Tuesday, July 31, 2007

today : an obituary of obituaries

Something happened relatively unnoticed this week that made me rather sad. BBC radio stopped making and broadcasting Brief Lives, its long running weekly obituary show that used to be on Radio 4 but has been on Radio 5 for the past few years. Brief Lives was a perfect BBC radio show. Small, discreet, literate and intelligent, it gave voice to the argument that obituaries are a fascinating and often entertaining way of examining the large and small influences that individuals have on history. This radio equivalent of the finer broadsheet obituary columns often celebrated the uncelebrated - people on whom celebrity was never endowed.

It is another half an hour of the week lost to progress, demographic profiling or budget cuts, or one disguised as the other. May I throw out into the ether the notion that, if the airwaves have no space for the show any longer, the internet was invented for such things.

And I bet the commissioning editor who wielded the axe is wishing they'd waited one more week, as the last 24 hours has seen TV's Mike Reid, Film's Ingmar Bergman and friend of shepherds everywhere Phil
Drabble bite the dust. It was almost a perfect Brief Lives line-up: the famous soap actor, the serious and legendary auteur and the interesting and nostalgic minor TV personality.

I wonder how many people who have written or compiled obituaries of Bergman have actually seen any of his films. I am someone who is pretty interested in films and can name only four that I have actually seen with my own eyes. It's not like Bergman was Michael Bay or The
Farrellys - his work plastered across the multiplexes. In fact, his fame came as much from being cited by the secondary auteurs of the American cinema (notably Woody Allen, who strove much of the time to emulate Bergman and often only ended up copying him). In fact, there are plenty of non-English speaking film makers who reputations are mainly based on endorsements by English speaking directors. Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, Ray, Bunuel. All are relatively little watched outside of a coterie of 'buffs' who enact their Annie Hall fantasies by attending occasional screenings of black and white and foreign language films at an ever-decreasing number of Art Cinemas, and who buy their DVDs at full price in Borders rather then in the Virgin Megastore sale (because they like the comforting signals of serious literacy i.e. the endless zero volume tape loop of Kind of Blue and the wafting smell of fresh-from-the-grinder Blue Mountain - Kinda Blue Mountain!). These film makers are lauded because other, prestige figures laud them. They also came to prominence during a time when 'world cinema' began to infiltrate the consciousness of English speaking intellectuals, who fell in love with the notion of the auteur.

By the way. The films are The Virgin Spring (or was it Wild Strawberries?), Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander (the 312 minute TV version) and The Serpent's Egg.

today : The descant recorder : why?

Two tracks are repeating themselves constantly on the stereo at the moment. The first is Sick Sick Sick by Queens of the Stone Age, a tune that quite closely approximates what it might be like to be hit repeatedly with a concrete slab, but in an rather enjoyable way. The second is Rules and Regulations by Rufus Wainright, which apart from it's catchy melodies and nice chord sequence, I admire mainly because it is a recording that features a descant recorder - an instrument rarely, if ever, heard within popular music.

In fact, the descant recorder is rarely heard in any types of music past the age of about 6. At least amongst my generation, every child had a descant recorder and was forced/cajoled into playing it, often in groups. The problem with the descant recorder is that it simply sounds crap. It's neither got the mellifluous tone of a tin whistle, the mellowness of an ocarina, or the subtlety of expression of, well, every other instrument ever invented. In the hands of anything but a truly gifted musician. it has no subtlety of expression. And it's very easy to play it loudly - one of the traits it shares with the bagpipes. The other trait they share is is that they both have the capacity to easily turn otherwise balanced and sane people into mass murdering psychopaths. Forget blaming various school massacres on Marylin Manson, has anyone investigated the role of the descant recorder or bagpipes in such events? (although in defence of the bagpipe, it does kind of have an evocative quality in it's real context i.e. echoing across the moorlands of Scotland signalling the arrival of an impending army with blue faces and big beards, even though Josh was right to mistake it for the sound of sirens).

The question begs itself, what is the descant recorder for? It is an instrument that has little or no musical merit and has little or no use apart from annoying parents and putting children off playing music (and particularly the tune 3 blind mice) for life. Who decided this thing was a good idea? Who is responsible for making the decision to inflict this appalling tuneless horror on the nation?

And don't even get me started on the chime bar...

Friday, July 27, 2007

today : Everything's Gone Brown

If I was Gordon Brown, or Gordon Brown's PR people I would have devised a strategy. As soon as Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister I would have made a clear effort to make myself an integral part of the Blair government, but also maintain a detachment from the inner circle, so that my political image was not subsumed to that of the most popular PM in recent years.

The things is, y'see, I would realise that Blair might go on for quite a few years and that when either he was bored with the job, or the people were bored with him, I could then step in and fulfil my ambition to be the number one guy.

To that end I would make sure that the press were fed a regular series of stories about how, even whilst serving alongside Blair, I was not beholden to him and his power. I would let it slip that we had disagreed on some things, had rows, and generally maintained a fairly rocky relationship. I would not cosy up to the family, or the family circle. I would not want to be seen as a Blairite. In fact, the ideal situation would be to have my own ism, complete with its own ites.

I would stay in the background when really unpopular headline decisions were being made. For example, I would sign the cheques for war, but stay away from the press conference announcing it.

Most of the time I would keep my counsel, allowing others to speak for me, and building up an almost mythical and mysterious image in the public mind. In fact, if I kept a facade of dour near-silence people would be shocked when I came out as a fairly accomplished public figure. All the while I would furiously take notes, gauging what were popular and unpopular decisions and policies, what made the political journos fulminate and what made them happy, what I could take the credit for and what I could credit to Blair.


When the moment came I would step easily into the breach with everything pretty much planned out. There'd be a a few headline policy shifts to signal my intentions, a few cabinet changes and a new agenda. With luck I could make it almost like Blair never happened.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

today : 2 wheels good

The media has jumped all over the fact that yet again the Tour De France has descended into farce (suggested headline : 'Tour de Farce!'). In some ways they are right to do so because the leaders have yet again been found doping or breaking the rules. The argument put up by cycling and its supporters is that the doping control in the sport is so rigorous that they pretty much catch every cheat, whereas other sports only catch cheats by chance, if at all.

There is no doubt that Le Tour is a monumental thing. Mile after mile of punishing roads; day after day. Most of the time up hills that your car might struggle on. But if the only way to win it is to have a freaky physiology (Miguel Indurain - the Spanish cycling legend and five time winner did it because his heart was 50% bigger than the rest of us), or to dope, then there is only one conclusion. The Tour is just too bloody hard.

Trop difficile.

I'm sure that they could cut out a few of the killer hills and replace them with nice gentle flat country roads. Maybe they could spend some more time in Holland. Then all the riders would be on -ahem - a level playing field.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

today : The rain blame game

I am wondering if some of the people who have been flooded out recently (and, lets face it, the media covering the story) could be any more naive. Obviously I feel very sorry for anyone whose house is waist deep in muddy water, but, as always, there seems to be a rush to find someone to blame. If it isn't the government, then it's the weather forecasters or the insurance industry. Here's the news: blame the clouds.

What is it in the English character that makes us so shocked whenever nature upsets our cosy little world? A couple of years ago one inch of snow caused the South East to grind to a halt. Whenever there is a bank of fog you find people driving into it at 80 MPH, only to get really upset when they crash into a queue of stationary cars and die, and it has taken pretty much a century for The All England Tennis Club to come up with the idea of a roof on the Wimbledon Centre Court (although when they built another brand new show court a couple of years ago they never thought to put a roof on that one).

In some ways it is the media's way of finding an angle on what is a big but rather static story. There's not much you can do with a flood, apart from show pictures of it. And water is kind of boring. It just stands there being wet. So after you've wheeled out a series of hydrologists, weather experts and insurance spokespeople, there is little left to say. So this lunchtime I heard the unedifying sound of a news reporter trying to prompt flood victims to criticise the government's response and Gordon Brown's flood preparedness. For the most part the victims were fairly sanguine about the situation and didn't really blame the PM and the government. Yet some did take the bait, answering the loaded questions (i.e. "Do you blame the government?") in the affirmative.

Later this evening people were being asked if they thought David Cameron should be in Whitney, Oxon and not in Rwanda, Africa. Not one person replied : "Well, having read "Shake Hands with the Devil", I'm just glad our rivers aren't blocked with hundreds of thousands of the bloated, macheted corpses of children."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Today : The big news agenda

I think we were spoilt by September 11th. I remember the day vividly, partly because a week before, literally to the minute, I had been standing atop the Twin Towers. A friend of mine also had a relative who, in the first hours was missing and the family, knowing that he had been having breakfast downtown that morning before attending class, knew he had been close. At work she just looked terrible and spent much of the morning in tears. When the phone system came back up the next day he managed to contact them in Flushing to say he'd stayed at a friend's apartment and simply couldn't move due to the gridlock, or contact them due to the phones being down citywide.

For the next few days I watched CNN continuously. All the big hitter presenters set themselves up in midtown with the plume of smoke as a backdrop and we watched the story unfold. It was the biggest and biggest covered news story in history. And we were spoiled. In many ways this was the moment for multi-channel 24 hour news. This is what it was invented for - the biggest thing ever to happen in the city where most of the US news organisations are headquartered. (you could argue that the tsunami was an even bigger story, but most of it took place in areas of the world where news organisations were lucky if they had a junior reporter with a satellite phone, and plenty of places where there was no access at all - so we didn't see it. The same happened with Hurricane Katrina. The coverage did not match the size of the incident so even though it was probably as massive, it was not as massive a story)

The first time I really remember watching a news story all day was the Dunblane Massacre in 1996. I had a day off from college and turned on the TV to find the story unfolding. In some ways I think it was the first story ever broadcast on BBC news 24 (even though the channel didn't actually launch for another year) - like a rolling news tryout.

Today I saw and listened to many discussions about the relationship between Britain and Russia and several extended reports on organ donation. Neither story really had the content to sustain the length of reporting. But that was todays new agenda. The 24 hour channels have to fill the time whatever happens. It was boring.

Which is why 9/11 spoiled us. This was a day when nothing else was happening. There was no filler in that week in September. I was gripped even by the endlessly looped scraps of information and comment.

It's a horrible admission but part of me likes it when a news story is big and then gets bigger. Of course, nobody wants anyone to die horribly but I can't help being addicted to the big stories when they come around. But I am fated to disappointment the rest of my life. Unless a meteor hits a major western country or aliens land, there will never be a story as big as 9/11.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

today : I swear

It falls on me today to officially announce that the word PISS is not a swear word anymore. The reason I know this is that in last weeks documentary on Alistair Campbell's Diaries there were many swear words beeped out. WANKER was bleeped but the word PISS was not. The show was broadcast at 7 and 8 pm.

I've noticed over recent years that it has become acceptable to say PISS on TV and radio. The main cause of this change is that PISS is traditionally a less severe swear word in The USA than in the UK. Its a bit like Scheisse in German, which doesn't strictly translate as SHIT but is more like CRAP or POO. In America you can be pissed at something, which means pissed off and not drunk. You can also behave pissily or encounter someone who is pissy. This in a country where people never go for a piss but take a comfort break.

Of course, whilst piss ameliorates, other words will pejorate. In America people who used to say Oh My God, now take care to say Oh My Gosh. So you can encounter someone who might say 'Oh My Gosh, I'm so pissed.', unless they are appearing on HBO shows where they will wilfully use the F and C words in a high profile way, just because they can.

In fact piss appears on American TV an awful lot. Which is why Brit TV started to let it slide. Now, even the Brit usages of the word have become acceptable, to the point where the other day I heard an interview with American racing driver Scott Speed who declared that he was pissed about a crash and when the interviewer apologised for his 'fruity' language, the apology sounded rather quaint and old fashioned.

Whether I'm pissed off at this change, I can't say.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

today : les fleurs

photo by me ©2007

today : Live Earth: The Inconvenient Truth

Live Earth was rather a squib and great example of the law of diminishing returns. In that way it is like football. In the seventies Cup Final day was so exciting because it was the only live match of the season. Now you can see live matches every day of the year, and worthy day-long concerts every week of the summer. And inasmuch as sometimes even a mid-table clash between Grimsby Town and Wrexham can be a transcendental experience, there is also a high probability that it will be a low scoring head-tennis extravaganza played out on a lumpy pitch in the rain. At half time in an obvious nil-nil between Middlesborough and Fulham the pundits and presenters will always implore us to stay with it because the second half might be a 4-4 draw and not a pointless stalemate. At Live Earth we were kept waiting for the deadlock to be broken almost all day. The game desperately needed a goal.

Eventually, the Foo Fighters knocked one in. It was a ricochet; a regulation penalty. They rocked, but they always rock. Scarcity is a great commodity and the reason I know they always rock is that I've seen them live many times - always on TV.

One of the problems that deflated the event as a TV spectacle was the sound. It might be Wembley's fault but Damien Rice described it as 'boomy': he was right. So poor that the Black Eyed Peas came over as sloppy and out of time. This is the equivalent of Lauren Bacall coming over as ugly and unsophisticated, seeing as The BEPs generate their excitement by being one of the tightest, best drilled bands in the world.

In the days of Live Aid sound didn't matter at all. But we are more used to crystal clarity now. I for one have more speakers in one room than I have rooms in the rest of the house (imagine all the energy needed to run them!). None of these counted for anything when all that came from them was atmosphere-free aural sludge.

And then there were the bands themselves. One of the main effects of celebrity culture is that the hierarchy of fame is flattened out. Literally anyone can be number one on the Daily Ten. There seem to be fewer and fewer monstrous untouchable behemoths, bestriding the world with their talent and fame. When you got to see Zeppelin or Michael Jackson or Sinatra or Queen, you were part of a privileged few who witnessed these special people with your own eyes. Even with bands like Radiohead or (whisper it) U2, if you are there at a particular show it leaves you memories to take away. But where are the bands and performers who inspire awe? In her own way Madonna is very very good, but her mystique has diminished through the years, beginning with her publishing a book made up mainly from photographs of her tuppence.

But because everyone gets equal headlines and pages in the celeb magazines, few people are really special and possess the mystique of a true star. The flipside of this is that one hit song means that you can fill a stadium and minor, pretty unoriginal bands like Snow Patrol (who have a couple of terrific songs) and Razorlight (who don't) are top of the bill when they have neither the star power or catalogue to justify it.

The consequence of this is that these really huge shows are peopled by whoever is touring at the moment, a load of relatively minor acts and the odd reformed baldies. It's as if nobody was a true headliner: everyone was Stillwater.

But the thing that really did for Live Earth was the pervading sense of cynicism surrounding the whole thing. In England especially, there is little need to spread the message that Global Warming is BAD. We signed up for Kyoto; we recycle. But even then the attitude of the musicians was pretty jaded. The TV presentation had guests on the sofa, many of whom spent a lot of time admitting that they didn't really do much about reducing their giant celebrity carbon footprints. Event he organisers admitted that the concert itself would cause a mass of unnecessary fossil fuel powered travel.

The BBC tried to temper any over-enthusiasm for the cause by having a middle aged and sensible environmental correspondent on hand armed with facts - one of which was that some people are sceptical of the whole global warming idea. And therein lay the problem: the concert was raising awareness of an issue that inspires scepticism in many people. For Live Aid there was no denying that people were starving to death. For the Diana tribute there was little doubt that Diana had, in fact, perished a decade earlier and for Live8 there was no denying that the G8 was happening in the same week (even if the message for Live8 was pretty fuzzily presented).

It's hard to promote the idea of not doing something rather than doing something. And reducing your carbon footprint is still about 'effort'. Power saving light bulbs are pretty expensive compared to traditional bulbs, a Toyota Prius is a premium model of car, and the truly inconvenient truth is that had Al Gore ever been Prez he would surely have been stymied by a congress fatally addicted to corporate lobbying.

today: 2am

photo by me ©2007

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

today : Spot the pejorative!

Do I really have to comment on the wording of this report? It is the tolerant, multiculturally minded Daily Mail after all. However, a very similarly worded report appeared on BBC Ceefax today (pictured above), which really isn't on.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Today : Non-user generated content

Unlike some citizens of Blogistan I don't usually just put up links to other places - say what you want but at least I generate my own content. However, I was taken with this story.

The fact is that I have actually been into this very branch of the Citizens' Bank in Manchester, New Hampshire. Unusually, I didn't try and rob them, but was disguised as an English tourist a mere 3154 miles from home.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Today : The Driver of This VW is a Selfish Idiot.

This morning I was really struggling to walk, only I needed to go to the shops to buy things like food. Most days I struggle a bit but today was especially bad. A short trip to the shops was going to be the one thing I could do for the day.

So I set off.

An hour later I returned. The thing is I live on a tight little street. Parking is at a premium. I also live near some local shops, which have their own pay and display car park (it's, like, 20p a week to park in there). But people insist on using my tight little street as a personal car park. It can be vexacious to have to park 100 yards away from my door, but like everyone else I put up with it.

But today I was going to have difficulty walking the few yards from the car to the house, never mind the fact that I had shopping to expedite from the car-boot to the kitchen cupboards.

The photo above shows what I discovered when I arrived back. In the gap I'd left an hour before was this VW Polo, parked with 3/4 of a car length in front and 3/4 of a car length behind*. I've come across these people before (and ranted about it). They reverse back and forth in order to EXACTLY centre their vehicle in whatever space there is. The idea is to have your own car as far away from any other car as possible. In fact I suspect the reason that drivers like this person use my street rather than a carpark is that a carpark is a place populated by cars.

Looking across the street the picture was similar (although it started to rain and I went inside before I could photograph it). Along a kerb that could easily housed four vehicles, there were two. Parked neatly with veldt-like expanses of ground both front and behind.

There was nothing I could do. I sat and waited until someone came back from the shops, got in their car and drove away. Half an hour of my life I will never get back.

*the photo montage makes it look like the car was parked on the apex of a corner when in fact the street is perfectly straight.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Today : The Ideas Drought

The other night I was watching Balderdash and Piffle on BBC2. The show is based on the Guardian Notes and Queries model - A wiki if you like. Viewers are challenged to help the Word-Nerds of the OED to help with definitions and etymologies of words. I don't usually watch this show but found it interesting and quite charming. It is a classic BBC2 show - popular intellectualism.

But I only watched it by accident when I switched off my DVD of The West Wing Season 1 Episode 5 (The Crackpots and These Women aka the first Big Block of Cheese Day). The reason I was watching this for the hundredth time? TV is more or less a desert.

Primetime contains nothing that interests me. It is basically split into three types of shows. Soaps, reality soaps and makeover shows. Now Soaps are okay, I just choose not to watch them. But the other stuff is empty and devoid of ideas. 10 years ago a show following a vet or a doctor was original and eminently watchable. Driving School, Airport and others were pretty good entertainment - giving us some insight into the stories of 'real' people. Also 10 years ago Changing Rooms was an original idea. It got people thinking about design and then there was the all important reveal - where enthusiasm was infectious and disappointment was cringeworthy.

But there have been so many variations on these ideas that it has all become a lazy blur of unoriginality and tedium.

The other issue is the fact that anything remotely successful is flogged to death. Take the idea of Strictly Come Dancing, which is one of the best and most entertaining family shows of recent years. After its initial success we have had Strictly Dance Fever (a dance contest) and now DanceX (another dance contest). SDF failed and was cancelled, I predict the same fate for DanceX. Casualty ran out of steam years ago but then was expanded not once but twice, spawning both Holby City and Holby Blue. The Weakest Link was very successful, but it's been going on for too long and is tired and repetitive. In the past the BBC was known for drama, and still comes up with the occasional gem, but it seems that drama can't be made these days without an ex-Eastender in the lead role.

It was ever thus, I guess. In between The BBC Shakespeare were long forgotten awful sitcoms, horrid drama series and pointless game shows. My complaint is mainly lack of variety. In between such gems as Planet Earth, Coast, Spooks and Dr Who, the schedules are wall to wall DIY, Antiques, Makeovers, consumer shows and reality soaps. I can't even think of a sitcom or sketch show that is currently part of primetime schedules.

Is this a paucity of new ideas or a way of trying play it safe. Either way, those in charge have apparently not encountered the law of diminishing returns.

And its not just me who thinks this. Plenty of BBC Tv viewers agree.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

today : they

There's a family of them moved onto our street. They own a Jeep Cherokee. Is that a coincidence? They seem quite normal but you never know do you? I've got nothing against them but they are different aren't they?

Personally I object to the fact that they dress funny and cover their faces and go off to study for years and years. They all have the same first name. And when you're with them they talk to each other in language that normal people can't understand. I don't always trust them. Sometimes they lie to you and lots of the time they are hypocrites. They claim to be peaceful and civilised but they are only out for what they can get. They think they are better than the rest of us.

And then there's the fact that they kill people.

In fact, I imagine that doctors as a profession kill more people on average than any other cultural group in society.

Monday, July 02, 2007

today : Free at last! Free at last!

You gotta admire the sheer cojones of the Bush White House. In the same way that on a scale of terrorist atrocities, 9-11 was number one in the charts, they are number one in the charts of constitution-ignoring amoral bastards.

Commuting Scooter Libby's gaol sentence is The White House saying: nobody likes us, we don't care. They know they've been found out as craven, corrupt, lying, cheating self-interested, morally bankrupt and rather stupid and have simply given up trying to convince everybody otherwise. Perversely, this means that, even by supposition, this makes them that rare thing amongst politicians. Kind of honest. They are saying: we did inhale, we did have sexual relations with that woman, we know the 45 minutes was made up. And we don't care.

Perhaps they will now admit that they got into this whole thing by fixing the 2000 election and that they started a war as part of an ongoing money grabbing coup by the oil industry.

today : Me & Gordon agree

Terrorism won't change us. Apart from 15 billion spent on pointless iD cards, doubling the intelligence budget, restricting our ability to travel, being watched all day and night by CCTV, having to endlessly watch news bulletins where nothing happens apart from a parade of experts on every topic from bomb-making to Islamic theology.

Then there's the spasm of 'I'm not a racist' racists wheeling out their
Islamophobia, the paranoid political statements, the stop and search, the alienation of good Asian folk, the prosecution of dodgy foreign wars and the narrowing of the news agenda.

As me and Gordon both said: Terrorism won't change us.