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I'd Rather Go Blind - Chicken Shack

Before the sad news of the deaths of Ennio Morricone and Peter Green respectively, we were reminiscing about the vintage years of arts development in the London Borough of Islington in the 1990's. Those were the latter days of the "loony left" Labour Councils, so called by the popular press because they operated a policy of equal opportunities both in recruitment and service delivery, a practice that was by the year 2000, unanimously adopted - at least in name - by all boroughs, Tory included. After all, what was the point of recruitment if you didn't choose the best candidate available regardless of gender, race, colour etc etc. Nor could any self respecting local authority claim to be doing its job properly if it wasn't serving all, not just some, of its tax paying citizens. In the beginning, however, it was the Labour Councils who introduced these practices, euphemistically named "political correctness" or "pc" by the tabloids who constantly tried to dig up examples of its ridiculousness, often making them up, so that stories like the banning of the nursery rhyme "Baa Baa Black Sheep" circulated regularly.

In Islington Arts and Entertainment, we saw ourselves as being in the vanguard of the movement, and this was reflected in our programming which included community work that reached all communities - Indian, African, West Indian, Chinese and so on, as well as targeting women, people with disabilities, the young, the old, the Irish and the lesbian and gay community to name but a few. In fact, we used to joke that the only thing we couldn't programme or fund were middle-aged, white males, which, by and large, was true. We were pioneers, and our work was regarded as being vital for what is now known as "community cohesion" as well as the development of local businesses. For example, the fact that, prior to lock-down, Upper Street, N1, possessed one of London's few genuinely thriving "evening economies" that was not fuelled mainly by alcohol was due in no small part to our development and funding of theatres and music venues which in turn fed into custom for restaurants, pubs and late night opening for shops.

I was one of the four heterosexual, white, middle-aged men in a department that by 1992 numbered twelve. All of us had to undergo the appropriate equal opportunities training as, although we all believed in the principles involved, we were always learning, particularly from the particular communities themselves. What would amuse me, was the way in which people often subconsciously did exactly what they were trying to avoid doing. It was a kind of politically correct Tourette syndrome (PCTS). We first noticed it when our manager, known behind his back as "the Big Banana" or "BB" (this was not a racial slur as he was white and indeed given the epithet by our then Black Arts Officer who was, needless to say, black. Interestingly, his successor inherited the title, so it was nothing personal) was preparing us for a meeting with one Chris Smith - not the MP but the Managing Director of an organisation that represented disabled artists. He had muscular dystrophy, a degenerative condition that progressively weakens muscle function throughout the body. BB warned us that we should always talk directly to Chris even though we might not understand what he was saying and it had to be articulated by his carer. When Chris arrived, the introductory niceties were barely over when, while getting the coffee order, BB turned to the carer and asked "Does he take sugar?"

In the same vein, I often noticed how sighted colleagues in meetings with blind people would load their conversation with visual metaphors like "but can't you see the problem here?" or "it's like looking for a needle in a haystack" and so on.

Perhaps the finest example of PCTS occurred when I was walking down the street with a fellow arts officer, Ros, and we happened to bump into a lesbian couple who had been partners for upwards of a decade and who we had both worked with several times on projects over the years. We hadn't seen either of them for a while, so there was much effusive hugging between the three women, while I, dutiful male, stood back and let them catch up. Ros asked them how they'd been, and the answer was "good, all things considered" but when they asked Ros the same thing, she replied, "Oh you know, always having to stick my finger in the dyke". From my slightly withdrawn vantage point I saw Vicky and Sinead exchange a look out of the corners of their eyes, before carrying on as if nothing had happened. As we walked on, I told Ros what she had said, and she, instead of being mortified, scoffed "oh don't be ridiculous, they knew what I meant."

Christine McVie, wife of bass player John McVie, joined Fleetwood Mac on some tracks for their next album, "Kiln House" and drew the cover artwork, but it wasn't until the next LP, "Future Games" that she actually joined the band. Prior to that she was lead singer and keyboard player for the blues rock band Chicken Shack. The Shack's first two albums made the UK charts, as did their cover of Etta James's "I'd Rather Go Blind". McVie, then known by her maiden name of Perfect, doesn't make the mistake of trying to compete with the vocal on the original, opting for a "less is more" approach, letting the words and the blues do the work for her. The backing brass section is so restrained that they seem to watching their step, and Perfect's two finger keyboard is so minimalist it's subtlety itself, paving the way for a final sparkling guitar solo by Stan Webb that, like the icing on a simple but delicious sponge cake, sets the whole thing off.

As for equal opportunities in councils, it's more and more a thing of the past. After a decade of central government "austerity" cuts, people, usually friends or relations of existing employees, get in on a part time basis through the back door, then nab any new full time vacancies with no outside competition due to the fact that they are only advertised internally to minimise redundancies in the current financial climate. Nowadays working at a Council often feels like being at a particularly dreary wedding party.

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