Ferdinand Mount : Epic History of the British in India

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Edinburgh International Book Festival

Wednesday 19th August

150308746The British Empire in India was basically about what Conrad in Nostromo, an novel set on another continent, called ‘material interest’. So the affairs of the East India Company and the crown colony of India set up under Queen Victoria’s rule in the aftermath of the Sepoy rebellion or ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857 were mostly focused on expansion and protection of trade. The means the British chose to carry this out hardly bear close moral inspection, in spite of the scruples and higher ideals maintained by some of those charged with the task.

Ferdinand Mount, briefly introduced and cheered on by the BBC’s political correspondent Brian Taylor, outlined this chapter of history to an almost capacity crowd in the main venue at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The matter was taken from his book Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905 (Simon & Schuster), and his illustrated talk was lively, amusing, judicious and well-paced: satisfying, I should think, most of the well-versed and well-connected audience who turned out eager to hear it.

The author, who was for a period editor of the Times Literary Supplement and, intriguingly, a member of a ‘policy unit’ during Margaret Thatcher’s government, very skilfully wove in details of family history within the broad cloth of civilian and military affairs. Mount is related (as is the current Prime Minister) to the families of Lows, Thackerays and Shakespears, who provided many of the key characters here – especially General John Low, his great-great grandfather.

Low went to India at age 17 as a young soldier from the family home ‘in the shadow of the Paps of Fife’ (our guide was keen on this precise location), and eventually retired back to the old kingdom, where he derived such benefits as being allowed to ride his pony between shots on the Old Course at St Andrews to spare his venerable frame. Some of his attitudes to India and the people – a leaning to ‘native rule’ and ‘non interference’ were not easily sustained in the events he was caught up in – including the annexation of various wealthy states and the dreadful military suppressions (though these not so personally or directly organised) – where floggings and hangings of reprisal were not uncommon, even extending to firing with field guns on ‘mutineers’ penned up in fives courts.

urlMount has described his book as ‘a collection of India tales, a kind of human Jungle Book’ – and the Scots side of things certainly features. His ‘Aunt Ursie’, produced a book on the same subject matter, which the family had long neglected until someone else came across it in the British Library, prompting some lurid headlines about David Cameron’s ancestors, and in turn stirring the present author into further reflection. Steadily the young Scots headed out from Fife, occasionally intermarrying. and steadily the young children were returned for upbringing in the fairly ‘chill’ homeland sites – where you might, for example, encounter Aunt Georgina, keen on church three times on Sunday and ‘no jam’.

This mix of public and private themes and arenas was handled very smoothly by Ferdinand Mount, and his even-handed judgements and appraisals were well received. Who ultimately gained from this? What are the key impacts? Answers are always there; but the certainties often roll back under cloud, and revising opinions are never in short supply. In this talk, however, and in the book, there appeared to be a wealth of informing detail.

Reviewer : Mr Scales

David Kinloch: Adam could have said no thanks…

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Edinburgh International Book Festival

Writers’ Retreat
19th August 2015

***

David KinlochThe position of religion has shifted over the decades. It is no longer comfortably respectable, it is no longer part of the cultural landscape of the vast majority of the population, a building with a spire is as likely to be a discount carpet warehouse as a church. Religion has been marginalised to an extent, but in some places it has had a startling resurgence – in the West it pickets abortion clinics, in the East it smashes heritage sites and decapitates people. But hold on, isn’t that a simplistic, headline, sound-bite, knee-jerk way of looking at it?

Take the Bible for example, favourite mocking ground of thread-commenters in The Guardian – it is still as much one of the corner stones of our literacy as it ever was, you can even say the influence of the King James Version was one of the major factors why the Scots language failed to establish itself in our own country, gravitating instead closer to its English sister. It is, if nothing else, a repository of stories, language, names, and poetry.

To David Kinloch, professor of poetry and creative writing at Strathclyde University, the Bible is something with which he reconnects to his childhood and upbringing, a book which, when he re-read it as an adult, brought a ‘shock of recognition’ and an appreciation of its physicality. He recalled the Bible as an object, seemingly rice-paper pages you could see through onto the obverse print, bound in crocodile skin. When he read a piece by another poet, detailing the names of biblical women, and the meaning of those names, with inserted into that tender description a couple of lines about people being taken away to extermination camps, he was moved and inspired to look once again at the women of the Bible and, because they are little heard, to give them a voice.

Helena Nelson of Happenstance, who chaired the event, was not alone in spotting the irony of sending a man to speak for Biblical women (I mean, damn it, The Mumble sent a man to review the event!). So how did it go? Well, for a start, David Kinloch is Biblically literate and theologically adept, without which his Happenstance pamphlet, Some Women, would have been in danger of falling flat. As it was, his progression of readings from the extra-Biblical figure of Lilith, who referred to Adam as ‘that big, milk-toothed innocent’, to his ‘1st Letter of the Hebrew Women to Paul’ with its wonderfully irascible ‘faith is a stubborn doubt in what you despair of…’ was precise and compelling. The audience hung on every syllable.

David Kinloch & Helena Nelson (1)

As a literary agent and an Eng. Lit. undergraduate, I’ve seen more than my share of poetry, from the sublime to the gorblimey, and let me tell you this: this is how I like my free verse. Pointed, punchy, serious where it needs to be, witty wherever it can be, written by someone who knows that free verse is not just cut-up prose, someone aware of the value, and meaning, and double meaning, and sound, and rhythm of every word. The nameless wife of Cain was all rhythm; ‘Rebecca’ made poetry out of the exotic names of food; Bathsheba and David rolled the letters ‘B’ and ‘D’ round their tongues in an orgy of alliteration; Rahab ‘stonewalled… in a world of falling walls’; Ruth was the first of ‘the endless line of women who will give birth to God’; Martha complained to Jesus, ‘Resurrect this bucket’. ‘Deborah’ focused on the female Judge of pre-monarchic Israel, handing out ‘a thorough stoning’ (is there any other kind?), exhorting the Israelite C-in-C “Arise, Barak, the roots of war are everywhere…” and chiding him for not watering them; the modern reference was very vivid and was not lost on us.

cover_davidApart from the excerpts from Some Women, David read to us a handful of unpublished, just-written poems, intended as a possible follow-up to the pamphlet, and focusing on St Joseph. An angel calls on the phone – “Can I speak to Mary?” – there is a ‘silence like blown glass’, the carpenter asks ‘When is a puppet wood? When is it flesh?’ The same poetic values as in Some Women, similarly from a not-much-heard person, but I don’t know whether this selection had the same impact as his female voices.

About forty years ago, I wanted to be a poet too. I was also very familiar with the KJV. I asked a published poet of my acquaintance, who wrote on religious themes, whether publishers would accept poems that were slightly irreverent. He replied that these (those) days publishers expected downright blasphemy, let alone irreverence. When I asked David what had convinced him that the wheel had come full circle, so that now a poet could write with ‘gently reverent irreverence’, I think he was a little put out. To him, as he answered me, general trends were not important; this project, this pamphlet, was something very personal to him, and a response to serious subjects. Point taken. Maybe he felt that ‘gently reverent irreverence’ was not an appropriate description for poems in which some post-watershed words and concepts appeared, or rather poems that asked us to consider subjects of weight. Poems such as the one to Mary Magdalen, who was effectively the first actual Christian, were clearly and pointedly serious, and there was a message even in the ones that made us smile and chuckle.

There was a slightly ironic postscript. Having reminded us that the Children of Israel were, for an important part of their Biblical history, a nomadic people, David and his retinue of pamphlet-signees were led back and forth between three separate book-signing locations, until being settled in the Canaan of their final location. A fitting wee Apocrypha to the Old and New Testaments of David’s event. My last word is this – that David Kinloch is one of Scotland’s most expert poets. Read him and see for yourself.

Reviewer : Paul Thompson

Henrietta Lidchi

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Garden Theatre

Monday 17th Aug 2015

11am

LeeClarenceNavajo1997

Journalist Jackie McGlone introduced Henrietta Lidchi to her audience on a roasting Indian summer day at Charlotte Square’s Garden Theatre. Discussing the politics of adornment within the last 150 years is no mean feat when an hour is all there is to share vast amounts of knowledge and not overwhelm the audience with all the facts. Book title ‘Surviving Desires’ Lidchi explains was a ‘“ riff on ‘Surviving Desire’ the film” by Hal Hartley of recent Ned Rifle fame.The main thrust of the book explains what Lidchi’s focused anthropological practice is, essentially silver and its by product turquoise. Due to a delayed gallery project, 1997 was the year she was asked to do some fieldwork. Having the entire world to choose from, she thought she would find out more about the Southwest American indigenous peoples and boy has she done that! This book guides you through contemporary makers such as Navajo couple Tsosie and Mary Taylor to the lapidary inlays of the Reano’s from Santo Domingo Pueblo who feature melon shell in their pendants.

A regular trans-atlantic traveller, Lidchi has built up a reputation as someone worth befriending in the ‘Four Corners’ states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. Knowing how to connect at parties, Lidchi regularly fires up a conversation with ‘That’s an amazing piece of jewellery.’ It is entirely fortunate that The British Museum entrusted Lidchi to buy for their collection because much of the jewellery purchased on these trips have since become incredibly expensive and probably not a viable option now. Dr.Lidchi has discovered much about ‘the specific meanings in context of visual material’ and is keen to share her findings. In August 1998 Lidchi was approached by Emerson from Twin Lakes near Gallup, a jeweller who has different ambitions for his children. She purchased his work for the British Museum collection. Through Emerson she found ‘Thunderbird’, the local jeweller’s supply store.

NavajoTwoHares

Cradle boards, katchina dolls, block turquoise, coral and the complex social and political history of the Hopi and Navajo pueblo jewellery with all its cultural and material history is only some of the topics under discussion here. Not to mention how the pawn industry conducts itself very differently to how it does in Britain. This glossy wonder is invaluable reading matter and a fertile place to learn more about this subject.

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Reviewer : Clare Crines

Having a laugh with Julian Clary and David Roberts

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Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015

17th August 2015

 

 The Bolds

Mr and Mrs Bold are two stolen identities, scavenged from an unfortunate couple who were eaten by a crocodile while on safari in Africa. The funny duo duped their way back to Blighty and now live in a nice house Teddington, Middlesex. They have jobs (Christmas cracker jokes) and they are partial to a bit of a giggle. Only problem : they’re hyenas. Yes, that’s right – they’re covered in fur, have tails tucked into their trousers, and they live to laugh.

After a bit of stomach ache from what she thought was a dodgy burger, Bobby and Betty were born… what will the neighbours think if they discover a hairy appendage protruding from their shorts?

Julian says, I wanted to write a children’s BOOK to relive the thrill I used to get as a child entering a fictional world. The idea came from stories I used to make up for myself as a child, and I grew up in Teddington – a very suburban place with tree-lined streets and a nice park – so it seemed right and proper to set it there. I am thrilled to have the wonderful illustrator David Roberts bring The Bolds to life for me. He has the ability to convey my humour brilliantly and his drawings are always funny and endearing. Mrs Bold’s hats are a particular delight!”

 

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The banter between Julian Clary and ‘lovely man,not everyone can wear yellow’ David Roberts  is a hoot. Vivienne French who introduced Clary and Roberts gives out a book and a Roberts original to a wee boy who gets upset during question time. Asked by a child in the audience what his favourite animals are Clary tells that he keeps dogs and chickens. One of his chickens, Archimedar, ‘comes in through the french windows and likes to watch me at my desk.I like lions and tigers when they’re babies,they’re so sweet. Then when they grow up they can live in the garden.’ Clary’s latest offering and debut children’s book is,  ‘very good value,’ with 266 pages of illustration from a charming union of artistic minds that culminate in a laugh a page suburban romp that is THE BOLDS.

 

Reviewer : Clare Crines

Nicholas Parsons: Tale of the Century

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ed-bookfest[1] Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
17th August 2015

Nicholas Parsons 2

The blurb for this event says that Nicholas Parsons ‘came to the Nation’s attention’ with a 1970s quiz show called Sale of the Century, but as the event’s chairman Roy Cross pointed out, his career in show-business spans more than seventy years. Nicholas is, in fact, ninety-one and still performing, having been the chairman of BBC Radio’s Just A Minute for forty-eight years. Before that, and before Sale of the Century, he was, as he pointed out himself, the straight man to many famous comedians. I can remember him as the foil to Arthur Haynes, for example. His longevity, both in terms of life and career, meant that he was a shoo-in for this event sponsored by The Oldie magazine.

Many decades ago, I heard him on a radio programme called Workers’ Playtime. It was a variety show that toured factory canteens (remember factories?) and Nicholas was booked to do a stand-up spot. It was the proverbial lead balloon – maybe he was too ‘posh’, maybe his humour wasn’t obvious enough for the audience – he performed to near silence. But this air of slight haplessness has in fact served him very well in other fields, for example in the very role for which he is now famous, the barely-in-control chairman of a comedy game show in which the panelists rib him mercilessly.

Arguably he is, as Roy Cross described him, a National Treasure. Certainly this event was a total sell-out, we being packed into the Baillie Gifford Theatre, sitting with our knees under our chins, abandoning all hope of personal space. His entrance was greeted by warm and loud applause, at which he stopped in mid stride as though surprised by it, turned, smiled in delight, and made a couple of slight, polite bows to us. Then he mimed being too frail to mount the stage, and the applause turned to laughter. See – he can be funny! His appeal lies in his ability to radiate good nature, to appear not to have an evil bone in his body, to be, to all intents and purposes, a thoroughly nice bloke with absolutely no ‘side’.

That is not to say he doesn’t milk old age to the maximum. He now uses forgetfulness, slight deafness, and even a touch of irascibility as comic instruments, to good effect. If on occasions he can be patronising – such as when he explained to us what ‘innuendo’ means – that is instantly forgivable, being part of his naturally garrulous flow. If he lapses into egotism, he apologises for it instantly, as in the following exchange:

Roy: Who has carried the show over the years?

Nicholas: Me!

Roy: Who has helped you carry it, then?

Nicholas (to the audience): I’m sorry – that was a cheap laugh.

Nicholas Parsons interviewed

We are, of course, at a Book Festival, and the focus for the hour was on his book, Welcome to Just a Minute!: A Celebration of Britain’s Best-Loved Radio Comedy, published by Edinburgh’s own Cannongate. Inevitably, therefore, the book was a comic vehicle itself. Covering up any brief memory lapse, or taking full advantage to wreak his own kind of revenge on the world by giving Roy Cross, as chairman, a hard time, Nicholas often interjected “Anyway, it’s all in the book!” That became a kind of instant catchphrase for the hour, and was greeted, as catchphrases always are, by chuckles and even guffaws. Once when he was trying to remember Marcus Brigstock’s name, Roy showed him a photograph in the book, to which Nicholas commented, “Yes, that’s him,” and continued his ramble. I shouldn’t really call it a ramble, more an inexhaustible peroration; it did take in a lot of what is “all in the book”. Nicholas told us about how he never wanted to be chairman – the BBC having had ‘Professor’ Jimmy Edwards in mind for the job – and had been rather coerced into it, about how it had changed over the years, about how Kenneth Williams enjoyed the opportunity to show off his self-taught erudition, Clement Freud to be autocratic, Wendy Richard to take it all too seriously, and Giles Brandreth to be fiercely competitive. The affection with which he spoke about even the most difficult panel-members, and those who struggled with their first time on the show, was marked.

Moving away from his book, he spoke about his cricketing charity work with the Lords Taverners, the ‘JAM Clubs’ in India where enthusiasts get together to play their own version of Just A Minute, his love of jazz, the head-to-head battle with Giles Brandreth for the Guinness record for the longest after-dinner speech, and his general practitioner father who brought Margaret Roberts (later Margaret Thatcher) into the world, only to wish he had “shoved her back again”. That was, I think, the closest he got to saying anything remotely nasty about anyone.

Nicholas Parsons 3

I have to admit that I have never been his greatest fan. However, I enjoyed this event thoroughly, finding him a pleasure to listen to. The fact that he found time for this, and to be interviewed beforehand, and to sign books afterwards, indicates to me that the ‘nice chap’ image is a genuine one. I hope he goes on being that nice chap for many years yet.

Review by Paul Thompson

Edinburgh Book Festival: A Reading by Carol Ann Duffy

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Charlotte Square

17th August 2014

carol_ann_duffy

From the start, there is something slightly olde-worlde about Duffy’s performance. For some reason, our first female poet laureate is heralded by a pipe-bearing, flute-twiddling Scottish musician named John Sampson. In fact, the first ten minutes of our precious hour with Duffy were spent watching Sampson cavort around the stage offering to show the audience his trumpet, fit two flutes in his mouth at the same time, and, well, at that point, I stopped listening.

I know Duffy was appointed by the Queen, and I can see how in some ways how this buffoonery may even be subversive. When Duffy stands and speaks, she is witty, sharp – mocks Sampson (“the queen gave him to me”). But I still felt offended somehow, as if Duffy had been subverted herself by the almost medieval elitism, and ridiculousness, of her position – which is actually still paid in sherry.

In fact, the scent of elitism is a little hard to escape in a marquee sponsored by an Investment Fund, at a book festival constructed around a monument to Prince Albert. But, well, everything is just so pretty. The Edinburgh International Book Festival is a little slice of Eden. Set around the balmy gardens of Charlotte Square, middle aged bohemians wander in and out of arbours, sipping on Syrah and munching on gluten-free brownies. From the posh porter-loos to the Ayrshire bacon artisan rolls, the forces-that-be have created a safe, welcoming, and sophisticated little bubble for poets, writers, and wannabes to bathe in the glory of the living canon.

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And bathe we did. Nestled in our very comfortable seats, amongst a very well-to-do scattering of tweed-clad toffs (with a good showing of young female students mixed in), the audience waited in the silence left by Sampson’s over-bearing trumpet for Duffy to rise, slowly, and take to the podium with one eyebrow lifted at the red-faced Sampson. Her jibes were as rehearsed as Sampson’s performance, but (of course) she is hilarious, and in less than a minute she dissolved the audience into fits of laughter, and moved swiftly forward to tell us about her interest in metamorphosis. (Phew).

From there the show is well put together, and insightful. Duffy tells us she likes to celebrate, re-tell, and subvert the characters from classic fairytales and myth. Ovid is a great influence, she says. Her first reading, “Mrs Midas” is a poem set in the modern day, told from the perspective of King Midas’ wife. She follows this with Mrs Tiresius, and Mrs Faust.

Mrs Midas is delectable. Read aloud in Duffy’s guttural voice (her throat really stretches out her vowels, her jaws hold tight to her consonants), the sounds reverberate as vividly as the images unfold. Duffy flits from the everyday, the comic – and slightly absurd – to the heady, “He tried to light a cigarette; I gazed, entranced/ as the blue flame played on its luteous stem.” With its didactic quality, and simple conceit, it is no surprise this poem is a GCSE favourite. The next two readings, Mrs Tiresius and Mrs Faust, were not quite as titillating, their forms are very different, Mrs Faust in particular did not work well aloud. And I couldn’t help but feel that the criticisms of affluence and masculinity operating in these texts were severely undercut by the sound of home-county gents cackling around me.

After another interlude, Duffy read from Rapture, her celebrated collection of love poems. These works, dense, and compact with their ricocheting rhymes, are terrific, especially read aloud. Her performance would have put many a spoken word artist to shame. Duffy went on to discuss the notorious (and short-sighted) removal of one of her texts from the GCSE curriculum (it was accused, wrongly, of supporting knife crime). Her response is an acerbic piece titled “Mrs Schofield’s GCSE” – listing the more violent parts of Shakespeare. Duffy wrought out every inch of irony with her performance, voice dripping with biting scorn, sending the audience into stitches with her withering looks.

And at last, “Water” – a deafening whisper of grief. Duffy said nothing before or after. As she read, many around me were crying. The poem, written four years after the death of her mother, is astounding, and restrained. The entire room was left astonished. I found it hard to open up myself again to the rest of the show.

This is what Duffy does best – she sweeps the reader away in language paced at the tempo of normal speech, then twists her images, her conceits into bulbs of strange and beautiful poignancy. It was a privilege to hear her read something so profound – her poetry at its best is so overpowering, so vivid, and yet the language is so plain, so distilled. After we recovered from Water, Duffy performed a piece from “The Bees,” and another poem about her mother titled “Premonitions”, which traces time back from the moment of death. As Duffy read, John Sampson accompanied her, and I couldn’t help but wish I could have heard the poem read alone.

I’ve heard from a few different sources that the most vivid memories of a holiday are not the ones spent climbing mountains, or surfing waves, or wandering through medieval cathedrals – they’re actually the hours you spend waiting at security, squishing onto the plane, and putting up with a crying baby for four hours. The same comparison could be made to Duffy’s show. It has been 24 hours, and I still can’t get Sampson’s double-time rendition of Mozart’s fifth symphony out of my head. And I still can’t help but wonder who on earth decided to pair Britain’s most subversive poet laureate to date with a court-jester. Or for that matter, why poets believe they ought to make their audience laugh. Duffy is where she is, because she gives adults, and children, the tools to feel things – to grieve, and to love, and to rage. Teachers across the country use her poems to teach young adults how to critique the world around them. As with the rest of Duffy’s opus, the best parts of her show were those when she did not try to entertain for entertainments sake, and simply opened herself up, read things fashioned from solitude, things written to people long gone.

The moment I will (try to) remember is the time when Water washed over me, when I heard others cry, a woman nearby gasp. When I was filled with grief, and my breath caught in my throat at the cruelty of death, the way it doesn’t stop stabbing you in the heart, suddenly, right out of the blue.  This is what makes Duffy worth hearing. Not the trumpets, not the clever references to Faust, not even the biting and brilliant digs at the institutions who have muted her. No, the thing that should niggle at your brain, get your arse into a seat, nick the tenner from your wallet, is the promise of that moment of immense profundity. A lament erupting from the poet’s lips. There are plenty of moments in life to make us laugh, plenty to makes us feel content, but how often do we sit with a poet in a room and remember that those private and terrible flashes of sorrow, or anger, or discontent, are universal? How often are we treated to an audience with an artist who is more skilled with language than most of the world, who can speak in ways no one else would imagine, fashion a poem fit for a queen?

My advice: Go and hear Dame Carol Ann Duffy.

(And someone do me a favour, yeah? Ask the Dame how come she managed to get away without writing a poem for the royal baby, but agreed to a f*cking jester?)

Reviewer: Charlotte Morgan

Andrew Cockburn : Killer Drones

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The Garden Theatre

Charlotte Square

 17th August 2015

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On a beautiful sunny Monday, Divine arrived at Charlotte Square, host to The International Book Festival. I made haste to the press office to pick up my accreditation, pass and ticket for Andrew Cockburn’s interview and launch of his new book. Killl Chain : The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins. I couldn’t believe how much interest such a subject matter would draw. I was shocked at the length of the queue that seemed to weave the length of Charlotte Square. True enough, Andrew Cockburn had a full house. This was quite a scoop because the new book he was launching, was more or less just off the press. This proved to be a very interesting hour, learning about the inaccuracy of the killing drones. We heard lots of different tales that described why these things are a bad idea and how they are purposely built to cause as much mayhem as possible in the Middle East..

Kill Chain by Andrew Cockburn
Kill Chain by Andrew Cockburn

Mr Cockburn was very knowledgeable indeed and was able to answer the audiences’ questions with informative ease. Finding out that these remote control killing devices are controlled by people in a Las Vegas office made for compelling disgust. My contempt for the inhuman practices of the American military forces or indeed war in general became enforced this afternoon.  My own question would have been, had I put my hand up. How do we change things? How do the people who have had their families wiped out by some psycho in Las Vegas, playing Space Invaders with real people in a different country. Heal from such circumstances. We heard tales of children, mothers and Men that had fallen foul to the accuracy of these awful things! How the President of The United States Of America endorses the use of Drones. Knowing full well the calamity that they are causing innocent folk. It is after all, as Mr Cockburn quoted.  Big Business. It was an awful wake up call. As David Bowie Sang, “I’m Afraid Of Americans!” 

I forwent the post show booksigning by Mr Cockburn and headed for some therapy.

Reviewer : Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert