and chess controversies (both issues close to my heart) it’s time to turn to my biggest passion in life – rock music!

Not that I expect anybody to care but each week I shall aim to focus on a different band/ singer I admire and will try to make it topical. So in honour of their new album released this work (their first since 1998) we’ll start with Van Halen.

Good old wikipedia can provide the biography, save me the trouble http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Van_Halen

Obviously I knew the name but I first heard of this band circa 1996 when I bought a remaindered book by a journalist named Malcolm Dome. Dome was unashamedly a fan and wrote so passionately about their music I had no choice but to check it out. I wasn’t disappointed. For many months afterwards I lived and breathed Van Halen.

Okay – another seventeen years have elapsed since Dome’s book and Van Halen have steered themselves well and truly into the comedy rock clique. The revolving door of lead singers doesn’t help; the legendary David Lee Roth, the capable Sammy Hagar, the adequate Gary Cherone, Roth again, Hagar again and finally back to Roth. It’s worth noting that this means the last three albums (albeit over the best part of 20 years) have three different singers and the latest record is Roth’s first with the band since 1984.  However the proverbial biscuit is well and truly taken by the fact that the band’s bassist is Eddie Van Halen’s SON Wolfgang Van Halen (born in 1991 – his band have only released four of their twelve albums in his lifetime) and they callously dumped long time bassist Michael Anthony in the process. Let it also be noted that (according to reports) Eddie Van Halen himself is an alcoholic, near racist prat.

But fortunately it’s all about the music and, if the misfiring Cherone album is ignored, there’s precious little slack in a catalogue that includes groundbreaking hard rock (debut album Van Halen), the glorious anarchic mid period years (the albums Women And Children First and Fair Warning), a classic hit single (Jump – five weeks at number one in America), the power metal of the underrated Hagar years (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge is the best of his four with the group) and the latest single, Tattoo (Roth looking like somebody’s drunk Dad but somehow – it works).

Add in the family tree you get with all rock bands – Roth’s eclectic solo career, Hagar’s part in the commercial unsuccessful but influential Montrose and Eddie Van Halen’s contribution to Michael Jackson’s best song and it’s a surprisingly rich legacy.

So how about a link? I’m going to go a little off the beaten track for this one but we’ll go to one of the first Van Halen songs I heard and still one of my favourites. More to the point it seperates Van Halen from the pomp and circus that defines them and shows their true power. From the album Balance, Hagar on vocals and a powerful video to boot – I dare anybody to call this hair metal. Dave, Eddie, Alex, Wolfgang and ex members Sammy, Michael and Gary – this blogger salutes you.

A scandal in Caissa update

The recriminations over the Lara Barnes/ CJ de Mooi incident have continued although the debate appears to have run its course. I have now corresponded privately with several of the players concerned including Raymond Keene himself – I feel quite honoured that he considers me important enough to write to in considerable depth, even though I have to beg to differ with a lot of his conclusions.

I have braved a bit of googling over the issue (I try to avoid random googling – all that happens is that your blood will end up boiling over the comments of some uninformed pillock and you won’t learn anything you didn’t know before) with some interesting results. Firstly googling `Lara Barnes CJ de Mooi` turned up both my blog and my post on the Yorkshire Chess Association forum in the first three pages. Secondly I turned up the rather wonderful entry from a Canadian blog. I’ll give the link and the closing paragraph;

http://www.xtra.ca/blog/national/post/2011/08/08/Checkmate-again-this-time-for-the-arbiter.aspx

It’s a pity that de Mooi let his emotions get the better of him and that Barnes was cast into the role of the wicked vamp. It turns out that she supports Stonewall UK — whose slogan started the controversy — and that she raised £200 (abut $325) for the charity during the event.

Let’s hope that de Mooi’s apology gets as much attention as his hissy fit did and that the people who wrote to Barnes with misplaced anger take a step back, swallow their pride and do the right thing — apologize to her.

Why can’t de Mooi and Keene write something as honest and magnanimous as that? Granted, a can of worms has been opened during the debate and both sides have stirred a certain amount of shit. There are genuine issues with homophobia in chess that need addressing and it is these issues which are being swept under the carpet.

amz1981 – a gay chessplayer proud to support Lara Barnes and Alex MacFarlane.

Face for the name

Face for the name

An old photograph, taken at Fria’s Crag in the Lake District in 2007. Quite an iconic one of me (if I say so myself) but I’m not quite as fresh faced now.

A scandal in Caissa

The post is written primarily for the benefit of non chessplayers so I apologise to my chess followers who are already aware of much of the facts. First, the people of the drama;

CJ DE MOOI is a panelist on the ITV show Eggheads and has appeared on many quiz shows over the years – he is best known for being tactically voted off The Weakest Link and going into an absolute tirade about it. He is also a keen chessplayer and gay rights activist and in 2009 was elected President of the English Chess Federation.

LARA BARNES & ALEX MACFARLANE are well known figures on the UK weekend tournament chess circuit, primarily as organisers and arbiters. They are volunteers who give up much of their free time for chess and receive little thanks or recompense in return.

RAYMOND KEENE OBE was one of England’s strongest players in the seventies before retiring from play to devote his time to organisation and journalism. He is chess correspondant for The Times. It is sufficient for this blog if I note he is no stranger to controversy.

At the British Chess Championships in 2011 (a very successful event that featured many of the country’s top players playing some fantastic chess – in a perfect world this would not have to be put in brackets) CJ de Mooi attended the closing day wearing a Stonewall T shirt with a prominent slogan `Some People Are Gay – Get Over It. Lara Barnes queried whether it was appropriate for him to present the prizes in this T shirt. Her objections were NOT on homophobic grounds, she simply felt that it was not a place for a political or sexual slogan, particularly as he would be presenting prizes to and being photographed with children.

Let’s have the first of several breaks and consider the issues FOR and AGAINST the T shirt.

FOR – Some people ARE gay (including this blogger) and there would be no need for Stonewall or any such T shirts if people could get over it. Stonewall is a charity, just one of several de Mooi is a patron of. Also de Mooi HAD played a big part in organising the event and making it the success it was, he had perhaps earned a certain amount of indulgence.

AGAINST – Freedom of speech works both ways so what would happen if somebody involved in chess chose to wear a T shirt promoting a less savoury cause? Would the President of the Football Association present prizes at a flagship event in a T shirt? The day was about chess, not gay rights. Lara’s concern was that children already being teased for playing chess might get further bullying for being photographed next to that slogan.

At this point CJ de Mooi could (and perhaps should) have politely said to Lara, `I’m sorry but I beg to differ` and that would have been the end of the matter. As it was he threw a tantrum and refused to present the prizes despite attempts by officials to resolve the stand off.

de Mooi’s next move was to go to the press. It’s not clear exactly what he said but articles appeared in the Sunday Times and (a day later) the Guardian reporting that CJ de Mooi had been barred from presenting the prizes on homophobic grounds. It should be noted that Lara Barnes was not named in the Sunday Times and the Guardian did publish her version of events. This did not prevent her from receiving abusive emails, presumably from the gay rights lobby.

Okay break 2. Let’s ask a few questions, none of which have been answered.

1, Why didn’t CJ de Mooi insist upon presenting the prizes and make a stand that way.

2 Why did he go straight to the press? If he had a complaint against one of the arbiting team why did he not take it up with the board of the organisation he is President of?

3, Did he wear the T shirt with the aim of provoking this incident?

Clarifications and apologies were issued shortly afterwards (CJ lamented the abusive emails received by Lara and offered his resignation which was refused by the board) but the damage was largely done.

So much for the original incident. Now let’s look at what has happened since;

Lara Barnes’ health and confidence has suffered due to her misrepresentation in the press and online media. Inevitably many gay bloggers take CJ de Mooi’s side and have mocked and insulted her as a homophobe (as part of her clarification she admitted to having had gay relationships of her own in the past). Her partner, Alex MacFarlane, has asked for support from the ECF board in rebuilding her reputation and for CJ de Mooi to help set the record straight. No such support has been forthcoming.

CJ de Mooi has made no public comment on the issue since.

We now come to the role of Raymond Keene. After the incident appeared to be partially resolved he inflamed matters by referring to officials who were `brutish and bigoted and should be investigated by the police`. He has repeatedly refused to apologise and recently as yesterday was posting unpleasant Twitter posts concerning Lara Barnes who – in spite of everything – is trying to concentrate on organising next year’s event.

So much for the facts. Further posts will be made when developments happen and I will also air some more of my opinions. Suffice to say that the behavior of CJ de Mooi disgraces the cause of gay rights.