Charity makes people do strange things run marathons, buy records nobody in their right mind would ever want to listen to, immerse themselves in baked beans for days at a time. Last night, in the name of charity, I found myself locked for more than half an hour in a glass pod hundreds of feet above the Thames while Jo Brand told funny stories, with no possibility of escape.
Is it possible that charity has gone too far? The occasion was Flight 5065, a miniature arts festival sponsored by Cafe Direct, the fair-trade coffee people, in support of Africa 05, the Make Poverty History Campaign and general niceness. For one evening, each of the London Eye's 32 capsules was turned into an entertainment venue. Punters would be whirled high over the city while being treated to music, drama and/or comedy by performers from Britain and Africa: Turin Brakes and Beth Orton, Arthur Smith and Boothby Graffoe, theatre by Wole Soyinka.
The concept is easy to explain, fiendishly complicated to organise: all the complications of a Live Aid-style gig accelerated tenfold, and then put on a moving conveyor belt. Not surprisingly, it ran horribly late.
I went round twice, the first time with Damon Albarn, who was there in his capacity as impresario rather than as frontman of Blur, promoting Kokanko Sata, a Malian musician signed to his label, Honest Jon's. She sings and plays the kamelen n'goni, the "huntsman's harp" a sort of kora accompanied by a brilliant drummer: music that is tremendously simple in its combination of repetitive arpeggiated figures and repetitive drum-beats, and fiendishly complicated in its syncopated rhythms. I was pleased, largely because the proffered alternatives included a topical theatre piece.
The experience of listening to African songs while wafting above the blueish haze that rings the London horizon was extremely pleasant, but also rather odd: British reserve seemed heightened by the crowding, so that the music, which ought to have had us all dancing, felt devoid of effect. Albarn gamely clapped along, though, eventually cajoling some audience members.
I asked him what he thought the purpose of the evening was: he said he thought that among all the mess was some sense of wanting to see wealth shared out more fairly; and he hoped Sata would go away with a good impression. He is a very polite young man.
Second time around, I was with Jo Brand, who is quite rude. She said that her last pod had been full of people who kept asking "Where's Damon Albarn?"
Her monologue included a number of themes familiar to anybody who has followed her career, or just heard of her: the awfulness of men, being fat, etc. She had also incorporated some site-specific elements namely, encouraging her audience to make signs of "joy and happiness" at occupants of neighbouring pods. This was not difficult, since they looked to be having a much nicer time.
She mused, too, on the culture of charity, about which she had suspicions: indeed, she was being paid handsomely to perform, she insisted. She adduced the story of a friend who saved money on Band Aid by taping someone else's copy.
But on the whole, the atmosphere of excitement and goodwill was overwhelming satisfying for the organisers, if difficult for those us who don't really do goodwill. Indeed, I am contemplating a new brand of coffee, playing like Death Cigarettes on the public's morbid and cynical side: Exploitation Coffee, which will promise "Rich flavour, and richer middlemen." Any takers?Reuse content