All good Beatles

All good Beatles go to heaven
I don’t think so
I don’t think so

You think God’s gonna put up with all that hippy dippy shit?
He’s got Biggie and Tupac loungin’ in his crib

He’s got Jimi Hendrix blazing his guitar
And up in heaven Lou Reed’s top of the charts
I think so
Yes, I think so

I’m telling you George
I’m telling you John Lennon
Can very well imagine
That there is no heaven
Cos they’re burning
Yes, they’re burning

You think God’s gonna put up with Love Me Do
He’s got Janis and Amy singing the blues
And Ol’ Dirty

And you know that God don’t wanna be mean
But Ringo you know where you’re going with your Yellow Submarine

And as for Paul
Well, Paul, you’re an intelligent man
Or maybe not
In which case, repeat after me

All good Beatles go to heaven
I don’t think so
I don’t think so

John and George, just out of shot
John and George, just out of shot


God approved rappers: Biggie and Tupac
God approved rappers: Biggie and Tupac
Imagine there's no heaven: John Lennon
Imagine there’s no heaven: John Lennon


Hovis Wholemeal Granary. A poetic assessment

A poem of mine about a particularly weighty issue… Hovis Wholemeal Granary bread


Hovis went in.
Rightly chastised that their Best of Both wasn’t anything of the sort
they have come back.

Hovis Wholemeal Granary is so heavy
your bowels start preparing a rock solid shit while you’re still buttering.
They should have just called it Pandemic, and had done with it.

This bread is some archaic, backdated, prison tattoo on the face-type shit
with no rightful place in this wifi coffee shop world in which we live.
This is bread to threaten your kid with
bread targeted at men who lift Atlas stones and pull locomotives

This bread is the opposite of Drake
equivalent to your Bavarian grandmother’s Christmas cake
whatever density this bread is,
it’s the only loaf you could tie to a dead body and send to the bottom of a lake

This bread is like looking at monumental brutalist architecture and saying you don’t like it.
Think it…

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Morrissey autobiography: that joke is, now, actually rather funny

I can smile about it now...
I can smile about it now…

Miles Davis is at a dinner hosted by US President Ronald Reagan. He is sat next to a politician’s wife, who says to him:

“What have you done that is so important in your life? Why are you here?”

Miles, in his Autobiography, says:

Now, I just hate shit like this coming from someone who is ignorant but who wants to be hip and has forced you into a situation where you’re talking to them in this manner. She brought this on herself. So then I said, “Well I’ve changed music five or six times, so I guess that’s what I’ve done…Now, tell me what you have done of any importance other than be white, and that ain’t important to me, so tell me what your claim to fame is?”

You have to feel sorry for the poor woman. Invited to a presidential dinner, and forced to sit next to Miles Davis, a man who is not only a jazz musician, but who also believes that jazz music is important and his place within music of great importance. No doubt she went home and spoke with her politician husband and tut-tutted and used the word ‘uppity’ and perhaps some other less delicate words to describe the hurt that she felt at having to share a dinner table with such a hubristic and obnoxious man.

It is a similar hurt that many people, many esteemed people within the world of literature are feeling today with the publication of Morrissey’s Autobiography on the Penguin Classics imprint. This, let us not forget, is the hallowed place where all of the greatest works of literature are published: Homer, Shakespeare, Balzac and Wilde among them.
These writers are all happily dead, and have been, whilst they rest in peace, adjudged and analysed and welcomed into the canon.

And now, a songwriter, who is merely the greatest pop lyricist this country has produced, has the temerity to demand, yes demand, that his autobiography should be published, without anyone from the wider literary establishment reading it, within the realm of Penguin Classics.

Well, isn’t that just like sitting at a presidential dinner and having Miles Davis insult you to your face?

“This isn’t about the redefinition of ‘classic’, but abject surrender. Penguin has with breath-stopping cynicism flogged its crown jewel – a precious place on the roster of the world’s most enduring literary works – to the moody maverick.”

The sound Boyd Tonkin, Literary Editor of the Independent, choking on his soup.

“To package as a classic a book that no one except Morrissey and a handful of fawning acolytes has read is to instantly reduce the worth of all classics”

said someone on the Telegraph who may as well, except to his mother, remain nameless.

Morrissey, just like Miles Davis all those years ago, should have kept quiet, known his place, and slunk off to the obscurity that his songwriting within the horribly besmirched and irrelevant world of pop music deserves.

Because we should listen to the literary editors and the politician’s wives. We should listen to the voices of those who contemporaneously would have said that Shakespeare was too bawdy, Dickens too populist, Beckett too repetitive, Austen too flippant, Proust too long-winded, and that Oscar Wilde deserved his prison term.

Morrissey, like Miles Davis, is revered in many countries across the globe, including England. The English establishment, perhaps taking into account his open and gleeful hatred of the royal family, still views him with disdain.

Those hundreds of thousands of us whose lives have been enriched – some would say saved – by Morrissey’s words, feel sorry for those suffering great hurt today. However, we do this with the archness and irony learnt from our hero as he marches triumphantly into the citadel known as Literary Establishment, and takes his rightful place among the greats.

What do Ledley King, Toni Morrison and Levi Roots have in common?

Martin Luther King would be happy to be displayed alongside his namesake Ledley
Martin Luther King and Ledley King: historic equals

There is a moment, familiar to all who attend poetry open mic nights, when a poet who is of black ethnicity says, “I wrote this poem for Black History Month.”

When you hear this, three things are almost certain:

1. This will not be their best poem
2. Martin Luther King will more than likely get dragged into it
3. Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, mostly for alliterative reasons, will not be far behind.

I am not sure why this should be the case. In fact, until very recently, I didn’t even believe Black History Month was real. I had hitherto understood that what was formerly known as October was not Black History Month at all, but Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In my breast cancer campaigning days I was somewhat scornful that black historians weren’t aware of this basic factual error.

Now I am outside of the breast cancer charity arena, and more just floating around south London, it is clear that most people, particularly in the public sector in Lambeth and Southwark, are in no doubt: October is Black History Month.

A recent trip to Peckham Library manifestly demonstrated the point. There was nothing about breast cancer, but an entire display area devoted to Black History Month. As you would expect, they had works by great writers who are of black ethnicity, such as Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe, and a biography of Mary Seacole, a courageous nurse from the Crimean War.

Also on display was an autobiography by former Tottenham Hotspur defender Ledley King, and cookbooks by reggae cooking star Levi Roots. Initially, I thought that Ledley and Levi were out of place in this company. Indeed, I presumed that the inclusion of these two trivialised the idea of a month celebrating black history.

How wrong I was.

Ledley King’s autobiography revealed that, just like his namesake, he also had a dream. Ledley dreamed of becoming a professional footballer. When I had finished reading the book I couldn’t help but think that Ledley was probably more successful than Martin Luther King, because he achieved his dream whilst still a teenager.

Again, reading Levi Roots’ literary output transformed my view of him, and his place within black history. Little did I know that the history of spicy sauces was every bit as riddled with racial injustice as slavery. It was only with the production of the Reggae Reggae sauce that black people finally emerged from the oppression of spicy sauce companies such as Tabasco and Lea & Perrins.

Historic: Levi Roots coming out from under the yoke of Lea & Perrins
Historic: Levi Roots freeing the spicy sauce market from oppression

The Peckham Library display left me in no doubt that it is much better for Toni Morrison to be grouped alongside Premier League footballers of black ethnicity rather than other Nobel Prize-winning authors from different racial backgrounds.

While artists such as Kendrick Lamar are demanding that this era be known as post-racial, Black History Month allows us the anachronistic comfort of judging people first by the colour of their skin and then, a little later, by the quality of their character and achievements. Which is, I’m sure, what Martin Luther King, 50 years on from his oft-poetically butchered speech, would have wanted.

The poet wakes up and roams and comes home and writes this

The only thing you can aspire to growing up in Essex is to be the barrowboy or banker, trading, raking it in, fingerless gloves in Romford market, salmon shirts in the City, it doesn’t matter, you’ve got to be trading, raking it in, making a living, earning your keep, working and working and working away.

But what are you supposed to do if you are a dosser at heart, curtains drawn at seven a.m., George Osborne tutting on the street below, and all you are good at is words, constructing words into insubstantial sandcastles, how do you, as a poet, make a man of yourself?

You’ve got to sell your wares:

Six and ha’penny worth of sonnets, Mrs Springtime?
Do you want some limericks with that?
Will that be open or wrapped?

They say, I’m not sure who they are, but they definitely do say that the poet should not compromise his vision, and I believe that to be true but not true in my case because my vision is already compromised, it is necessarily compromised by my need to fulfil my erstwhile Essex desires. So when TFL came to me and said, Richard, we want you to do positive poems about TFL and etiquette

(Me who listens to dirty, dirty hip hop on tube trains, it’s seediness leaking into the ears of poor uncorrupted children who might otherwise be listening to pure pop sung by cynical teens with perfect hair and an eye on the till)

I said, yeah, alright.

So, I went down to Croydon, well turned out in my blue suit, and I sidled up to the old ladies – they love me, old ladies, and I love them – and delivered my lines about all the evils that other people do and the old ladies nod, and they say, you are quite right, Richard

and it proves that if you rhyme nicely and throw a few puns in along the way, people will believe what you say

and the young people who would like to think they are immune, they are also susceptible, because poetry makes people realise

it makes them realise that life is all right. You can moan and caterwaul all you like, but in our much criticised social democracy where nothing is good enough, if Transport for London have enough courage to pay a few poets some money, some honest cash money, to roam over London spreading goodness, and allow the poet, for a week only, to pretend he is a real life worker, with dignity and all the rest, then it would be churlish to argue too stridently and unrelentingly about our imperfect state of affairs.

Living life to the full: a poem

Yesterday, I was walking through the car park
on my way to Morrisons when I said to myself
“I think I’d rather go bowling instead. I’ll go bowling
and eat fries out of one of those little paper bags,
and Coke from a Coke bottle, drinking it
without the bottle touching my lips,
like in the adverts.”

I go bowling and play a two-player game against myself.
It’s an interesting battle. Player one has a lovely technique,
spinning his medium-weight ball into the pack of pins
accurately but without great force.

Player two is the fans’ favourite. A showman.
They love the way he looks up and says a not-quite-silent prayer
before heaving the ball down the lane, brutishly,
fist-pumping in his opponent’s direction.

Afterwards, I go to the Counting House for a pint
and read a story in the Mercury
about a Mr Jez Wilkinson of Kibworth Harcourt
and his prize-winning courgette.

Later, I indulge in some light graffiti,
drawing a magic mushroom smoking a spliff
on the rear wall of the pub, before
making my way to Morrisons.

I’m doing fine living on my own.
How are you?

Remembering Bernie Nolan

Promoting Breakthrough Breast Cancer ... Bernie Nolan in action
Promoting Breakthrough Breast Cancer … Bernie Nolan in action

Working in the PR team for Breakthrough Breast Cancer at many times gave me cause to ask myself: “What is happening to my life?”

Or more specifically:

“Why am I surrounded by women who are eating cake at 10 o’clock on a Monday morning?”
“Why am I able to hold a relatively competent conversation about the contents of Heat magazine?”
“Why am I escorting ex-wag Lizzie Cundy to a champagne reception?”

None of these questions has a clear answer. The only answer that stuck was that Breakthrough Breast Cancer is a woman’s world. They do things differently there.

Bernie Nolan, the singer in the Nolan Sisters who has died of breast cancer aged 52, was a big part of that world. After she was diagnosed with the disease in 2010 she became a powerful advocate for the cause.

Needless to say, I was the only person in the team who didn’t know who she was. When I found out, I was mystified as to why she could be considered a celebrity. When I hear the Nolan Sisters’ biggest hit, “I’m in the Mood for Dancing” my usual reaction is, “Well… I was.”

But then, over the course of Breast Cancer Awareness Month through October 2010 I saw her impact. How she went on Daybreak to hammer home the message about the need for women to be breast aware. Her audacity in plugging the work of our charity live on TV, even to the highly ‘proactive’ Breakthrough PR team, was a revelation. She knew what the rules of live TV were, and blithely ignored them. Because she was a Nolan. Or something.

Then, in 2011, she told ITV that she would be visiting the Breakthrough Research Centre on the Fulham Road, and they would film her. As research was my beat, it was my duty to accompany her. I was somewhat apprehensive, wondering what small talk we would have in the inevitable lag periods between filming.

I needn’t have worried. When I greeted her at the research centre she immediately put me at ease and showed a lack of ego and charm rarely present in famous people.

However, there were still troubles ahead. She was due to interview Professor Jorge Reis-Filho, a frighteningly intelligent pathologist with a love for media-friendly phrases such as ‘molecular subtypes’, ‘tumour stratification’, and many more. I, not unreasonably, thought that the contrasting worlds of daytime telly and a pathologist’s laboratory might be insurmountable.

They went in for their filmed conversation and I waited outside. And waited. And waited. They must have been talking for the better part of an hour when Bernie finally emerged from the lab. Not wanting to sound anxious, I asked her if the interview had gone well.

Bernie said: “I didn’t understand everything he said.” Which was understandable, considering there are leading cancer researchers who can’t keep up with Jorge. “But he told me things my doctor wouldn’t tell me. He told me the truth.”

I didn’t know exactly what she meant by that, and wasn’t going to pry. But I did know that Jorge, for all of his geeky verbosity, had a complete inability not to speak his mind. As did Bernie. And so, while they were talking two different languages they connected as one honest person speaking to another. He the scientist; she the patient. Gossiping over the garden fence, about cancer.

She then interviewed a woman living with secondary breast cancer, the incurable version of the disease. As a person who prefers to live only within a world of cynicism and irony, I found Bernie’s empathy during that interview to be mind-blowing.

Throughout the day, I found out a lot about Bernie. How she liked a drink. How proud she was of her daughter (very proud, if you were wondering). How she would do anything, use every ounce of her celebrity, to help our charity. It was that openness, that warmth, that irrepressible energy, which made her so likeable.

The truth is, Bernie wasn’t the most extraordinary person I have ever met. I have met many women who had great personalities, and the same determination to raise money and awareness for Breakthrough Breast Cancer as Bernie did. However, she was the only one who could ring up Lorraine Kelly and invite herself on her show. She knew that those other women would do that if they could. So she did.

When I meet up with my former colleagues tomorrow evening, I’ll be back in Breakthrough mode. Chatting about cake, Heat magazine, and Bernie. And quite possibly I will be in the mood for dancing. To Prince, Funkadelic, Nelly, Madonna, Michael Jackson… and, if I’m up to the eyeballs with tequila, even the Nolan Sisters.

Peace to Bernie.

Laura Robson: a statement to the British people :(

Happy: Laura Robson after being told Rishi Persad was waiting to interview her.
Happy: Laura Robson after being told Rishi Persad was waiting to interview her.

In the aftermath of her defeat at Wimbledon, Laura Robson dictated the following message to her legal team, to be issued immediately to the media:


1. My defeat was, more than anything else, the result of not enough people shouting out, “Come on, Laura!” during the match. I will only achieve success at Wimbledon if people, ideally from a public school background who know nothing about sport, shout out, “Come on, Laura” before I am about to serve. It gives me a real boost 🙂

2. I need more fans to wear Union Jacks. This could be in suits, hats, t-shirts or face paint, but I need to see those Union Jacks, guys. It makes me feel proud to be British, and also clearly shows to my opponent that they come from an inferior nation.

3. During my match I was hurt and saddened that Cliff Richard was watching SERENA WILLIAMS 😦 Sir Cliff, I admire your songwriting, particularly Mistletoe & Wine, but if you can’t watch my matches at Wimbledon I don’t have a chance. Not one hope. Please Cliff, help a sister out 🙂

4. The BBC, particularly Sue Barker and Rishi Persad, must help me. I need you to much more constantly talk about my age, and how young I am, and how amazing it is that I can even serve a tennis ball at all, considering how I’m just out of infants’ school. Rishi, if you do not start every question to me with reference to my extremely young age, and how it all must be terrifically exciting for me, to be out playing tennis without a chaperone, I will not have a chance in my tennis career 😦

NB: Ideally, I would like to be offered a Chupa Chup lolly when I am being interviewed, but if you don’t have a Chupa Chup, any boiled sweet will do 😉

5. The rest of the media has begun to understand that because I am a white, middle-class girl who can sometimes beat foreign girls at tennis I am a NATIONAL TREASURE. Yes, I am 🙂 Please, guys, I need more of this. I need to know that I am at least as popular as Stephen Fry. If newspaper articles don’t always always say I’m a National Treasure, I will take up bulimia and tattoos and write a book about it.

6. This is really serious. If the above points are not strictly stuck to I will never have a chance in my career – there is no way I will make it by hard work and talent alone. But I’m sure they will be because we are a great nation and good at pulling together, like we did after the Amritsar Massacre.

7. Thanks for listening, guys! Remember, I can’t do it without your support!

See you next year, Laura Robson xxx 🙂


Back in the saddle: Frank Skinner live (review)

The photographer has left a space for David Baddiel to be photoshopped in.
The photographer has left a space for David Baddiel to be photoshopped in.

I like Frank Skinner.

I like him because he reminds me of the 90s, that more innocent time when Tony Blair was popular, the use of combat trousers were being revolutionised by the All Saints and curtains were considered to be a perfectly acceptable haircut. (I should know, I had a lovely pair myself.)

Skinner’s contribution to that Age of Innocence was co-writing, with David Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds, the song Three Lions in which they propagated the fictional idea that England could win at football. No less significantly, he pioneered an entirely new art form: that of Witty Banter, whereby men in their 20s and 30 sit and talk (either behind desks or on a sofa) in an unscripted, hilarious way about things they know nothing about.

Considering the above, Frank Skinner’s cultural significance in a fin de siecle context is absolutely secure.

Frank Skinner giving David Baddiel a hug for having the decency to shave his goatee off
Frank Skinner giving David Baddiel a hug for having the decency to shave his goatee off

But, trouble is, he’s still alive and kicking in 2013, at the age of 55. The TV work has dried up, and he’s got a baby at home, which means he needs to get out of the house more often. Hence, this return to stand-up at the Soho Theatre ahead of a full UK tour later in the year.

Right from the off it it was clear that the dichotomy of being rich, famous and comfortable, while having a stand-up act which relies heavily on him being an ordinary, honest bloke from the West Midlands, was weighing heavily upon him.

In the first fumbling minutes of the show, he confessed to all of this in a manner as awkward and nervous as a teenager on a first date (it’s no surprise that the only person he built a bit of rapport with was a 16-year-old who had come along with his mum because he liked Three Lions).

Some of his ‘topical’ jokes were as bad as anything I have ever heard, and poorly delivered as well. One about racehorses involved in the horsemeat scandal – “One minute they were under starter’s orders, the next they were being ordered as a starter” – was terrible, and made worse by him effectively giving the punchline away in the build-up. A bit rusty, shall we say.

The gig picked up in the second half when he started to swear a bit and talk about oral sex. He also raised an important moral question: If Shakin’ Stevens developed Parkinson’s would it still be okay to call him Shakin’? As a leading moral poet – known formally as a moraletrist – I was delighted that he consulted me on this matter.

My answer was clear: Yes. Because it is factually accurate.

I wanted to explore the matter in more detail, and share with him some moral questions I have successfully wrestled with over the years (such as: is it right to call a spade a spade if that spade is indeed a spade?), but he needed to get on sprinkling comedy gold about.

It is true that this show didn’t really have a beginning, or an end, or much of a middle. But Skinner shouldn’t worry, because I have developed a three-step plan to help him out.

1. Forget the topical material. You’re out of touch, Frank, and you know it.
2. Talk about the olden days: the 90s, the Spice Girls and their opposite numbers, the Spice Boys. Those days were good and people, particularly young people who were in push-chairs at the time, should be constantly reminded about them. Three Lions was a great song, despite what it sounds like.
3. Be realistic. You won’t win any comedy prizes with this show but, with a well-organised defence and a touch of luck, you might get a quarter-final spot. Which, as Sven Goran-Eriksson taught us, is still a very good result, given the available raw materials.

Is higher education a waste of time?

Suli Breaks
Suli Breaks

It is rare that a spoken word video is viewed by 10,000 people; rarer still when viewed by 100,000.

It is therefore surprising to find a video on the subject of higher education that has amassed two million views in four months – a viral sensation that many pop stars would be happy with.

The video  called Why I Hate School but Love Education, by Suli Breaks, makes the provocative suggestion that much of what goes on in university education is a waste of time, and more valuable learning might be gained informally.

Those of us who have been to university know there is some truth in this. There can barely be an undergraduate who has not sat in a lecture theatre wondering: why am I here? Or, perhaps: what have I done to deserve this?

It is also true that many people leave university with the rather depressing attitude that they are done with education, as if the learning part of their life is over.

So, I am sympathetic with the overall line of argument. But the way in which Suli delivers his message is so skewed and misleading, that instead of agreeing with him I found myself alarmed.

He begins by reminding us that society suggests higher education might well be a good thing, and that your family may agree with that sentiment.

He then asks us to look at the statistics. Here the trouble starts. Instead of quoting statistics, he provides examples of the net wealth of seven entrepreneurs, including Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson.

The connection is that these people did not complete higher education. The point being that they didn’t bother wasting their time with such trivialities as gaining a degree, and got on with becoming hugely successful, and fabulously wealthy, instead.

At least one of these people would be deeply offended with their life story being misused in this way. Oprah Winfrey initially left college just one credit short, because she had secured a job. As a woman who grew up in extreme poverty that was understandable, and the fact that she later graduated shows the value she placed on her own higher education. That she has since built an academy for underprivileged girls in South Africa underlines her belief in the power of higher education.

Another of his statistics, Mark Zuckerberg, was at Harvard when he came up with the idea for Facebook. He trialed his business model there, using his fellow students as guinea pigs. It is unlikely that Facebook would exist in the way that it does if Zuckerberg had not gone to an elite university.

However, the deeper problem here is that these people are outliers, who bear little or no relation to what most people gain from going to university.

Then came the part which I found not just wrong, but odious. Suli says:

Some of you will protest,
money is only the medium by which one measures worldly success
and some of you will even have the nerve to say:
I don’t do it for the money.
So what are you studying for?
To work for a charity?

This I found offensive because he suggests university is only about earning lots of money. About the destination, not the journey. Should a person, when beginning an English Literature degree, really be thinking about the job at the end, not the deeper understanding of the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare? This ‘money over love’ argument is deeply distasteful to myself, and also, I suspect, to the majority of our fellow spoken word artists.

His talking derisively about working for a charity reveals a lack of awareness of what that type of work can mean. For myself, over the past four years, it has meant working for a charity that I care about, and doing a job that gave me personal satisfaction way beyond the pay packet.

All that I have outlined would be clear to most people who watch the video. So, why, you might ask, has it gained so many views?

It is because he provides a seductive message that higher education is not the key to success. That it is boring. That it encourages limited thinking. That it won’t get you that dream job.

This can be partially true. At a time when university education is relatively expensive in the UK (although not compared with the US) and graduate jobs are hard to find, some young people might like a video which encourages them to at least question it, or, judging by the comments on YouTube, dismiss it. What he makes no mention of are the positive benefits of university: the opportunity to study a subject you might be fascinated by, to develop your critical thinking, while also meeting people from different backgrounds and having the time to develop your extracurricular interests.

It is potentially inspiring to say that lacking a university education is no barrier to greatness.

The more prosaic truth is that you are more likely to get a satisfying, well paid job with a degree than without one. That is the argument the UK government gave when introducing tuition fees.

Social mobility in the UK is very low in comparison to other rich countries There are many reasons for this. One of them is that for middle-class children going to university is a fact of life. For many working-class children university remains an unlikely dream, or perhaps not even that.

I can understand why Suli Breaks became disillusioned at university. He may have chosen the wrong degree for him and was not inspired by it. He may have had an idealistic view of university life which was not fulfilled. He may have found that the people around him were no more intelligent than those from home. But if he were, in 10 years’ time, compare which people were doing better – those who went to university and those who did not – he might produce a video which encourages people from BME and working-class backgrounds to take the life-changing opportunity that is university education. It wouldn’t be such an easy message to get across, but it would be a lot more useful.