Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Any sufficiently advanced special effect is indistinguishable from reality*

I've just read a biography of Philip K Dick, perhaps well known for the films based on his stories - Blade Runner, Minority Report, Payback and Total Recall. No, I won't be reviewing it here, I've been asked to do that for a magazine. That's right, be impressed.

Dick was - to put it mildly - an interesting character, whose writings seem to have been a combination of science fiction speculation and exploration of his beliefs. To give an example, in his book Valis, he surmises that the Roman Empire never ended, that we're actually living in AD 70, and that all the information to the contrary is artificial and is being fed to us by an external agency. As I say, interesting chap, and you can certainly see the influence of this kind of thinking in films such as The Matrix.

Dick believed that the world as we know it is not 'real' - or, at least, not the ultimate reality. That we could step out of our everyday existence like a gamepiece taking a leap off the board, and see the true, and full extent of reality - or, as he felt happened to him in 1974, that information about the true nature of reality could reveal itself to us. Not dissimilar in its way to Huxley's comments about the doors of perception, the Gnostic and romantic ideas, and of course Plato's concept of Ideals - that there is, for example, an ideal perfect image of a triangle, and any kind of attempt on our part to draw a triangle is just a faint echo of that ideal. And there are medieval woodcuts which show people poking their heads beyond the clouds of earth, and seeing the great cogs and levers that make keep the universe in motion.

It's not a new idea, this one that if you could just peel away the accepted surroundings of reality like an actor tearing away the backdrop of a play, though interestingly it's been loosely connected with modern scientific theories, such as superstring theory, in that they both seem to agree on the idea of additional dimensions (in superstring theory, often over a dozen additional ones, a notion which really bends the brain) existing in parallel, if not the same space (if you want to see more about the way modern physics and older ideas can converge, you could do worse than read 'The Tao of Physics' by Fritjof Capra).

However, I often find myself vaguely disappointed by the idea that there's just the one reality lurking behind everything, that like Neo in the Matrix you could awake from the dream that you've believed to be real, and find yourself in the ultimate reality, whatever that may be. I find it more appealing to imagine that there may well be countless levels of reality lurking beyond the fringes of our perception, to be revealed slowly and steadily without end, like peeling at an infinite onion.

The form these infinite layers of reality might take is, of course, a sticky question, as is that of their origin, though I must admit I have a certain fondness for the idea that what we call fiction may in fact be a form of reality; that the fates visited upon fictional characters by their creators is not only reminiscent of the old idea that the gods play games with mortals, but is also in its way an echo of the manner in which our own demiurges manipulate our lives, as you or I might steer events in a game such as The Sims.

Scientists have, in some seriousness, put forward the idea that reality as we know it could be a simulation programmed by intelligences far beyond our understanding, and to my mind, that's not a million miles from the idea that we could be characters in a story or other form of entertainment. The physicist David Bohm suggested (I paraphrase) that life makes little sense to us because it's unfolding from a dimension beyond our comprehension. Which, again, I find resonant with the idea of existence as form of fiction (and vice versa), steered by unseen hands.

I suppose the idea that fiction has its own reality has its most obvious examples in fully-worked out and detailed fictional worlds such as Tolkien and Star Trek, but those stories which come without maps and technical schematics still have their roots in reality, as all stories are essentially born of 'what if..?' plus some extrapolation from life as we know it. Which suggests that all stories are effectively tales of worlds which developed differently from our own to greater or lesser extents... or, in other words, that they take place in parallel dimensions, where these things are as real as anything we hold to be real.

And of course the infinite number of stories that can be told links with the infinite nature of this situation as I like to imagine it (granted, it's often said that there are only seven stories in the world, and all tales are just variations on that, but I'd argue by analogy that there are only three states of matter - well, four if you count plasma - and that the variations on those are similarly limited only by our imaginations, and we don't seem close to running out of ideas for objects quite yet).

It's a moderately strange notion, I guess, that there's a parallel universe where Heathcliff stands brooding at the fireplace, and another where Wonder Woman's just leaving Paradise Island, and yet another where Iago's hiding a handkerchief (and so on ad infinitum), but I think it's a more cheerful one than the notion that my understanding of reality is actually everything there is. Philip K Dick talked, in one of his final interviews, about other levels of reality, and asked 'what if our world is their heaven?' which is a good point, and makes me wonder whether upon departure from this realm we might similarly find ourselves in a dimension different from our own, but which, when viewed from outside, appears to be a mere fiction. You might leave this reality and rise to one where Columbo is a real person, but that reality might be an imaginary story when viewed from another realm.

What happens if you live in a story, and don't know that's the case? What happens when the story ends?

And is there any reason why those questions are any different for you and I on this level of existence, compared to the Columbo-is-real-universe referred to above? Why is that?
*Apologies to Arthur C Clarke

Monday, November 28, 2005

However, I do like the line about “squandering the rest”

When I was a callow youth (it was like the Hitler youth, only we used to worship an actor instead of a failed painter) in the 1970s, TV was still broadcasting variety shows.

One that I recall was ‘London Night Out’, which I seem to remember was on ITV on Wednesday nights. I’ve since heard it referred to as a variety show which was essentially built around the game show within it (Name That Tune), but regardless of whether or not that was the case, it did feature a – yes – variety of acts.

I remember they featured singers, the occasional comedian, and maybe some magicians now and then. The usual sort of thing. But one thing I distinctly recall is that frequently the revelation of the identity of the artist topping the bill came as a definite non-thrill to me. The dialogue chez myfolks would usually go something like this:

TV: And topping the bill tonight… Frankie Laine !
Me: Who?
Parent: Frankie Laine.
Me: He’s not famous.
Other parent: Yes, he is. He’s been around for donkeys’ years.
Me: Well I’ve never heard of him.

Ah, the assurance of a 7-10 year old, convinced that if someone hasn’t strayed onto the radar of their awareness, it’s as if they don’t exist…

Anyway, all of this is a lengthy preamble before getting onto a more topical subject than TV shows of the late 1970s: the death of George Best.

As someone of a certain age with minimal-to-nil interest in football, the current hoo-hah about Best dying leaves me fairly unmoved; mainly, I think, because for as long as I can remember, George Best has been someone who USED to play football but was now more famous for drinking and generally living a bit of a laddish life (before that term had really been invented, or at least co-opted by marketing people). Whilst I’m led to believe that he was a very good player (albeit one who stopped pretty young), his talent never had any kind of impact on me as a spectator or supporter.

So his death strikes me with the same kind of impact as … well, the death of anyone else, really (you can insert your own Donne quote here): sad for the family and loved ones, but um well, that’s about all the emotional effect it has on me. Many other people died on Friday as well, but of course they didn’t get the same coverage, regardless of how much they’ll be missed and how much they enriched the lives of those they touched. Which is more than a little off, I think.

Though a part of me can’t help but wonder if some of the media get a certain amount of satisfaction – schadenfreude, as it were – from the events of Best’s life, as they tend to portray him as pretty much frittering away his talents, as they often claim about Peter Cook. And if you’re someone who doesn’t possess a natural ability to do something that impresses people, be it football or making people laugh or anything else, perhaps there is a certain (rather cold) comfort in recounting the unhappy or premature end of someone who had that ability in abundance.

Thankfully, though, that part of me’s outvoted by the part that’s optimistic about human nature.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Return of the Stray Thoughts

1. Perhaps I'm just being a bit picky, but to me, the branding of the Eccleston-era Doctor Who DVD boxed set as 'the Complete Series One' seems rather off the mark.

2. You work for HSBC, and have falsely suspended John's bank account despite his objections. John lodges a complaint, which is acknowledged, and an investigation commences. During this investigation, should you:
A) Send him a letter inviting him to upgrade his account to 'bank account plus' for an extra £12 a month?
B) Send him a letter telling him he's a valued and important customer, and that he's been pre-approved for a credit card?
C) Suspend his account once more without notifying him ?
D) All of the above, on consecutive days?
(The answer is D. I kid you not.)

3. I see that the DVD release of the comedy series 'Extras' is only available in one edition. I think this is a wise move as it prevents people having to go into shops and ask for 'the Extras DVD with the extra DVD with the DVD extras'.

4. Female circumcision is a vicious and abhorrent act of mutilation. A man having his penis cut off is a rich source of humour. Discuss why this is, using your own words as far as possible - extra points will be awarded for accurate use of the term 'socialisation', and reference to the work of Lorena Bobbit.

5. Will, I wonder, the location of the 2012 Olympic Village have any effect on the storylines in EastEnders ? I'd like to think so, though as anyone who lives in East London will tell you, the programme's not exactly realistic - leaving aside the fact that it's swarming with as many gangsters as a Scorsese film, the fact that Walford has its own tube station sets it pretty firmly in the fictional realm.

6. I gave up watching the film version of Popeye after an hour or so, during which time the Sailor Man hadn't eaten any spinach. In a similar fashion, I used to get annoyed with the Popeye cartoons, as he always seemed to wait until the last possible opportunity before opening the can of green stuff. But I'm beginning to wonder if what I actually disliked was the fact he was holding back, as this is perhaps the tendency I find most annoying in myself (a fiercely-contended contest, obviously). Carpe diem, oh my readers, lest you should mistakenly think there will always be another opportunity for spinach. Learn from my mistakes. Hell, somebody should.

7. For those of you of an anti-ID card way of thinking, you might like to bear in mind that UK Passports will increase in cost at the start of December, the rise helping to pay for biometric information being added to passports. This latter starts in Feb 2006, as I understand it. When's your passport due for renewal? Hmm?

8. I mentioned Doctor who earlier. If you'd said to me a decade ago that Doctor Who and a minor variation on Come Dancing would be the staples of BBC1's Saturday evening line-up, I ... well, I wouldn't have believed you, that's for sure.

9. Whatever happened to Deborah McKinlay ? She used to have a monthly column in Esquire in the mid-1990s, and she wrote four very funny books in as many years, but now I can't find any apparent trace of her still being an active writer. Which would be a shame, as she was very funny indeed. If you know otherwise, please let me know.

Fantastic Voyage

There's probably only one thing more dull than listening to other people incoherently recounting their dreams or the plots of films (invariably, in my experience, when they can't remember the names of the characters - "so, anyway, then the Tom Cruise character, well, his boss with the moustache turns out to be... oh, did I say that he went back and got the gun from the desk? Well, he did, and ...") , and that's when people tell you about their bad travel experiences. So, let me not entertain you. Briefly.

After the coach I was travelling on arrived back in London over 90mins late the other day, and I'd walked for a longish time because half the tube lines appeared to have been knocked out by a power failure, I found a working tube line and got almost-home. Then I got on a bus for the last mile or so, only for two cars, as if they'd been awaiting their cue, to crash into each other right in front of the bus, injuring no-one but blocking the road to oncoming traffic. So I had to walk the last bit too.

There's a song by Everything But The Girl (I think it's on the album 'Eden', and is called 'Soft Touch' but I could well be wrong, I don't have the tape to hand right now), where Ben Watt sings about various sad things, in an accumulating and escalating tale of woe. The first time I heard it, I actually laughed at the seemingly relentless waves of despondency - and that's kind of how I felt about this much-extended journey; it was actually getting so ridiculous, and the delays just kept coming from ever more unexpected angles, that I found it funny, and now I really can't look at it in a bad light (which is good - I firmly believe that a bad journey at the end of a good time is likely to cast a shadow over your memories of the whole event).

I'm sure that, psychologically speaking, this would be diagnosed as a combination of hysteria and false memory syndrome. Which is why I hope no psychologists read this. I won't go back there, I tell you.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

REVIEW : All Star Superman 1

DC Comics continue their new line designed to appeal to people who want to read comics about iconic characters but don't want to get bogged down in decades of continuity. The all-Scot team of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely certainly fulfil this aspect of their brief, spending just one page (four panels, and a total of eight words) summarising Superman's origin, and then they get on with the action, which is as big-scale mad-science as you'd expect from Morrison. The art's the usual high-quality Quitely - clear linework and good composition, and there are moments where the choreography of the panels is quite remarkable - an example would be page 19, where Clark Kent stumbles into Perry White's office; a variety of slapstick business is depicted, but it's always absolutely clear what's going on. Overall, this debut issue sets up a number of interesting ideas, and I'll certainly be picking up the next issue.

Though I have some reservations about DC's thinking on the All Star line as an idea; granted, their competitors Marvel have had a lot of success with their 'Ultimate' line, taking exactly the same more-accessible approach with characters such as Spider-Man and the X-Men, but both these lines strike me as likely to have a broader appeal within the existing readership, rather than tackling the well-established problem of a dwindling number of new readers coming in. As I understand it, there's no notable push beyond the usual markets for these titles - getting them distributed in Wal-Mart or similar, for example - and so really we're looking at titles which may sell well, but predominantly within the limited Direct Sales market.

DC may well rush-release collected volumes of the All Star titles for bookshop distribution, but that's 'after the fact', effectively fragmenting the potential readership into those who'll actively seek out their comic shop to buy the monthly issues, and people who might come across the trade paperback in a bookshop. Whereas, if the comics were on newsstands across the country, I think it's fair to say more casual purchasers might take a chance on the comic, and that would actively expand the audience, which I'm led to believe is the intention behind the All Star and Ultimate lines alike.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

For want of a pound...

I was buying some fruit (fresh, of course) yesterday, and when I handed over the money, the man behind the counter looked at one of the coins I’d given him and then frowned.
“I can’t take this, mate”, he said, holding up a pound coin. “It’s dodgy.”
I decided against taking issue with the meaning of ‘dodgy’ (though I assume he meant it was only borderline in legal tender, not that the minute he put it into the till it would start trying to sell pirate DVDs to the other coins), and instead showed him my hand, which held the other coins I had.
“Well, it’s the only one I’ve got,” I replied (this was true, I hadn’t been to the cashpoint). “We’ll have to forget it.”
I put the fruit down on the counter, and held out my hand so he could return the money to me, and as he did so he gave me a look of absolute revulsion, as if I’d just threatened to snog the corpse of his grandmother or something. Which seemed a bit unfair given that he was the one who’d made the fuss about the coin.
Maybe he was assuming that – because I was wearing my work clothes – I was some kind of moneybags, loaded with hard currency. Maybe he liked the mischievous twinkle in my eye and was using the coin thing as an excuse to prolong our interaction, with the hope that I’d hand him another coin and our hands might brush and some kind of spark would pass between us, and I’d change the habits of a lifetime and shack up with a man.
But I didn’t, and they didn’t, and it didn’t, so I left the shop – quite quickly, as it had been a faintly irritating exchange.
And also because I didn’t want to see him start to shed tears onto the fruit I’d left behind, and bemoan the fact that he was going to die alone, all for want of a pound coin.
An important lesson about customer care there, I think.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Today on Radio (meta) 4

I heard one of those ‘thought for the day’ things on the radio the other morning, and it made me smile, though probably not for the reasons that the speaker intended.

It wasn’t the wry smile of a world-weary cynic smiling at the insight provided by an old-style religious parable which nonetheless retained a certain poignancy and simple honesty even in the modern world, it was – sorry to say – the sarcastic smile of someone shaking his head slightly at the cliché of the format; what the speaker did – a Vicar from Tunbridge Wells, I think he was – was take a topical event, and break it down into a simplified form, and then relate it to Jesus. You know the standard thing, I’m sure – “With all the ringtones available to download, many people – and especially young people - seem unsure which one to choose – the polyphonic or the real one. And, you know, in a lot of ways, that’s rather like choosing to follow God, isn’t it?”, that sort of spiel.

They’re harmless enough in their way, though by virtue of being on the radio I’m always reminded of Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ in which he often seemed to take a rather circuitous route before getting to the point. A bomb goes off in the Middle East, and Cooke would talk about how he was fortunate enough to dine with JFK, before circling back to the original premise. Quite clever in its way, I guess, though for me the later years of Letter from America were rather blighted by the ever slower rate of speech on Cooke’s part, making the programme feel like it was 50% speech and 50% … er, breathing. A lesson in padding, however, which was to inform the format of a number of quiz shows in subsequent years *cough*millionaire*cough*weakest link*cough*.

But I digress. I thought about it a bit, and then realised that to some extent, the Vicar on the radio faced a pretty difficult situation – he had to try and get his message across quickly and succinctly, making his point as validly as he could. Also, as he was starting from the awkward position of knowing that most of his audience wouldn’t be particularly interested, he needed to draw on some element of current experience to make it resonate more readily. And he had to try to make sure that his message would linger in the mind long after he’d finished speaking, perhaps even affecting the way people thought or behaved in the days to come.

And you know, in a lot of ways, that’s rather like Jesus, isn’t it?

Monday, November 21, 2005

REVIEW: ‘Death by Hollywood’ by Steven Bochco

As far as I know, this is the first novel by Bochco, creator of Hill Street Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue, but I’ll certainly be hoping for more; a well-paced thriller set in Tinseltown, it rings as true as you’d expect, and the plot’s sufficiently twisty to keep you guessing. And for those of us who look for such things, there’s a section which appears to be a thinly-veiled version of events surrounding David Caruso’s departure from NYPD Blue, adding to the feeling that Bochco’s writing from experience.

Conspicuous consumer alert

If, like me, you feel that Moleskine notebooks are appallingly appealing bits of stationery, you might like to know that they’re currently bundling them with various Lonely Planet guidebooks, meaning that the notebook comes in at something like a quid. Which is a pretty good deal if you were planning on buying the particular LP guide anyway…

More Stray Thoughts

  1. I gather that the BBC have suggested that Natasha Kaplinsky should cut down on hosting entertainment programmes like ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ as they feel it undermines her credibility as a news presenter… but surely the reverse is equally true?
  2. I’ve written about a variety of things since starting this blog, attacking the democratic system as it currently stands, specific politicians, and other things, but the one topic which seems to have provoked most response from people was the reference to non-caucasian women in the previous ‘stray thoughts’ entry. Which arguably reveals much more about you lot than my posting did about me, wouldn’t you say ?

Enjoy the silence?

Well, I’ve been away from a keyboard for a few days, hence the radio silence. Anyway, back now – and if you’ve missed my use of words that much, perhaps I could direct you to the current issue (issue 204) of the Fortean Times magazine, to be found on the shelves in places like WHSmith; they’ve printed another book review by me, on p63.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

LIST : Anti-Social Wurlitzer

Do you have music running through your head all day ? Of course you do. Don’t lie.

The following is a list of the music that provided my internal soundtrack to Tuesday - or at least, the ones I remembered to write down:

• Long-View : Electricity
• Not the Nine O'Clock News : There's A Man In Iran
• Robbie Williams : Radio (the opening line segueing into 'Let's Call the Whole Thing Off' - it does kinda work, try it)
• Soundtrack from The Singing Detective (I think it may be Al Jolson?): After You've Gone
• Enigma : That track they used on the Matrix trailer (I think it's from their second album)
• The Smiths: Please please please let me get what I want
• Greig (I think): That piano item used to such great effect in the Morecombe and Wise/Andrew Preview performance
• Madonna: Frozen
• Bowie: Suffragette City
• Thompson Twins : Hold Me Now
• Del Amitri : Surface of the Moon

None of the above were deliberately prompted in my mind, I hasten to add, and I listened to none of them prior to them appearing on Radio Myhead FM.

I offer no other commentary on this list. You may draw your own conclusions. I know I have.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

I'll probably disown this post tomorrow, mind

I find it enormously galling when an artist effectively disowns a piece of their work; if I remember correctly, George Michael once described one of his singles as 'the biggest piece of rubbish I've ever done', and Irvine Welsh said much the same about his book Ecstasy. Mind you, despite these admissions, neither of the chaps in question offered to refund the money they'd earned from these items. Which says something about the purity of their motives, I'm sure, and of course puts their fans in an awkward situation - they've effectively thrown their support behind someone who's not come up with the goods.

Often, when this happens, fans will over-compensate, as if in an attempt to convince themselves, as well as everyone else, that they've backed the right horse after all. The recent Star Wars films provide more than a handful of examples of this, but you can see it in many other situations, where people ally themselves with something, even if it turns out to be different from their expectations. I know people who've watched soap operas for decades, or supported the same football team for the whole of their lives, despite the fact that the characters and the players have completely changed, as have those behind the scenes orchestrating the events. It's actually more true to say that people like the overall idea of Coronation Street or Aston Villa, than that they wholeheartedly endorse all of the specifics. Even the most diehard fan would be hard-pressed to sincerely make an argument supporting the weaker aspects of any of these examples, and it would be foolish to do so, suggesting that proper judgment faculties are suspended because you'll decided this is the thing for you.

And so to matters party political. I've never felt even remotely comfortable with the idea of selecting from a limited number of parties, as it seems horribly reductive to act as if all the aspects of people's beliefs can be effectively represented by the policies espoused by (let's be kind here) three parties in the UK. I've never felt like using the vote which people tell me is so very important to vote for a party who I'm not entirely certain represent my beliefs and ideas, and despite this having led me to never vote in an election of any sort, I feel the weight of responsibility that voting involves; if you voted for a certain party and they, oh to pick a random example, went to war in questionable circumstances, are you in some way implicated in that ? If you believe that your vote has the potential to matter - and by voting at all, I think you're implicitly saying that, or at least advocating the voting system as it currently stands - then I believe you are. The old Spider-Man line about power and responsibility applies here, I think.

People often tell me that if I don't vote, then I'm not entitled to comment adversely on political events, which is an interesting idea, as it suggests that women wouldn't have been entitled to have political opinions a century ago. Palpably nonsense, and the reason I draw that comparison is because I am actively disenfranchised from the voting process by one simple thing. I'll tell you what that is in a bit. In the meantime, please bear in mind that I respect that for other people, the right to vote, and the results, is a very serious matter, and I respect that to the extent that I've never spoiled my paper, as that would just slow down the counting process for those who do feel they have candidates they can vote for.

The decision for me not to vote in elections is actually a very simple one - there are NO political parties which accurately reflect my viewpoint. It's like going to a restaurant and finding there's nothing on the menu which you actively like or can stomach. Continuing the analogy, you should apparently shut up and order something anyway, even if you know it's not what you actually want. Of course, what you should really do in practice is to leave, making a complaint as you do so about the paucity of options available. You see where I'm going with this, right?

Interestingly, despite their love of market forces, the major political parties seem to see the declining voting figures as symptomatic of their messages not reaching the public; I disagree, I think the public are well and truly aware of the messages that the parties are sending, and they just don't like them. The steady decline in turnout at elections over the past few decades strikes me as unlikely to be a result of people not 'getting it' about the parties - I think a large number of them 'get the message', it's just that the message doesn't ring true for them or reflect their views in some way. I mention market forces a line or two ago, because if they were applied to the restaurant metaphor from earlier, the restaurant would probably have closed down. Unless there was a government bail-out, of course, which happens very rarely - steel and coal industries were allowed to dwindle, after all - though as it keeps them in jobs, it's pretty easy to imagine that there might be some kind of action taken.

In fact, over my lifetime, there have been moves to protect the 'voting restaurant'; it's harder for people to start their own parties now - the threshold above which their deposit is returned was increased in the 1980s, though of course it's not as if there's anything improper in existing parties deciding the conditions under which newcomers can operate; and in recent years, spoiled and invalid ballots are no longer counted in the total. I'll say that again, as it's an important point : spoiled and invalid ballots no longer form part of the total. This is known as 'Adjusted Turnout', and what it means in practice is that if 50% of all ballots cast in a ward were invalid, and 25% of all the votes went to the winning candidate, once the invalid votes had been removed from the overall total, the winning candidate's total would be referred to as 50% of all the votes (that is, 50% of the 50% which remain). This is, I think, a fairly worrying change to the electoral process as it stands, not only because the increase in postal voting in recent years is linked to an increase in invalid votes, but also because it creates an inaccurate picture of the degree of support which candidates and parties are actually receiving.

And this is where (as promised) I tell you about the thing which would solve the whole issue of voting for me, and which would also counteract the misleading effect of 'adjusted turnout' in terms of making the parties believe they have a greater mandate than they actually do, and it's a simple thing: a box on each ballot paper with 'None of the above' on it. This, to me, would be true democracy in action, not 'parliamentary democracy', which is an entirely different beast.

As well as allowing awkwards like me to have a bit of a say, the inclusion of the NOTA box would also mean that governments and parties would be made aware of the actual nature of the mandate that they have - or don't have. It may well be that a large number of the people who don't vote simply have no interest whatsoever in the process, but I think it's fair to say that had an NOTA box been present in the most recent UK General Election, the anecdotal evidence about people not truly wanting to vote Labour but not seeing any of the other parties as credible alternatives would have translated interestingly, and certainly wouldn't have given the impression that they had an active mandate.

There have been suggestions before the Electoral Commission that an NOTA box could be introduced as a means to put a brake on the slide in voter turnout, but these were rejected last year on the grounds that this would effectively be encouraging 'negative voting'. Which is an odd thing to say, as it appears to suggest that the purpose of the electoral system is not to ensure that the people have the greatest opportunity to have their views represented with the greatest possible accuracy, but instead to ... er, well, make the parties feel good about themselves or something like that? I'm not quite sure, but I certainly don't get the feeling that the interests of me and the electorate generally were paramount in this line of reasoning. It feels more like protecting the interests of political parties to me.

Which is a bit alarming when you consider how the Electoral Commission is funded, and what they exist to do... but you know, the same might well be said of governments.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Top Tentropy : the fact that the universe, like the charts, will inevitably run down

Well, having ranted quite a bit yesterday about the darkness that lurks in the hearts of politicians*, today I think I'll rant about the Darkness which lies on the periphery of the pop charts. Oh, and the end of the world as we know it. No, not the song.

The Darkness have a single out, so it must be getting close to Christmas. That sounds unkind, but let's be honest and admit that their combination of screechy vocals and early-era Queen musical stylings makes them, at best, a novelty act - one best experienced in short bursts and only occasionally, and what better time of year to enjoy such a thing than Christmas, when all manner of substandard music is traditionally treated indulgently? If I recall correctly, their previous Christmas single had a title that was a play on the phrase 'bell end', and wasn't number one. Hang on, was that the year that the 'Mad World' cover from Donnie Darko was number one at Christmas? Maybe there is some kind of meritocracy to the charts after all.

Anyway, perhaps it's just another symptom of the galloping cynicism that I mistake for sophistication, but even though the Darkness made me smile slightly the first time I saw one of their videos on TV, it was abundantly clear to me pretty much straight away that they weren't going to be troubling the chart compilers for long, and in this they join an apparently ever-growing number of groups or solo artists who seem designed to arrive on the scene with loads of fanfare, and then to go away again with equal speed.

A friend of mine, on first seeing R Kelly on TV, immediately said 'Oh, is this the latest bloke we're supposed to get all worked up about?', and this was true then as it is now about so many other acts - especially the ones who've sprung from talent shows (where the audience increasingly seems, as with the Eurovision Song Contest, to like the voting, but to care much less about the end result) - who appear and then vanish. These careers seem to be like those sped-up bits of footage of mushrooms you see on nature programmes, blooming and dying within a short time.

In my young days (you have to read that bit in a northern accent to get the full effect), even groups like T'Pau would have a single that did quite well, then another that went high in the charts, and then release an album and a few more singles. After a bit of touring and the like, they'd knock out another album a year or so later, and this would either consolidate some kind of popularity, or start the decline. Okay, it didn't always go this way, but nowadays the process appears to have accelerated alarmingly, with a drop off in publicity and apparent interest by the time the second single's come out. Where now, Eamon and Frankee? And so on.

To reach back two paragraphs to re-grasp and indeed pluck the mushroom image, the popular psychedelic advocate (no, I don't mean a trippy barrister) and writer Terrence McKenna once suggested that the purpose of the universe was for new things to be discovered, and that once everything that could possibly be known was known, the universe would simply cease to be. It's generally held that the rate of innovation and invention is accelerating, and whilst I wouldn't necessarily cite the above pop chart examples as evidence (though the idea that the output of the Darkness in some way accelerates the end of time as we know it does amuse me), it does look rather symptomatic of the general speeding-up of things McKenna and others have talked about; it can be seen in technology, as iPods get smaller and faster and computers double in capacity in a decreasing period of time. And I think this applies to the perception of entertainment (including pop music) as well - films are much-hyped on release then drop off the public radar within weeks, for example - and who knows, this voracious appetite for novelty may indeed be leading us unwittingly towards the end of time and space as McKenna predicted.

Interestingly, McKenna predicted that at the current rate of innovation and discovery, humankind would know everything there is to know, and thus existence as we know it would end, in 2012. Which, interestingly enough, is the same year as the ancient and yet hyper-accurate Mayan Calendar famously runs out. I think McKenna's prediction for the end of the world in 2012 was something like October 11, though as he died a few years ago, he didn't live to see it.

Which is a bit of a shame, because he would have found out if his theory was correct. Mind you, if it is, then it looks like London will get to host the Olympics, and then the end of the universe will mean we're all some tuneless bilge being the 2012 Christmas Number One, so as apocalyptic scenarios go, it could be a lot worse.

*Apologies to Walter B. Gibson

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Memento Mori

Today is Remembrance Sunday, though as I’m not old enough to remember events such as World War II, it becomes more of a case of weaving together facts and feelings and anecdotal material, as opposed to first-hand reminiscence. Nonetheless, I think I can begin to get an inkling of the issues involved, and even though the above sounds like a purely intellectual process, it does provoke an emotional response in me, a dark and unpleasant one which borders on sheer rage.

Let me explain.

It’s my sincere belief that in order to fight for something as, say, those involved in World War II did, you have to have not only a sense of the sheer wrong-ness of your opponent, but also a sense that you’re fighting to preserve something good and right and proper. In the case of those who fought in WWII, that would be a feeling of fighting for a Britain of village greens, Vera Lynn songs, and other notions like that, which may (if we’re honest) have been slightly better than the reality; absence, the aphorism has it, makes the heart grow fonder, and I’m sure it also allows one to start to overplay the attributes of that which we’re away from.

The realities of life in the 1940s were, I think it’s safe to say, not perfect, even discounting the war aspect of things; food was hardly in today’s plentiful supply, and there was still crime in its various guises. But thinking of home in this way would hardly have motivated soldiers and others to give their all for something that was … well, not as great as it could be, really. So I suspect that the image of Britain that many of them held in their minds as they did what they had to do was a slightly polished on, like nostalgic for something that never was. I’m guessing that this was the case in psychological terms, but I think that the facts are there about the reality of Britain, the Britain they were all fighting for.

There’s a line from a song – I think it’s by Talking Heads – which goes something like ‘All the buildings and all the cars / Were once inside people’s heads’. And this is what I think is most remarkable about the people who fought in WWII – they had an idea of Britain, an idea that was better than the reality, more fair and just and caring, and then, after fighting for that idea, those of them who came home dragged the idea into reality: creating the National Health Service, public utilities and libraries, and making education available to all.

Just as WWII made humankind face its darkest and worst capabilities with places like Auschwitz, so the opposite can be seen in the creation of public services after the war; a recognition of how low our species can fall in certain circumstances and with a certain will, and a deliberate move in the opposite direction, to prevent that ever happening again. Built in England’s green and pleasant land, no less.

And these institutions endured, and a whole generation grew up with free access to education and health care, and other support mechanisms in place to catch them like a safety net. Like all nets, it didn’t catch everyone, but its intention was to do so. And this generation who grew up healthier and well-educated and with greater opportunities than their parents and grand-parents, whose predecessors had laboured and paid and spilled their blood to give them these opportunities? Well, they were so utterly grateful for their good fortune that they decide the right thing to do was to systematically dismantle the institutions their parents had worked to put in place, and to sell the component parts. Oh, and to effectively keep the money for themselves.

Examples are nice and easy to come by; successive governments have privatised utilities as if they were the sole owners and not temporary custodians, the current Prime Minister benefited from free University education but has implemented tuition fees for present-day students, and pensioners (very probably ones who went without as a result of the war) have to march on Parliament in protest at the low level of their pensions.

These are not events that should take place in the country that those who fell in the wars died for, and it is not what those who came home took the trouble to build. It’s a frankly repellent and ugly attitude of ingratitude, and the last thirty or so years have seen successive governments (which means Labour and Tories alike) asset-stripping the efforts and labours of those who went before them.

History suggests a limited amount of thought was given to the economic appropriateness of WWII, and indeed the creation of things like the NHS has been said to have almost bankrupted the UK after the war, but these things were done because they were felt to be right. It’s a terrible thing that the generation that was first to thrive after the war has also been the first one to decide that such moral and ethical considerations, and doing things because they’re right, should persistently take a poor second place to economic considerations.

This week, I understand the Prime Minister laid a wreath. It seems a bit rich to me that he does this on one day of the year, when his actions for the rest of the year suggest it would be more appropriate (to steal an image from Stewart Lee and Richard Herring) if he urinated on the cenotaph whilst blood-stained money rained down all around him.

These people dishonour those who died and those who lived alike; all of these people did so in fighting for a country they imagined, and latterly helped to make reality, and far more could be done to honour their memory than merely laying wreaths or remaining silent for two minutes. These people gave us more than we can ever truly understand, and they deserve far more recognition, and more respect, than for everything they strove for to be chipped away at, sacrificed in the name of economic necessity.

I can only hope that successive generations as systematically and contrarily remove all traces of the present mindset, burying the morally bereft political belief of ‘economics uber alles’ at the same time as they inter the politicians who’ve done so much to insult the memory of those who came before.

Post-Humorous Tribute

The TV producer and writer Harry Thompson, co-creator of Have I Got News For You, died this week. In 1997, he wrote a biography of Peter Cook which is, to my mind, the yardstick by which biographies of comedians should be measured – it’s full of interesting facts about Cook and his work, and amusing tales, but never skimps on trying to reveal something about the man, which is exactly what biographies should aim for. Thompson’s skill is, I think, very well summed up in this passage from the book:

“Anyone who combats loneliness and amasses popularity through being constantly witty puts equally continuous pressure on themselves never to halt the performance. For years people had looked to [Cook] to cheer them up and make life bearable; never the other way round. The more he entertained people, the more exaggeratedly boring his own problems must have seemed, the less he must have wanted to burden people with his real thoughts and fears, the more afraid he became of intimacy.”

Probably the best, and most succinct, assessment of the realities of the ‘sad clown’ cliché one could ever hope for.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Stray Thoughts

  1. There's a legal challenge underway at the moment to allow the parents of girls under 16 to be notified if their daughter is having an abortion. Maybe it's just me being harsh, but if your underage daughter is sexually active, pregnant and considering an abortion, I don't know just how much of a useful contribution you'll make if your daughter's decided she'd rather you weren't told. The evidence of parenting skills doesn't exactly suggest a useful level of input. I have a sinking feeling that it'd just lead to a lot of horrified parents shouting and berating their daughters, which I don't think would be entirely constructive...
  2. It occurs to me that the word 'hold' works staggeringly well with prepositions - hold in, hold out, hold up, hold down, hold off, hold on, and so forth. Offhand I can't think of another word which lends itself to prepositionising with such wanton abandon.
  3. I've been physically intimate with two non-Caucasian girls in my life (on separate occasions). They both asked me if this was the first time I'd done so, and it was good to be able to give different answers to the same question.
  4. Whenever I heard the theme to 'Futurama' it makes me think of 'Toxygene' by The Orb.
  5. A leaflet fell out of a magazine I was reading, inviting me to join 'Liberty'. I don't know which is more alarming about the state of the UK today - the fact that the 'National Council for Civil Liberties' has had to change their name to single word which sounds like a rallying cry against oppression, or that I feel a strong need to join.
  6. Good quote from Haneif Kureishi : "If you want something badly enough, you make arrangements. If you don't want it badly enough, you make excuses."
  7. Yesterday, I passed someone on the street who I used to be very good friends with, but we had a major disagreement and haven't spoken since (I won't bore you with the details). She saw me and there was a look of recognition and then something like annoyance. However, I believe I saw her first, so I think I succeeded in keeping my expression neutral while she was looking at me. Though I kind of hope I looked disdainful, as if I was a scientist or antiquarian looking at an item of very mild interest.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

For some reason, people think I have too much time on my hands

You know, the more I think about ventriloquists, the more confused I am. I'm going to generalise wildly about the nature of the acts in the following, but bear with me.

In theory, a ventriloquist's act is a double act - there are, ostensibly, two players, and the voice-thrower is invariably the straight man, whilst the dummy provides the laughs.

It's pretty rare for a ventriloquism act to be a co-operative one like, say, the Two Ronnies, with one of them setting up gags and the other paying them off. Usually, the dummy pretty much hogs the limelight, leaving the human to look dismayed or effectively echo what the dummy's 'saying' ("You went into a pub?") in order to get to the punchline.

A lot of the time, the dummy appears to wreck the intended flow of the act, stopping a story from being told, or a song from being sung, or whatever. What it usually involves is the ventriloquist starting into some not-going-anywhere stuff about how they're "really happy to be here tonight ladies and gentlemen", only for the puppet to throw things off, or for the dummy to be directly asked "And what have you been up to this week, Charlie?" and thus everything goes off the rails, with hilarious consequences. Kind of like the way Eddie Large never let Sid Little sing his song at the end of the show. For twenty-odd years.

But the idea that the puppet is in some way diverting the act from its intended course is, when you look at it, a pretty weird one. Are we supposed to believe that the whole act is ad-libbed ? Or that it hasn't been in some way rehearsed ? That might be vaguely believable in the case of an act with two humans in it, with independent minds and a tendency to veer from the script, but we know that the puppet isn't real, and that the whole appearance of it all going horribly awry is a charade, because - er, well, I hope I don't have to point this out to you, but - the puppet isn't actually alive.

So what we have is a man or woman onstage doing an act with a prop, pretending that the prop is alive, that it can talk and form opinions and have a life when it's not mounted on the ventriloquist's arm, and act in accordance with those independent opinions and experiences to completely divert their double-act from its intended script, apparently in contravention of rehearsals of the same act - rehearsals in which it should have become readily apparent to the ventriloquist that the puppet is more of a liability than a partner.

And this is all the more bizarre when you consider that the puppet doesn't have any of those faculties at all, and so what we're basically watching is someone adopting a different voice and manipulating a prop to make it appear there's a conversation or argument going on. And that this apparent diversion from the intended act is, in fact, the act.

As I say, the more I think about it, the more confused I become. I don't know if the standard voice-throwing act I'm outlining above is horribly hackneyed and outdated, or in fact some borderline genius form of self-referential meta-comedy.

But I would be interested to know if there are higher diagnosed levels of medical conditions like Multiple Personality Disorder among ventriloquists.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

LIST: 12 Reasons Modern Journalism is Rubbish

1. Putting 'Gate' on the end of the name of every scandal: Watergate was the name of the hotel, so it was, uh, the appropriate word to use. Irangate, Squidgygate, Monicagate, and all the others since have not been. They've been given a stupid and irrelevant suffix, one which relates to an event which took place over a quarter of a century ago. Is this intelligent writing?

2. UK newspapers calling the police 'cops'. Use 'coppers' if you must. How about the word 'police', or in London 'Met' if you insist on abbreviating? But don't pretend to be writing about South Central when it's actually Lewisham.

3. Made-up nicknames: For example, 'Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf, Rageh 'the Scud Stud' Omah, and Gwyneth 'Gwynnie' Paltrow. All names which are not used ANYWHERE outside the pages of the press. Stop wasting your time making these names up, and the readers' time in having to figure out who and what you're talking about.

4. Articles about scientific or medical advances which end with the statement that scientists or doctors 'expect it to be available within five to ten years'. It'll be news then, don't go boosting the company's share prices in the meantime. You promised me flying cars back in the 1970s, and I'm still waiting.

5. Using words or phrases which have no existence at all outside of the world of the press: examples would be

  • love rat
  • baby dash
  • death plunge
  • romp
6. Referring to something sexual as 'XXX' : The certificate for 'adult' films was changed to 'R18' years ago. Catch up, for crying out loud.

7. Headlines which are borderline incomprehensible : these are often created from a string of nouns with no prepositions or verbs, such as 'Blair holiday cottage fury'. As with the example given, the non-sense of them often leaves them open to misinterpretation.*

8. Writing in a manner which means the reader has to speak journalism-ese instead of English: Sample translations would be as follows:

  • (Event) drama - no-one died
  • (Event) tragedy - someone died
  • (Event) fury - we've found a rentaquote MP willing to say any old tripe so we can take an anti- viewpoint on this and pretend many people agree

9. Pretending scientific formulae can be applied to things which are obviously highly subjective: this is a recent-ish phenomenon, and usually takes the form of articles stating that a formula has been found for the perfect joke / scary film / romantic song / cup of tea. Utterly pointless both as a proposition and in execution, these articles invariably reveal their origins in the final lines when they state that the research was carried out on behalf of a company with a vague relation to the subject in question (often satellite TV channels or radio stations, it seems). Yes, these articles are badly rewritten press releases from firms - in other words, adverts masquerading as news. Classy.

10. Making up excuses to show pictures of women: Work for a tabloid and have some pictures of a soap opera cast member in her underwear, but no real reason to publish them? Simple! Just make up a story about her being in line to be the next Bond girl or to appear in Doctor Who, quoting 'insider sources'! But what if you work for a higher-browed paper, and still need to up the totty factor ? No worry! Just find a picture of Kate Winslet or Keira Knightley attending a premiere in an evening gown and write a paragraph about the state of the British Film Industry ! Or Joss Stone accompanied by a line or two about downloads or something like that. Voila ! Page space filled with a minimum of effort or intellect!

11. The fact that the phrase 'investigative journalism' should be tautological, but most definitely isn't at the present time.

12. Articles in the form of lists because it's easier to do and fills up space quickly.

*Why not play the Daily Mail Headline game ? It's easy, and fun for all the family. Simply see how many Daily Mail headlines can be sung to the tune of the song 'Camptown Races'. Examples on any given day might be 'Asylum Seeker in Benefit Fraud', or 'Police Chief fired over Internet Porn'.

How many can YOU find?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Terror Incognita

So, as tomorrow's 9/11 by the UK version of the calendar, and we've just had the celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of Guy Fawkes' attempts to blow up the Houses of Parliament, I think the time is right to talk about terrorism (that's right, terrorISM. Not 'terror', as that's an emotion). If nothing else, it gives me an opportunity to upload the attached image, which is from a stamp series by Jimmy Cauty, former member of the popular beat combo the KLF. I can't decide whether the '5-11 anniversary stamp' is in appallingly bad taste, or an astute piece of satire. The truth, as ever, probably lies somewhere between those two extremes.

Anyway, terrorism. There's a lot of stuff to talk about here, and I'll get to other bits of it in other entries, I'm sure, but I'll start by asking a question which I don't think has been satisfactorily answered - if, indeed, it's been asked. And the question is this : where did all the terrorists suddenly come from ?

I ask this because to listen to government spokespeople (on both sides of the Atlantic), you'd get the idea that every third person you pass in the street is a member of a sleeper cell or in some way affiliated to Al-Qaeda. And you'd also get the impression that these terrorists, and the groups they're members of, simply materialised, fully-formed and fully-armed, at about 11:59pm on September 10th, 2001. Which surely can't be the case, can it ? I say 'surely' because the US government announced who they suspected had orchestrated the World Trade Centre attacks within a matter of hours, which is an incredible feat of detection given they were apparently starting with no leads and an entire planetful of suspects.

However, it's only since then that the US or UK governments have appeared to take any kind of measures in relation to terrorism. And what measures they are - detaining people without charge for undetermined periods of time (remember that old principle of 'innocent until proven guilty? Well, it no longer applies to you, apparently), shooting innocent people in London tube carriages because they were 'suspected bombers' (actually getting a positive identification would have been a start there, I think, though I'm no expert on these things; oh, and he was a 'suspected' bomber? I refer you to my previous parenthesis, unless of course we're now allowing extrajudicial executions in the UK. Maybe I missed that announcement), and now there's a bill before parliament in the UK to introduce ID cards for the general public (if you know me, you'll probably already know how I feel about that idea).

So, the governments really are doing - and being seen to be doing - an awful lot of stuff to combat terrorism... now. But what were they doing prior to September 2001 ? Well, if the situation is as dire as they're currently making it out to be, it seems that they weren't doing very much at all. It seems the government and the security services were pretty much letting terrorist cells form and grow, though of course the government was happy to take the money from the public, in the form of taxation, to fund... well, to fund doing nothing, which you might have thought wouldn't actually cost much at all, but apparently not if you look at the security services' budget records - or even your old payslips.

Then again, I'm probably being unkind there, by assuming that they were doing nothing - let's say they were doing something. In fact, let's assume they were doing all they possibly could, that the UK and US governments and security services were doing everything humanly possible to prevent the spread of terrorist elements prior to September 2001. Okay, let's be nice and assume that's the case. That's much nicer and far less cynical, isn't it ? Yes, it is... but if they were doing everything possible to stem the rise of terrorism at that time, then ... er, wouldn't that mean they didn't do a very good job? A downright poor job, given the number of people who died in 2001. So, they were either doing nothing, or were grossly incompetent. Neither of those possibilities is a reassuring one, of course, and do bear in mind that you were paying for it.
And that thousands ended up paying for it with their lives.

So where did the terrorists come from ? Well, if we deduce the facts from government statements and actions, it seems there were no violent agitators massing their forces to attack at the very heart of the UK and US prior to September 2001. None at all. Since then, however, we've faced an evil the likes of which has never been seen before. Apparently, it's an evil which simply appeared in the world just over four years ago, without any kind of precedent or warning, and though our governments have been doing all they can to combat this unforeseeable threat since the attacks on the World Trade Centre, before that time there was no reason to believe that anyone, anywhere, had the motive, means or opportunity to carry out terrorist attacks on Britain or the USA.


Actually, now I've thought it all through like that, it does seem pretty plausible. Really, I guess our government's doing a pretty decent job, given that they had to start from nothing to fight against a foe more dangerous, and more prevalent, than anything the world has ever known. I mean, unless the whole terrorist threat is one which they almost ignored and allowed to increase, and now they're overcompensating to the point of trying to instil unnecessary fear in the populace, but why would they want to do that ?

After all, in what way is it beneficial to a government to be able to keep tabs on members of the public, and arrest them or shoot them at will ? Okay, sure, it'll cut down on the number of people who might think or say or do things which are inconvenient or don't toe the party line, but let's face it, those people are pretty much terrorists anyway, aren't they ? Ideological terrorists, you might say, determined to think and say things which are just contrary and awkward, and which could well undermine our way of life.

These people who insist on having any old thought they fancy and saying anything they want are clearly the sort of people who are pretty much intent on destroying the freedom and liberty which we enjoy in the UK, and I think we have to applaud the government in taking a stand against them, by whatever means they judge to be necessary.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Smoke gets in your ... blood, it seems.

I live in London. Nothing remarkable in itself about that, about eight million other people do too. What I think is noteworthy, though, is how many of my friends who don't reside in the Smoke ask me why I live in London - the question's invariably followed by comments containing words like 'impersonal' and 'uncaring' (they're still talking about their perception of London at this point, not just having a go at me because they disagree with my reply).

So I've been thinking about this a bit recently, perhaps sparked by the realisation that I've now lived in the capital for over a decade, and god help me, I absolutely love it. Why is that, I wonder?

Initially, I considered that it might be because I lived in the south of England until I was 10, and so living in the Midlands and the North, as I did pretty much constantly between the ages of 10 and 24, was something that I was trying to escape, with a sense of returning to the south as the place of my birth or something like that. Well, I dunno, it was just a thought, and for the first few years of living in Sheffield, people there were always keen to remind me I was effectively an outsider, so I thought it might be the reason. But no, I think I've twigged what it is.

Aside from the fact that London is somewhere there's almost always something to do (want to buy a book or CD at 10.30 at night ? No trouble), and has some great buildings and scenery (fancy a stroll along the South Bank at night, anyone?), and loads of art galleries and museums (including Sir John Soane's Museum, of course), the fact is this: London has been extremely good to me.

Before I got a job here, I'd been unemployed for about a year in Sheffield, and despite making genuine and concerted efforts to get a job, I was unable to get one, and that sense of beating my head against the wall was ultimately a pretty miserable experience. Since moving to London at the start of 1995, however, I haven't had a single day of unemployment, and I've changed jobs several times now (and incidentally, the send-to-reply rate when I've been applying for jobs in London has been considerably higher than in Sheffield; if I send out a CV or application form in the Smoke, more often than not I'll get a reply, even if it's a rejection. In Sheffield, I was lucky if I got one reply for every ten send-outs, which rather added to the disheartening nature of the search).

Living in London has led me to meet a startling number of genuinely remarkable people, and to have experiences which I would never have imagined having when I was in Sheffield; now, that may well be because my general situation in Sheffield in the early 1990s was such that doing those things seemed about as likely as ... well, as getting a job, actually, but the fact remains that here, in London, these things have happened for me. Or to me, depending on your point of view.

Granted, in an ever so slightly alternate dimension, there's a version of me that is feeling exactly the same about the life that alternate me is living in Bradford, Exeter, Carlisle, Lille, Kyoto or St Petersburg, but that's not the me of this dimension. And so, I have a kind of loyalty to London, on the basis that it's been good to me. Very good, in fact. Yes, I could have felt this way about anywhere in the world ... but I don't, I feel this way about London. Which is why I live here, and why I stay here, and why I enjoy living here.

And besides, as any of you who know me will understand, it is very handy indeed that the bookshops are open until so very late. Ah, the smell of a new book...


Sunday, November 06, 2005

A resigned sigh

David Blunkett, a member of the British Goverment, resigned from a Cabinet position the other day – for the second time in less than ten months. I don’t know if this is a record, but it certainly feels like it.

Blunkett’s second resignation came amidst claims that he’d failed to act in accordance with ministerial guidelines in relation to his ownership of shares, despite having been advised of the need to do so on three separate occasions. His first resignation came after a prolonged series of revelations about his private life, including a suggestion that he’d used his position to obtain preferential treatment for the nanny of his (married) lover.

Right, I think that just about marshals all the facts there. Oh, except for the fact that David Blunkett is blind.

Now, his blindness has no bearing on any of the above, but it certainly seems to act as something of an issue in discussion of him and his behaviour, for his apologists and detractors alike; indeed, in his speech to Parliament about Blunkett’s resignation, the Prime Minister made reference to Blunkett’s resilience in having overcome his blindness to have become a Minister. And on the other side of the coin, his blindness provides a convenient reference point for commentators to make comparisons between his lack of attention to following rules and his inability to see, and for satirists to make digs about; there was a frankly bewildering cartoon by Mac in the Daily Mail this week (viewed over someone’s shoulder on the tube, I hasten to add), which showed Blunkett in bed as his guide dog read him a bedtime story from a book headed ‘The Tale of Peter Mandelson’. As satire goes, it’s pretty heavy-handed, and seems rather uncertain of the abilities guide dogs actually have.

But I stray from my point, which is this: if Blunkett was truly fit for the post – well, the two Ministerial posts – his blindness should not have been an issue. Not one for his detractors to refer to as a handy jibe, and not one for his supporters to point at and say ‘ah, but he’s come so far’ and the like. The question should be: was he fit to hold the post? Clearly, the PM felt so. Twice, in fact.

Once in the post(s), however, the question becomes this: did he behave in a manner becoming of the role? And the answer here is a pretty obvious no. On more than one occasion, Blunkett used his position to personal advantage, and demonstrated a lack of adherence to the rules governing that position… which is more than slightly ironic in a man who was one of the more authoritarian Home Secretaries of recent times. Clearly a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

I was discussing this with someone the other day, and they suggested that Blunkett’s repeated failure to make the grade as a Minister could well raise questions as to whether a blind person is ever suited for such a position, but I disagreed; to take one facet of the man in that way, you might as well ask if it raises questions about bearded men in the Cabinet, or people from Sheffield. Physical capacity is one aspect of a person, and should be no more relevant than gender, religion or sexuality in assessing their suitability for a role – which is to say, irrelevant.

David Blunkett’s second resignation doesn’t raise issues about disability in the political sphere, it raises questions about honesty and integrity in politics. Imagine my surprise that events suggest both qualities are in rather short supply.

Honesty and integrity? Absent from the behaviour of politicians?
I know. I’m as shocked at the notion as you are.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Hello, you!

Hello, and welcome.

I’m expecting this to be the most-frequently updated part of my website (though, as you’ll probably have noticed, it’s not actually part of johnsoanes.co.uk – blogger’s format seemed more appropriate than me building it from scratch).

My general aim with this area of the online stuff is to post comments and observations and the like on a variety of subjects, including reviews of various media. What I don’t envision it being, though, is an online diary, full of the minutiae of my day-to-day life, as that’d probably be as dull for you to read as it would be for me to write up.
I think it was Ben Elton who once observed that keeping a diary makes you run the risk of being more of a reporter on your life than an active participant, and I think that’s a valid point.

In the same vein, I certainly don’t expect to be sharing details of my relationships and the like – there are, after all, some things a gentleman does not discuss. Besides, I kept a pretty detailed diary of such things for a number of years in the 1990s, and looking back at it now… well, frankly, it’s fairly embarrassing to read. Shudder.

However, having now detailed what I DON’T expect to be talking about here, I’ll cheerfully admit that I expect to be using this space – and this amusingly public opportunity – to talk about pretty much anything that I feel like venting about. Hopefully there’ll be stuff of interest to you, and also stuff which you may well disagree with – that being the case, please feel free to post comments, especially if I’ve been saying things which are contentious, ill-considered, grammatically incorrect, or just plain unrelated to the facts.

Hope you find things amusing or interesting or in some other way diverting, and I’ll do my level best to have something new to read here on a regular basis.