Wednesday, 15 September 2010

How I tried to get the British Government to do something

Ahead of next week’s UN Summit on the Millennium Goals ONE, Results UK and the Global Poverty Project (GPP) teamed up to show British politicians why continuing to increase overseas development aid spending when everything else is getting slashed is the right thing to do, even in these tough economic times.

I co-presented with GPP’s Elisha London “1.4 Billion Reasons” – a ground breaking, multimedia explanation of the causes and solutions to global poverty.

It took a fair amount of learning. I was at a wedding in Tuscany last weekend and had to leave friends drinking in a vineyard to go practice in an olive grove, declaiming to the sun my thoughts on how to solve global poverty. A fairly self-induldgent if not Messianic way to spend one's holiday but also an interesting process. How do you talk about the 1.4 billion people who live in abject poverty without sounding smug, patronising, boring and worthy?

I don't know but a bit of passionate realism never hurt anyone. Also some good videos and visuals which are inspiring, along with real people telling their stories helps.

That's what GPP do and it's so clever I wanted to get involved. They re-work the script and the content depending on audiences so it can be targetted at faith groups, businesses and students from 4-40 and any age in between and above. They're funded by the Gates Foundation which I find impressive for a bunch of Australians in their 20s and have all done remarkable things from getting Bono to perform at their Make Poverty History gig, to getting Hugh Jackman to become their patron to projecting anti-poverty messages on Sydney Opera House.

And they don't just talk about stuff they get on and do it - 40,000 people have already seen this presentation. I sometimes feel that working in politics you never actually see what change anything you talk about is actually having. What excited me about GPP is that it's a bottom-up process. If you can get people inspired off the back of an hour's presentation to do something they wouldn't have done otherwise that's about as close as you can get to helping change the world.

They asked me to help out with their political work - if you're going to tell MPs and Ministers what to do it's best to have a British accent. We also rewrote and shortened the presentation to make it more appropriate to them.

In addition to Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell (photographed above with ONE members) over 20 MPs attended from all major parties – several of whom invited us to bring “1.4 Billion Reasons” to their constituencies and the Houses of Parliament in the future.

Along with the MPs and other attendees, ONE members were there in full force and had a chance to grab Andrew Mitchell ahead of the event to tell him about ONE’s new Baby Protest – our campaign to ensure no child is born with HIV after 2015.

ONE Member Alan Riegler said:

“Meeting with Andrew Mitchell was great, we explained to him our hopes for the upcoming summit on the Millennium Development Goals in New York City – that with the right plan and access to simple medicines, we can ensure an HIV-free generation by 2015.”

Sunday, 22 August 2010

You have been listening to the Boight Family

Soaring a capella harmonies draw a crowd sheltering from the midday heat. People sit on the floor, lean against pillars and stare at the painted tiles like tired pilgrims in an Indian temple, only with a choral soundtrack.

The young family’s soothing vocals provide welcome respite from the New York heatwave. Children play hide and seek between the pillars. Mr Boight stands like a general, leading his troops in song, beating out time with shiny leather shoes. His teenage son, lanky and awkward, checks his watch, yawns and closes his eyes to hit a high note.

After 20 minutes they stop.

"You have been listening to the Boight Family with Mark Redstock on saxophone", Mr Boight announces.

The pretty Miss Boight approaches onlookers for money. Then they break into 'Ave Maria' for the second time. Central Park tourists wander on from under the arches of Bethesda fountain but are quickly replaced. I remain, unable to find anywhere else to escape the sweatiness, and think about the Jacksons.

After turning down the offered $5 CD for a second time from the embarrassed looking teenage daughter I notice that much of the harmony and backing vocals come from a tinny portable CD player, masked by Mr Boight's strong tenor lead and Mark Redstock’s sax. The 2 smallest singers are barely singing at all. It's the older girls who balance their father's strong tenor and stop the whole performance sounding ridiculous. The music shifts tempo as all 5 children start swinging and clicking their fingers to a jazzy sax solo that turns into, "A few of my favourite things".

The children playing in the arches have all moved on apart from two: young Boights too little to stand still and pretend to sing. If this is the Family von Trappe where's Maria?

The longer I sit under the arches the more questions I have: how long have they been doing this? Why? Religion - the songs vary from classical to gospel to generic r’n’b. Dreams of musical glory – they only have 5 songs which the children sing reluctantly. Enjoyment? Apart from the serious Mr Boight and the creepy Redstock the children all look miserable, tired and bored. How important is the income from the hat and CDs that his daughter touts to the family’s income? How does proud Mr Boight feel when he leads his family home after a long afternoon singing ‘Ave Maria’ to tourists in the Bethesda arches?

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Mayor of Strawberry Fields

Every evening at 6 the Mayor of Strawberry Fields lays fresh flowers over John Lennon's memorial, the black and white mosaic which says "Imagine".

He lays whatever's in season: today it's rose petals, sunflowers and cow-parsley in patterns and colours with the reverence of an Indian priest in his temple. Young tourists take photos and leave, older visitors stop and contemplate.

It takes about an hour for the Mayor to fully dress the mosaic. Onlookers on benches surround him, watching his show – a rare, free New York tourist attraction.

A man with a strong Eastern European accent starts playing guitar well while singing like Borat. A severe looking middle aged lady harmonizes prettily over "Norwegian Wood", one of the more catchily meaningless attempts by Paul at realism.

He breaks into 'Imagine'. 40 people smile, look at each other and join in, "you may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one".

Evening sun breaks through the green canopy. Borat continues with 'Help', 'All You Need is Love' and 'Instant Karma'. Central Park feels like Sherwood Forest.

The moment is broken by a terrible rendition of "A Yellow Submarine". Many leave. No one joins in. Of those who stay it's the first to get a clap.

The Mayor looks up from his newspaper and surveys his warm, green kingdom. He tells a succession of confused girls trying to preserve their modesty while crouching for photos in low cut summer dress to raise their index and middle fingers.

"It's the peace sign!" he says loudly, “stick your fingers up!”

The peace that might have drawn John to this calm oasis on the edge of Central Park, opposite the Upper West Side apartment where Yoko still lives, is suddenly destroyed by noisy Italian students. They are to tour groups what the Israelis are to backpacking and mosquitoes to summer barbeques.

The mayor zones out when these groups arrive. "I've been doing this every day for 17 years. It all comes from him. There was the Dead for a while but then I started doing this... Yoko's been down 3 times already this year".

The group leave.

The Mayor's friend Barry offers the Mayor a huge blunt, "where you from?" he asks me.


"You know who the King of Flower Power was, son? Donovan - fucking mellow yellow".

He heads off into the park to score. He has a gig to go to.

Both wear old ripped jeans and waistcoats covered in patches depicting marijuana leaves, peace symbols and bands. Baseball caps are festooned with badges.

Smiling as he rearranges his rose petals he says, "I think John would have liked it. My work is to remind the people what John and his brothers and sisters were talking about: peace and love".

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Development Horizons from Lawrence Haddad: The Development Manifesto Watch

Beyond the manifestos it's interesting how each party leader chose to respond to ONE Vote 2010's question: "what would your Government do if elected to fight extreme poverty?" For videos of what they said, and to compare their positions check out:


Friday, 19 February 2010

Too much love will kill you

Queen was my first rock love. Aged 10 I was given their Greatest Hits. The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley was my first gig (on TV). It rocked. I abandoned MJ, acquired the entire Queen back catalogue and devoured biographies of the greatest band ever. Brian May loved his guitar so much he bought it a seat next to him on Concorde. He’d made it himself out of a fireplace and he has a Phd in astronomy. Freddie was born in Zanzibar. Queen were cool: at massive 80s parties dwarves circulated with bowls of Bolivian marching powder strapped to their heads.

As a teenager I realised that ‘Queen’ were actually quite gay. This put me off but you never forget your first love.

A decade later ‘We Will Rock You’ written by Ben Elton (of Blackadder genius) premiered at the Dominion Theatre. I was excited but disheartened by the terrible reviews. The Guardian reviewer said “'it wasn't just bad, it was traumatising'. The Times said it was unlikely to last more than a few weeks.

Ten years on and it’s still sold out most nights. The gold statue of Freddie on Tottenham Court Road has always beckoned but I couldn’t bring myself to pay to see something so embarrassing uncool.

So when Dad phoned and asked whether I’d go with him I agreed, provided we didn’t tell anyone. It started badly. The plot was appalling: a musical set in a distant future where music had been banned yet everyone sang; a rant against the commercialisation of rock music which charged 60 pounds for a ticket, 4.60 for a beer and produced terrible covers of ‘Somebody to Love’ and ‘Under Pressure’. At over 2 hours it felt an hour too long.

In the interval I considered leaving. Especially after a bag of Galaxy Minstrals cost me 3.50 and I remembered half way through I had decided to give up chocolate for Lent. The crowd was old and mostly English (everyone laughed loudly about Northern Rock and blow jobs).

“Who are all these people? Is anyone sitting next to you?” Dad asked a large Northern woman. He’d bought the cheapest standing tickets and we’d already been moved on by the Japanese tourists whose seats we’d borrowed in the first half.

“No love, help yourself. It’s better from close up, especially the second half”.

“You’ve seen it before then? How many times? Isn’t it the best musical score in London?” he gushed.

“Oh yes” she replied, “I can’t remember it’s been that many times. The story’s not great though and I reckon the music in Hairspray and Avenue Q’s better”.

Somehow an uplifting last half hour (helped by being in the second row and the dancing girls in fishnets and PVC bikinis singing ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ waving pink feather dusters) sent everyone home happy. Bohemian Rhapsody was the inevitable encore. It followed the discovery of the world’s last electric guitar in the rubble of Wembley Stadium by Scaramouche and Gallileo Figaro, thus resurrecting Cliff Richard and the rest of Heartbreak Hotel while destroying the Evil Killer Queen in the Seven Seas of Rye. Sadly Britney Spears died before the interval in order to save rock’n’roll.

We Will Rock You mostly served to show how extraordinary Freddie’s vocals really were. Even without him the songs still have power. I love Queen.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

How I learnt to love cycle couriers

I used to hate them with their cool bikes, shabby chic and rollies. They lounge on Soho street corners exuding distain for all those for whom sweatiness and dreadlocks are not a sign of professional achievement.

Office rats trudge past them destined for long meetings and bad coffee. Only cheery Australian barmen inspire comparable annoyance mixed with envy. Bankers at least have the grace to look miserable.

“I love the freedom: your worst day on a bike will be better than your best day in an office," he told me wearing combats, lycra, leg warmers and a fur hat. “You're outside all day and you control London, not the other way round. You go where you like, quickly, and there's no waiting for buses, being stuck underground or in traffic. You deliver whatever it is and get home having biked 100 miles, knowing you've done your job and feel good but knackered”.

“I don't know a single courier who would rather be doing something else. There are rivalries – in some pubs if you've not got a walkie-talkie people look down on you. I used to deliver sandwiches and guys would take the piss. I don't know why delivering envelopes makes you better but it's a bit like school sometimes, showing off fancy bikes and gear and stuff. The rain's a bit shit but I'm happiest on my bike”.

For the office worker avoiding death whilst looking for lunch couriers are a menace. For those who dream of escape the expressionless faces staring into the middle distance, free from the oppression of inside, walking the line between freedom and bum-dom it's the attitude that appeals, not the work.

The cheery Aussie barman's on an extended gap year – temporarily running away from whatever real life will be. The banker has a life, if not a salary, of little freedom. The courier, battling the worst their less evolved brethren in white vans, cabs or buses can throw at them rides free into the distance – living the dream of 'the littlest hobo'. While part of a system which crushes so many they zoom past the rest both switched on and tuned out from the world around them.