Do you think I'm sexy? Rod Stewart. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
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Never underestimate how unbelievably boring we all are

Rod Stewart laps it up in the BBC's first History Hour of 2015.

The History Hour
BBC World Service

“Light and shade for you this week,” cheeps Max Pearson at 2am, presenting the first of 2015’s History Hours (4 January, 2.05am), the weekly slot that showcases historical reporting, from the Battle of the Bulge and Hong Kong’s 1967 riots to the Kyoto conference and the release of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. “In a moment, a post-World War One tragedy concerning servicemen returning to Scotland,” says Max, “but before that . . . the biggest ever free party on a beach!” It’s a segment on Rod Stewart’s humongous New Year’s Eve 1994 gig at Copacabana, featuring a recent interview with the Epoxy Resined One himself, who turns 70 on 10 January. “I thought there was, like, 30 rows of fans at most . . .” mused Stewart. In reality, there were 3.5 million people in the crowd and 35 million watching on the box. Rod’s spatial awareness is about as good as mine. Three and a half million: that’s like the entire population of Uruguay.

Never, ever underestimate how unbelievably boring we all are. Or forget that the biggest-selling album in the world is Thriller and the second is The Eagles: Greatest Hits. Stewart’s faithful Swedish production manager Lars interjects, entirely without double-entendre: “You are enormous down there. Enormous. Down there. Enormous.” This, Rod takes seamlessly as his due. “I love it down there,” he says. But then adds Scroogeishly, “It’s one of the hardest places to work, mind you. Down there. They’ll tell you one thing and do another.”

“The morning sun when it’s in yer face really shows yo age,” goes the song in the background and you have to admit it sounds pretty good. Followed by snatches of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy”, played in such a way that immediately indicates it’s the stadium version – the kind that stretches out like a fat man in a hammock while you go off and look for more ketamine – and no doubt featuring Stewart’s session favourite Jeff Golub (RIP. Best blond curls in rock, bar Daltry) casually walking about the stage while noodling away convivially on his guitar, occasionally approaching the 300-foot-high sound desk and staring at it with his back to the audience for another unhurried 15 minutes, as though reprogramming a gas metre. Still, the crowd are lapping it up. “I think they’d been drinking a little.” No shit, Rod. 

The Biggest Rock Concert Ever is available on BBC Radio iPlayer until 3 February

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood