Sunday, December 11, 2005

Independent on Sunday: New Wave

The Broader Picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by Olivier Renck: opens in a new window

Various board sports - whether based on surf, snow or wheels - have ridden their own waves of popularity over recent years, but sandboarding seems like an unlikely candidate to follow them. The least-known member of the boarding family has actually been around in its modern form since the 1970s, and claims to have a heritage every bit as ancient as the granddaddy of them all, surfing (the ancestral home of sandboarding is Egypt, where local drop-outs were strapping bits of wood to their feet to descend dunes and shout 'dude!' at one another back when their more industrious relatives were busy building pyramids).

Popular sandboarding spots can be found around the world (in the UK they're on the coasts of Devon and Wales), but they all pale into insignificance next to the one pictured. Cerro Blanco in Peru is the tallest sand dune in the world, with a peak 4,000ft higher than its base (which is a similar 'vertical drop' to that offered by many Alpine ski resorts).

Like all board sports, sandboarding's infancy has been dominated by a strong DIY ethos, and websites such as still tell you how to make your own board using plywood and Formica. But the sport is growing and a creeping commercialisation is evident in the numbers of manufacturers now selling boards. Proof indeed that Peru's sand may soon be as important to board-sports culture as Hawaiian surf or Rocky Mountain snow.

Sunday, December 4, 2005

Independent on Sunday: The Day The Music Died

The Broader Picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by Henry Leutwyler: opens in a new window

This Thursday, 8 December, marks the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death. He was murdered by Mark Chapman, a paranoid schizophrenic who used this revolver, a Charter Arms Undercover .38 Special, to fire five hollow-point rounds at point-blank range at the former Beatle, four of which hit him in the back, killing him almost instantly.

Since then, the murder weapon that is probably second only to Lee Oswald's rifle in the significance of its impact on popular culture, has been kept in an anonymous storage facility attached to the NYPD Police Laboratory (as portrayed in the CSI: New York television programme). It was only spotted by chance earlier this year by photographer Henry Leutwyler while he was working on another project.

"I was on assignment for a story on the illegal arms flooding the market in New York City," he explains. "The police precinct in Jamaica, Queens, collects and archives all the illegal guns that they manage to seize in the streets across the five boroughs. It's very, very secure - it's all below ground - and it's like going to the museum because every gun is labelled, every gun is displayed. So they showed me around, and I started picking out guns to photograph. And all the way in the back, there was a chair with a newspaper clipping on it from 1980, talking about John Lennon's death. And on top of the paper was a gun."

The staff working at the facility confirmed that it was indeed the gun used to kill Lennon, and said that the facility was also the place where the casings of the five bullets used would be kept, but then couldn't locate them. While it seems astonishing that what will seem to most people to be important historical artefacts could be stored in such a casual, almost careless way, Leutwyler says that the people who worked there didn't appear to consider this single handgun to be anything special.

"They're very jaded," he explains. "They have gold Berettas and they have bazookas and they have hand grenades and, for them, well... it's just another thing that killed someone."

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Fishing For Time

The Broader Picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos: opens in a new window

The stories behind great photographs almost always involve an element of chance. Steve McCurry knows this well. He made his name in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in 1978, but says it was "coincidence" that he found himself working as a photographer there. "I hadn't really planned doing that kind of work but I just sort of fell into it, then got intrigued and ended up 25 years later having been there 20 or 30 times."

He has won numerous awards in his career since, and created iconic, unforgettable images, such as the green-eyed Afghani girl he photographed in 1984 for the cover of National Geographic. But he maintains it's all unplanned: "When you leave yourself open to experience a place, magically things happen. Some of the best situations I've photographed are things I've kind of stumbled upon " I don't really think it's much more complicated than that."

Indeed, the image on the right, taken in Sri Lanka in 1995, was a "surreal vision, these little shapes" that McCurry only spotted while driving past, but perhaps it serves as the best metaphor for his technique. "It's a unique way of fishing," he says. "But I was struck by how quickly they can catch fish."

'Steve McCurry' by Anthony Bannon (Phaidon, £14.95) is out now. Face of Asia, an exhibition of McCurry's photographs is at Asia House, 35 New Cavendish Street, London W1 until 31 January, tel: 020 7307 5454

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Mouth Watering

The Broader Picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by Michael Dwyer / AP Photo: opens in a new window

Farmers the world over have a close affinity with water, regardless of whether they have too much or too little of it. But cranberry producers have a closer relationship than most. During the normal growing season, the marshy wetlands where cranberries are cultivated require about an inch of water per week. The bogs are also flooded twice a year: once in winter, to cover the vines with water and protect them from frost and dry winds; and again when it is time to harvest the berries.

It is the harvest flood - which takes place anytime from September through to November - which is the most spectacular. The bogs are covered in up to a foot of water, to allow the ripe berries to float to the surface for gathering.

But why go to so much trouble? Cranberries hardly seem worth the bother; they're small and taste rather tart, after all. But this versatile fruit can be both good for us (its saintly juice is high in antioxidants and fights bacteria) and rather bad for us (when put to more sinful use in a Sea Breeze or Cosmopolitan).

And this week the cranberry takes on perhaps its most important role, as the US prepares to celebrate Thanksgiving Day on Thursday. The cranberry is a native of New England, where the Pilgrim Fathers began the custom of Thanksgiving by celebrating their first harvest in 1621, and cranberry sauce is now as much a part of the traditional menu as that other American native, the turkey.

Sunday, November 6, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Jungle music

One telephone, dirt roads - and a 200-strong orchestra. Keith Laidlaw discovers how classical music is changing lives in one Amazonian town.

One of the dictionary definitions of the word "baroque" is "extravagant or bizarre". This is the one that seems most fitting when applied to the idea of an orchestra made up of native Chiquitano Indian children playing Vivaldi on the edge of the Amazonian jungle. They are from the small town of Urubicha in north-east Bolivia, about 150 miles from the country's border with Brazil. Despite having only dirt roads, a single public telephone and, until last year, no meaningful electricity supply, the town has its own touring orchestra.

The story starts over 300 years ago, at the end of the 17th century, when a group of Jesuit missionaries travelled to this area intent on spreading the word of God to the natives. They came not only armed with bibles, but also carrying a wide variety of musical instruments including string, woodwind and brass. Their hunch, that the language of music was a more effective way of communicating the teachings of God than prayer and preaching alone, proved correct. Indeed, the Chiquitanos they met proved to be adept musical students, learning to build instruments as well as play them in the European style. Eventually, some even began to compose, writing requiems, fugues, sonatas and - in at least one case - an entire opera in the Baroque style the Jesuits taught.

Unfortunately, this harmonious relationship came to an abrupt end in 1767. The Jesuits had stood up for the local people being forced to work in the region's gold and silver mines. (omega) But, rather than give in to their demands, the area's rulers, representing the interests of the Spanish Crown, decided that they had had enough of the do-gooding missionaries interfering in their affairs and promptly expelled them, killing off the brief flowering of South American baroque.

Almost a century later, in 1856, missionaries returned (this time from the Franciscan order) and founded the town of Urubicha, but it took rather longer for classical music to make a comeback in the Guayaro region. It was the arrival of Father Walter Neuwirth in the 1960s that made the difference. While the first missionaries had been seeking to connect the locals with God, Father Neuwirth was desperate to reconnect the locals with each other and reverse a decline in the community which had seen many former residents leave to start new lives in the city. So, in 1989 he enlisted the help of a young Bolivian violinist and conductor called Ruben Dario Suarez Arana, who had attended the Cordoba State Conservatory in Argentina, to start teaching a few local kids part-time in Urubicha in the church grounds. The lessons grew more popular and eventually, in 1996, the town's school of music was officially opened.

Now, in a town with a population of just a few thousand peasant farmers, the orchestra numbers over 200, and has performed at venues across South America, as well as visiting France and Spain. It hasn't been easy, however. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and towns such as Urubicha certainly reflect this. Money is tight here, making it difficult to buy things such as strings for violin bows, never mind the instruments themselves. But the woodwind and brass sections are usually equipped through donations from better-off orchestras abroad, while the stringed instruments, such as violins and cellos, can be made by local craftsmen.

Suarez Arana has since been asked to help neighbouring towns and villages form their own schools of music and, with the aid of teachers who are graduates from his first school, the orchestra in Urubicha has become the catalyst for a musical renaissance in the region. Learning to play an instrument may not solve the problems of poverty the children will still face, but it certainly helps to teach them that, with the right attitude and a bit of effort, miracles can sometimes happen.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Independent on Sunday: America's Least Wanted

Thrown out of the US for their criminal activities, these men have been banished to lawless Cambodia, a land they fled as child refugees. The result: alienation, gangsterism and one almighty clash of cultures.

The US has come up with a unique way to prevent some young felons from reoffending that's far more effective than any amount of Asbos, electronic tags or curfews: when the criminals reach the end of their sentences, the government simply sends them to another country - permanently.

As part of a diplomatic deal struck between the US and Cambodian governments in 2002, the children of refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s who have subsequently run into trouble in their adopted land are being deported. The problem is that most of them were babies when they arrived in the US, and have little knowledge of their "home" country - some have never even set foot in Cambodia before now.

They have been arriving monthly in groups of around 10, and it is estimated that there are over 1,000 more in the US who are eligible to be sent back. Unfortunately, while it may be a easy way for the US to wash its hands of troublesome citizens, it merely moves the problem elsewhere - and exacerbates it in the process. British photojournalist Luke Duggleby spent time with the men and says they arrive angry and confused.

"They get released from prison, then they get sent straight to a quarantine detention centre," he says. "From there they're put on planes and flown over. A lot of them arrive still wearing prison uniforms. They really resent the US government for doing it. They all say that, basically, it is just an extension of their prison terms."

Having grown up in the US, the men think of themselves as wholly American, and almost all are struggling to come to terms with their new surroundings. "The local Cambodians see them as foreigners," says Duggleby, "and that's why it's such a big problem. It's hard for them to merge in because not many of them can even speak Khmer."

Many of them first ran into trouble because of gang-related crime, so their first instinct is often to gather together and follow the same path. This is all too easy in their new home, where problems such as prostitution, drugs and violence are rife. "Cambodia is completely lawless," says Duggleby. "Then these guys come from America and crime is the only thing they've ever really known, so it's just natural that they slip back into it." (omega)

Thankfully, the men are now receiving some help in adjusting to their new surroundings, but not from any government. Instead, Bill Herod, an American with more than 30 years' experience in development work, has set up an organisation called the Returnee Assistance Project to try to give the young men some help in adjusting to their new home.

The problems he faces are as varied as the offences that the men committed before being deported, which range from relatively minor domestic and drug crimes, through gang-related violence to armed robbery and serious assaults. Most are housed initially in a small centre that he calls his "guest house" to help them find their feet, but, some have more serious problems and have to be held in secure facilities.

"One of the places is nicknamed Alcatraz," says Duggleby. "It has round-the-clock security and huge fences. Most of the guys there are on heavy medication. There was one who, in the psychiatrist's report he had from the US, said that under no circumstances should he ever be let out into the community. But they just sent him to Cambodia."

Herod bears the scars of working with such difficult - and damaged - young men. After struggling to prevent one of the returnees committing suicide by drinking a chemical solution used to unblock drains, some of the solution splashed into one of his eyes, blinding it permanently. However, he remains positive about trying to help, and believes that, despite all the problems they face, the returnees have an opportunity use their experience to make a break from their previous lives and start afresh.

Duggleby, a 27-year-old from York, was initially intimidated by the men and their gang-related pasts, but agrees that there is hope for them.

"They're big guys and when I first met them they were all very loud and boisterous. But, once you get to know them, well... I still keep in contact with quite a few of them as mates. Some of them are good guys who were just in a bad position and got caught. They didn't expect that they were going to get sent back to Cambodia."

To find out more about the Returnee Assistance Project, visit

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Good Sports

Broader Picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by Joachim Ladefoged: opens in a new window

Visit any US sporting event and, regardless of whether it's being held in a tiny high-school gym or a 100,000-seater stadium, you can normally rely on one thing: cheerleaders. Their perfect smiles and never-say-die exuberance are a cliche that's as all-American as apple pie or Disney World.

But the days of pom-poms and titillation are being phased out. A new era of crowd encouragement is taking over the US, and now it's serious. Well, perhaps not all that serious, but certainly more complex and acrobatic than it was.

Pictured are the men (that's right, it's not just for the girls anymore) and women of the all-conquering University of Kentucky team, reigning national champions, and holders of the top title in cheerleading for nine out of the past 10 years (a squad from Central Florida broke their otherwise perfect run in 2003). While the level of athleticism required is obviously impressive, the students have other reasons to be passionate about cheering, not least the fact that those who make the top team are rewarded with full scholarships.

It may seem alien to us here in the UK - but, with falling attendances and widespread boredom apparently blighting Premiership football this season, how long before Manchester United's new American owners decide that maybe something is missing from our national sport?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Body And Sole

The Broader Picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by Ingo Arndt: opens in a new window

When we think about important parts of the body, we rarely consider the soles of our feet. Perhaps it's a case of out of sight, out of mind, but they carry us almost everywhere we humans go. We may have planted flags on the moon, but the footprints left behind seem a more poignant and fitting memorial of our visit. And in the animal kingdom, where feet tend to arrive in numbers of more than just two at a time, soles must be even more important. The tracks that paws and hooves leave behind in soft ground have been familiar to man from the days of the hunter gatherers onwards, but the bottoms of the feet themselves are seen far less often.

German wildlife photographer Ingo Arndt has set out to change this by revealing the hidden world of toes, pads and claws in a series of remarkable pictures of the undersides of animal feet. His project took in lizards, birds and mammals and, while each species is obviously different, each individual foot is also as unique as a fingerprint. Almost all of the animals were found in zoos (except for the leopard he somehow coaxed into posing for him on a farm in Namibia), and they ranged in size from an African elephant to the tiny lizard pictured. Indeed, the foot of the Madagascar day gecko (Phelsuma madagascariensis) is only about 1cm wide in real life.

"It was very difficult to photograph because geckos are very fast," explains Arndt. Placing it on slippery glass so that he could see it from below didn't slow it down either, because geckos have around half a million tiny hairs on each foot that let them cling to even the smoothest of surfaces. "And it's not easy to find really beautiful, colourful gecko feet," he continues. "Geckos are all colourful from the upper side, but from below they are, most of the time, just grey."

The effort was clearly worth it, however, as the images won Arndt third prize in the Nature Stories category of this year's prestigious World Press Photo awards, marking another small step towards man's understanding of the animal kingdom.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Halfway to Paradise

Golden sands, swaying palms, whitewashed picket fences... a new photography project will make you see the streets of Brixton in a whole new light, says Keith Laidlaw.

London can be a confusing place to live sometimes. Its seven million residents hail from every corner of the globe and together speak over 300 different languages. Taken as a whole, it is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, but each small area within this huge urban spread has its own peculiar mix of cultures and sense of identity.

Chris Anderson and Alison Locke decided to explore one example of this in their local area of Brixton. They commissioned three artists to paint large Caribbean-style backdrops which they took out on to the streets: to the market on Electric Avenue; to some of the area's many churches; and to the closest thing Brixton has to a beach, Brockwell Park lido. They were inspired by the way small photography studios often use exotic backgrounds to add glamour to family portraits, but here the paintings instead highlight connections and contrasts between Brixton and the West Indies.

The resulting photographs are individually charming, but together form a unique portrait of an area with a complicated history of migration and assimilation. "Although Brixton is a strong Afro-Caribbean area, there is incredible diversity," explains Locke. "We photographed white people, Columbians, Eastern Europeans, Afghanis..."

The artists are now collating their photographs for an exhibition, and planning an opening night party to which everyone they photographed is invited. "Because it's a community project, we wanted to allow the people to get something back and so everyone receives a photograph of themselves." says Locke. "We're hoping that as many people as possible will come along to pick up their own picture, but also reflect on how it fits in with this mass of photographs about their own community."

'Brixton Street Studio' will be showing from 8 September until 7 October at the 198 Gallery, Railton Road, London SE24

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Gothic Classic

As America's most famous painting celebrates its 75th birthday, Keith Laidlaw looks at how Grant Wood's homely masterpiece became such an important - and parodied - symbol in the U.S.

It is a painting that seems, at first glance, to be an unlikely cultural icon for today's America. First exhibited in 1930, Grant Wood's imaginary couple in 19th-century Iowa are drab, old-fashioned and austere, more like traditional, Northern-European Presbyterians than citizens of a country about to define our modern age. Even the painting's name, American Gothic, invokes the dark horrors of the old world rather than the bright hopes of the new (although it actually refers to the architectural style of the wood-panelled house in the background).

But the pair also appear stoic and hardworking, and can be seen to represent a rigid mid-Western conservativism that, from the pioneers to present-day Republicans, has become America's dominant moral force. In a new book about the painting, Steven Biel notes that the painting, even more than symbols such as the Stars and Stripes or Statue of Liberty, has "helped create American identity" by giving it a white face and "locating" it in a generic middle ground of classless Middle America.

Wood always maintained the painting was intended as a celebration of the simple folks it portrays, although many critics allege it is a sneering caricature. Whichever is true, the other images shown demonstrate that it is parody which has really cemented the painting's iconic status.

'American Gothic' by Steven Biel (£13.99, Norton) is out 22 August

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Really Wild Show

Minstrels have travelled across Nigeria for generations, providing entertainment and selling traditional herbal medicine. And, by including hyenas in their act, this entrepreneurial troupe is laughing all the way to the bank, says Keith Laidlaw. Photographs by Pieter Hugo

Entertainers, charlatans, musicians, animal wrestlers, snake-oil salesmen, fighters, drug smugglers, magicians, extortionists... it's hard to find the right words to describe Abdullahi Amadu and his family of wanderers. Indeed, "family" probably isn't quite the right word either - a concept that is far more loosely defined in this part of the world.

The men describe themselves as minstrels or performers, and they certainly cause a stir when they walk into town with their animals in tow, attracting a crowd as soon as they appear. All they have to do is pass a school for classes to be cancelled as the children run out to follow the men around town for the day instead.

Contrary to what we may imagine, wild animals are a rarity in the south of Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. Hyenas and snakes in particular create a mixture of fascination and fear among the largely urban-dwelling locals. Quite apart from their size and natural ferocity, hyenas are thought by many to be attached to the spirit world. This is because the genitals of male and female hyenas appear virtually identical, engendering a popular belief that they can change sex at will. Snakes also have a powerful mystical symbolism in a culture whose dominant religions - Islam and Christianity - often play second fiddle to traditional beliefs and superstitions.

A typical performance will start with one of the men being "attacked" by his hyena. Then, once the man has fought and beaten the animal, the monkeys - often dressed up in mini soccer kits to represent famous footballers - appear by flik-flakking their way into the crowd and then "asking" for money by holding out their right paw (Islamic influences mean using the left hand to give or receive here is forbidden).

The show mainly serves as a sales pitch for the various charms and potions the men make. The reason they can handle wild animals safely, so the story goes, is because they are protected by the potency of their muti or magic, and this power can be bought. If any onlookers remain unconvinced by the men fighting off hyenas, which unbeknown to the audience have been rendered docile through a combination of beatings and drugs (indeed, the muzzles the animals wear are largely for effect), then large, poisonous rock pythons are produced to persuade them further.

Photographer Pieter Hugo first became interested in the group after seeing an image of one of the hyena men on a news website. Hugo, a South African photojournalist, has a particular fascination for people who are marginalised from mainstream society, so he set off for Lagos to find them. When he eventually tracked the group down in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, he discovered a group he felt were something akin to new-age travellers. "They don't strike me as corrupt," he explains. "They're just having a good time."

After spending over a week with them, Hugo says they spend much of their free time drinking malt and getting high on a cocktail of marijuana and less familiar but seemingly more potent concoctions. Then, as the sun goes down in the evening, they engage in a ritualised form of fighting common among their tribe, the Hausa, one of Nigeria's three main ethnic groups.

But along with drug-abuse and the hint of extortion in their performances, this troupe are implicated in more serious criminal issues. Before Hugo caught up with the group, a local newspaper had reported that two of the men had been shot by police following an armed robbery. However, the men deny this version of events, saying instead that their comrades were shot attempting to run a roadblock without paying the police one of the bribes that are part and parcel of everyday life in Nigeria. The truth, like so much here, is unclear.

With over 200 languages and endemic corruption, Nigeria is a place that is both cultured and anarchic, and also very difficult for Westerners to understand. Indeed, Nigeria is a very good example of how little most of us know about Africa as a whole: it has a similar land mass to South Africa, boasts a population three times as big and has a far poorer economy. Yet, contrary to what we might expect, in Nigeria literacy rates are higher, life expectancy is longer and, perhaps most dramatically, HIV infection rates are around a quarter of those in the country's richer relative to the south.

So, while we may see superstition and cruelty, the men in the group see things very differently. Amadu's family has lived this way for generations, and the magic they sell seems real enough when they are risking their lives trapping the animals in the wild, or on the rare occasions when the hyenas turn on their handlers for real. As for questions of animal cruelty, this is simply a subject few have even even considered in this part of the world.

And, while these men are largely welcomed for the entertainment they provide and services they sell, we cannot say the same about the way we treat our own travelling populations. Perhaps, to paraphrase Nelson Mandela, the way a society treats its travellers is a reflection of its character.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Pump Action

With young Lycra-clad girls and not a charcoal briquette in sight, these certainly aren't your average garage forecourts. Keith Laidlaw discovers a place where petrol stations don't need Nectar points or free mugs to tempt in the customers.

Standing on the forecourt of your local petrol station, waiting for your car to drink its fill of unleaded, you might have noticed the odd booth-bound attendant or two staring vacantly at you. Normally acne-ravaged youths, quietly contemplating how they ended up in this world of button pushing and polyester clothing, it's hard to imagine that their job could ever be sexy. Even in the US, a land that is defined by the romance of the open road, and where the car is king, the traditional image of the pump jockey is a fairly unappealing mix of dirty dungarees and the reddest of red necks.

In Rio de Janeiro they have other ideas. Brazil is a country synonymous in most people's minds with passion and sex, and here even the garages have a little extra glamour. Nine out of 10 drivers are male, so perhaps it should be no surprise that many petrol stations boast attractive young women manning the pumps. And, in suburban areas where competition is fierce, practical garage overalls disappear in favour of more revealing outfits.

Adding further fire to this heady mixture is the Brazilian government's latest efforts to cope with ever-inflating international oil prices by promoting the use of cheap alcohol as fuel. OK, so maybe the four-star ' ethanol coursing through the pumps isn't exactly what you'd serve up during a romantic meal, but surely the fumes are bound to have some sort of intoxicating effect on the Latino passions of customers and staff alike.

But the locals don't see it like this; indeed most barely notice the girls at all. This is a culture where many jobs are split by gender, so women pump petrol just as they work as maids or receptionists. And where there are young females working together, skimpy outfits are rarely far behind. But the cheerleader-style uniforms are more girl band than stripper, and are far less offensive than the type of calendars often found pinned up in UK garages. Indeed, the defiant teenage stares or carefree smiles of the girls photographed here say more about the politics of age than that of gender.

In a way, what is strange is that this phenomenon hasn't spread wider. Even in countries such as ours where car use is less gender-biased, the cars themselves are still seen as a resolutely male territory; they are boys' toys. We may think that feminism has wiped out such sexist ideas, but one glance at the blonde 'pit-lane lovelies' who grimace their way around any motorsports event or car show would soon disabuse you of that notion.

It could be argued that a balance could be struck by creating separate women's forecourts. In the 1980s Athena poster shops created a whole sub- genre of female erotica based around garage workers, so there's no reason why we couldn't also have hunky guys flexing their muscles in cut-off denims on the forecourt - at least in the summer months.

But, should any of us ever cast a baleful eye over that barren wasteland of pumps and anonymous cars and wonder if the whole thing wouldn't benefit from a bit more colour, a bit more pizzazz, a bit more sex appeal, we can console ourselves with the thought that at least garage attendants in Britain don't requiring tipping.

Sunday, May 8, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Gum Control

We leave it behind seats, under tables and trodden into the street. Keith Laidlaw looks at the latest solutions to a multi-million pound problem we seem to be stuck with.

Looking more like a painter's impression of polished pebbles in a stream than blobs of goo in the gutter, these images beautifully illustrate an ugly urban problem that just won't go away: chewing gum. Confectionery companies sell almost a billion packets of the stuff every year in Britain alone, and local authorities spend around pounds 150m trying to get rid of the resulting mess. These photographs were taken on London's Oxford Street and show just a few of the estimated 300,000 pieces of gum the busy road has stuck to it at any one time. [Read full article]

Saturday, February 5, 2005

NME: The Blame Game

Marilyn Manson is too easy a scapegoat when a disturbed teenager kills his girlfriend, says NME's Keith Laidlaw.

Murder is always shocking, particularly when the victim is a teenage girl. So when 16-year-old Luke Mitchell was found guilty last week in Edinburgh of killing his 14-year-old girlfriend Jodi Jones in a brutal attack, the revulsion expressed in the press was totally natural.

However, in the rush to portray Luke as a monster, once again alternative culture became newspaper shorthand for dark, weird and depraved. Much of what was reported in hysterical tones about Luke's behaviour won't seem so shocking to most of us: listening to goth and grunge, dressing in black, smoking cannabis, having sex underage - even self-harm. Far more disturbing were Luke's violent fantasies and obsession with knives, but many commentators saw little distinction between these and other aspects of his life.

What didn't help was that part of the prosecution's case hinged on Luke's love of Marilyn Manson. Famously implicated in the Columbine school massacre, Manson made for a convenient bogeyman in this case too.

In fact, the policeman in charge of the case believed Luke murdered Jodi in a fit of anger after she confronted him about two-timing her. Manson's name came up in court mainly because of the similarities between the way Jodi's body was mutilated after her death and the injuries of Elizabeth Short, a Hollywood actress murdered in the '40s. This so-called "Black Dahlia" case is an interest of Marilyn Manson's and Luke owned a copy of his painting of Short's remains. But to suggest that Luke was somehow motivated to commit murder by the painting is far-fetched. Luke had a history of mental instability which made him far more dangerous than the morbid preoccupations which settle on millions of teenagers at one point or another.

Of course, calling yourself the God of Fuck is unlikely to endear anyone to the moral majority, but it is astonishing that anyone can still believe Manson's pantomime "satanic" posturing could be a malign influence on anything other than the good taste of an otherwise sane person.

The only thing proved in court is that a sick and disturbed young man did something abhorrent. Unfortunately, it's still easier for some to blame alternative music for society's ills than face up to our failings in helping people to fight their inner demons.

Keith Laidlaw is occasionally driven to violent thoughts by listening to The Others

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