Jay-Z: the lessons from history

How did Jay-Z rise to the top?

I have always been mildly perplexed by Jay-Z’s pre-eminence in the rap game. He is not the best rapper, nor the most inventive or best produced. His monotone delivery is tedious when compared with Ghostface or Eminem. His lyrical content tends to shift between the contents of his bank balance and reminiscences about his youthful work experience.

I remember being given a white label of his Hard Knock Life album. I was getting nicely into Big Pun at the time, a rapper of astonishing wit and verbal dexterity. In comparison, Jay-Z seemed tame, and despite a somewhat amusing title track featuring the orphan Annie, Hard Knock Life was seriously below the late-90s average.

However, a decade or more on, there Jay-Z still is, still making that ridiculous ‘cheah’ sound before beginning yet another limp boast, on another pop hit.

So, the time has surely come to ask: how did Jay-Z rise to the top? And, more important, how does he stay there? Here I search through the history books to find some parallels to explain the phenomenon that is Jigga.

Joseph Stalin (1878-1953)

Casually ordering another execution: Joseph Stalin

Stalin rose to power in Russia after the death of the more brilliant Lenin. He then wiped out all of his enemies, including Zinoviev, Trotsky and a few million others. He cannily made great political capital of carrying on the flame of Lenin, much like Jay-Z does with Biggie.

Now, I would never suggest Jay-Z organised the deaths of the more talented Biggie, Tupac, Big L or Big Pun. But he certainly benefited from a lot of rappers dying just at the time he was starting out in rap. It was, I am sure, all just a terrible coincidence.

Lesson for Jay: Eliminate your enemies.

Duplicitous and money-grubbing: Richard Arkwright

Richard Arkwright (1732-1792)
Arkwright was as skullduggerous, money-hungry, thieving bastard as has existed in England, who Jay-Z would no doubt admire greatly. During the Industrial Revolution, he infamously nicked the idea for the spinning frame, patented it, got rich, consigning the actual inventor, Thomas Highs, to the margins of history. This is similar to Jay-Z’s appropriation of Ice-T’s 99 Problems, and nicking part of Nas’s The World is Yours on Dead Presidents, which began their little argument.
Lesson for Jay: Nick other people’s ideas.

Joe Kennedy: The US ambassador was orignally a bootlegger

Joe Kennedy Snr. (1888-1969)
JFK’s dad made his fortune selling bootleg liquor during the Prohibition era, before going legit. This echoes Jay’s youthful business enterprises. Joe also married Rose Fitzgerald, a beautiful woman who was from a powerful political family in Boston. They went on to form the greatest political dynasty in US history, which bears a striking similarity to Jay’s highly strategic marriage to Beyonce. The happy couple have no doubt already plotted a great future for their offspring.
Lesson for Jay: Stack your riches, then go straight. Marry into power.

Beyonce and Jay-Z: in love with the Kennedy-esque idea of the career enhancing marriage

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
The original Executive Producer. Did Shakespeare write all of Shakespeare’s plays? Of course not. Jay has learnt from the Shakespearean business model and is unconcerned about actually writing his own songs. As Ol’ Bill would no doubt tell Jigga, as long as most people think you wrote something, that’s all that matters. Legacy secured.
Lesson for Jay: Claim credit for everything.

Shakespeare: the original Executive Producer
A dragon who nicked everyone’s money then sat on it.
Lesson for Jay: Nick everyone’s money, then sit on it.
Smaug: a massive influence on Jay-Z

Scousers: the greatest people in the world, ever

A lorra lorra talent: Liverpool's very own Cilla Black

I recently went on a day trip to Liverpool, in order to go to the Tate. Following directions from the station, I ended up at dockside, where I was welcomed by a biting wind, mist and a deepset drizzle.

I couldn’t see the Tate. In fact I couldn’t see much of anything, but did manage to pick out a large, modern building off in the distance. Thinking this a likely candidate, I set off towards it.

Up close, the building was impressive. A massive, modern stone and glass affair with cantilevered wings which looked very sci-fi, in a civic building kind of way. However, it wasn’t the Tate. It was the Museum of Liverpool.

The inside was even more remarkable. The entry hall was jawdropping, with a huge, circular staircase winding up to the top of the building.

I was initially disappointed with the displays. I thought them simplistic, telling sugar-coated stories of the city’s past which could only be enjoyed by backward eight-year-olds and geriatrics. But then, on reflection, I realised the Museum of Liverpool told a valuable truth: the museum presents a picture of how Liverpool would like itself to be viewed.

Sadly, not everyone will be able to visit the museum and gain these insights, so I have taken the trouble to provide you with a handy summary.

The Museum of Liverpool’s History of Liverpool
As recorded by Richard Purnell

Liverpool is the best place ever, and always has been. Its people, fondly known as Scousers, are unrivalled across land and sea for their wit, pluck, friendliness, and ability to say ‘like’ at the end of sentences in a way that sounds as if they are coughing up phlegm.

Everything that comes out of Liverpool is brilliant, and better than anything Manchester has done. Liverpool started music, with the discovery of the Merseybeat sound in the 1960s. Out of this came the three best bands in the world, ever: the Beatles, Gerry & the Pacemakers, and Cilla Black.

Football was invented in Liverpool, as a pastime for dockers relaxing after a hard day’s strike. Liverpool and Everton football clubs have always shared the league championship between themselves, with homegrown players such as Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen and John Barnes proving that Scousers are easily the best footballers.

However, with the advent of the Premier League in 1992, Liverpool and Everton magnanimously decided they would not compete for the title for 20 years. This was done in order to give other clubs the chance to catch up. It is expected they will resume their domination of the league soon.

Homegrown talent: Barnes and Beardsley

Liverpool invented humour, famously known as Scouse wit. Scousers, needless to say, are the funniest people on earth – you just can’t put one over those plucky Liverpudlians! The funniest comedian ever is Ken Dodd, closely followed by Jimmy Tarbuck. This grand tradition has been carried on by John Bishop, with his oh-so canny observations on British life (and unnervingly large white teeth). Some people say that Tarby, Doddy and Bishopy are not funny. There is a name for those joyless people. They are called Mancunians.

Digested guide

Liverpool = good. Manchester = bad. London = who cares?

Ps: For an adult version of Liverpool’s history go to the Maritime Museum of Liverpool and International Museum of Slavery on Albert Dock. Both are fantastic.

As funny as he is good looking: Ken Dodd

Why Movember epitomises everything wrong with our once-great nation

Here is Lemmy's considered opinion of Movember

This year, the strange and disturbing event called Movember has gone up a gear. Like winter flu, it appears to be becoming more prevalent.

Friends, colleagues and Twitterers have invited me to join in the Movember ‘fun’.

To each and every one my stance has been firm. Unwavering. I am not going to ‘do’ Movember. Not this year, not ever.

The whole idea is preposterous, and an insult to the noble tradition of moustache-growing in this country. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Movember strikes at the heart of everything that is wrong with this country – what the Sun rightly calls Broken Britain.

The problem stems from the fact that those ill-advised people who participate in Movember grow their moustaches for one month only. Thirty days. And then shave it off.

This is half-hearted. No decent moustache has ever been grown in thirty days. You would not find a Lemmy, a Merv Hughes or an Oliver Reed countenancing doing Movember. It is shilly-shallying. Unmanly.

Fortunately Oliver Reed did not live to witness the rise of Movember

I first became aware of Movember when I worked at the Science Museum a few years back. There was a cheerful fellow called Ben Jackson who was getting involved.

He proudly grew the thing, and towards the end of the month had something which was showing promise. Given time, Ben’s moustache had a good chance of becoming luxurious and sweeping.

But despite this sapling promise, he remained set upon shaving the thing off. I could not bear the thought of it. To shave now was akin to drowning a newborn kitten in the bathwater.

I spoke to Ben, man to man. He revealed that he did not want to shave off his moustache. He liked the look of it. It gave him something to stroke without putting his hands down his trousers. But his girlfriend was opposed and had told him that as soon as the month was done to get rid.

So moved was I by this tale of woe I transformed from a semi-comatose Outlook monkey to a Man of Action. That very day, the 29th of November, I asked everyone at work to donate to save Ben’s moustache. Many people were of a like mind and in the notoriously parsimonious corridors of the Science Museum donations of above £75 were received.

At the end of the day, in a small presentation in front of colleagues, I handed over the money.

Ben was overwhelmed. He said he would continue to grow the thing for another month at least. There were hugs, there were kisses. It was emotional.

However, his girlfriend remained an implacable foe – a sort of Skeletor to his He-Man. Every night she was on at him to shave it off.

Don’t rise to the bait, I counselled.

Another week went past and Ben’s upper lip took on new heights of magnificence. If Lord Kitchener had seen him at that point he would have made him an officer on the spot.

A few days later I saw him in the staff kitchen, looking ashen. ‘She says it’s got to go by Christmas,’ he said.
‘She can’t mean that.’
‘She does,’ he quavered. ‘She does mean it. If I don’t have the thing off by Christmas…well.’
‘It is the moustache or her?’
He nodded.
‘Well, Ben,’ I said, realising we had reached the endgame. ‘Only you can decide.’

The next day I went into Ben’s office. It was a painful sight. Where once had been a magnificent hunter-gatherer type now sat a pale, pitiful wretch.  The moustache had gone and with it his manly self-esteem.

This sad tale reveals what Movember can do to a man. It shows that we live in an age when the ironic pose is prized more than sustained commitment.

Movember is emblematic of how far we have fallen as a nation since the great days of Empire. If we are ever to recover our battered national pride and recapture the glory days of the past, Movember must go.

"Grow a moustache in thirty days? Whoever said such a thing deserves to be shot!"

Wyclef, Beto and the crazy world of Zumba

“What’s Zumba?” I asked.
“Don’t you know what Zumba is?” said one of the PR girls.
“I haven’t even heard of it.”
“Richard, where have you been? Zumba’s massive.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s sort of like Legs, Bums and Tums, with more dancing.”

This is just the sort of maddening conversation which I have all too regularly at my job at Breakthrough Breast Cancer. I am the only man in a team of women, and they tend to think that I am slow-witted, or acting slow-witted, or just being irritating.

On my part, I think that they speak in an unfathomable female patois which doesn’t give me the slightest chance of understanding anything.

Normally I would have let the thing pass, but my interest was piqued by the upcoming Zumbathon at Alexandra Palace, London, due to it featuring a performance by Wyclef Jean.

Wyclef is a hero of mine. In the pantheon of great, shamelessly commercial rappers I put him right at the top of the tree.

I love him for lots of reasons. I love that he first came to the public’s attention on the Fugees’ Killing Me Softly video where his main role was saying ‘ONE TIME!’ while filling his face with popcorn.

Then, when Lauryn Hill went off to make one of the greatest albums of all time, in response, Wyclef did a duet with The Rock on the equally timeless It Doesn’t Matter.

I also loved his claim that Brian Harvey of East 17 was the UK’s greatest living singer, a statement as bizarre as Pele’s quote at the 2002 World Cup that Nicky Butt was the future of football.

So, with the faintest sniff of a meeting with the great man I declared I would volunteer at the event, taking photos and video with my comrade, Chris Joseph.

Chaps: Want to wear a pink sash to work? Join Breakthrough Breast Cancer

Arriving at Alexandra Palace, it was clear this was a massive event. It was a 3,500 sell-out and many of the women were wearing official Zumba merchandise. They looked a bit like football fans, except with more tassles.

To my surprise all the talk in the entrance hall was not of Wyclef, but Beto. He is the man who invented Zumba and, according to a Zumba official, “Women go crazy, start crying when they see Beto. He does so much for them. Beto changes lives.”

This now seemed less like a cuddly charity event, and more like a personality cult, with Wyclef as court jester.

We went down to the VIP area, where there was a strong early 2000s vibe with Gail Porter, Rachel Stevens and Charlie Brooks in attendance. The only person you could say was ‘of the moment’ was The Only Way Is Essex breakout star Amy Childs.

The best of friends: Wyclef and Beto

Then the A-listers arrived. Wyclef, in a fabulous red leather jacket with hat to match, and Beto, who looked like a slightly less camp Ricki Martin. They posed for photographers, going through the cheesy photo repertoire, including the ‘Wow! That was the funniest thing ever!’ pose, the ‘THAT guy!’, and, of course the ‘Back-to-back.’ Wyclef even treated us to the coquettish ‘one-arm-of-sunglasses-in-mouth’ pose. It was a masterclass.

Beto posed with Amy Childs, where their mutual respect of each other’s chests was for all to see, and meanwhile Wyclef was DOING INTERVIEWS. I put a bid in to the Zumba apparatchik for a minute of the his time for the charity, to which they agreed.

Simply the chest: Amy Childs and Beto

He spoke with Press Association and a woman who looked like she’d just stepped out of a David Guetta video. Then I was introduced to Wyclef and he was saying, ‘it’s a pleasure to meet you,’ with manners which would have pleased the Victorians.

We got him mic’d up and he reeled off an eloquent justification of why Wyclef and Zumba and breast cancer charity work made total sense (naturally referring to himself in the third person). I spent my time with him sycophantly nodding and smiling, while idly wondering how much he was earning from this unlikely partnership.

There was a million questions I wanted to ask him, not least the Brian Harvey matter, but suffering a dose of cowardice I satisfied myself with a handshake and a photo, before he sauntered off to the next interview.

We then got into the main hall, when proceedings were just getting under way. Beto arrived on stage in a cloud of dry ice, Latin dance music pumping, big grin on his face, with a troop of incredibly beautiful Latin American dancers. The party had started.

Zumba, I now saw, is a mixture of fitness class, dancing, Latin music and a very American, cuddly form of commerce. But mostly Zumba is a craze, like the Charleston, the hula hoop and rollerblading.

I know it is a craze because there were 3,500 women dancing loco. Which, as my close personal friend Wyclef would tell you, doesn’t make them hoes, no.


Ooh la-la-la! Purnell meets Wyclef


Riot roots and riot branches


I was slouched outside Hastings Magistrates’ Court, reporter’s notebook in hand, when I saw a kid I knew. He was a foster child who lived with the family of one of my friends. He was 16, but looked younger. Last time I’d seen him we’d been fooling about at a party, enjoying the traditional manly pleasures of the belly-slap and rough-and-tumble.

‘Hello, Rich!’ he said brightly.
‘Alright, mate!’ I rejoined.
‘What you here for?’
‘Reporting. Nothing special. You?’
‘I smashed this bloke’s window.’
‘Why did you do that?’
‘I was walking past and he was looking at my girlfriend. So I smashed his window.’
He showed me the cuts he had on his wrist from the incident.
‘Oh, mate,’ I said with a sigh. ‘You shouldn’t’ve done that. You know that, don’t you?’
‘I know, Rich. But I just don’t give a fuck.’


I’m on a team away day at Recipease, Jamie Oliver’s horribly punning shop/eatery/cookery establishment in Clapham Junction. We are there to be taught how to make spinach and ricotta tortellini by a Jamie-approved cheeky-chappy Irishman. He suggests that before we start cooking, we have a look at some of the great food and cookery items on sale, some at a discount.

Wine is brought and we sit and have a glass at rustic tables, where Jamie’s books are casually placed.

‘This is nice,’ says someone.
‘This is nice,’ says another.
‘This is nice,’ says a manager.
‘This is revolting,’ I think.

I wander around this suffocatingly-branded heaven and stroll to the front of the shop, where I look out and see a Starbucks and a Waitrose. A familiar feeling of hate and self-loathing rises up inside.

Did Jamie Oliver's Recipease eatery inspire the disenfranchised youth of Clapham Junction to riot?


Hastings Magistrates’ Court. I’ve been in a session, hearing a 14-year-old boy get sentenced after breaking the terms of his Asbo. He’d stolen a car, gone for a ride and crashed into a wall, seriously injuring himself and two of his mates.

In normal youth court you are not allowed to name the youth involved in order to protect the child’s identity. But for Asbos, publicity is part of the deal, even for kids. Name and shame. Teach them a lesson. A nice front page lead for Purnell.

I strolled out of the court, and get stopped by a small kid with a lot of gel in his manky hair.

‘Were you in court?’
‘What did Jake get?’
’22 weeks.’
’22 weeks.’ he paused for thought. ‘What’s that? Five months. He’ll do half, be out in two-and-a-half. Not bad.’
We shake hands and he gets on his mobile to excitably tell his mates the verdict.


I’m at a friend’s party in Battersea. We used to be reporters together in Hastings. Now we are in London and it feels good to have that connection with my recent past.

However, we are on slightly different social strata. I went to comprehensive school; she went to public school. I went to Leicester University; she went to Bristol. I’m living with a journalist who works at the Daily Express; she’s living with a journalist who works at the Daily Telegraph.

As soon as I arrive the necessary and sufficient questions are asked by smirking, chino-wearing men.

‘Where do you work?’
‘What university did you go to?’

They know, instinctively, that I did not go to Oxford or Cambridge or Bristol. They know I am not earning as much as them. Still, they like to have the point underlined, just to be sure, just for fun.

Once they’ve established I am not worth talking to, they ignore me. I’m left on my own, telling myself not to do something bad, so I don’t embarrass my friend. I drink punch and pretend to be interested in the DVD collection, wondering when it would be polite to leave.

Eventually another girl from Hastings arrives. We spend the rest of the evening on our own, out on the balcony, happy in our lower-middle-class ghetto.


Monday 8 August 2011. I am walking through Brixton. Police are everywhere. The town centre is blocked, the tube station closed, so I get on a bus. When I see the devastation, I think: good.

A suit on my bus, shocked to the core, takes a picture of a smashed-up bus stop on his iPhone. I think: prick.

Tuesday night, 8pm. I catch a bus from Brixton. Everything is shut, even the fried chicken shops. On the bus I see men outside blocks of flats, having a beer, having a smoke, making sure.

Wednesday. Laura from the Ritzy emails, saying they are back open and can I host the open mic tonight? I tell her it is folly – none of my nice audience will show up so soon after the riots.
‘Let’s do it anyway,’ she says.

I get down there after work, heavy of heart, angry at everything and nothing. I stick Dexy’s Midnight Runners on. If it’s the early ’80s all over again, may as well do the job properly.

Laura greets me on arrival, says two Brazilian dancing girls have been in touch. Is it okay if they perform?

Well…all right.

A soul singer arrives and we get chatting about the early years of Mariah Carey, a subject on which I speak very impressively. A couple of kooks arrive to play blues, a shabby spoken word artist arrives, a comedian, an Asian singer whose been before.

We get going. I do a poem about Hastings, about those early days when I was happy getting paid £10,000 a year to report on the lower echelons of our finely stratified society. People are listening, small smiles of recognition on some of the faces.

Our soul singer opens. Turns out she’s good, really good. Everyone is performing well, everyone is happy, and those layers of hate and loathing start to peel off of me.

We take a break and I clear the stage for the dancing girls. I get everyone – even those cool people in fine clothes looking thoughtful over laptops – upstairs to watch.

Then, when the place is full, and buzzing, I get the soca rhythms on, make the introductions and the dancing girls, wearing full carnival costume, by which I mean virtually nothing except a lot of make-up and enormous, brilliant head-dresses, and the clapping and dancing begins as they shake and dance with visceral energy, shaking and bouncing, head-dresses brushing the ceiling, men drinking beers quickly to hide their feelings, and it is a party, a party, reminiscent of Rio, reminiscent of Brixton on any particular evening. Seventy-two hours after the riots, everything is forgotten.

We’ve all been screwed

Yeah, great news today. Really great news. Amazing news.

The UK’s biggest-selling newspaper has been shut down. 200 journalists are out of work. A dying industry is shoved nearer to the grave.

So, great news.

You know things are going badly wrong when Max Mosley is all over the TV, crowing. And Hugh Grant. Even Ed Milliband had the confidence to come out and say something vaguely approaching an opinion. (He thinks someone did something wrong. Possibly.)

The News of the World did some bad stuff. Okay. If Andy Coulson needs to get dragged through the streets of London tied to the back of Hackney cab, then hung, drawn and quartered, his head put on spike as a warning to hacks, I’m cool with that.

But the killing off of a newspaper, a don’t give a fuck, punk rock, let’s have a go at the bastards newspaper that skewered the reputations of, off the top of my head, Max Mosley, Boris Johnson, John Higgins, Fergie, Sven, Pakistan cricket and Paul Burrell. I am not cool with that.

The Screws brought you this stuff, with gusto, on a Sunday, when you’ve got a hangover and are loading up on carbs and fats at the breakfast table.

All the folk reading the broadsheets got the story a day later, rehashed from the original with a few literary allusions thrown in to shine the shit their readers could not bear to read from the original source.

What the Screws delivered was what the British public, minus the hacking into dead children’s phones, wants. And how do I know? Because over one in ten people in this country read the thing. How many read the Observer? No one, apart from a few in Stoke Newington, and some old lefties in nursing homes.

I can’t help feeling all of those who are really happy about the demise of the News of the World fit into one of three categories:

1. Those who have genuinely suffered at the hands of the Coulson / Wade axis.
2. Those who still hold a grudge against Murdoch for what happened with the printers’ unions back in the 1980s.
3. Ignoramuses who understand nothing about the value of a free Press pursuing a story in the public interest (or just because it is a bloody good story).

I don’t think Nick Davies, the fabulous journalist who has pursued this story for years in the Guardian, can be happy about the Screws being closed down. He wants good journalism, campaigning journalism. Coulson’s head on a stick, for sure.

But if genuinely terrible people like Max Mosley and Hugh Grant get their way, this could lead to a shackled Press, fearful of pursuing stories because of the possible comeback. That no journalist would want.

I used to be a journalist, on a local paper. I’ve found that anyone who has been a journo for any length of time is essentially of the same breed. Nosey, gossipy, sweary, interested in asking questions for the sake of it, interested in stories for the love of it. Totally unable to work unless there is a looming deadline, a malevolent editor hoving into view.

I always knew, as a reporter, that people did not trust you. They thought you cynical and dirty. Then, much more often than not, told you everything you needed to write a good page lead. And loved that little bit of publicity for themselves.

The first principle of journalism is that bad news is good news. If there is a murder, let it be a crazed swordsman slaying a blonde virgin. If there is a road crash, let it be at high-speed with students, gifted and talented students, out of their minds on meth. If there is a scandal, the more intricate, the more high profile, the more you are able to milk it, the better.

The bitter irony for all journalists, and anyone interested in a free Press, is that the closing of the News of the World is a really, really good story. Perhaps the best story we will have for a long, long time.

Sneering and sanctimonious: Purnell in Ireland

“Hello, my name’s Paddy,” said the Irish B&B owner.
“Of course it is,” says I.
“You’ll have to speak up. I’m as deaf as a post.”
“I said, ‘my name’s Richard.'”

Yes, I find myself in Ireland, the former English colony where Cromwell set about the locals with unparalleled gusto. And perhaps it is that historical echo which brings out my sanctimonious sense of superiority over the Irish. Or perhaps I’m just a twat. Hard to tell.

I came here through the sort of negative decision making which typifies my approach to holidaymaking. I wanted to go to Scotland but discovered a train to Fort William was £140. I then noticed a flight to Cork was £35, so went to Ireland instead.

People always say that Ireland is a very welcoming country. That is true. And I suppose if you’ve had as much money off the EU and IMF as Ireland has over the years, you’d be welcoming too.

Signs of the subsidy and loans goldrush, now dried up, are everywhere to be seen. The airport is a swanky glass and steel affair, opened four years ago. The city’s municipal buildings are the same way. New and shiny. Bought, but not paid for.

Bought but not paid for: Cork's magnificent airport

It was no surprise, therefore, that the main news story here is that the Irish government is trying to wriggle out of paying back the £3.5 billion loan from the IMF. Now is probably a good time to ask. With Greece rapidly descending into anarchy, the IMF may think it wise to burn the Irish debt to stop it going the same way.


I am magnificently unprepared for life in Ireland. I have arrived with no jacket, and no brolly either. And Cork, as most people know, has but two types of weather: drizzle, and heavy rain.

So, with nothing more than a purple v-neck sweater on my back (H&M, £19.99) I find myself wandering the streets, diving under awnings when the rain gets fierce. It was through this method that I entered, dripping wet, the local art gallery.

The Crawford Art Gallery has the standard, winning combination of abstract paintings, religious art and pictures of rich locals from the 18th century. Beyond all this, on the second floor, you find that scourge of galleries everywhere: the video art installation. (I don’t know who decided galleries must display this crap, but could they please reverse the edict?)

This particular video was by Grace Weir, a sort of one-woman argument against state subsidy of the arts. By unhappy coincidence, I had seen this film, In My Own Time, at the Science Museum when I worked there a few years ago. Grace Weir is Irish so I suppose it is only right that her countrymen should suffer her videos, too.

In My Own Time is one of those works which should only be viewed if it is pissing down outside, and there is nothing else to do. On that basis, I ambled in.

I remembered two things about this film:
1. It is impossible to sit through.
2. It is impossible to sit through because it has a cow-milking scene in it.

This cow-milking scene isn’t, of itself, offensive. I like a drop of milk and so it would be folly to object to seeing the process in action. But in this film it comes after 15 minutes of Grace and her black rollneck-wearing accomplice dicking about with mirrors while she prattles on about time, thoughts lifted, no doubt, from back issues of the New Scientist (that’s how she wangled the Science Museum commission).

With that dreadful prelude, when the cow-milking scene arrives, even the most hardened gallery-goer begins to suspect he or she is the victim of a practical joke. Disgusted, the viewer cuts their losses and clears out of the gallery, vowing never to watch video art again.

Which is exactly what the other person in the gallery did. I, however, through a combination of masochism and lack of brolly, stayed until the bitter end. I would have become the only person to have watched the film in full, apart from the fact that I’d arrived a shade late and missed the first few minutes.

When the film was over it was drizzling lightly, and I went for a Guinness. While supping the black stuff, I came up with this rather context-specific joke:

Q: Is Guinness good for you?
A: No, of course it’s not. Like all booze, it can give you all sorts of nasty killer diseases, but in comparison to Grace Weir’s art it is the elixir of life itself.

Guinness: good for you if you want an early grave

Imogen Thomas: Defoe and Messi to the rescue!

As the world celebrates the stupendous footballing skills of one short man, Lionel Messi (5ft 7ins), we should also rejoice at the tireless off-field work of another pint-sized footballer.

I am referring to the great Jermain Defoe (5ft 7ins), of Tottenham and England, who, as revealed in today’s News of the World, has not taken the conclusion of the Premier League season as cue to put his feet up.

Showing a Victorian morality and work ethic, Defoe has moved from his day job as goalscorer to concentrate on philanthropy in the summer months. The chief beneficiary of this big-hearted generosity is former Big Brother starlet and model Imogen Thomas.

Following her romance with hated Manchester United star Ryan Giggs, she naturally thought the right course of action was to tell all in a tabloid newspaper. Giggs, who has carefully crafted a family man image despite his rampant sexual antics outside of his marriage, callously demanded a superinjunction to deny Imogen her basic human rights: a well remunerated kiss ‘n’ tell.

How on earth did she cope?

It is revealed that her ‘rock’ throughout this trauma was our hero, Jermain Defoe. Showing class which Giggs could never possess, he sent her supportive texts, provided a shoulder to cry on and offered the occasional tryst. (They have form: he shagged her for a few weeks during his annus mirabilis, 2009, when he returned to Tottenham from Porstsmouth, scoring lots of goals and working his way through just about every fame-hungry bird in old London town.)

Gallant, noble and chivalrous: Jermain Defoe gives Imogen Thomas the oxygen of publicity

Despite splitting up from her because she asked him to pay for a new boob job, Defoe has gallantly rekindled their romance to help her remain in the public eye following the Giggs affair. She knows she can trust him completely. There is no way that he would ever dream of taking out a superinjunction against any woman whom he had loved, for one night or several. He knows that kiss ‘n’ tells can only burnish his image as a modern-day Casanova. He understands implicitly the need for a certain kind of woman to tell all, with help from Max Clifford.

I have long noted that Defoe is at his best shooting form on the football field when he is scoring prolifically off it. He did suffer something of a difficult season, scoring only nine goals. I feel confident that his liaison with Imogen can help him get back to his best.

It does seem as if the football season has concluded in exactly the right way. Lionel Messi has won the Champions’ League, once again underlining the pre-eminence of the short man in football. No doubt aware of the Imogen Thomas scandal, Messi made sure Ryan Giggs was utterly humiliated. Giggs can now spend the summer in his high-security Welsh fortress, with his wife and kids, reflecting on his many and various crimes.

Jermain Defoe and Imogen Thomas are no doubt already planning a long break on Caribbean beaches, with the paparazzi in tow, as they and the tabloid newspapers assert their right to titillate the public as we wait for the 2011/12 season to begin.

That's for Imogen! Messi humiliates Giggs

Is Lil Wayne any good at rap? Erm…

As a hip-hop fan raised on Public Enemy, Cypress Hill and the Wu-tang Clan, I tend to take the view that rap music isn’t what it used to be.

My last significant foray was Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album, which is less a rap album and more the sound of Kanye’s ego expanding to swallow up the known universe.

On the UK side of things, I am aware of Plan B, who is a tedious curmudgeon; Giggs, who thinks anything less than sullen aggression might compromise his heterosexuality; and Klashnekoff, who tries to sound preachy, and intelligent, and fails at both.

I’ll say this up front. I like commercial rap music. I like rappers who are boastful, arrogant and never let the truth get in the way of a good story. And not afraid to write a stupid lyric. Nelly’s first album has brought me more delight than all of the conscious rappers put together. His chorus to ‘Ride Wit Me’ never fails to make me smile:

Oh why do I live this way?
Hey, it must be the money

Nelly keeps his name round his neck, in case he forgets

Conversely, when Jurassic 5 came up with their pantwetting line, ‘I’m not trying to say my style’s better than yours’ my thought was, well if that’s your attitude why don’t you fuck off and play folk music instead?

So that’s where I’m coming from.

My investigations into modern rap began with Drake. I’d heard word he was the coming man. I YouTubed him and it just seemed like pop to me. A rapper with all the edges smoothed off. Boring.

I next looked at Kid Cudi, who has got an absolutely awesome freestyle he does on Westwood’s show. It was cool, but rather too intelligent for my liking.

YouTube then pointed me towards a freestyle Lil Wayne had done, also on Westwood. He prefaces his performance by saying ‘I can’t rap’ and proceeds to fully justify that claim. It was so incompetent I decided Lil Wayne was definitely worthy of further investigation. I’m also predisposed to rappers with ‘Lil’ in their name, as I’m rather lil myself.

Lil Wayne pretending to think

I’d usually go for the first album, but it appeared that Lil Wayne was almost totally inept on his debut. Wikipedia suggested his fourth album, 2004’s Tha Carter,‘marked what critics considered an advancement in his lyrical themes.’ With tracks such as ‘Hoes’, ‘Snitch’ and ‘I Miss My Dawgs’ one wonders what his less mature lyrics were about. Cheerios, perhaps.

Excited, I downloaded the album. It didn’t disappoint.

On the track ‘This is the Carter’ he opens with perhaps the best boast I have ever heard when he declares, ‘I’m finally perfect.’

‘Hoes’ has a lovely nursery rhyme chorus:

‘Hoes, let’s just talk about hoes
Can’t we talk about ho-o-oes?’
Ho-oes, motherfucker’

There’s a rehash of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, called ‘Shine’, which he converts into a boast about one night stands. I imagine if Common heard it he’d have his head in hands, despairing about a new low for rap music. And then wank off to Gil Scott Heron.

But my personal highlight is ‘We Don’t’, on which he sounds like a skateboarder desperately trying to stay upright, and succeeding, but not quite knowing how.

In it he audaciously rhymes ‘feel me’ with ‘dealy’, creating a word to make the rhyme. Later he rhymes ‘Missi’ (as in the river) with ‘Swimmi’ (as in swimming). This, you have to admit, is technically rubbish, and would probably upset the GZA no end, but with his winsome southern drawl, he has enough gusto to pull it off.

When I mention my new rap love people uniformly respond that I don’t look like a Lil Wayne fan. I think that’s part of the appeal. There’s something good about standing on a packed bus, in my suit, reading the Guardian, while listening to a chap rapping about snitches, bitches and, indeed, riches.

He might be stupid, commercial and not that good at rapping. But, dammit, I HEART Lil Wayne.

Why a Kindle is not for me


I was recently in the British Heart Foundation shop in Brixton with my friends Shonagh and Alex. They were buying a sofa bed, and were spending an age getting it measured, looking at the price, wondering whether it was too much, and generally procrastinating in fine Sunday shopping style.

After a while I became tired of this charming scene, and wandered off to the records and the books. Flicking through the vinyl, I picked up some absolute crackers: a 12-inch single of ‘Let the Music Play’ by Shannon, and a Boney M album.

Holding an armful of vinyl,  I ambled over to the bookshelves and saw a nice volume, entitled Modern Short Stories, on Faber. This had a few old favourites in it: Dylan Thomas, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other worthies whom I’d never read. It was a pound, so I bought it before rejoining my friends at the sofa bed.

When I got home, I read the F Scott Fitzgerald like a greedy child eats ice cream. Having sated my Fitzgerald craving, I settled into a more relaxed perusal of the contents. On the inside cover I noticed a name and year written: Gordon Smith, 1987-88. There was also a stuck down sheet, torn so it only said, ‘The Edinburgh…’ So, this was a school book. Perhaps something to be read at ‘O’ level, as it would have been then.

Flicking through, on p41 young Gordon had written ‘I want to die!’ My heart went out to him, all teenage and Scottish back in the late ‘80s. What could have caused him to despair so?
It may have had something to do with the story on which this plaintive statement was written: ‘My First Ball’ by Katherine Mansfield. It appeared that Mansfield’s prose style was not appealing to Gordon. I imagined him there, sitting at his desk in an austere Edinburgh classroom. All he wanted to do was get out and listen to the Proclaimers on his Walkman, but instead he was forced to read about some girl going to her first ball.

I turned the page and found that Gordon’s spirits had returned somewhat. He had defiantly drawn a dick and balls. This took me back to my own school days. I remembered a period of about a year, at the age of twelve or thirteen, when the first pubes are growing (or perhaps not quite) and all a boy can draw is the dick and balls. However, Gordon had gone further. No doubt feeling insulted to have been made to read Katherine Mansfield’s girly nonsense, he drew a shower of piss coming out of the dick.

Yes, that’s right, Katherine Mansfield! Gordon Smith is pissing on your prose. Pissing all over your silly story. Gordon Smith doesn’t care about Leila or her first ball! Doesn’t give a damn about it! He’s got a great shower of urine cascading over your turn-of-the-century vignette!

A fine example of the 'dick and balls' school of art

On the following page (I had almost totally lost interest in the actual story by that stage) Gordon returned to his artistic theme. But this time he had drawn just a dick, arising mischievously from the bottom of the page. He’d arguably done a better job here, with detail to suggest the foreskin, and a more mature shower of piss.

Gordon made no further artistic additions to Modern Short Stories, clearly feeling his work had been done. He had survived the Mansfield ordeal, and was possibly stronger for the experience.

What path that book took from the Edinburgh classroom to the Brixton charity shop we will never know.  What I do know is that I felt a gentle thrill from having held the book that provoked such despair and defiance from a Scottish schoolboy.

It also made me realise why I will never get a Kindle. Books are more than words on a page. They are things to be loved and hated and, if necessary, drawn upon. This was an experience I could never have had with a Kindle. Books develop a character over the years whereas a digital file will always remain useful, convenient, but ultimately impersonal.

Thank you to Gordon Smith, and indeed Katherine Mansfield, for reminding me that books, quaint though they might be, remain things to be treasured.

Showing greater artistic maturity: G. Smith's 'dick with piss'