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I forgot – it’s POOR people who have to work like Chinese, isn’t it?

So Jeremy Hunt thinks (Guardian) that a hefty reduction in the incomes of low earners will encourage them to work hard, like the Chinese, and give them self-respect. He says that ““It matters if you are earning that yourself, because if you are earning it yourself you are independent and that is the first step towards self-respect.” These changes are designed, he tells us, to send “an important cultural signal” about hard work.

Oh. So he’s turned into a radical communist? If this idea – that income should be related more closely to the amount of work done – were pushed through with any consistency his government could start by raising death taxes to something like, let’s say, 99%. He wouldn’t want to take away the self-respect of the next generation, would he?

Equally, of course, institutions such as the Duchy of Cornwall, the royal family, the Duchy of Westminster and, I suppose, all other people and institutions who make their money from rent paid by other people, rather than from actual work, should be abolished or sent to do essential jobs like shelf-filling and garbage collection, as appropriate.

We should then move on, of course to the investment bankers. No one could for a moment argue that they “earn” their sky-high salaries. After all, between them, they carry much of the responsibility for the financial crash for which working people are still paying heavily. But let’s be generous. Let’s assume that they do work long hours, and are not completely without skill, so let’s allow them to earn more than the national average. We might, to strike a balance between fairness and generosity, say that income above £100,000 per annum would be taxed at again, let’s say, 99%.

What, that’s not his thinking?


It’s POOR people who have to work harder and longer for lower rates of pay in order to make ends meet and to earn their self-respect. The rich and privileged are fine as they are. Silly me.

Is the SIAE as bad as they say – Part 2?

So far, in spite of a repeated inquiry, the SIAE have failed to reply. Simona, manager of the “venue” has not been given the money back, although there is some vague talk (that I don’t understand) about offsetting the mistaken payment against future events.

I have therefore written yet again, pointing out that

… all the copyright in the music performed was mine, and I have not assigned the collection rights to anyone else. You (the SIAE) were not entitled to collect it on my behalf.


I therefore need to ask you (the SIAE) this: where, how and when can I collect my money? I would like to give the money to Ms. Ferrari, as I had intended to do the performance for free.

What do you think the result will be?

PS Some of you might like to check out the “Stop SIAE” page at facebook


Is the SIAE as bad as they say?

If you happen to have ploughed through http://alex-wilding.com/2014/03/busking-in-italy/ you will not be surprised about the resentment felt by many musicians regarding the SIAE (the Italian copyright-collecting agency). In the past, this had been a matter of stories that I had heard, but now I am in the middle of direct experience. We will see whether they are the outrageous quasi-fascist leeches that some people say, or whether they will be reasonable. I will let you know how it goes. Here is the story:

Last Saturday I did what is perhaps best described as a “benefit” gig for a local health food shop, where I have performed before a couple of times. Key points are – an audience of maybe up to 30, nobody paid, nobody got paid, and it was combined with a “tasting” of wine and olive oil. Some tables were put out on the little square outside the shop, and I believe that a little bit of extra trade was done during the hour or so that I played. It’s also important to note that I have changed my repertoire, dropping old favourites like “Love Letters Straight From Your Heart”. This is a deliberate policy, tailored for Italian circumstances – I no longer do any songs in which other people hold copyright. To be sure, the current set includes things like “House of the Rising Sun”, and there would indeed be copyright holders for various recordings of that, such as the famous Animals version, or the Bob Dylan version they learnt it from, or the Dave van Ronk version that Bob Dylan learnt it from, before which it was known as a more “generic” sort of blues. So those *recordings* would be copyright, and if you play them as background music you might be liable to pay copyright fees. But the song itself goes back further.

Unfortunately I did not make it clear in advance to Simona, who manages the shop, that this was the case and she, since there had been more publicity, went to see the SIAE and ended up paying 70 euros! Now the only person with any claims to hold copyright in what I performed is myself. Arrangements of some of the old standards are mine, and some of what I played was indeed my own composition. I have not, however, assigned my rights to any collecting agency, let alone the SIAE. They, therefore, had no right to collect fees on my behalf. If they say that my music is subject to their authority (which clearly isn’t), then I would want to know how and when I get my share of the €70. (Yes, fat chance of that, I know.)

I don’t know what Simona’s markup is, so let’s say that it’s 30%, just the sake of argument. That would mean that she would have had to turn over an *extra* €230 during the hour. Again, I don’t know what her sales were, but it’s hard to imagine that it came to that much.

The upshot is that the work of organising the performance and of giving it served one benefit: fattening the salaries and pensions of the SIAE staff, and boosting the copyright payments to their favourite people, none of whom had anything to do with any of the music that was played.

Anyway, they have been approached and informed that the whole thing is a mistake. Who knows? Perhaps they will say, “Oh, sorry, here is your money back”. We will see.

Busking in Italy

This post began as a response, on a closed Facebook group, to a question about busking in Italy. By the time I’d written it I realised that I have collected a fair amount of information and it might be worthwhile “putting it out there”. On the other hand, I am well aware that there are things that I don’t know, and things that I might have got wrong, so I would be very grateful to hear from anybody who knows better. I will edit any other information into the text here.

I began by saying that I really hoped that the questioner would go ahead with the busking plan. There have been some moves in the direction of liberalising small-scale music in Italy, but the fact remains that the atmosphere is still pervaded by attitudes lingering from the Fascist era. (This is not meant as a cheap shot, but as a statement of fact.)

I myself only have a very small experience of busking (and none of that was in Italy), but it’s something I strongly support.

In principle, there is no law against busking in Italy. In that respect, it is much like Britain: apart from nuisance and obstruction, it’s all a question of bylaws. Some bylaws can be structured to encourage good busking, and there are places in England and elsewhere that have done that. Here in Italy, the situation seems to be very mixed.

Since you are likely to come across officials who do not know the law, or who do not agree on the meaning of the law, you will be well advised to make life as easy as possible for yourselves by sorting out as much as you can in advance.

You will therefore want to know what the position is in the commune (pronounced a bit like “ko-moo-neh”, a municipal authority) concerned. The place to start is almost certainly the office for the local police (vigili); if it’s not them, they would almost certainly be able to tell you where you should go.

It is perfectly possible that you will be met with a smile, made to feel welcome, and told what you can do. It is also possible that you will meet the opposite. There is an interesting description of how bad the situation is in Firenze at http://thesummerjanuaries.com/there-is-no-busking-in-florence-italy/ .

There are, unfortunately, other parts of the bureaucracy that you might have to deal with. One is the people who handle the question of copyright, the SIAE (I think it’s pronounced something like “see-aah-eh”). In theory, for a small performance, you should no longer have to worry about them very much, but it’s possible that they will see things differently. Musicians largely hate them (except for a small number whose pockets they line). I have heard of cases where performers have paid a couple of hundred euros for the rights to present a performance (I think this was a concert-hall setting), as a result of which the composer got no more than a couple of euros. Essentially they are just extracting a tax, much of which feeds themselves and their own pensions. There is another case of the musician who had to pay a lot to perform *his own* compositions, but did not even get that much back. Much will depend here on what you are performing. If you are singing modern standards, they will be able to come for you with all guns firing. If you are doing classical pieces, or your own compositions (provided you haven’t been foolish enough to register your compositions with them or any other collection association like the PRS, for whom they claim representative rights), or traditional material, you should be fine. There have been cases (this is for small, organised events rather than busking) where the SIAE have insisted that a fee for copyright is paid in advance of the performance, and that when they, in their wisdom, finally agree that it none of it was under copyright protection, they will at a later stage return the fee – minus their own management charge, as you may have guessed. Do not imagine for a minute that the SIAE has a close resemblance to Britain’s PRS.

I have prepared the following statement, and am keeping a copy in my instrument case. It ought to help in the event that the “music police” turn up, but the acid test has not yet been tried. Please feel free to copy it and keep a print-out with you. First, the English version:

All music performed or likely to be performed is either my own composition or is of traditional origins. Some versions of some pieces may have been used for copyright-protected publications or recordings at some stage in the past. In all cases, however, my versions emerge from a wider background predating those publications or recordings, in combination with my own creative work.

And the Italian (this translation has been checked by an educated Italian musician):

Tutta la musica eseguita, o che può essere eseguita, o è di mia invenzione o ha origini tradizionali. Qualche versione di alcuni pezzi potrebbe essere già stata ulitizzata per pubblicazioni o registrazioni protette da copyright. In ogni caso, però, le mie versioni emergono da uno sfondo più ampio anticipando quelle pubblicazioni o registrazioni, in combinazione con il mio lavoro creativo.

It is worth bearing in mind that if you do spontaneously play in something like bar, do not be dismayed if the bar manager gets very excited and tells you to stop. The law is such that whoever is construed as the “organiser of an event” is responsible for paying the fees, and there is a high fine for failure to do so. The bar manager has little or no choice but to stop an unplanned performance of live music. (This, of course, is part of what many people would like to see change.)

It is even possible that ENPALS (a statutory sort of insurance/pension fund for people in the performing arts) will come after you, especially if you do at any stage perform in a bar, club, hall, whatever. I heard of a case where some Irish musicians, totally not professional, struck up some tunes in a bar in Italy, and in due course the ENPALS people said that they were “obviously” professional, and therefore they must pay into the ENPALS fund. Someone I know who is a full-blooded professional concert pianist is dismayed by ENPALS, to whom he must pay 20% of his earnings, because he knows there is no way he will ever qualify to get anything back. He said that he would need to perform something like two or three concerts a week for 40 years to qualify. Here, however, you are in fact on safer ground. One of the few reasonable things in all these regulations, is that you are exempt from these charges if you are a) a student less than 25 years old, or b) simply a young person less than 18 years old, or c) a pensioner who is 65 years old or more, or d) paying into another statutory pension fund for your main work, and if, in addition, you are earning less than €5000 per year from your music, then you are exempt. All you need is a “self declaration” which you can download from the net, print, sign, and keep with you. If you can’t find it, I can send you a PDF.

There is, across Europe and elsewhere, a movement to encourage busking and the enrichment that it brings to local culture. But it can be a battle, especially in places (and Italy is not the only one) that like to see everything tidied up, documented, licensed, charged for, approved or not, and generally under the control of the authorities. So I really hope you go for it – let us know what happens!

A summary of the position was helpfully provided by someone else in that group:

Busking is ok in pedestrian areas, but requires a police (“vigili” – the local police) permit. It is free and easy to get. Just show your documents and fill out a form.

Don’t bother in Rome. Tuscany, Emilia Romagna and Ferrara are particularly relaxed about it.

In Milan, You have to go to the police station close to Duomo/San Babila metro, give your details, pay a very small amount and book your slots for the week. They give you a paper permit which you can show to police.

What else needs to be said?

There is a kind of busking project you can read about at http://thebuskingproject.com/


So to flesh this out a bit, we have a friend, whom I know to have very little cash, and certainly none to waste. He held a private party in the village hall – there were perhaps 40 people present at the particular time when I was there. The music played was mostly either traditional or the “invention” of the performers. There was a group playing mostly Irish traditional music, a group of more electrically oriented young lads, and one or two other “acts”. Possibly it’s true that one or two numbers with copyright protection crept in there somewhere. For this pleasure he had to pay around about €140 to the SIAE, and had to fill in all the stupid forms (the famous and hated “bordero”), listing what was performed. The contents of this form was mostly, he admitted, made up, so we know for a fact that the sum of money was entirely at the disposal of the SIAE for their salaries, their pensions, and the people whose pockets they like to line to keep everything sweet.

I checked what the position would be in the UK with the PRS for Music. There would be no fee. The PRS was careful to say that technically they would be allowed to charge a fee, but that they choose not to charge for a private party. (You can see the exact details on their website.) That would probably even have been true even if copyright recorded music was played all afternoon.


The Thatcher funeral

I am a free citizen of the United Kingdom. The police have no business whatsoever telling me whether and when to stand to attention, sit, wave, smile, salute, two-finger salute, hiss or boo. And they certainly have no business at all telling me which way I should face.

This has nothing to do with “respect for the dead”. If it were about that, Mrs Thatcher would have had a funeral with family and old friends, some of whom of course would have been her political allies. In that case it would have been quite wrong to show disrespect. We, who disrespect her legacy, would have been right to simply stay away and let her survivors mourn in peace.

But that is not what’s going on here. This is a huge piece of political theatre, exploiting her final departure to trumpet the Thatcherite legacy. As such, it begs for a theatrical response. Those who decided to stage a quasi-state funeral are the ones who took this out of the realm of respect for the dead, and into the realm of demonstration. The demonstration might be one of power in the form of gun-carriages and other military pomp, or it might be one of objection, through turning the back.

And it is the right of any one of us to do so – the idea that permission is required is appalling.

Bank robbery

So if we didn’t know it before, we know it now: the financial system has become too important for the health of our society.
Without so much as a by-your-leave, without warning, in the face of repeated assurances to the contrary, and in conflict with the EU’s own market rules, money is being taken from all sorts of people. All you need is to have money in a bank in Cyprus, and the Cypriot government will help itself to some. Not the slightest regard is being given to what is fair, or to whether the victims can afford to lose their money. Money for which they may have worked hard, with which they might have been about to buy a house, which might be their total life savings, and on which in many cases they will already have paid tax.

For one, brief, naive moment one might dream that the banks themselves would say, “Hey, that’s our customers’ money, you can’t just take it.” But that would require believing that banks have the interests of their retail customers at heart. My imagination doesn’t stretch that far.

If I may quote from the Guardian:

Sharon Bowles MEP, chair of the European parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee, said she was appalled by the savings levy, saying it “robs smaller investors of the protection they were promised”.
Bowles added: “If this were a bank, they would be in court for mis-selling.”
“The lesson here is that the EU’s single market rules will be flouted when the eurozone, ECB and IMF say so. At a time when many are greatly concerned that the creation of the ‘banking union’, giving the ECB unprecedented power, will demote the priorities of the single market, we see it here in action.”

And if the precedent is set, how many more governments will decide that the way out of a tight corner is simply to raid the bank accounts of their citizens?

So perhaps it is time to dust off that old cake tin, fill it with your spare cash and put it back under the floorboards. The risk of fire or of (conventional) robbery may not be so much greater than the risk that your government will one day simply decide to help itself.

At the time of writing, debates are still going on, and it is possible that the Cypriot government will in the end reject this deal and go some other way. That makes damn all difference: the fact is that they thought of it.

It may even turn out that the proposal comes to be regarded as unbelievably stupid and insensitive but again: they did think of it. Those in charge at the EC, IMF and the ECB looked at bank accounts, the small bank accounts of the young, the old and the poor, and all they saw were a few numbers. They never saw the people who worked, who saved and who trusted the banks to at least keep the money safe. It turns out that it really is safer under your mattress.

Those of us who have options to keep even small amounts of money in different countries will need to consider where we put it. Germany? Sure. The UK? I think so. Italy, Portugal, Spain? Better not. There are thieves about.

The Dancing Dolls of Castagnetoli

It is well known that the story of Pinocchio is said to have been written by Carlo Collodi when he was living in Pontremoli. Is it possible that he was inspired by the story of the dancing dolls of Castagnetoli?

Castagnetoli is supposed to have 40 regular inhabitants – it is one of those places that has become depopulated over the years, and the process seems to be going on still. It is a couple of kilometres off the “main” road, about 10 or 15 minutes by car from Pontremoli.

It is said that if you are lying awake in Castagnetoli at about two o’clock in the morning on certain nights of the year you may hear the clickety-clack, clickety-clack of the little porcelain feet and the tippety-tap, tippety-tap of the little wooden feet as the dolls skip down the narrow alleys of the old village. Slipping out from the backs of their dusty cupboards and their cardboard boxes, they make their way out of the old homes to dance in the moonlight, perhaps in the little Piazza, or perhaps outside the church. Their music, so I hear, sounds a bit like the Sardinian pipes, though a bit higher in pitch and more silvery. The rhythm is well-supported by the sound of their feet, and can be quite complex.

The story goes that this is most likely to happen a night or two after the full moon, especially if the sky is clear, and particularly near the “cross-quarter” days, halfway between the solstices and equinoxes. Perhaps that is because, like Pinocchio, they themselves are “half-way” beings, not human but not exactly fairies either.

Like fairies, though, it is probably not advisable to try to watch them, though I haven’t come across any stories about what happens if you do catch a glimpse.

Birmingham food markets

So yes, about the markets.

I mentioned in the last post how fast food outlets seem to be swamping the country. While in Birmingham I went to Marks and Spencers food hall in search of one particular condiment. That was a mistake. I have the impression that M&S used to be noted for good quality food. All I found was the thinnest of thin choices of pre-packaged ready-meals, food and drink that is perfect for a pre-packaged lifestyle. Fifty flavours, but all one taste. Pre-packaged, sanitised imitations of various “world” cuisines, a synthetic failed simulacrum of interesting food, quality-controlled into near-identity, but all of it aspirationally packaged. (I didn’t even find the item I was looking for, and had to go to the nearest Asda when I was in the north-east of England where there was plenty of it.)

Anybody who really has aspirations to eat well will not go anywhere near the place, but will go a few yards down the road to the market. There you find thin people, fat people, black people, white people, people from British, Indian, African, Caribbean, Chinese and south-east Asian backgrounds buying and selling food that is interesting, far superior in quality to anything you’d find in a supermarket, as fresh as you can get without collecting it yourself – and cheap!

These videos were just taken wandering around with my little compact camera, but try to imagine that you are there. I started outdoors:

And then there is indoors:

Not to forget the rag market, but I don’t have video of that.

Let’s not be too hard on Prince Andrew

It could be worse. After all, although there is no reason to believe he is actually stupid, he is clearly not particularly bright. He was trained from birth to believe that he was a thick cut above almost anyone else. This putative superiority is inherent. It does not depend on the things the rest of us try to trade on: wit, intelligence, looks, charm, physical prowess, hard work, artistic accomplishment… That’s pretty much what “hereditary monarchy” means, isn’t it? He gets his £249,000 a year from the queen just for being, well, a cut above. After all, it is unlikely but not inconceivable that he could become King of England. So he really is a cut above, isn’t he?

If I may borrow a term from computer marketing, these “features” of his personality are probably just what’s needed for somebody who is going to swan around fixing arms deals with the oil-rich leaders of oppressive regimes. Correct me if that’s not what his job was. So, well done Andy for that. And if you think it’s immoral, as you may well, take it up with the British Government and the arms manufacturers, not the poor old Duke of York.

If the royal family actually had significant power, somebody with those features could be a tad more worrying. It could be worse.