Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

How Greece Can Get Its Marbles Back

A reproduction of the Parthenon East Pediment

Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible!

“Can I have both?”
“Can I have both?”
“Can I have both?”
“Can I have both?”

So the Hellenic Republic has a new government , Alexis Tsipras has managed to keep his coalition of Communists, Anarchists, Greens and other assorted lefties together long enough to become Prime Minister, a task that must herding cats seem easy.

I celebrated with a glass or two of finest malt whisky - because Greece decided to hold the election on Burns Night.


Paul Mason interviews Alexis Tsipras (Channel 4)
Tsipras says what he wants now is debt relief and the return of the Elgin Marbles. Given that the
Germans make most of the rules and the French own most of the debt, this doesn't seem terribly likely. But what about his second wish?

At first glance this seems about as likely as Tsipras becoming Der Spiegel's Man of the Year. However I believe a change of tactics might just succeed, what's more if you look carefully at what the new PM says, I think he realises this.


A Set of Lies Agreed Upon



Lord Elgin
First a bit of history, or rather two versions of it.

In Scenario One evil British aristo Lord Elgin, Her Majesty's ambassador to the Turks sends his nefarious agents to Greece. Seeing an opportunity, a bit of money changes. Regretting that they can't get the whole Parthenon in their ship, they instead start chiselling away at some of the prettier bits. The loot returns to England where the dastardly Lord spends the rest of his life trying to flog it to the highest bidder.

In Scenario Two kindly Lord Elgin, friend to the Greek people and lover of Greek culture, sends a mission to Athens to study the treasures of the ancients. However once there his team are shocked by the indifference of the half of Athens who are Greek Orthodox and for whom the Marbles were just so many embarrassing pagan relics and the Acropolis just a free quarry. The Turkish authorities seem no more interested and due to the dilapidated state of the monument the man on the spot makes a decision to save what he can.


Lord Byron
Returning to Britain the Marbles spark a renewed interest in Ancient Greece. Lord Byron objects to their removal, but then he also called them "misshapen monuments". He is drowned out by other Romantics such as Goethe and Keats who enthuse about these marvels from the Levant. Elgin's love of ancient Greece eventually empties his noble coffers, but rather than see the treasures be split up he sells them to the British Museum.

The public adores them and the ensuing spirit of Philhellenism comes in very useful twenty years later when the Greeks finally revolt against Turkish rule. The British Museum keeps the Marbles safe through two sieges of the Acropolis whilst England sends to the aid of the Greeks a vast sum of money, a selection of our best Sea Captains and eventually a battle fleet which obliterates the Turks and wins the war.


Amal Clooney
The Hellenic Republic, for obvious reasons, as always preferred the first version of the story. What patriot wouldn't like a story involving corrupt Turkish officials, foreign yobs hacking away at one of the wonders of the Ancient World and a villain straight out of a Mel Gibson movie?

Battle was renewed last year when Amal Clooney took time off from making women jealous over her choice of husband and gave the Greek government the benefit of her legal advice. She's not the first beautiful woman to try to get the Marbles back. Melina Mercouri and Nana Mouskouri both tried and failed, as did Demis Roussos - although he didn't look half as good in a dress.


Those Who Cannot Change Their Minds Cannot Change Anything


The word rhetoric today is now used to mean empty words, but when Aristotle was writing about ῥητορικός (ri̱torikós) it meant "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion".


Athens 1821
It seems to me the Hellenic republic needs to be a bit cleverer about the ῥητορικός it is using on the British museum. Three tiny flaws in the current strategy seem immediately obvious.

Firstly, tough though it is for Greeks to admit, the Turks really were in charge in 1805 and the
Marbles really were theirs to sell. Once the Emperor of Byzantium had refused to buy a certain dodgy Hungarian's canons and the Ottoman Empire had used them to knock down the walls of Constantinople the Turks were in charge. End of.


The Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum
Secondly it's quite hard to prove a legal transaction was unlawful when you haven't got the original paperwork. Maybe they did mess up the paperwork, but the Turks were legitimate sellers and Elgin was a legitimate buyer, and after two hundred years I think the museum can be forgiven for not having the original receipt.

But mostly a venerable institution like the British Museum, one of, if not the, greatest museum in the world, doesn't like being written into the story as the baddie.

That's a very important point when you want to change someone's mind. You can offer them a carrot - a pretty juicy carrot in this case, just think what Greece could swap for the Marbles - you can threaten them with a stick - although in this case it's a very short and blunt stick. But if agreeing with you means admitting to being great big hypocrites they are quite likely to reject the carrot and face the stick.

Even the sort of psychopaths who think the way to get people to change their minds is to pour buckets of water over their head realise that.


“These stones don’t feel at ease with less sky”


I expect most Greek readers will have written me off as another Αγγλίκα μαλάκα by now given up, but just in case there are any left let me say this; I think the Marbles should return to your country.
The Parthenon

Why? Two reasons stand out for me.

Firstly they are an integral part of the Parthenon, and for aesthetic reasons alone I like my ancient treasures whole. Indeed Poseidon is actually split in two, half in London and half in Athens.

By the way, I'm equally annoyed that the lid of the Frank's Casket is in France whilst the rest of it is in Britain and that the Sutton Hoo treasure is split between London and Suffolk. It's as if Nelson had been removed from his column and taken abroad, which incidentally was what Hitler planned to do if he's invaded us instead of Greece in 1941. 
Nike in the Acropolis Museum

Secondly, whilst it's perfectly possible to a Brit to go through life without ever seeing the Elgin Marbles, or even the British Museum, to be Greek and not see the Parthenon would be rather difficult. Half the population of the country can pretty much sees the Acropolis every day of the week. The Marbles are simply far more important to the Greeks than they are to us.

And the finally there's the Acropolis Museum. This world class building, within sight of the Parthenon but not part of it, is where the remaining Parthenon Marbles now reside. How did they get there? The Greek authorities chiselled them off the Acropolis and carried them there for safe keeping, doing exactly what Lord Elgin's agents did two hundred years ago.

And the thing is these reasons stand regardless of how the Marbles got to London or who legally owns them.


Property is Theft



So who does actually own them?

According to the new Prime Minister "everyone" and I can't really argue with that. My namesake Martin Luther King once said "property is intended to serve life" and so he would probably agree.

My plan is to get the Marbles back to Greece, and if when they arrive they have a little plaque underneath them saying "on loan from the British Museum" who cares?


The Plan


So how should the Hellenic Republic go about persuading the trustees of the British Museum to change their minds about the Marbles? :


Replica of the Parthenon, Nashville, USA
Step one: acknowledge that everything that's been said and done so far was wrong. Tsipras's government has more-or-less been elected on this motto, so this shouldn't be too hard.

Step two: forget about ownership. Most of the current government of Greece claim to be inspired by a man who said his political theory could be summed up by the slogan "abolish all private property" so that should be easy enough.

Step three: forgive Elgin. Perhaps putting a statue of him up next to Byron would be going a bit far, but at least acknowledge that this was a man who loved Greece and, whatever his motives were, accept that his actions kept the Marbles safe from sieges, smog and Nazi occupation. Some people may take a bit of convincing, but Greece is about to really annoy most of Germany and a significant part of France, so she could do with some new friends, even dead ones.


Vigil for the return of the Parthenon Marbles January 2015
So there you have it. Greece, go and get them back. I for one will support you. So, according to the polling company Yougov, will most of my fellow Brits.

The Hellenic Republic in recent years has seen poverty that would have disgraced Lord Elgin's England. The best and brightest of her young people have been, like the Marbles, ripped from the land of their birth and scattered across Europe.

Returning the Marbles won't help with the debt relief, won't ward off a Grexit and won't make Greece any more popular with the Troika, but it will help mend the wounded pride of a great European nation and it will be the right thing to do.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Gaming the Markets

Here's a question for you. Why is the oil price crashing? Is it:

a) The USA using the oil weapon on Putin for invading the Ukraine?

b) Saudi Arabia trying to take out the US unconventional oil industry?

c) The first sign of another, massive, stock market crash?

d) All of the above.

There are lots of reasons to think we might be heading for a crash. The big banks, bailed out but unreformed, are still printing imaginary money, the city traders, we can be sure, are still massaging the figures to boost their bonuses, and the the Chinese economy is so overheated it's a surprise you can't see it from space.

All we are waiting for is the trigger, which could be the US sub-prime auto bubble, Greece telling the EU it won't swallow its austerity, bad news from the pension funds or who knows?

But the trigger is not the same as the cause. The reason for the crash will be the underlying problems of our global economy, a system that is very good at channelling wealth upwards, and which has doubled the number of billionaires since 2008, but doesn't appear to be able to do much else.

Gaming the Markets

Add caption
However the last place to notice that it's all gone tits up will, rather bizarrely, be the futures market. Here the men, and a handful of women, who are paid eye watering sums of money to predict the market will no doubt continue to invest our money on the never-never even as their world comes crashing down around them.

Why this is is explained very neatly by Nate Silver in his book The Signal and the Noise. Silver uses a very simple example of Game Theory.

Basically as a City Trader you can either buy or sell, and the stock price will either go up or go down. Guess right and your company makes a packet, guess wrong and it doesn't. Guess very wrong and the entire economy collapses.

It's important to get this right, right? So it's equally important to make sure your staff are rewarded for doing the right thing, and punished for doing the wrong. Is that how it works in real life? You don't need me to tell you the answer, do you.

Here are the four possible outcome:

Dealer buys, stocks rise

This is what it's all about. You make money for your bank and they give you a whopping bonus, which you spend on a yard of cocaine and new Porsche.

Lets call this a +100% win, although even today that's pretty stingy.

Dealer sells, stocks rise

Oh dear. You blew it. Collect your P45 and get a real job.

Lets call this a -100% loss.

Dealer buys, stocks fall

This is what happened in 2008. A big disaster. But what about the (not so) poor broker? Well, clearly no bonus, but then as everyone was doing the same thing you'd be unlucky to get the blame personally. Around one in ten traders lost their jobs when their companies went bust, but hardly anyone was actually fired for getting the predictions wrong.

That makes this a -10% loss.

Dealer sells, stocks fall

There were indeed a handful of Cassandras who did this. But what happened to them? Well, they didn't get a bonus as there was no money to pay them. A few went on to fame and lifetime of lecturing fellow Bankers. Academic positions were certainly on offer, but these don't pay as well as the City.

How do you score this? It's very difficult. At most you could call this a +10% win but I think that's being generous. I mean, if you value the respect of your peers more than filthy lucre why go into share dealing in the first place?

The scores on the doors

So where does that leave our City Trader, watching the price of Brent Crude tumbling and wondering what to do?

Well if he sells its  -100% against +10% whereas if he buys it's +100% against -10%. A bit of a no brainer really.

So the moral of the story is if you trust the smart men in suits to look after your money, get ready to lose your shirt. Again.

Friday, 2 January 2015

A Picture Tells A Thousand Words


A picture tells a thousand words as they say, but sometimes what they say can be ambiguous.

This image, taken last March at the Barton Moss anti-fracking protest, and chosen by the Huffington Post as one of their images of the year from the Press Association, shows the utter terror in Vanda's eyes as she is arrested for the second time. This second picture, taken a few minutes earlier, shows why. My Press Release for the day gives some context:

Former Happy Monday’s star Bez joined Protectors at Barton Moss today and was witness to some of the most brutal policing yet seen on Barton Moss Lane.

GMP used considerable force in moving Protectors down Barton Moss Lane. Thirteen Protectors were arrested, including 37 year old mother-of-five Vanda Gillett, whose pain can clearly be seen in these images available here from Getty Images.
FFGM does not know why Vanda was arrested as she was not obstructing vehicles at the time. Vanda has previously been assaulted by GMP, as reported in the Manchester Evening News.

There signs today that the increasingly violent tactics were causing disquiet amongst the ranks of GMP. One Police Liaison Officer told a Protectors “we asked the police on site if it was going to be peaceful and they replied, no, we’re going to do our thing”.

Bez’s comments about the day’s events were reported by the Salford Star Newspaper.
Martin Porter said “The press must stop hiding behind a false sense of ‘balance’ and report this. These are not ‘clashes’ or ‘scuffles’, this is violence being used against peaceful protesters with no legal justification.

Why Greater Manchester Police decided every day to deploy enough riot police to quell a major uprising to a protest by a few dozen peaceful eco-warriors is still a bit of a mystery.

Maybe it was just a police benefit gig, maybe it really was just the Tactical Assistance Unit "doing their thing", but most likely it was an attempt to frighten people away from the blockade and kill off the anti-fracking movement before it got off the ground.

Perhaps I wish the image they'd taken from Barton Moss had showed the stoicism of the Protectors for surviving a harsh winter under in a makeshift camp, or the local people who rallied round to support them, or the dangers of fracking or the thousands of people who marched to demand the Labour Party ban this dangerous new fossil fuel.

But perhaps this image tells the story best after all. For we live in a world in which the state allows 'corporate persons' to pollute with impunity but sends the full force of the law against real persons who try to stop them.

Greater Manchester Police traumatised Vanda, but they haven't stopped her campaigning. We need more people like her if the human race is to survive this century.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

My Year in Review 2014

Well, what a year it's been.

It started with the Arctic 30 returning home, the conclusion of a successful campaign. Since then I've wished at least one them back behind bars (nobody's laughing Phil...) but it was a great start to the year.

The campaign against fracking at Barton Moss continued and, after Father Christmas delivered a wind turbine blade to the gates (with a little help from Reclaim the Power) people were starting to take notice. As an experienced media tart I muscled my way into the press team, elbowing aside protectors who'd been camped out in the freezing rain for three months to get my mug on the telly.

I soon found myself in a propaganda war with Greater Manchester Police. GMP would subsequently claim (to the IPCC's Independent Panel) that they had trouble getting their message across.

Possibly this was because their claims that that there was a hard core of violent protesters at the camp who wanted to leap out of trees in front of lorries and shoot down their helicopters was blatantly untrue. Their attempt to stop Barton Moss Road being a Public Footpath by stealing the footpath sign was also legally flawed., whilst their arrest of a fifteen year old girl who was only there to do her school project really didn't make them look good either.

My talent for self publicity certainly helped in my self appointed role as Press Officer. I managed to get myself into both the Daily Mail and the Kidderminster Shuttle, which may be a unique double, and fielded calls from journalists who'd 'lost' Bez's phone number. Alas The Guardian never returned my calls.

Highlights of my year included the time activists in Bolton glued themselves to the wrong petrol station and when the Barton Moss camp sent out a Tweet saying they'd run out of gas. Oh well, they say there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Along the way I helped put on the UK's largest ever gathering against fracking and what may be the biggest environmental demonstration Manchester has ever seen, the People's Climate March. Green Party leader Natalie Bennett was there, although as you can see she was less than impressed with my guided tour of the city.

Along the way I started a tertiary career as political rabble rouser. I spoke at the march in March, to the Manchester TUC May Day March, at a student debate (which the anti-frackers won) and at the Manchester People's Climate March (which is now on Youtube).

In June the We Need To Talk About Fracking road show came to Manchester. The debate was a little one sided as the opposition didn't show up, but at least I got to meet the most famous Glossopian of them all, Vivienne Westwood.

In August it was back to the county of my birth for Reclaim the Power in Blackpool. A trip home to have tea with my mum meant I missed the really exciting stuff, such as the eviction from the movement of all the conspiracy theorists, but ever the diligent media tart I arrived in time for the photocall. I'm behind the 'o' of 'not'.

I then forgot about fracking for a while and went
after another dirty fuel. After twenty hours on a bus from Islington with Greenpeace UK I arrived by the amazingly beautiful Deulowitzer See in the east of Germany to be part of a 7500 strong Human Chain against brown coal.

Greenpeace Germany accused us of drinking their bar dry. Probably because of that I found myself on stage singing a duet with a local musician at the village pub. Pity the poor Germans. However it was nice to know that despite coming from the land of UKIP the rest of Europe still likes us.

It'd too early to know if the campaign has been successful, but we managed to get the issue raised during the Swedish General Election debate and there is progress. Germany meanwhile continues to lead the world in Renewable energy.

In September there was a fracking fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference, where I finally got to meet the former Environment Minister Michael Meacher. When Lord Melchett and I trashed the GM test crop in 1999 Meacher had to go on Newsnight to defend the government's position. The interview took place to the backdrop of a picture of my bottom as I was led away by the police.

It was back to fracking September when I started my next job as a journalist for the Fracking North Conference. TV crews showed up and I got to look impressive in front of some clever people by being the one they chose to interview. The footage was never broadcast, but they don't need to know that.

In November it was back to rabble rousing as we hosted the Northwest launch of the One Million
Climate jobs report, where I was blown off stage by some pretty power union speakers. However it was at least a chance to campaign on something positive for a change.

Somewhere along the line I did some work on the Arctic, signing up various "top influencers" to the Greenpeace Declaration on the Arctic. I bagged Ms Westwood and former Irish President Mary Robinson, amongst others.

So it's been an interesting year. I achieved a lifetime ambition of finally appearing in the Earth First! Journal. I've met interesting people. I've seen a good number of them loaded into police vans and taken away. I've been part of a fantastic team in Manchester that's put on some great events. I've tried to change the world and....mostly failed.

Oh well, at least I tried.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Justice or the climate, which would you choose?

So the Lima talks have apparently ended in 'success'.

If so you have to ask how much more 'success' the planet can take.

Twenty two years after the Rio Earth Summit you really would have hoped that we would have achieved agreement on rather more than an accounting system for greenhouse gas emissions because, whatever way you measure it, we are not doing anything like enough.

Lima also contains another, potentially very worrying, development.

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol  split the world in two. There were Annex One nations who emitted the
most CO2 and who had a commitment to cut down, but only slightly, and then there were the developing countries who got a pass, for now.

The seventeen years since then have muddied this distinction a bit. China and Brazil have raced ahead economically and are now big polluters in their own right, but the fundamental divide between big emitters and small remains.

It's a crude distinction, but there is a certain amount of justice in it. Those who have benefited most from Greenhouse gas emissions should be the first to change. Those who have polluted most should pay first.

The new agreement does away with that. Instead everyone has to cut down and everyone has to pay.

How much has not been agreed. There could be a fair and equitable dividing up of responsibility in Paris, there could be no deal at all, or there could be an agreement that puts the burden of solving the Climate Change problem on those who have contributed least to making it.

You can almost rationalise such a move. Countries with little already infrastructure could perhaps more easily skip the fossil fuel stage of development, places with lots of sunshine could go solar quicker and populations with very little to do could be made to do environmentally beneficial work.

The only problem is that this would require the rich countries to invest heavily in poor ones, and Lima made it clear that's not going to happen.

Instead there remain the possibility that the big polluters will simply shaft the poorer ones.

International trade deals works on the principle that rich countries can put up trade barriers, but poor ones can't and international law works on the principle that tin pot dictators who use torture end up in court, but not US Presidents. So it doesn't require a lot of imagination to envisage a climate deal that sees poor countries making cuts whilst rich ones get richer.

If so, what should an environmentalists do?

Accept the deal? After all, we can make utopia tomorrow, but if we don't sort out Climate Change their won't be a tomorrow?

Maybe, but if there's one thing that we should have learnt in more than two decades of climate inaction it's that bad deals are often worse than no deal.

Believe it or not, back in 1992, the year of Rio, Al Gore and a raft of big conservation groups were trying to persuade us to accept NAFTA. Never mind the effect on jobs, this was going to save the environment. Well, it didn't. NAFTA has been a disaster for the environment, and a whole load of other people.

Then, after Kyoto, it was free market solutions that would save the day. Europe reluctantly agree to a
Carbon Trading scheme which the USA had suggested, and then backed out of. It was (and still is) a disaster.

And so on.

So if someone tells me in Paris next December that's it either justice or the climate I will choose justice, because only climate justice can give us lasting change. It will be bad enough having to spend my old age watching the world turn to dust without also having to live with the thought that I compromised my values for nothing.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Is Shell's 'sustainability' sustainable?

Shell executives yesterday looked out of their office window to see a rather familiar banner hanging off a railway bridge. 

However whilst they may have recognised the corporate colours it certainly wasn't the company's message. Greenpeace had paid them a visit.

One of those dangling off the bridge, Phil Ball, had this time last year been in a Murmansk prison, detained along with 27 other activists and 2 journalists after Russian paramilitaries seized the ship Arctic Sunrise in the Barents Sea.

Their target then had been a rig belonging to Russian state owned oil company Gazprom that was exploring for oil. The Russian state is a key player in the Arctic, but Gazprom have a partner on whom they are even more dependent; Shell.

Shell and Gazprom appear to be doing a 'Good Cop, Bad Cop' routine in the Arctic. Shell are the caring modern company which gets nominated for sustainability awards. By contrast Gazprom seem to be happy to play the role of the thug. However Shell and Gazprom are actually closely allied in the quest for Arctic oil, and Gazprom could not operate without access to Shells' technology. 

Shell have been front runner in the field of 'sustainability' for nearly two decades. It all started in 1995 when in the space of a few months they first received a bloody nose from Greenpeace over their plans to dump the Brent Spar in the North Sea and then the scorn of the whole world when they were implicated in the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other Nigerian activists.

Shell spent $20 million on its counter strategy, which may be a lot in ordinary terms but was a fraction of what it would cost to clean up the Niger Delta. They adopted a strategy of 'openness and dialogue', published a set of business principles including 'honesty, integrity and respect for people'. They launched a global advertising campaign and produced a glossy report entitled "Profit and Principles; Does there have to be a choice?"

The big coup was that the NGO SustainAbility Ltd, previously critics of Shell, were now on board and wrote part of the report. Entitled 'a personal view' their contribution contains the line (on page 52) "a sustainable oil company is a contradiction in terms", a statement of the obvious that Shell made sure didn't appear in any future reports.


Christian Aid responded with a report entitle "Behind the Mask" in which it revealed that Shell's clean up efforts in Nigeria were failing and that many of their community projects were ineffective and divisive. Unfortunately they didn't have $20 million budget to promote it, so nobody took any notice. Shell's reputation amongst 'key opinion formers' recovered.

The company moved into Canadian tar sands, adding another dirty fuel to its portfolio, and then started to tentatively explore the Arctic. Meanwhile in the Niger Delta the gas flaring continues and the local people live their lives in extreme poverty amongst the mess. 

'Key opinion formers' may have forgiven Shell, but in September 2011, in a test of a proposed Law of Ecocide, the United Kingdom Supreme Courts of Justice heard a mock trial of a pair of oil executives of a company not unlike Shell, which had polluted a country not unlike Nigeria, and found them guilty.

Greenpeace meanwhile continued its campaigns. When Putin banged up the Arctic 30 the gloves came off. Activists targeted Shell wherever their logo appeared. Just before 2013 ended the pressure worked and the Arctic 30 were released and Phil was reunited with his MG TF.

In the New Year Greenpeace's changed to Lego, a company whose interpretation of Corporate Social Responsibility actually does seem to mean taking the word 'sustainability' literally. Rather reluctantly they were persuaded to drop a £65 million deal with Shell.

The question now is what can Shell do next? It's hard to think that business people, who may be blinded by greed but are not actually stupid, actually believed Shell had become 'sustainable', but they clearly believed Shell had a strategy to see off the hippies. Whether they still think that may now be open to question.

Money usually triumphs over principles, and spin over facts, but the truth has a habit of coming out eventually. Fellow 'sustainable' oil company BP now has a reputation that is slightly lower than Gazprom's. Are Shell about to follow them down?



Friday, 7 November 2014

Five Songs About Cold War Eastern Europe

It is now 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. A great victory for freedom, Capitalism ... and rock music.

Rock music? Well, sort of.

In the run up to that historic day rock concerts in the West Berlin had helped to stoke resentment against the Communist authorities in East Germany.

In 1987 police had to use truncheons and electric stun guns to stop east Berliners listening to gigs across the wall by David Bowie, The Eurythmics and Genesis. Despite this Ossies appeared to enjoy the music, but then thanks to the Communists they'd not heard the real Genesis with Peter Gabriel.

In 1988 thousands of Stasi were deployed to stop them enjoying Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson, presumably because the ordinary police missed Roger Waters or thought Bad was a pale imitation of Thriller.

In an attempt to defuse the situation the authorities organised gigs in the east by Bob Dylan, Depeche Mode, Bryan Adams, Joe Cocker and Bruce Springsteen. The latter led to thousands of previously good communists singing "Born in the USA".

Then in August 1989 the Russians organised the Moscow Peace Festival. The Soviets clearly decided soft rock wasn't enough and instead booked a line up of the best Glam Metal acts in the world including Jon Bon Jovi, The Scorpions, Motley Crue and Ozzy Osborne.

All this meant that it seemed to people stuck in Eastern Europe that every in the West, and even the Russians, were having more fun than them.

This set the scene for the events that shook the world. (Hmm, so maybe Greece wasn't the only place where rock music changed things) When the wall eventually fell many present described the atmosphere as "a rock-concert" buzz.

Eight months later another rock concert, by Pink Floyd with ex-member Roger Waters, celebrated these events by playing an extended version of their Prog Rock album The Wall. The Wall was never really about the Berlin Wall. In fact I'm not entirely sure what it is about, and I don't think Roger Waters is either.

So here is my list of the top five rock songs that really were inspired by the Iron Curtain that divided Europe for 44 years.

(Click the title to listen to the song)

1. Vienna by Ultravox (1981)

 

But Vienna wasn't in Eastern Europe, I hear you say.

Well, you're sort of right. However for five centuries, as the base of the Hapsberg Emperors and as the capital of first the Holy Roman Empire and then the Austrian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, it effectively ruled Eastern Europe.

Then in 1945 it was occupied jointly by the British, Americans, French and Russians whilst the Allies tried to figure out if the country of Hitler's birth was an occupied nation or Axis power.

This the time in which Carol Reed's classic film of Graham Green's book The Third Man is set.

Ultravox pretty much remade the film to produce their seminal video for this song. Half of it was actually filmed in London, with the rest of it done on the cheap on a quick trip to the real Vienna.

The city continued to be occupied until 1955. Then the Russians left on condition that Austria didn't join NATO and all British, French and American forces left the country. This they all did, apart from my dad's unit of the Intelligence Corps which got left behind in Gratz, or that's what he tells me.

The Austrians then sat out the rest of the Cold War enjoying their grand palaces and entertaining the world with an annual New Year's Day concert played by a Nazi orchestra.

Child in Time by Deep Purple (1970)


Not many Deep Purple songs can claim to be about anything much. Indeed lyrics such as "Black night is not right, I don't feel too bright" are usually as meaningful as they get. There's Smoke on the Water, admittedly, which is about something that did actually happen, but apart from that there is ...errr.....Child in Time.

The song is probably more interesting for its layered composition which allows each member of the band to show off what they can do. Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord try to out do each other with extended guitar and keyboard solos, whilst Ian Gillan turns it up to eleven with banshee like screams. He can't hit those high notes now, so Steve Morse's guitar does the job in live concerts.

The lyrics though hint at a range of Cold War themes, including the Vietnam War that was then still on at the time. The song just sneaks into this list though thanks to "You'll see the line, The line that's drawn between good and bad".  Whether or not you believed this literally, this is how it always came across at the time.

The term Iron Curtain was first used for the barrier that came down across Europe by Winston Churchill in his Sinews of Peace speech in Fulton, Missouri. The symbolic barrier very rapidly became a physical one with mines, barbed wire and armed patrols. In the north the soldiers were on the eastern side, but in Greece it was the West that militarised the border.

Toxica by The Plastic People of the Universe (1974)


The story of rock music in Eastern Europe though isn't just about western bands.

Under totalitarian regimes where even listening to music was difficult, forming your own band was never going to be easy, but some people managed it. Perhaps the most influential group on the far side of the Iron Curtain was Czechoslovakia's Plastic People of the Universe.

The band was formed in the immediate aftermath of the Prague spring, when Soviet tanks crushed a reforming government. The name of the band came from a track by Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention but their main influences was the New York psychedelic scene of the late sixties, in particular The Velvet Underground.

They lasted about a year before their musician's license was revoked, after which concerts were clandestine. In 1976 they were arrested and charged with "organized disturbance of the peace". Band members received between eight to eighteen months in prison. however this didn't stop them and despite regular interrogations and beatings from the police the band continued.

Like the rest of Eastern Europe they were stuck in a bit of a time warp and still sounded like a Woodstock support act when the Iron Curtain came down. Their influence though has been huge and the peaceful revolution that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia became know as the Velvet Revolution after the band that had inspired them.

Budapest by Jethro Tull (1987)


By the 1980s though the Cold War was starting to thaw and rock music became a bit more acceptable in the east. With local talent having been suppressed it was up to western bands too old or unfashionable to play the big venues in the West to cross the Iron Curtain. Jethro Tull were one such group.

Whilst touring Hungary the band, by then all comfortably in The Middle Age, were startled by an attractive young woman serving drinks back stage without her trousers, inspiring this song which appeared on their next album, Crest of a Knave.

Hungary has a special place in the story of Eastern Europe. Twelve years before they crushed the Prague Spring, Russian tanks put down another revolt in Hungary. In Budapest, the majestic second capital of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, they met fierce opposition and the parliament building still showed the damage when I visited in 1993.

By the late 1980s though Hungary was ahead of the rest of the Eastern Bloc in adopting mild progressive reforms. However not all the anti-communists in Hungary were nice social democrats. Hungary's right wing government had allied with the Axis powers in the Second World War and following the Credit Crunch the country has taken an increasingly conservative direction, with Jews, Roma and homosexuals getting the blame.

Rather like the Ukrainian fascists helping the democratically elected government fight the current Russian invasion this a reminder that your enemy's enemy is not necessarily your friend.

Born to Die in Berlin by The Ramones (1995)


I could easily have done a Top Twenty just about Berlin, or even a Top Five of Marlene Dietrich songs about Berlin.

The divided city came to symbolise the entire Cold War, but Berlin has always been a bit of an anomaly.

Hitler couldn't stand the place and spent as much time as he could elsewhere.

The Communist didn't seem to like the place much more. Their arrival in 1945 was heralded by the slaughter and mass rape of civilians, a crime made all the worse for the victims because the world thought they deserved it.

To many outside of Germany Berlin was a defiant two fingers (or whatever the German equivalent is) to Communism. However to Germans Berlin was a strange demi-monde (or whatever the German expression is) that was neither in the German Democratic Republic, nor properly part of the Federal Republic. It was where a young person could get out of National Service and divide his time equally between radical politics and wild partying.

The most influential Berlin band was Ton Steine Scherben. They played in squats to crowds of New Left students in the sixties, and to anarchists and Red Army terrorists in the seventies. To radicals like Ton Steine Scherben the problem with the GDR was that it wasn't socialist enough.

It's no surprise then that the Ramones felt at home in the city. In the end they survived several visits to the place, although all the original members have now expired in different parts of the world. However they are remembered in the city by the only Ramones museum in the world.

The legacy of Berlin's radical culture is rather harder to find. Although Ton Steine Scherben wound up in 1985, their radical fans were in the vanguard in pulling the wall down. Their dream was a united Germany combining Western freedoms with Eastern socialism.

It never happened.

Freedom they got, but also a form of Capitalism not only more ruthless than the Social Democracy which had won the Cold War, but also less sustainable. Germany, it's true, isn't doing too badly, but across the rest of Europe Capitalism now seems as broken as the Berlin Wall.

Since the credit crunch the number of billionaires in the world has doubled whilst unemployment in some parts of the EU is running at 40% and millions are surviving on food banks. The Cold War may have ended, but many people are still wondering when we will really be free.

Anti-Capitalism demonstration, Berlin, October 2011