The Price of Winning

Sometimes I wonder what the hell people really want:

A “medal at any cost” approach created a “culture of fear” at British Cycling, says former rider Wendy Houvenaghel.

The Olympic silver medallist accused the organisation of “ageism” and having “zero regard” for her welfare.

British Cycling subsequently admitted it did not pay “sufficient care and attention” to the wellbeing of staff and athletes at the expense of winning medals, an approach Houvenaghel attested to in her BBC interview.

Houvenaghel, 42, spoke to BBC Sport during its State of Sport week, which on Thursday examines the issue of athlete welfare versus a win-at-all-costs culture.

A government-commissioned review, headed by 11-time Paralympic champion Baroness Grey-Thompson, into safety and wellbeing in British sport, is due to be published imminently.

It is expected to recommend significant reforms designed to improve the way athletes are treated by governing bodies.

Okay, right. But I remember years ago Britain was spectacularly crap at sports, damned near all of them, and we reached a particularly low point at the Atlanta Olympics 1996 when we won a single, solitary gold medal. One of the reasons offered for why British teams and individuals did so poorly at sport was that we didn’t take it seriously enough, we lacked professionalism, and we did not have the ruthless, win-at-all-costs mentality that others, particularly the Australians, seemed to live by. The government decided that this was not good and Something Must Be Done.

So they hosed money at the Olympics, particularly at those sports where Britain stood a good chance of winning medals in the future, one of which was cycling. With the money came professional coaches, many of them pinched from Australia, and the adoption of highly-professional training regimes aimed solely at delivering medals and securing victories. And it worked: Britain finished 4th in the medal table in Beijing, 3rd in London, and 2nd in Rio de Janeiro. We also saw a British rider win the Tour de France in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 as Team Sky practically dominated those years. Whatever we once were, British cycling is now a serious force to be reckoned with, and similar stories can be found elsewhere, particularly in those niche sports which for which decent funding makes a big difference and which deliver easy medals at the Olympics. No longer are we a nation of bumbling amateurs who believe taking part is all that matters and winning not really all that important.

Until today, that is. Now it appears that winning medals at any cost is unacceptable, particularly if sexism is involved, and our athletes have been treated unduly harshly. So here’s my suggestion: defund all efforts to win Olympic medals immediately and let these sports go back to people doing it for fun. If we get laughed at for finishing behind Latvia in the medal table, then so what? At least we know everyone will be happy, including the taxpayer.

On that Wire-Tapping Claim

Well fancy that:

Post-election communications of Donald Trump’s team were swept up in an “incidental collection” by intelligence agencies, a Republican lawmaker says.

Having had his claims that his communications were being monitored ridiculed by all and sundry, and the BBC telling us over and over that his accusations were unsubstantiated, we now find out that Trump was actually having his communications monitored.

Sure, his communications might be collected “incidentally”, but they have nonetheless been collected. That somebody is killed in the collateral damage of an air strike on a military target doesn’t mean they have been murdered in cold blood, but it does not make the person any less dead. Naturally, this story has disappeared from the BBC’s front page and is now buried in the US news section. The Narrative must be maintained, and truth and impartiality be damned.

Yet More Jihad Fatigue

When the news of yesterday’s attacks in London reached me I was sitting at my desk diligently working on engineering designs which would, if implemented, unquestionably contribute to the betterment of mankind. The contrast between my selfless efforts and the mindless destruction of human life in Westminster could not have been more stark, and as one of the few Brits in the office I believed it was my duty to make every discussion thereafter about me and how I felt.

My first thoughts went out to those whose job it is to respond to such incidents, the people on whom we rely to bring order to the chaos, provide comfort where it is needed, and return things to normal. I am referring, of course, to those responsible for switching the lighting schemes on global landmarks into displays of meaningless solidarity. It was but a simple task to light up the Sydney opera house in the tricolor of France, or the Brandenburg gate in the red, black, and yellow of the Belgian flag. But what to do when an Islamist massacre happens in the UK?

A solution came from an expected source: Israel. Since its formation Israel has been plagued with terror attacks and hence is far better prepared to respond to them than perhaps any other nation. It was therefore unsurprising that within hours of the attack, the town hall in Tel Aviv had been transformed thusly:

Seeing this was triggering for me, though. It reminded me of the early 1990s and playing Wolfenstein 3D which would go all pixellated if you ran too close to something, like a Swastika or British flag, and this was during the time of the IRA mainland bombing campaigns and painful memories came flooding back. So although the Israelis meant well, this really didn’t help much and I might have fucked up a crucial element of my engineering calculations.

Besides, nobody is interested in how Israelis respond to terror attacks, even if their methods are strikingly effective. By which I mean air strikes on those believed responsible, of course. No, this attack on the UK required a European response, especially given the motivation of the terrorist might well turn out to be the grim realities of Brexit. At this stage, we just don’t know. So just as Prime Minister Manuel Valls said “times have changed, and we should learn to live with terrorism”, it was once again the French who provided much-needed leadership in these difficult times:

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced Wednesday evening local time that the city’s most famous landmark would go dark in solidarity with those killed and injured near the British Parliament building earlier in the day.

Given that I live in Paris I found this doubly touching, so much so that I touched a female colleague in a clumsy attempt at solidarity. I now have to report to HR this morning. However, and while I do not wish to disparage the brave efforts of those running the Eiffel Tower lighting display for one second, the whole affair does raise some worrying questions.

For instance, is turning off lights really the same as displaying the national colours? Why, given how commonplace these attacks are becoming in Europe, were lighting systems not upgraded to cope with all national flags? If the Israelis can manage it, why can’t we? Surely it can’t be a matter of cost? We were perhaps fortunate that this time it was just London. A friend back in the UK overheard a worried-looking policeman say to his colleague “What if it had been in Cardiff?” One can only imagine. I can only hope and pray that no such attack takes place in Croatia, Slovakia, or even Portugal but if it does I further hope and pray that the appropriate authorities will be ready this time.

Having been calmed down somewhat by the prompt actions of the Paris mayor, my next concern was perhaps equally unsettling: what cutesy image can I put on my Facebook profile to show that I care? I waited and waited for a graphic artist to come up with Cutesy Image of the Massacre™ for this particular event but none came, and I was feeling completely helpless. I even asked one of my more talented colleagues to design one for me as visions of cashing in big-time flashed before my eyes, but his initial idea of a teddy bear in a bobby’s uniform left me cold, especially when I saw it was carrying its own severed head. Perhaps I should have asked somebody other than Abdul. Fortunately, the stoic Londoners shrugged off adversity as they always do and came through with this:

I felt better immediately, although if I’m honest I wasn’t afraid before: I’m in Paris after all, miles from Westminster. I wasn’t even afraid when Islamist nutters were on one of their rampages around these parts because by the time I heard about them everyone was already dead and I was still alive and well. So I wasn’t afraid. Perhaps I ought to have been angry, but alas these days I just feel so weary. I spoke to a doctor and he said it was simply a case of Jihad Fatigue. There’s been a lot of it going around lately, and my symptoms were so far gone that when people mentioned the one year anniversary of the massacre in Brussels, I’d completely forgotten it had taken place.

The words of Manuel Valls quoted above, which were echoed by London’s mayor Sadiq Khan last September when he said terrorist attacks were simply “part and parcel of living in a big city”, were absolutely right. Random people being murdered by Islamic terrorists is something we’re going to have to get used to, because the leadership isn’t interested in doing anything about it and the majority of citizens are not interested in electing leaders who are. For my part, I intend to sell everything I own and invest the proceeds into the suppliers of high-resolution, large scale lighting equipment. The world is gonna need more of them.

Bulgarians with knives found in forest, Trump to blame.

This article appeared in my Facebook feed, and is a good example of how not to do journalism:

NEAR MALKO TARNOVO, Bulgaria — Figures in camouflage and ski masks gather at a fishing lodge. Many are armed with long knives, bayonets and hatchets.

The 35 men and women are on the hunt in Strandzha Massif, a forested mountain range on Bulgaria’s border with Turkey. Migrants trying to cross into Europe are their prey.

Patches on their irregular uniforms — a coat of arms bearing a snarling wolf’s head framed by Cyrillic text — proclaim them to be members of the Bulgarian National Movement Shipka, abbreviated in Bulgarian as “BNO Shipka.”

Okay, I’m hooked. Sounds like a right nasty bunch. From here I expect to read about what they have done, what effect they’re having on the migrants in the area, perhaps even an interview with some of the migrants who have encountered these vigilantes. I’m sure there are some good stories to be had there. Has anyone been killed? Wounded? Forced to seek an alternative route into Europe?

Ah wait, I’m being awfully old fashioned, aren’t I? This is the real story:

Members of the paramilitary organization form into ranks as their leader, Vladimir Rusev, speaks. A former colonel who says he fought in Chechnya as a volunteer alongside Russians, Rusev declares his support for a man they admire: President Donald Trump.

“The CIA is trying to undermine Trump,” said Rusev, a compact 58-year-old with a neat mustache and short-cropped hair. “They want to destroy him. We offer our support to him.”

Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration and vocal criticism of Islam finds an appreciative audience here.

This was the journalist’s brief: go and find these nutjobs in the Bulgarian forest and see if you can get one of them to say something positive about Trump. Presumably had Hillary won, this whole situation wouldn’t be happening.

Most BNO Shipka members are friendly, courteous and open.

It’s funny how often this happens, isn’t it? Lefty journalist meets with supposed right-wing nutjobs and finds them rather agreeable. Didn’t Laurie Penny have one such revelation recently, and then found herself pilloried for “humanising” Trump supporters? Contrast the description of the BNO Shipka members above with those protesting on US campuses, for example.

“I’m not nationalistic or anything like that. I’m just a patriot,” said Nikolai Ivanov, a 34-year-old who was one of the group’s founding members in 2014.

“Many of these immigrants are not just some guys who are trying to run away from war. They are from age 17 to 35, with good physiques and training,” Ivanov added. “It’s not a problem that they are Muslims. The problem is it’s a different civilization. They don’t think like us, they have a totally different view about life, about everything.”

Why, it’s almost as if when politicians, the media, and other branches of the establishment refuse to allow discussions on such matters as immigration and Islam, vigilante groups form. But hey, let’s blame Trump.

Modern Management Explained

An article in the BBC inadvertently tells us what is wrong with modern management:

Many of us shy away from public speaking. A 2014 survey by Chapman University found a fear of public speaking was the biggest phobia among respondents – 25.3% said they feared speaking in front of a crowd.

However, that fear may be limiting our career opportunities. A survey of more than 600 employers in 2014 found that among the top skills recruiters look for, “oral communication” was number one and “presentation skills” number four;

Here’s a novel idea: why not assign those who are natural public speakers to those roles where presentations are a regular feature of the job? Presumably those who fear public speaking have other valuable skills, so why don’t we identify them and assign those individuals to positions where those skills will add the most value? Perhaps this is better than trying to beat round pegs into square holes by insisting everyone should be an expert public speaker, no?

One of the things that pisses me off more than anything is “management” has been touted as a science for decades now, and there are literally tens of thousands of books on management techniques and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on training courses on the same subject. Sprouting from this has been the rise of the sprawling corporate HR department which is justified on the grounds that personnel management is so advanced these days that it requires teams of experts to assess each employee, ascertain their personality type and skills, and properly assign them so their utility is maximised and teams and departments are properly balanced.

Does this actually happen? Does it fuck: despite HR now enjoying a seat on the board of every major company, we are now being told that they can’t even manage to assign those who are good at public speaking to the roles which involve public speaking, and instead those who are crap at it are being told their careers will now suffer. We might as well fire all the HR staff right now and let department managers handle it all, like they used to.

This is also telling:

traditional management skills such as “managing administrative activities” came down at the bottom.

Having observed how administrative activities are normally managed in any large organisation, I can well believe it. I suspect the reason is because the modern brand of manager sees the day-to-day management of routine activities as beneath them; better to advance their careers throwing spanners into works at regular intervals and speaking in woolly terms about “diversity” and “behaviours”.

Yet a 2014 online survey of 2,031 US workers found that 12% would willingly step aside to let someone else give a presentation, even if it lost them respect at work.

98% would willingly step aside to let somebody else fix their PC, too. Why is giving a presentation considered something everybody should be good at? Or is that all that happens in major companies these days, presentations?

“Public speaking is no longer optional in your professional life,” agrees speaking coach Steve Bustin, author of The Authority Guide to Presenting and Public Speaking.

“It’s an essential business skill that needs to be learned and practiced like any other skill,” he says. “Many job interviews, especially for senior level jobs, now require a presentation to the interview panel”

And doesn’t that just describe the requirements of a modern manager in a nutshell? Competence, diligence, transparency, ability to shoulder responsibility, organisational skills, experience, technical knowledge, and getting shit done are all subordinate to one’s ability to use PowerPoint and sound off in meetings.

Security or Protectionism?

New flying rules are afoot:

The US has announced a ban on large electronic devices from cabin baggage on passenger flights from eight Muslim-majority countries.

Bombs could be hidden in laptops, tablets, cameras, DVD players and electronic games, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said.

Well yes, they could be. Which is generally why everyone has to go through that pantomime of taking out all electronic items and scanning them separately. Or doesn’t this actually work?

The nine airlines affected are Royal Jordanian, Egypt Air, Turkish Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways.

The cynic in me thinks this is less about security and more about hobbling Middle East airlines which are cheaper, cleaner, better, and have nicer staff than airlines operating out of the US.

The UK is due to announce shortly a similar ban on certain flights.

Which is good news for British Airways, no doubt.

[A]viation security experts were alarmed by an incident in Somalia last year when the insurgent group al-Shabaab smuggled an explosive-filled laptop on a flight out of Mogadishu, blowing a hole in the side of the plane.

Somalia. On Daallo Airlines, whoever the hell they are. But this might be a concern:

A suspected suicide bomber on a Daallo Airlines flight was originally meant to be aboard a Turkish Airlines plane, Reuters cited Daallo’s CEO Mohamed Yassin as saying. A separate report claimed the blast had come from explosives hidden inside a laptop.
The majority of the passengers on the bombed Airbus A321 flight were scheduled to fly with Turkish Airlines, but were redirected after the Turkish carrier cancelled the flight due to bad weather.

I’m a bit concerned about Turkish Airlines. They have done an impressive job of becoming a very good, high-profile airline offering flights practically everywhere through an airport which I’ve been told is excellent…but at the same time, as I wrote here, Turkey’s state security services might have been severely compromised. If so, their national airline makes for a ripe target indeed. I sincerely hope this is not the case because, regardless of what I think about Turkish politics right now, plane bombings is something we really need to see eradicated.

The problem is, aircraft security has been so badly handled what with so many senseless, arbitrary rules applied inconsistently across airports and jurisdictions and the ubiquitous security theatre seemingly designed to make passengers docile and compliant rather than safe, trust in the authorities is pretty low these days.

Jamil al-Qsous, a former Jordanian aviation security official, told the Associated Press news agency that the ban meant “one less headache” for security agencies.

And for the passengers? Who cares about them? Presumably they will be invited to fly with a different airline, an American one, onto which they can bring their electronic devices. Yeah, it’s all about security.

The FBI and Political Campaigning

Until the news of some Irish terrorist dying this morning displaced it, the BBC once again ran an anti-Trump opinion piece as its main story of the day:

After a bit of grandstanding on the part of the top members of the House Intelligence Committee and a warm-up act from National Security Agency head Mike Rogers, Mr Comey led with the big news of the day.

“I have been authorised by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign, and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” he said.

That there is an investigation isn’t exactly breaking news – the BBC’s Paul Wood reported on it in early January – but official acknowledgement is a significant development.

Well, yes. Some of us are wondering when all those making noises about Russia and the 2016 Presidential Election are going to put up or shut up. So far it’s been nothing but rumour, innuendo, and hearsay. We’ve not even been told exactly what Russia is supposed to have done and the mechanism by which this is supposed to have unduly influenced the election. I’d have thought this would be a good starting point before anyone worries about “links” between “individuals associated with the Trump campaign” and the Russian government. But this isn’t so much an investigation as a political campaign.

The fact that his investigation first began in July, during the heat of the 2016 election campaign, will likely leave Democrats howling. They will contrast Mr Comey’s wide-ranging comments on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server with his until-recent silence surrounding the Trump-related inquiry.

I am sure many people have noticed the contrast between the FBI’s treatment of Hillary over her email server and the noise being made over Trump’s alleged connections to Russia. Only it won’t be the contrast the BBC thinks it is.

Mr Rogers also said that the intelligence community stands behind the declassified report it issued in early January that concluded that the Russia government attempted to influence the US election in a way that helped Mr Trump’s candidacy.

The report which was full of woolly innuendo and contained no proper description of what this “influence” entailed, let alone any evidence for it?

The other big revelation of the day was how thoroughly both Mr Comey and Mr Rogers debunked the president-tweeted allegation that Barack Obama or his Justice Department had authorised the wiretapping of Trump Tower.

“With respect to the president’s tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration,” Mr Comey said, “I have no information that supports those tweets. And we have looked carefully inside the FBI.”

Well, the allegation will only have been thoroughly debunked if their denial is believed. Perhaps Trump wasn’t wiretapped and he made it all up, I’m quite happy to believe that. But if he was telling the truth, could we rely on the FBI in its current form not to mislead the public, e.g. by using an extremely narrow definition of “wiretapping” to sidestep the allegation? There’s been so much bullshit emitted that nobody knows who or what to believe any more.

Indeed, the ability to order such surveillance was outside the powers of any president, Mr Comey said.

Which, as Streetwise Professor noted at the time, is the sort of statement a lawyer comes out with. Sure, Obama did not have the power to authorise any surveillance, but that in itself does not make surveillance of Trump on behalf of Obama an impossibility. As a debunking, it probably only satisfies those who are politically opposed to Trump from the outset. Like the BBC, for instance.

Mr Rogers also dismissed allegations that Mr Obama had bypassed domestic surveillance controls by requesting that British intelligence oversee the operation, noting that the accusation “frustrates a key ally of ours”.

That’s neither here nor there, though: GCHQ would be equally frustrated if the accusations were true. Again, why the red herrings?

Although the FBI case has been open since July, Mr Comey said the effort is still in its early stages.

“For counterintelligence investigations, that’s a fairly short period of time,” he said.

That has to be more than a bit disconcerting to the Trump White House, which has been knocked off course by this Russia story since practically the moment Mr Trump took the oath of office. And while the administration seems intent on cracking down on unauthorised leaks out of this investigation, their efforts are unlikely to succeed.

A one-two punch of those revelations and any new developments in the FBI investigation is likely to keep the Trump team off balance for quite some time.

And finally we’re getting to the real story. This investigation is not about rooting out nefarious Russian plots to throw the US election, it is to ensure the Trump administration is so bogged down in “scandal” that it can’t get on with the business of running the country and, in the hopes of Trump’s political opponents, makes his position untenable. As has been pointed out many times before, this whole “Russia hacked the election” story is simply the one that his opponents picked as the most likely to generate the greatest volume of noise, having tried sexism, misogyny, vote-rigging, and fake news already. Trump’s opponents – the Democrats, most of the Republicans, the media, and anyone foreign – believe that by making as much froth as possible they can spin this into a scandal and plant the idea in the public’s minds that this is the next Watergate. They hope that people will think there is no smoke without fire and gain the impression that Trump is hopelessly compromised and should resign or be impeached, mere months into his tenure. This is why the BBC is running story after story about this, it is merely playing its part as political opposition to Trump.

The interesting question is how effective this will be. These are exactly the same people taking exactly the same approach they did during the election itself, and enough Americans were sufficiently disgusted at what they saw that they voted for Trump anyway. It’s hard to believe these tactics are working any better now. Sure, those who were already opposed to Trump will buy wholesale into this pantomime, but I can’t see anyone who held their nose and voted for Trump to escape the Establishment’s vice-grip on American politics thinking they have not been vindicated.

As has been noted before, the establishment politicians, media, and others appear hell-bent on making America ungovernable in the delusional belief that they can unseat Trump, get their hands on the levers of power again, and everything will go back to normal. They honestly think that it is merely the flesh-and-blood Trump that is preventing them from going back to the cosy status-quo where Democrats did whatever they want and Republicans meekly went along with it through fear the press would call them racist.

But those days are gone, and if Trump vanishes in a puff of smoke tomorrow the social forces that put him there will remain, and they won’t be in the mood to be ignored any more. Sure, half the country might endorse the any-means-necessary approach to securing political victory even if it destroys the nation in the process, but the other half won’t, not now.

But what would happen, [Lawfare blog editor Benjamin] Wittes wondered, if Mr Comey’s FBI investigation is turning up real evidence?

Well, indeed what? Trump’s going to get impeached because “former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort…had ties to pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians”? What’s the end-game, here? If there was serious wrongdoing it would have been described already and evidence provided. If the Establishment and their pro-Obama allies in the various intelligence agencies are going to bring down a sitting president over this kind of nonsense, and the American public accept it, then they deserve everything they’ve got coming to them. My guess is they won’t.

Martin Schulz

Herr Schulz seems to be a tad confused:

The candidate named by Germany’s Social Democrats to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel, Martin Schulz, has vowed to fight populism if his party wins the elections due in September.

At an SPD party meeting in Berlin, he denounced Eurosceptics and the “racist” rhetoric of US President Donald Trump.

Mr Schultz also said that as leader of the EU Parliament he had always stood up “to those who attempt to destroy this project of unity”.

“Those people find in me a determined opponent,” he added.

Referring to Donald Trump, he denounced what he called the president’s “misogynistic, anti-democratic and racist” rhetoric.

What does any of this have to do with Germany? Is Trump running for office there? Or is that all it takes to win votes in Germany, parrot what global lefties are saying about Trump? God help them if he wins.

Francis Turner has more on Schulz here.

What Companies (Don’t) Want

Via Adam, this article:

Surveys of the key skills employers seek in graduates continue to place so-called “soft skills” – like verbal and written communication skills, the ability to work collaboratively in teams and to influence others – in the top ten. But a 2016 report found that other skills – such as critical thinking, problem-solving, attention to detail, and writing – top the list of missing skills among job-seekers.

These skills are rated as being important across all jobs and industries. And employees not having these skills costs businesses thousands of dollars per year.

A US survey has found miscommunication costs businesses with up to 100 staff an average of US$420,000 per year. Even more staggeringly, in another study, 400 businesses with at least 100,000 employees each claimed that inadequate communication cost an average of US$62.4 million per company per year.

I can well believe that having employees with the ability to explain themselves clearly, write a concise and understandable email, and prepare properly-structured and well-written reports is of great benefit to a company. I can also believe that such skills would make the top ten in a list of what employers desire.

What I don’t believe is that such “soft skills” are considered in the least bit important when it comes to recruitment, retention, and promotion. Sure, they might make the top ten but one must bear in mind that Mecca Cola probably makes it into the top ten best-selling cola products. There will be two, possibly three, key skills that companies require and the rest are largely irrelevant. For all the talk about the important of “soft skills”, they only ever get mentioned when an HR department is talking up its own importance, someone is peddling a training course, or you’re getting a bollocking for upsetting somebody. A look at the average email or report will tell you that written communication skills aren’t considered very important in the modern business world.

I have my own experience to offer up in support of this statement. I don’t think I’m getting too far above my own station when I say I have pretty good writing skills, and I have the ability to convey quite complex information in a structured, logical, and clear manner. There are better writers around than me, far better, but not many of them are engineers. Back when I was doing my A-levels my chemistry teacher told me I was rather uncommon in that I was a scientist who could write, and advised that I make use of that. I can honestly say that being able to write quickly and accurately has helped me a lot in my professional life, but insofar as it has been recognised by any employer over the past 17 years I might as well type with my fists when drunk. There have been one or two occasions, three at the most, where my writing abilities have been recognised in passing but they’ve certainly not contributed in any way to the positions I have been offered or the tasks I have been assigned. I might be a very, very average engineer who rubs people up the wrong rather too often but I would bet that I’ve been one of the best writers of English in any of the companies I’ve worked for (yes, even the big ones). Out of the technical staff I reckon I’d win that contest hands-down. Nobody even noticed, let alone put it to use.

In short, I’d not pay much attention to what companies say they want; I’d instead look at what they actually do. Revealed preferences, I believe these are called. And they’re not in the least bit interested in whether you can write.

Chuck Berry

I must have been about ten or eleven when I first heard a Chuck Berry song. It was night time and I was supposed to be sleeping, but I was listening to a handheld radio belonging to my brother through an ancient earpiece that had been in the family since way before I was born. It might have been the John Peel show – I certainly listened to him in that manner around the same time – but I can’t be sure. The film Back to the Future had passed me by, thanks to living in a town without a proper cinema and a household without a television, so that night under the covers was the first time I heard Johnny B. Goode or indeed any other Chuck Berry song.

I loved it. I spent the next year or two trying to catch it again on the radio (that was basically what you had to do back then, unless you knew somebody who owned an album; music on demand was another two decades away). A few months later my sister somewhat pointlessly told me the song had just come on but she’d switched station and only after she changed back did she hear the DJ say what it was (she knew I was waiting to hear it again). Listening to music was a very different experience in those days.

At some point in the early ’90s my father went to Dubai for work, at a time when the Emirate was little more than a pirate haven and they’d not even bridged the creek yet. It was known as a place where you could buy knock-off albums on cassette, and my Dad came back with an armful including one calling itself “The Best of Chuck Berry”. I got hold of it in short order and listened to the whole lot in one go, and quickly found there were songs I liked much more than Johnny B. Goode. Two of my favourites were Sweet Little Sixteen, which the Beach Boys effectively copied to make Surfin’ USA; and Sweet Little Rock and Roller. The latter is still one of my favourite songs of all time, mainly because it brings about a feeling of unquenchable optimism. The cascading intro is simply superb.

I also loved Promised Land, a song about a young man making his way coast-to-coast across the USA and overcoming various obstacles while remaining happy and optimistic (there’s that word again), set to the same rhythm (as I found out later) as The Wabash Cannonball. When I first met my now long-term friend from South Carolina in the summer of 2000 as I was idly driving through his neighbourhood, I told he and his friends that I had heard of nearby Rock Hill because it is mentioned in a Chuck Berry song. None of them knew what I was talking about, and they laughed. Elvis Presley covered Promised Land while, ironically, Berry was sat in jail and going precisely nowhere and it is his version which was used in the film Men in Black. There is also a superb version by Johnny Allen with a magnificent accordion solo played by Cajun musician Belton Richard.

There were other songs I liked just as much. I was already extremely familiar with You Never Can Tell by the time Pulp Fiction made it famous; Let It Rock is a wonderful little song about a railroad work crew getting in the way of a train. I was never that much of a fan of his more established songs, such as Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Maybelline, and Too Much Monkey Business; I generally preferred his less well-known stuff.

I remember being somewhat surprised when I was in my early teens to discover Chuck Berry was still alive. If somebody had told me he’d go on for another 25+ years, I’d never have believed them. All of the rock and roll legends belonged to an era so long before my time that they all seemed dead, but Chuck Berry survived. I took the time to read up a little about the man himself, and by all accounts he was a bit of a dick. He did three stints in jail: the first for armed robbery when he was a teenager, then again in 1962 for breaching the Mann Act when he took a 14-year old girl across state lines, then once more in 1979 for tax evasion. Unlike many black musicians of the era, Berry was not from a disadvantaged background. As Wikipedia tells us:

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry was the fourth child in a family of six. He grew up in the north St. Louis neighborhood known as The Ville, an area where many middle-class people lived at the time. His father, Henry, was a contractor and deacon of a nearby Baptist church; his mother, Martha, was a certified public school principal. His upbringing allowed him to pursue his interest in music from an early age. He gave his first public performance in 1941 while still a student at Sumner High School.

He was also a very canny businessman. While other musicians, particularly poor blacks, were being fleeced by their record companies, Berry insisted on money up front and was careful never to sign away all his rights. Given he was working with Leonard Chess, who was known for his ruthless business practices, one must assume that Chuck Berry knew how to look after himself. Unfortunately there was a downside to his penny-watching ways: Berry shunned the use of a professional backing band and would often turn up in a town a day or two before a concert and hire local musicians to accompany him on stage. Some of his live shows are obviously mind-blowing, but all too many of them were compromised by Berry’s unwillingness to take on a proper backing band. Even Berry’s own individual performances suffered: I have a friend who saw him live in Manchester 20 or 30 years ago and he was an embarrassment, dropping notes all over the place and clearly not up to the task. I’ve heard others say similar things about his live performances in his later years.

There is no denying that Chuck Berry was probably the biggest influence on rock and roll music, and without him we might not have had The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and countless more. Everyone will be singing the praises of Chuck Berry following his passing at aged 90 yesterday, and the accolades will be thoroughly deserved. He really was brilliant.

When various music greats died last year – David Bowie, Motorhead’s Lemmy, George Michael – I didn’t say much, mainly because I wasn’t a fan of their music. That’s not the case with Chuck Berry. I’ve been a Chuck Berry fan for as as long as I’ve been listening to music, his upbeat tempos and lyrics providing me with a hope and optimism of a world outside the miserably wet corner of Wales I grew up in, bored senseless. There will be lots of people jumping on the Chuck Berry bandwagon over this next few days: I’m not one of them. I liked his music for real, always did, and always will.

Thanks for the music, Chuck.