For the majority of my working life I’ve nearly always had jobs that involved writing; whether that be putting together press releases and articles as Marketing Manager for both The Tower Arts Centre in Winchester or the West End Centre in Aldershot, being a full-time copywriter for Adare International, or the four years I spent as Deputy Editor for Hampshire Media‘s stable of three weekly newspapers and two magazines.
Over the years I’ve written and edited copy for clients such as IBM, MoneyGram, Wells Fargo, Lloyds TSB, Roche Pharmaceuticals, and Lenovo. I’ve written press releases, articles, corporate whitepapers, sales manuals, financial forms, video scripts, radio adverts, web copy and various other forms of marketing collateral.
While at Adare International I also led the team that produced the Design Business Association’s ‘Inclusive Design Challenge 2008’ award winning entry ‘Mindbook’.
Alongside the Hampshire Media titles of the Mid Hampshire Observer, West Hampshire Observer and Basingstoke Independent, my work has been published in The Hampshire Chronicle, Amplifier Magazine (US), City Limits, Due South Magazine and the Euro Weekly News (Spain) amongst others.
I also wrote a youth theatre adaptation of the HG Wells classic The War of The Worlds, which was performed by the Winchester Live Performing Arts School at the Theatre Royal Winchester in 2012, and again in 2017 by students of St George’s International School in Luxembourg.
The three examples below comprise of a short extract from the English language tourist guide to Salobreña (written for the Oficina de Turismo Salobreña / Ayuntamiento de Salobreña in Andalucia), an article about Sharon Manitta of Democrats Abroad (which appeared in the Mid Hampshire Observer), and an interview with the San Francisco band American Music Club, which was published by Amplifier Magazine.
El Castillo de Salobreña
Almost eight centuries of Islamic presence in Salobreña have left its mark – an influence that can be seen in many of the town’s urban areas – but, without doubt, its most significant landmark is the Castle.
Although the layout is in keeping with others built during the Nasrid period, the castle in Salobreña is a combination of both Islamic and Christian architectural practices. The inner area comprises the former Nasrid fortified palace, with the outer areas (which were built by the Christians at the end of the 15th century) serving as military defence structures.
During the era of the kingdom of Granada (which was founded by Ibn al Ahmar), Salobreña became one of the region’s most important coastal towns – and its great fortress was seen as the seat of power. This was not only true of its central areas, but also a wider district that included the surrounding fertile plain (with its sugar cane, rice, and banana trees), the mountains to the north (for breeding stock and terrace cultivation), and the sea – which was the main trade route for the hugely important fishing industry.
The 14th and 15th centuries constituted its era of splendour; it became a summer residence for the Granada monarchs and was also used on various occasions as a prison where dethroned sultans were held. The first on that particular list was Yusuf ibn Muhammad.
The sultan Muhammad VII had taken the throne, despite the aforementioned Yusuf (his brother) having equal rights to the title of Monarch. Yusuf was sent to Salobreña Castle as prisoner, where he stayed for 11 long years.
One day, Muhammad VII became very sick, and on the last days of his life, to make sure that his son – and not Yusuf – would be the future sultan of Granada, he ordered his imprisoned brother to be sentenced to death.
When the messengers of the sultan arrived at Salobreña castle to deliver the verdict, they found Yusuf playing a chess match with the prison’s Chief. Yusuf asked for a last wish, which was to finish the chess match, and they accepted. Then, like Bobby Fisher in ’72, Yusuf delayed and prolonged the chess match in any way he could, buying himself as much time as possible. He knew the sultan Muhammad was on his death bed, and he also knew that his supporters in Granada (who were very upset at the unjust death penalty) would come to his aid. The plan worked, Yusuf’s game of chess outlasted his brother’s life and, in 1408, the victorious prisoner finally became the new sultan of Granada, Yusuf III.
The end of the Muslim occupation witnessed a deterioration in the structure of the castle; due in part to the repeated battering of the walls in the many sieges it was subjected to. In December 1489, as a reward for the conquest of Salobreña, Francisco Ramirez de Madrid was appointed ‘Commander of the Castle’ by the Catholic Kings. It retained its military importance until the eighteenth century, but although there were many periods of renovation, it soon fell into a state of ruin; by 1849 it was almost completely abandoned as a military base. To make matters worse, the earthquake which occurred in January 1494 destroyed some of the towers and parts of the fortified walls. Much of it was subsequently rebuilt – but it never regained its former splendour.
Throughout the year, the castle gardens are in bloom, and (from the towers and battlements 110 metres above sea level) there are outstanding views of the plain, coastline and mountains. All these features make the castle one of the most visited landmarks on the coast and, as night falls, the floodlit castle is one of the most beautiful monuments in Andalusia.
We, The People…
As the media continue to discuss and dissect the finer points of the forthcoming war with Iraq, one official voice remains strangely unheard; the voice of the American majority, the voice of the party that polled more votes than anyone else in the 2000 Presidential election – the voice of the Democratic Party.
Sharon Manitta describes herself as ‘part genetic defect, part political junkie’ and works as a Self-Employed Textile Conservator based at the Wiltshire County Council Conservation Centre. She also has another job, and it’s a fairly impressive one, too. She’s the Press Officer for the Democratic Party Committee Abroad, an organisation that takes in over thirty countries, holds seats on the Democratic National Committee and is treated as the ‘51st State’ by the rest of the main party.
Originally from New York State, Sharon started off her political career at the age of 12, stuffing envelopes for JFK in the 1960 election. Later, at Drew University in Madison, she had her phone tapped by Tricky Dicky, a dubious honour but an honour none the less.
On New Years Eve 1977 she pitched-up in England, armed only with a frightening knowledge of politics, history, and fashion. She went to work.
“It took me about a year to find Democrats Abroad”, said Sharon, “and when I finally did it turned out that the chair lived only four blocks away from me in London!”
Juggling two jobs can be hectic at anytime, but Sharon remains committed to both her conservation work and the political arena, she claims to cope by adopting an age old CIA tactic; “If you’re being tortured it’s best to distract yourself with another form of pain, and in a way, that’s what I do. I have no desire for elected position, but I firmly believe that I have an obligation to democracy. That I have to put something back. Voting is just so important, if you don’t vote, how can you complain? And the less people who do vote, the more unsavoury those elected will be.”
Mobilising the overseas vote is one of Sharon’s main considerations. She doesn’t care who you vote for, as long as you vote, and to that end encourages any US Citizens living here (whatever their political leanings) to make contact, and they’ll be pointed in the right direction.
“You have to register in each year that you want to vote. If you registered in 2000 and you want to vote in 2004, then you’ll have to register again. But it’s a small price to pay.”
The conversation naturally turns to the impending crisis in Iraq. I wondered how different things would be if it were President Gore holding down the top job?
“That’s very difficult to say. The general trend of the Democratic Party is against the war. Trouble is, there are so many positions an individual can take; should we go it alone? Should we get a second UN resolution? Are we against war on any account? Maybe Bush and Blair know something we don’t? It’s a question that transcends politics, but we are not gung-ho for this war. Whatever anybody says, Middle America does not wake up every morning wanting to kill people.”
In the UK and US press, the American anti-war movement has been almost completely overlooked, but Sharon assures me it’s there.
“There were marches from San Diego to New York, thousands of people took to the streets, but it just wasn’t reported. It’s somehow seen as un-American to be anti-war, it’s as if the McCarthy era has returned; the feeling is that if you don’t support what Bush is doing you’re being unpatriotic, but Bush did not win Florida, he shouldn’t be there. What’s happening in America is driving me nuts, but I love my country and I am a patriot”.
America, if you needed to be told, is a big place made up of many different people. In fact, that’s the point of the place. A nation founded on the huddled mass of immigration that headed West in search of a better life; a melting pot of cultures, races and religions who found a collective identity under the stars and stripes. The American nation is no different than any other nation, we are not defined by our leaders, we are all individuals.
So, if you ever get tempted to tar all Americans with the same Bush-covered brush, just stop and think of Sharon Manitta and the millions like her.
I’m sitting outside a London coffee shop with American Music Club. A guy wanders over. “Hey, my favourite band in the world,” he says. “Do you take requests?”. Mark Eitzel, lead singer and major songwriter, answers in the affirmative: “Sure, what do you want us to play?” Suddenly, the guy goes blank. “I can’t think of anything,” he stumbles. “Don’t worry”, reassures Eitzel. “We can’t remember them all. And those we can suck.”
Mark Eitzel, if you couldn’t guess, is a fairly modest man. He’s also thoughtful, polite and well mannered. I try to buy him a cup of coffee but he’s not having any of it. In the end, my money goes to the waitress and his goes on the table. “When this is all over,” he says, “if you pick that money up and put it in your pocket, I’ll be a happy man.”
Between 1983 and 1995 American Music Club produced a string of albums that stand-up to this day. They sounded different, a rolling, tumbling collection of songs that put everybody else in the shade. Here was a band who were happy to try new things, who merged country, rock and roots influences. A band who had a pedal steel player. A band whose skyscraping sound could nail you to the floor in a heartbeat. A band with Mark Eitzel writing the songs. Could it get any better? There are those that think not.
And then it was all over. Eitzel went on to release a much loved collection of solo albums, Danny Pearson (bass) went on to play with Clodhopper and do his solo thing, Tim Mooney (drums) set up Closer Studios in San Francisco and Vudi (guitar) moved to LA, bought some cool hats and started driving a bus. Ten years later, and these four guys are back together. Older, wiser and with a new album, ‘Love Songs For Patriots’, that sees AMC pick it up where they left it off. But this is a leaner and meaner AMC. An all new AMC that knows and understands the power at their disposal.
“It feels like a new American Music Club because we’re playing more confidently now”, says Eitzel. Tim Mooney suggests his own theory: “To me, it feels like the same old American Music Club. But with a lot more energy than we had at the end there.” Eitzel thinks about this for a second. “Yeah, I know, I guess that’s the way I feel. I was thinking about that this morning while pondering one of the new reviews from back home”.
Throughout their career, AMC have been plagued by the tag ‘depressing’. It’s an easy shot for journalists and an even easier one for those who don’t get it. But is it true? Sure, if you count depressing to mean clever, considered and honest. There’s a wealth of humour in AMC, it may be as black as coal but it’s still there. If a song such as ‘Blue And Grey Shirt’ makes you want to slit your wrists, then you probably shouldn’t be buying records in the first place. To me, AMC have always sounded hopeful, they may tell a sad story, but they get up the next day and go back to work., just like the rest of us. It’s real life. Destinys Child telling kids to eat at McDonald’s – that’s depressing.
“It’s lazy journalism,” states Eitzel. “I mean, aren’t we beyond the miserable thing yet? The rictus of pain? I mean, please? I don’t think this record is all so depressing. I mean I bet the last Guns And Roses record was more depressing than this record.”
To illustrate the point, here’s their version of a small reunion show they did six years ago. As the story is told in Sean Body’s excellent book ‘Wish The World Away’, this tale seems full of heartbreak, lost hope and broken relationships. But to hear AMC giggling their way through it now, you realise just what great friends they are, and just how stupid the ‘depressing tag is.
Eitzel: “Six years ago we did a little reunion show opening up for Danny. That was interesting.”
Vudi: “Was I there?”
Pearson: “You were sitting at the bar, you didn’t want to come on stage!”
Eitzel: “You were like, I’m not playing Western Sky ever again!”
One thing is for sure, Love Songs For Patriots is a huge record, packed with great hooks and ripping choruses. They produced it themselves and seem to feel ‘more ownership’ of it than their previous records. “It’s a lot looser,” stresses Eitzel. ” Because we don’t have Vudi in the city all the time, we didn’t have a chance to sit there and really practice and practice and practice and practice and practice. So basically me and Tim and Danny would just come into the studio, try the songs maybe seven or eight times until we felt like it was done. There were no laboured processes, no ‘let’s try it like Flipper’ or ‘let’s try it like the Rolling Stones’. It was just, okay, that sounds good, we’re done.”
So it sounds like the album they wanted to make? Mooney: “I think so. We were hearing Mark’s new songs, learning them, recording them, trying to capture them fresh.” And if AMC carry on from here, Eitzel sees no reason to change the methodology. “I’ve produced records before, Tim’s produced records before, we all have. What’s the point in spending all that money on getting someone else? Tim has a full-on studio, we’re not lo-fi people.”
Later that evening, AMC play a storming set to a packed house. The audience hang on every word and the band are on top form. They fill the old songs with new life and the new songs with their old passion. They laugh, they joke, they stumble and they succeed. AMC live are a very real proposition. You feel that anything could happen, and quite often it does. It’s one of the reasons they mean so much to people. Eitzel: “The security of being able to do a good show every night – the feeling in your bones that when you go on stage it’s going to be good. That feels great. To me that feels better than sitting at home looking through my cuttings or worrying about the bands who’ve ripped us off. That stuff is worthless.”
“It means something to me that it means something to others.” Says the soft spoken Mooney. “When you’ve had a hard day and you’re stuck in the van trying to get to Munich or wherever you think ‘I could be doing better things than this’, then when you get to the show, whoever’s there is pleased to see you and you just have to be responsible enough to give them the best you can.”
“Or at least give them something that’s real,” counters Pearson. Mooney thinks for a second “I think we always pull off the real,” he says. Eitzel laughs: “Unfortunately, we always pull off the real” And if they didn’t? “We’d probably be super-successful!”
A call comes through and it’s time to leave. We say our goodbyes, shake hands and American Music Club wander off to the soundcheck. I pick up Eitzel’s coffee money, put it in my pocket and walk the other way. Everybody’s happy.