Wednesday, March 28, 2007

today : Life among the diaspora

So here I am, sitting in a room full of people. Many of them have given up their lives and are trying to start again.

There's a guy who has come from Afghanistan, a woman from The Congo, a guy from Sudan, at least one Iraqi Kurd, someone else is from Sierra Leone and someone is from Rwanda. All are here for one reason: the perception is that life here is better than at home, or in St Gate.

The Iraqi tells me that he left Greece because he was attacked for being a foreigner. Now the kids in his area throw stones at his house because he's been given it for nothing just because he's foreign. One of the women has three kids with her and three left at home. The young girl from Sierra Leone was sent away by her family because they didn't want her to be killed.

At thend of today I'll pocket my money (almost twice for one day what each of these people get in a week) and go home in my fairly nice car, to my comfy house. Maybe I'll switch on cable and watch as CNN show faraway, unreal images of people being shot and blown up, starving and struggling and dying, interrupted by advertisments for computer systems and five-star conference hotels.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

today : Vietnam, Iraq, Israel

How do you proceed when you have made a decision that is so obviously imbecilically wrong, yet pride, stubborness, self-delusion and stupidity make you follow it for long enough that it cannot be easily undone, and you are currently mired in an increasingly bad situation?

This is the burning question of our times. Powerful people made foolish and ideologically driven mistakes, following advisors who had too much to lose to not behave other than as fawning yes-men. A campaign was started based on narrow, blinkered criteria. It was poorly planned and shambolically managed: and now we are all paying the price.

Yet this has always been the way. Lack of vision has stymied any real progress internationally. The powerful people fall back and make useless choices, retrenched in their need to retain power and caught up in their own little worlds.

Which is why the FA refused to employ Brian Clough when he was clearly the best choice to manage the England team. It's why they settled for Ron Greenwood, Graham Taylor and now Steve McClaren. Each time they reached a position where it was too late to turn back, yet what lay in front of them was only more disaster.

But where do we go from here? Apparently the FA are still paying Sven thousands a week to not be the manager, as well as paying McClaren to be the manager. If they sack him all the other decent choices are contracted to jobs it would be difficult to prize them from.

The mistakes piled up prior to the new regime being appointed. Firstly, Sven (as was his right) was recorded having a conversation during which he showed interest in a job other than managing England. As a knee jerk response, the FA lengthened and hiked up his contract, knowing a World Cup was six months away. Secondly, after Sven decided he was leaving the FA offered his job to Phil Scolari, on the condition that he accept before the world cup. Like almost anyone in the world Scolari said no, as he didn't want to go into the tournament as a lame duck coach. Then Martin O Neill, who was a free agent came into the frame. The most respected manager of his generation, the FA dithered on O' Neill because he is Northern Irish. Sensing that he might be taken off the club scene, while the FA dithered, several clubs came in to offer O' Neill a job. Aston Villa won the race and then he was off the scene. Next in the frame was Sam Allardyce. Unproven but a passionate guy whose work at Bolton showed intelligence and a great depth of tactical nouse, it turns out that maybe the FA shied away from him because (although this wasn't public at the time) his name had cropped up in the bungs enquiry. Then came Alan Curbishley. He anounced he was leaving his club, Charlton, at the end of the season. I wonder if he did this to get the England job and not mess Charlton around. He too was overlooked. One by one the FA, either by prevaricating or being outright stupid, narrowed their feild of candididates.

Which left us with McClaren. No more proven than Allardyce, clearly about a tenth as clever as O Neill and the totally boring safe choice. One thing the FA knew: apart from screwing around on his wife, McClaren was already part of their little club and had no skeletons in his closet. The least worst option left. Only, in actuality, not. Because if you go for the safe option, and it doesn't work, you cannot fall back on the claim that you took a risk.

McCaren must have taken advice when he made the idiotic decision to end Beckham's international career. Okay, drop him on form, but to do it in such a way that you'd look like a fool if you recalled him is just moronic. What if you needed him? At the time it was applauded by some as a brave decision. But at the time people thought the Charge of The Light Brigade was a brave decision.

In this evening's match away to Israel, McClaren, apparently short of defenders, picked Phil Neville at right back. Because, clearly Phil Neville is more worthy of a place than Beckham. He took him off after an goal-less hour and replaced him with another right back. He played Jamie Carragher (central defender or right back) at left back. Aaron Lennon (right winger or advanced central midfielder) on the left wing. Then, with not long to go and the match at 0-0, he substituted him with Stewart Downing (a left winger) whilst playing apparently nobody on the right wing. He replaced Andy Johnson, speedy but diminutive forward, with Jermaine Defoe, speedy but diminutive forward. etc etc etc

Great coaches are brave, visionary and inspired. They don't play safe. They don't take the consensus, let's-not offend the establishment option. That's why the FA never seems to ermploy them.

Eventually McClaren will have to be sacked. The press'll get on his back and if there are no scandals, they will invent them. How did the powers that be not foresee this, when pretty much 100% of paying football fans could?

Friday, March 23, 2007

today's tormented philosophical question is...

...why, when I am passionately against firearms and their use in any circumstances, do I smile whenever I hear anecdotes about people who shoot their televisions?

today's rubbish but completely brilliant thing is...

Chip Shop Curry Sauce

Back in the seventies our palates couldn't handle hot spices. These were life-on-mars times when, in Britain, we were just beginning to experience a whiff of multiculturalism. The days before Indian food became the staple diet of the English.
On the scene came anglicised versions of what then was called foreign and is now called ethnic food. Bowdlerised and constructed from mainly traditional English ingredients we had Vesta curry. It's flavour still lingers in the form of McDonalds individual portions of curry ketchup. In those days a Vesta would cause outbreaks ofeye-watering, mouth wafting and people pointlessly lining their stomachs with milk in order to counteract the hotness (which is a coinage that I adore - a deliberate childish regulation of an irregular word formation - hot/heat - in order to create a subtly different meaning with only one specific application i.e. reporting the fierceness of chilli-spiced food) and stave off instant death from perforated ulcers.

And then there was chip shop curry sauce. It's absolutely nothing like curry and, despite research I cannot find out where or why it began appearing in chip shops. I bought some tonight with some Fish and Chips and it was delicious. Basically the bastard offspring of Vesta and lumpy school-dinner gravy, Chip Shop Curry Sauce is somehow the perfect accompaniment to Fish and Chips. Previously, we made do with salt and vinegar, but now for me the traditional, simple condiments are not quite enough on their own. You can even buy packets of Chip Shop Curry mix and granules. I never buy them, because in order to taste perfect Chip Shop Curry should be ladled from a stainless steel vat and served in a flimsy-lidded styrofoam pot with lumpy dribbles down the side. Perhaps it is the cultural memory of the start of ethnic food taking over our menus. Some throwback to childhood, but I nominate Chip Shop Curry as something that in itself is rather rubbish but completely brilliant.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

today's almost totally bonkers and slightly scary person is...

Hans Moretti

today : I watch less TV than usual

Odd, and slightly pervy

I am pretty bereft of decent long-form TV at the moment. My cable has started offering on-demand series. I thought I'd catch up and watch Alias Season 5. Alias was more fun than I expected. Only I gave up watching Season 5 in the first episode when it became obvious that each shot was planned to disguise the fact that Jennifer Garner was pregnant. How ridiculous. Why did they not postpone making it until she had given birth - or just gone with it. And anyway I got tired of all the false identities and Rennaissance sub-DaVinci Code, Name of the Rose crap.

I more or less predicted the demise of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It was pretty clear from early on that it was an ill-conceived idea, and although it was interesting and almost very good - it ran it's course without reaching mid-season.

Spooks is returning in November and I am not optimistic. I think they've covered pretty much all the stories they could think of.

Gray's Anatomy seems to be getting more popular but also has kind of got repetitive. To have two main characters not speaking to each other for about ten episodes shows signs of a plot cul-de-sac. It's as if the writers are reluctant to follow the rules. You can't pair up main characters without having to split them up or there is no more drama. And when two (arguably three) of the five main characters start having their loved ones ill in the very hospital where they work then it just seems silly. And that's before I start on again about the increasingly annoying incidental music.

So what's left? Well, there's House, which actually needs more character stuff because the arcs move too slowly due to the formula of having a case to solve each week. Its still very watchable but needs to be unhooked a bit. More two parters are needed like last season's sweeps story - and the fabulous Lisa Edelstein needs to be used more.

Which leaves only Boston Legal, which here in Britain is starting season 3. Is there anyone more watchable on TV at the moment than James Spader? In BL he is still playing the slightly odd, pervy character that has served him well through an entire career only this time in a humorous and non-threatening incarnation. But nobody does likeable perv better than Spader.

Of course, BL just a wilfully politically incorrect, adolescent-minded remake of Ally MacBeal. Only this time they have cut out the itzy ditzy central character and killed the girly soppiness stone dead. Which helps, because Ally McBeal was one of the worst and most annoying shows of all time. BL is one of the few mainstream
dramedies that actually makes me laugh, even when the jokes are pretty cheap and at the expense of dwarves, cross dressers, peeping toms, cannibalistic homeless people and other relatively easy targets. The skill in the show is that it does manage to balance the character comedy with the cases and treats the (usually taboo bending, bizarre and unsavoury) cases as comedy and the strange odious comedic behaviour of the lawyers as drama. Which is, all in all, rather satisfying. It's a shame about the 1980's style incdental music, though. But what can you expect from the same 'creatives' who gave, as their abiding gift to the world, the utterly memorable singing sensation that is Vonda Shepherd?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

today : I do a lot of work for charidee

Well done to all the people who stage the Red Nose Day telethon. They are, apparently, sincere, giving people whose generosity cannot be called into question. I put what I could in a collection bucket to support the cause.

Just don't expect me to actually watch the show. The problem is that is Red Nose Day (and pretty much all) telethons are so predictable that there is no point wasting time actually watching them. The format never changes. And seeing newsreaders in sparkly costumes, sports presenters performing karaoke, pop stars doing videos with mugging comedians in the background, 'celebrity' guest stars appearing in sketch show sketches and all the other telethon staples is just not interesting or entertaining anymore. In the 20 years since Live Aid the power of watching celebs hugging aids babies in Africa ("this was the most life-changing thing I've ever done" - even more life changing than the Barclays Bank ad that paid off my mortgage), visiting well-digging projects and doling up porridge in homeless shelters to the backing of 'sensitive' acoustic music and sincere imploring voice-overs has diminished almost to zero. Not that these aren't supremely worthy causes, but I know what close up shots of undernourished African children with flies landing on their faces looks like. They've been on my TV screen for as long as I can remember. I know the world is a nasty, unfair place because it's on the news for 24 hours every day.

In total Comic Relief day raises roughly £1 for every person in the country. Defence spending per person per year from tax is £520. In fact, collectively in the UK we pay £70 per person per year on Overseas Aid anyway. This sum is pretty small compared to most countries but still three times more then the US gives (as a percentage of GDP - the UK gives about 0.3%, the US 0.1%, the Netherlands gives 0.8%). Anyone can look up these figures, and what they suggest is that, worthy as it is, a bi-yearly telethon is literally a drop in the ocean attached to a pretty unoriginal show. To make any real change needs a bigger and more attention grabbing gesture than Kate Moss saying three lines in a comedy sketch.

Monday, March 12, 2007

today; How to upset 'them'

One thing is certain. Adam Curtis's new documentary series The Trap, which aired on Sunday on the BBC will have 'them' up in arms. After all, 'they' hated The Power of Nightmares so much that, in the way that 'they' respond to these things, many unpleasant and downright abusive things were said about both Curtis and The Beeb. The attacks on Curtis in the past reminded me of the similar attacks on someone like Michael Moore, where even if people get to discussing the issues, it is always prefaced with a series of undermining and generally unproven accusations and smears.

The new series, rather than polemically examining the philosophical ideological seeds of the 'War on Terror', looks at the philosphical and ideological seeds of the modern Western economy. Curtis spends his time picking away at the interface between power elites, science, ideology and politics, and it is this that upsets
'them' so much. It doesn't even matter if he is wholly and proveably correct in all of his arguments, what Curtis does is make essays on the nature of the connection between high-falutin' thought and it's effect on everyday lives.The template for this could be James Burke's Connections, which introduced a wide-eyed TV audience to the nuances and sophistication behind ideas (although in 1979 at 12 years old I personally remember only being wide-eyed at the scene of naked Russian Peasant women bathing in large barrels and the arresting demonstration of what actually happens when a broadsword hits flesh. I can still picture it in my mind - the sheer violence of Burke hacking at a pig carcass).

The very simplest measure of how close to the bone people like Curtis get is in the response. If any of his hollering detractors had bothered to watch
Century of the Self, they would have been introduced to some basic psychology. The loudest critics come at Curtis, Moore, Palast (who regularly reports for Newsnight), Amy Goodman or anyone who has a go at the status quo and tries to discuss topics with a measure of scepticism, with an edge of hysterical panic. Last week I heard a Neocon type on BBC radio trying desperately to peddle a line of defence for Cheney and Libby (Plame wasn't even in the CIA when she was named and therefore Libby shouldn't have been in front of a grand jury because the charges were bogus and wholly politically motivated and stoked up by the commie lovin' media and how dare the extreme left wing BBC reporter actually interrupt this rant to, God forbid, actually ask a question that is so loaded with bias that I'm not answering it and even if I do then you'll only edit it into syllables and put it into a sampler and make my synthetic voice say that I worship the devil because that's what you journalists do blah blah blah...yawn) that would've got the third substitute on the junior high debating team laughed out of the room. It's a simple equation: the more hysteria, the more insults and smears heaped upon journalist and film makers, the more outright lies told in response, then the closer to the bone the story/film/idea is. Have these impeccably educated elite people never read Shakespeare. Do they not undertand the concept of protesting too much? Methinks not.

So let's celebrateAdam Curtis. And even more let's celebrate the BBC. For all it's faults (
Last of The Summer Wine series 117, Jim Davidson's Generation Game, not finding a settles slot for Seinfeld or CYE, Kombat Opera, buying the new series of 3lbs) at least it retains a measure of independence, having the guts to fund and show primetime TV that would be frightening and unpalatable in many other countries.

today : wearing complicity well

Ana Carolina Reston -dead at 21 from anorexia nervosa

The insanity of the recent and ongoing debate about 'size zero' models and actresses is quite stunning. The argument goes like this: the fashion industry is in no way to blame for the illnes and occassionally death that is brought upon its models because it is a model's job to fit into the clothes that the designers make.

Workplace laws in much of the world, as far as I know, are there to protect employers from damaging the health of their employees. If a coal mining company refused to change their health and safety policy on the grounds that 'sometimes miners get killed by falling roofs - that's what they get paid for' we would be rightly outraged.

The other claim that the fashionistas make is that is nothing to do with them that millions of people are neurotically obsessed with their body shape. I'm not just talking here about anorexic youngsters but the mass of people who spend their lives crash dieting, buying exercise equipment and whose worries about their bodies is perhaps not quite as out of control as those with clinical eating disorders, but verges on the obsessional nontheless.

What astounds me in the arguments bandied is that the representatives of the fashion and fashion media world really appear to be as shallow as their stereotype dictates. It is just not logical to deny responsibility for aspirant images whilst at the same time photoshopping photos to make people look smooth skinned and skinny. Perhaps nobody is prepared to break ranks but their self-delusion and self-justification comes across as monumental as someone like, for example, the Emperor Nero. Their logic is that of the driver who says : I drive better when I've had a few drinks, the rapist who just knows every woman is begging for it, or the person with their hand on the Auschwitz gas valve who was just following orders.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

today : ...resentment takes hold

I was watching this catch-up episode of popular hospital dramedy Grays Anatomy. It's not, to be honest, my favourite show and recently there's something about it that has irritated me more than the normal things that irritate me - such as the endless pastel frocked and Birkenstocks pop-folk music and the way each scene's emotional direction is signposted by predictable music ('ironic' cartoonish pizzicato strings to tell us "this is a comedy scene!"). Anyway, I didn't set out to criticise the Sex and The City meets ER hospital drama which has a certain level of undeniable quality in its writing, acting and production. What I did set out to say was that some parts of popular culture transcend their popular status and make it all the way into a category that, for the purposes of this missive, we'll call 'art'. Art that kind stands outside of culture - sort of convincingly transcending history, context, nationality, that sort of thing.

Anyway, there was a very 'emotional' scene (signified by the abscence of cartoony pizzicato strings) in Gray's Anatomy where a family were having to make a decision. Do they switch off a life-support machine? In the show, romantic interludes are underpinned with that fairly jolly inoffensive pop that at one end of the market has Hilary Duff and at the other has someone like Kelly Clarkson. Medical dilemma scenes are underpinned with the aforementioned fragile female folky music (patron saint : Natalie Merchant). It's like all the artists and labels that supplied Dawson's Creek missed their old royalties and needed a new place for their songs to go.

The underpinning of the life-support machine switching scene was the usual Lillith Fair kind of thing. But this time it was a version of Love Will Tear Us Apart. I couldn't focus on the scene at all. In fact I became rather irritated by it. Why? Is it because I am just an ornery old grump? Perhaps. But the real reason was that I was thinking that a law should be passed banning anybody from doing a cover version of Love Will Tear Us Apart. In fact, it should be de-listed from popular culture. Nobody should ever be allowed to even think about a cover version of it, apart from maybe Johnny Cash. That's because the power of the song is so tied up in the sound of the original recording. Somehow, Joy Division, with their faltering, unskilled instrumentation and the stark production of the late Martin Hannett, created a thing that could neither be replicated or imitated.

Of course, I can't actually put my finger on it without sounding like a tossy musicologist, or worse, a serious music journalist. The fact is that Love Will Tear Us Apart is a whole package. Art that is untouchable and hermetically sealed unto itself. Some of its power is derived from Ian Curtis's suicide. Some of it is derived from the context in which it was first released, the time and even the geography from whence it was created. For me, some of its power is caught up in when I first heard it and my initial reaction (which was a kind of confusion). More pwer is derived from when I 'got' it and the context of my life at the time. The bottom line is that it is a devastating and magnificent sound. Using even a pastel version of it to underpin a soppy scene in a hospital soap is just wrong.