Thursday, January 31, 2008

today: I argue against democracy

Of the many hundreds, one of my main criticisms of the Bush administration is that its rhetoric on freedom and democracy is so fuzzy and simplistic. Is America a stale democracy already? Because as far as I understand, part of the democratic ideal is to robustly stick to a continuum of self examination by re-asking - ad infinitum - the questions about what democracy is and what it means.

Any solid and unmoving notion of democracy is a myth. American democracy is as imperfect and troublesome as Canadian democracy. In France the democratic process has different implications than it does in Germany. Her in Britain the defining character of our democracy is that it was never imposed by revolution or constitution, but is basically a way for the historically powerful to drip feed enough power to their powerless subjects, to stop them demanding a constitution by way of revolution. It is hideously unrepresentative, blockily inefficient and really not very engaging.

Which is why America disappoints me. The country on earth with the the most diverse academe, the largest body of thinkers in the world seems to have stopped re-asking the questions. It is at this point that things become rather dangerous. Unwavering self belief is only a whisker away from arrogance.

But it is hard for me to disagree with George W Bush's statement that people everywhere yearn for freedom and self-determination. Of course I am not actually against democracy; just wary of other peoples' definition of it.

The disconnect I have with Bush on this point is that I don't believe that an imposed system of 'freedom' and 'democracy', borne out of an arrogant an unquestioning self-belief is a solution to this yearning. America has got itself into big trouble in the past by playing with big ideas but doing so in a reductive and simplistic way. The Domino Effect, for example. Or listening to Milton Friedman's anti-humanist absolutist free-market nonsense.

The world always was post-modern and post ideological. It's just that various people tried their big ideas out on it. Some worked: some failed. The ones that worked probably did so due to luck and mathematical probability rather than the cleverness and correctness of the ideas.

Which leads us to Africa. I know little about Africa, but one thing I do know is that is a pretty big surprise when Kenya erupts into tribal violence. We saw it in Angola, Rwanda, Sierra Leone Darfur and many other places. But Kenya being the next country where we would witness people being macheted on the streets was an outside bet. This is a stable, relatively prosperous country that has moved its way towards free and fair elections since independence and was more or less behaving itself.

What this highlights to me is the failure of post-colonial democracies to cope because they are post colonial. We know lots about how the Rwandan genocide was the result an imposed and manipulated fracture in that society. I wonder if the Kenyan violence is also because its democratic mechanisms, installed and overseen by an outgoing colonial power are also a failure?

My main point is that we are constantly seeing the results of historical meddling by colonial powers. Identity and self esteem appear to be intimately connected to land. The minute land is taken from a people is the minute that history is fractured. It's almost like breaking electrons from an atom - the forces involved are mysterious, massive and terrifying. Sometimes, as in 'Yugoslavia' these forces can take many generations to play themselves out.

Yes, freedom and democracy are crucial, but just as crucial is allowing those ideas to spring from the land, traditions and culture of people, rather than imposed from without by arrogant ideologues.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

today : overblogging

The fact is that I am already a bit bored by the US election process. This is odd. because it looks like a tipping point and therefore wildly interesting. The incumbent Prez is dead in the water, the Republicans are staring a spanking in the face and the likely Prez is going to be either a woman or a black man. This leads to lots of fascinating questions. Will white men be able to bring themselves to actually vote for a woman or a black man? How will the Latino vote break? Who'll be the VP?

But three weeks into the Primary process the reason I am already a bit bored is that the media overload is so overwhelming. 2008 will be the most covered election of all time. 24 hour news has a whole 24 hours of each day to fill for a whole year. And on top of that there are the bloggers. It seems that everyone with an internet connection and an opinion is jumping on the bandwagon. During Iowa, NH and Sth Carolina you could read minute by minute dissections of everything that was happening from every angle, reported by both professionals and amateurs. For me, switching between CNN and BBC news meant that I was already getting the remote opinion and minute by minute analysis of pretty much every political correspondent and professor of political science in the Western World. The news channels, running out of people to canvass, then added in the vox pops and on top of that the bloggers themselves, who verbally repeated what they had written on their weblogs (or "blogged") only hours before.

Leading up to super Tuesday this will only become more intense, until the amount of blogging. op-ed, commentary and opinion will become an unstoppable tsunami. Ten months away from the actual election.

God help us all.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Today : Camp

We've never had widespread Summer Camps in the UK. This American institution would be a fine import, as it would stop parents complaining each Summer about having to look after and amuse their kids for a few weeks.

However, I am one of the very few who did go on a Summer Camp. Various youth clubs and Religious institutions have them. When I was twelve or so I went to a church one on the Isle Of Wight. I have five main memories from the experience.

1. On the train journey there I was joined by a couple of lads who got on at Sheffield. Our youth leaders knew each other and had agreed to join the parties together on the journey. One of the boys - Anthony - was clean cut and sensible: his colleague - Paul - was chubbily dishevelled and prone to over-excitement. He was the one who bombarded me with questions. One of which was "Do you come from Middlewood?" I didn't, I came from Leeds. But he kept asking "Are you from Middlewood? Do you live in Middlewood?" Eventually I caved. "Okay, if you want me to be from Middlewood, then I'm from Middlewood."

He broke up with laughter, turning red-faced and practically choking himself to a chubbily dishevelled and over-enthusiastic early grave.

The sensible boy, prompted by my total bewilderment at this response, explained. Middlewood was the name of Sheffield's main Psychiatric Hospital. Over its hundred year life its name became synonymous in the city with being a 'loony'. We had the same thing in Leeds, a place called High Royds in the village of Menston. In Playground parlance, you lived in Menston or were from Menston, or were a 'Menner', which nicely crossed over with one of the abbreviations for 'mental'. When I was very young I thought the fact that the words mental and Menston were synonymous, because I was confused about their crossover in meaning. Anyway, I guessed that being from Middlewood was the same kind of thing. If Paul could get me to say that I lived in Middlewood, then obviously I was a loony.

Yet at twelve I was befuddled. What possible entertainment could be gained by this? I had no earthly idea of what Middlewood was, and for Paul to get me to admit I lived there was no kind of trick. It required zero guile and cleverness. My conclusion was that Paul was a very very stupid boy.

However, I must admit that I have suffered the same kind of tactics from children when I have been teaching. Not long ago I cam across a difficult and unpronounceable name. The girl was called Eliza Prnecki, which I am aware is Eastern European in origin. Many immigrants anglicise their names (I once worked with a guy called Hardeep whom everyone called John). So Eliza's name could easily be Prernetski, or Prernecky. Whilst taking the register I asked her what the pronunciation was. A little squirt of a boy at the back got overexcited and squealed "He doesn't even know her name!" - completely missing the point that I had never met the girl, come across anyone with that specific name and that I knew enough Czech to know that it had two possible pronunciations. This was a class of fifteen year olds.

2. The second memory I have is of Hexagonal football. Basically this is a game with six teams, six goals arranged in as big an area as you can find, and as many football, rugby, tennis and any other balls you can get your hands on. The game is split into six halves. The object is simply to defend your team's goal and score as many goals in the five other nets as possible. An adult or responsible person is placed behind each goal to count the scores. Crowd mentality means that after each round the team with the least goals against is bombarded by the other five teams. This Jungian phenomenon extends into the final round, so that the team in the lead at the end of the fifth half ends up losing by conceding several hundred goals. Which is where my strategy came in. We played the game once a day for the entire camp. After the first game I worked out that sneaky guerrilla tactics were needed. I broke off two of my team and we proceeded, during each round to focus on one specific ignored goal at a time. Whilst forty or so mindless players were busy bombarding one goal, we'd each go to one of the other goals and spend the whole time passing the ball over the line from a yard out, where the score person (standing a yard behind the line) would pass it metronomically back. A little judicious use of mathematics meant that we could quietly manipulate the score in five of the six goals at will. When our goal was ignored, we would even go and score in it, just to keep our team away from being in the lead until the last round. Nobody cottoned on to the strategy for the entire week, and were repeatedly amazed that their maths had gone awry and our team (the Greens) won each game in a surprise result. The prize I don't remember, but it something like being provided with as much beer as we could drink, or maybe getting to go first to breakfast the next day and having first pick at the straw sausages, cremated bacon and watery scrambled eggs.

3. It was a god job my strategy meant not having to run around too much. As I spent half the camp suffering a very sore midriff. During an inter-team tug of war competition we struggled. Our Green team was comprised mostly of sickly, underdeveloped, runtish boys from the deprived north, whilst most other teams had at least a couple of strapping six footers who were marking time before they went to Eton and became England rugby internationals or Olympic rowing medallists. The Yellow team didn't have any of these strapping specimens, but their secret weapon was Owen. He wasn't strapping but was huge in other ways - mainly sideways. He was tall, sure, but this went along with a 'glandular' problem, which meant that he was also shaped like a 16 stone Weeble. And we all know what weebles don't do. As the anchorman of the yellow team it mattered not that Owen's crew were a group of meagre, uncoordinated weaklings. Owen was the immoveable object and only lost once, when he deigned to shift one of his feet and slipped on a stray bit of grass that had been in the shade and not lost it's dew.

I, as the largest northern boy, anchored the Greens when we took on the giant Reds. A camp leader showed me how to spool the heavy rope over my shoulder and then back around my waist. It was a no contest. Arrayed in front of me, my weedy, undernourished team-mates were about to get creamed. It was at this point that chubby Paul chose to kick his brain cell into gear. We held out for about ten seconds, but then a couple of our noodle-armed puny tuggers started to lose their footing. I leaned back as far as I could, trying to stem the pull and delay the inevitable defeat at least long enough to maintain a shred of dignity. It did not last long. Suddenly all of my team-mates were ripped off their feet, tumbling forward and losing their grip on the rope. Stuck in a rhythm and keen to inflict a total humiliation, the Reds continued moving backwards apace, chanting "Pull. Pull. Pull" like the rowers in a roman galleon (or the Olympic eight they would eventually join)

Only Paul, who was not on the team due to his asthma/hayfever/painful elbow/general laziness when faced with any Herculean activity, had a cunning plan. If he and two other wheezing hangers-on stood on the trailing end of the rope, their combined weight would help the greens overcome our inevitable defeat. So this is what they did. As the team in front of me melted away I was prepared to throw in the towel, only to find I couldn't, because the rope around my shoulder and waist was growing ever tighter. The weight of the boys stood on the trailing end offered quite some resistance to the combined reversing of the Reds. The rope knotted boa-like around me to the point where I let out an involuntary scream. At the same time I twisted and the rope over my shoulder was now against my throat, pressing with worrying pressure. If I could have talked I would have sworn loudly. Apparently our team supervisor, fearing my imminent bisection or horizontal hanging, was hollering at Paul and his cronies to get off the rope. But Paul was rather pleased that his plan was working and had tapped into a streak of previously undiscovered sporting competitiveness. The whole thing only lasted a few seconds, but when the resistance finally collapsed and the rope whipped from beneath the standing boys' feet and loosened its grip around me, I actually did fear that had been cut in two or horizontally hanged. There was a crushing, burning, feeling around my waist and I did that involuntary coughing-spluttering thing that recently choked people do in films.

Paul and his chums giggled and squealed like the stupid stupid boys they so obviously were until they realised that they were not , after all the sporting heroes they thought they'd become. The rope had ignored the feeble resistance of my T-shirt and burned a red stripe over my shoulder, across my neck and around my middle. It was agony and I was soon placed in the camp leader's Austin Montego and driven to the local A&E.

The camp was church sponsored, designed to promote stuff like teamwork, resilience and a fondness for outdoorsy activities, but also piousness morality and genteel forgiveness amongst young males. Everyone said grace before meals and each night we had a meeting where the lessons of the day were contextualised in terms of Christianity and upstandingness. The camp leaders must have been pretty committed, and all were quite evangelical in their Godliness. This didn't stop the main camp leader and the guy in charge of our Green tent and team standing idly by saying nothing as, on my return from the hospital (where they checked that my internal organs had not been turned to pate and that my windpipe had not been crushed like an empty sherbet dip) I sought Paul out and roundly punched him in his stupid chubbily dishevelled head several times. I guess they thought I could learn forgiveness at some later date.

4. At one point in the week we all repaired to the beach for beach activities. My main memory of this was the fact that some of us tried, in our hopeless twelve year old way to impress a small group of rather lovely local beach beauties a couple of years older than us and well used to the attention of hopeless holidaymaking twelve year old boys. Anthony did impress them somewhat by not realising that he wasn't in the changing room at his local Sheffield pool and removing his underpants to change into his trunks. Paul of course, shouted and squealed and pointed, which drew instant attention to the bottomless Anthony, who stood there frozen by the realisation that nobody had thought to stand in front of him holding a beach towel to save his embarrassment from the open air. The girls, sunbathing closeby in order to get, and thus rebuff, our attention, all smiled knowingly rather than pointing and laughing whilst Paul rushed around the beach telling everyone, including complete strangers, strolling pensioners and various Royalty down for Cowes week that Anthony's willy was on display.

As we prepared to leave the beach the camp leader issued a challenge. Whichever team could bring back the largest stone could have some amazing prize, like a Swedish Sauna with the beach beauties, or maybe it was first go on the assault course the next day. We Greens, perhaps still glowing from one of our many Hexagonal footie triumphs and keen to make up for the Tug of War routing, decided to a man that we must not lose. Cue a group of six or seven small to medium boys puffing and wheezing our way up the mile and a half hill back to camp carrying a flat stone that could have single handedly re-paved the Piazza San Marco. The thing weighed about as much as Owen, if Owen had been cast in bronze. The other difficulty was the shape. It was flat, but not quite wide enough for all seven of us to get close enough to carry it. So instead we kind of took it in turns. Everyone spent some time walking backwards up the hill carrying the front edge. One or two, such as Paul, just hung around the edge of the group looking as if they were helping but not helping at all. It took hours. When we got back to camp we had almost missed the evening meal. All the retrieved stones were displayed together on the veranda. The other teams had picked up pebbles, some hardly larger than ones you might skim, and sauntered back up the hill with them in their pockets. Our stone, placed, with much heaving, in the middle of them all, looked like a planet surrounded by a delicate belt of asteroids. I think of this whenever I see a documentary on the building of Stonehenge or the Pyramids.

5. My final memory is the one that inspired this nostalgia-fest in the first place. A couple of days ago I was listening to forecasts of economic doom and President Bush's Middle East trek on the radio and began thinking of how he and his government seem to have gone out of their way to, not only be incompetent, but to be proud of it, almost creating more unnecessary situations in which their selfish uselessness could shine. It reminded me of myself in the great Summer Camp Airfix model competition.

I have never understood Airfix models. If I stretch my imagination I can just about get my head around people making models of things. It's not something that I would spend time on doing myself, but there is the challenge, the creativity and sense of achievement. I grew up admiring a scale model of The Golden Hind which was made by my Uncle as a teenager. It is a magnificent and impressive model, everything hewn from matchsticks and Eat-Me Date boxes, and must have taken absolutely ages to complete. The commitment to complete such a project has to be pretty vast. I can also see the value in people at some time making models of things to then use as toys. Nothing is more splendid to a small boy than a pretend car or ship. These things are repositories of the imagination. In times when toys were scarce, if boys made their own then good luck to them.

But Airfix kits are, for a start, cheating. They are like flat-pack furniture for children, designed for boys who will actually grow to be the sort of men who will feel a rosy macho glow upon completing construction of a bookshelf called Olaf. Airfix kits are the easy way out. They require little challenge, a paltry level of commitment and zero creativity.

I have often thought that I suffer from selective A.D.D., in that I get very bored very quickly with certain categories of things. Model making is one of them. It's one of those things that I'm sure I could be competent or even very good at, except I simply can't be bothered to put in enough practice to get to that kind of level. Trainspotting, IQ tests and Sudoko fall into a similar category

One particular afternoon at the camp there was a range of indoor activity choices. At the time I was unaware of my aversion to Airfix kits. In fact I desperately wanted to be able to complete impressive looking models of submarines and spitfires (in the same way that I was always keen on having a broken arm or leg, but that's another story). It seemed like the kind of thing that boys were supposed to do, and enjoy. So I signed up to spend the afternoon model-making.

Anthony, for example, was exactly the kind of boy who made Airfix models as a matter of routine. I liked him because he was the antithesis of Paul. Clean cut and sensible, you could just tell that his Dad was an accountant and his Mum a Primary school teacher. So I found myself in a hut amongst an array of Anthony types, all armed with our boxed airfix kits. As always there was a prize, this time a series of lessons in the art of nude photography with the rather lovely local beach beauties as willing subjects, or maybe having a night off from the evening meal washing up roster. On the count of three we began.

As I began to snap the pieces of my model car from their moulded frame, I watched Anthony begin his work. It began when he wiped all the surfaces of the pieces of his model with a damp cloth. They remained attached to their frame. Then, after studying the instructions and the picture, he began to paint the pieces of his Hawker Hurricane. After the first tranche of painting he asked me if I wanted to go to the tuck shop. I joined him. Of course, it was just to fill time until the paint dried. Over the next hour he managed to paint all the pieces. Only then did he detach them from their moulded frame. He wasn't especially quick but was extremely careful and efficient. Whilst the rest of us splurged glue all over and spent much of the time trying to detach our fingers from our faces, somehow Anthony could squeeze minute blobs of glue exactly onto the place that needed glueing. He was actually like an aeroplane production line and was clearly going to triumph with his perfect pristine model plane. The thing actually looked better then the picture on the box.

My Ford Model T was starting to take shape. Unfortunately it was not the shape of a Ford Model T. It seemed that whilst we were at the tuck shop some of my pieces had escaped and the rest has mixed themselves up. Crucially I was missing a wheel, which would have been okay if I was making a model of a Reliant Robin. It was obvious that I would never win, so I decided to 'accidentally' drop the thing on the floor, which would give me licence to be creative. I slid my arm along the bench and the model T slipped onto the tiles, smashing in several directions. With the thing shattered into pieces I could now glue it back together in a freeform and creative manner. This kept me amused (in much the same way that later in life, during my Art O level, I spent the time painting pictures of Lenny Bruce, Tom Waits, Humphrey Bogart and Ryuichi Sakamoto, instead of the range of art that the syllabus required) but effectively ruled me out of the competition. I finished it with a flourish of Pollock-esque poured paint squiggles and came squarely last.

It was the last time I ever attempted to make an Airfix model and I can safely say that I don't feel that I have missed out in any way.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

today : my own trumpet

Last week was the second anniversary of the existence of MediumSelfEsteem. This humble page has only had about 6,500 hits in 2 years, but that works out at about 8ish a day, which I guess isn't so bad.

I started the blog as an ideal way to write in a disciplined way and given that a huge majority of blogs are started and then abandoned after a couple of posts, I am rather chuffed that I have been posting a couple of times a week for all this time. That's 242 posts in all so far.

So Happy Birthday MSE.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Today : We all scream for ice cream

So there I was hobbling my eccentric way around the supernarket. Towards me came a young woman of about 20 or so. Perhaps a student. She was clearly on her way to somewhere in the shop, having perhaps forgotten to get tea bags or pita bread or whatever, and was charmingly lost in her own little world, her head moving minutely from side to side, almost dancing as she walked to some internal rhythm. As she approached I noticed she was singing to herself. It was odd, only as I was pulling into the car-park I was listening to the very same song (Ice Cream by the New Young Pony Club - pop-pickers) and it had been spinning though my head all the way round the aisles. As she got closer she sang:
"I can give you what you want..."
I was about two feet away and it was perfect timing. I sang back:
"I can make your heart beat short".
For half a beat a look flashed across her face, kind of part embarrassment and part surprise. I myself felt a little embarrassed. A completely square looking, tubby middle aged man singing the next line of suggestive pop song back to a fresh-faced student girl in the crisp aisle of Morrisons. This kind of thing could misfire and get a person a reputation, or even arrested. But then the funniest thing happened, she allowed the beat of the song in her head to reach the next line and sang it back to me whilst doing a comic and silly little finger pointing dance.

"I can make you ice cream
We could be a sweet team
Melting in your vice dreams, sport."

It was quite a perfect performance and made me smile. She herself broke up laughing and then grinned sheepishly, and without breaking our stride we both carried on our shopping in opposite directions.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

today : Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Apparently there is a man in Leeds who cannot say the words Manchester United as his hatred of them is so great that it would make his head explode.

I mention this because football fans are ridiculous, often living in a world so far removed from reality that they could probably be classified as insane.

The main problem that football fans have is that their expectations are so unrealistically high that nothing can match them and, as they sculpt their lives around the success or otherwise of their clubs, they are always destined to live in disappointment and despair.

Everyone lives a fantasy life. I myself wonder how Anne Hathaway or Ashwariya Rai has failed to notice how happy I would make them if they just picked up from their rich, shallow and unfulfilled lives and took up with me. It's almost unbelievable that they haven't. Ashwariya even had the gall and blinkeredness to actually marry someone else recently, therefore making it much more complicated for herself when she finally comes to her senses and realises that I am her best option.

But the difference between me and football fans is that their expectations are patently ridiculous. They demand the undeliverable and then get angry and twisted when it is not delivered.

Newcastle fans are the worst. Each time they get a manager they demand instant success with no downside, and when it doesn't happen they sulk and demand the manager is sacked. Worse than approaching their club with childish zeal, like any zealots, they see their insanity as a virtue. Part of the problem is that for a long time the people in charge of the club have given in to their demands, or actually think the same way as them. So what happens is that they get a new manager or a new overpriced player every so often in order to mollify the vociferous terrace protests, only to find that it doesn't work. It's a little like playing scrabble and putting all your letters back in the bag every turn in search of the fifty point bonus. If it does happen, invariably the other players are 150 points ahead when you get it and it is gratifying only for a second.

My own team, Leeds Utd has suffered from this in the past. When Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink played for us a few years ago he was very successful and scored lots of goals. This led to interest from other clubs. In an interview Jimmy Floyd was asked (as players and managers often are) if he was considering a move. The subtext of the question was of course about loyalty. Players and coaches are expected to be lifelong fans of any club they work for. Fans, who would to a person move to another job is the offer was good enough, expect players to ignore all better offers because of sheer affection for their current clubs. Jimmy Floyd gave the answer that most players do. He said that he was happy thus far, but was flattered by the attention.

The next week a banner appeared on the terraces calling him Judas and encouraging him to leave. He was barracked and taunted throughout the game. A few weeks later he took one of the offers and left. I don't blame him.

Newcastle have got themselves in a fix by sacking yet another manager at the behest of their insane fans, who behave like children in a badly run school i.e. if they are pandered to then their behaviour will become more extreme until they realise they are calling the shots and get off on the power it gives them.

Leeds Utd went the other way. At the height of their success around 2001-2 the chairman behaved like a fan, rather than a businessman. He had overhyped expectations of what could be achieved and then realised that, as the person in charge, he could chase those expectations. Basically he pandered to himself, bankrupting the club in the process and destroying any real progress that had been made in the previous decade.

At every turn the true victims here are the real supporters. The realistic people who pay their money, take glory and disaster in good part, and realise that true sporting success is a long game. They are the ones who understand that players and managers are simply employees and that success has to be built in stages and based mainly on hard work rather than the quick fix.

today : betrayed runner

What I have found interesting about the IAAF's decision to disbar Oscar Pistorius from the Olympics is that it has revealed a wider attitude towards disabled athletes and disability in general. I have listened to Radio 5 for a few hours today and heard the words cripple, freakshow and cheating used in relation to disabled athletes by otherwise apparently reasonable people

It turns out that the Olympic movement, which in the popular imagination is about 'inclusion' is actually just as snobbish, prejudiced and based around exclusion as other institutions. Eddie the Eagle and Eric the Eel were considered an embarrassment to sport and competitors of their level and ilk were subsequently disallowed from competing. And now Pistorius is being treated in much the same way as a steroid user might be.

As well this just being sour and churlish - like when the disabled golf guy was disallowed from using an electric cart, despite bing unable to walk between shots - this whole thing is more sinister. Able bodied people are deciding the definitions of disability, rather than the disabled themselves being allowed to make the call. They are then using their own definitions to exclude those they simply don't like. Nathalie Du Toit, the South African swimmer is another case. I have heard people suggest that her missing leg might 'put off' other swimmers who are not used to it, and thus gain her an advantage. This whole thing echoes the way that (in sports especially) people refuse to see naturalised citizens as British, always referring back to their foreign-ness, reinforcing a jingoistic and frankly colonial attitude to nations.

What is exposed here is the politics of exclusion at its starkest, and degrades the Olympic ideal.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

today : Books we only pretend we've read

Overheard in a second hand bookstore:

Middle aged man in hiking boots, Craghoppers fleece and jeans, works in the store:
So, what are you reading these days?
Rather tall, exotic and slightly boho looking thirtysomething woman with wild ringlets and Eastern European accent:
Well, I read Lady Chatterley...
Him: All that overwrought sex is very adolescent..
Her: Actually I expected it to be yeah, but I found it was rather touching.
Him: Well, yeah. It's really well written. But other people always read it just for the sex.
Her: Y'know, I'm still a bit baffled by the nuances of the class system.
Him: Well, yeah, obviously that's his major theme. I mean in Sons and Lovers and some of the others.
Her: What shall I buy? I spend too much on books. [she picks up a copy of Hanif Kureishi's Love in a Blue Time]
Him: That's a good choice.
Her: Hmmm.
Him: I really like the Indian writers, like Rushdie.
Her: Really? I got stuck halfway through the Satanic Verses and couldn't finish it.
Him: Well it was pretty over-rated.
Her: Hmmm. I think I'll get this one. [to herself] God I spend so much on books.
Him : Yeah.
Her : I'll get this one, I think.
[he rushes to the counter where I have been standing waiting for someone to serve me. He goes behind it, reaches back and takes the book from her hand. She is not conventionally pretty, but alluringly sexy and elegant right down to her fingers. He starts to punch the till.]
Me: Excuse me, but wasn't I first?
He glares at me.
Her : Oh God, yeah, I'm sorry. You've been waiting...erm.
Me: Thanks, I'm a bit pushed for time.
Her: Oh, of course. [she addresses him]. Tell you what, I'll skip buying this one today...maybe another day. John's waiting for me in the car. [She wafts out of the shop. He punches the till with some force and doesn't speak to me. I have to ask him how much I need to pay.]

today: Opalma

Being the nerdish superfan of The West Wing that I surely am, it would be ridiculous of me to claim that the forthcoming (revelations of bestiality and such notwithstanding) landslide Presidential election victory by The Democratic candidate is down to the influence of a semi-fantastic (as in fantasy) TV drama series.

But it is not so unreasonable to posit that recent TV has cast politicians in a pretty good light, and this can only reflect well on The Democrats. Clearly Josiah Bartlett was, in fiction, several miles to the left of where real politicians are. Yet each week for seven years during a Republican administration he was in the homes of some Americans and across the media of America as an extremely liberal President who was also a good guy. Well intentioned, strong, likeable and without the connivances and bile that politicians are supposed to have.

His replacement, Matthew Santos, was a minority candidate who reached out to a wider audience by being youthful, vigorous, honest and committed. Both WW Presidents ran an insrugent campaign that went up against the old party machines and won the nomination on the back of Momentum created by surprise showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. Both (as played by experienced actors/stars) possessed charisma in bucketloads.

Turn the channel and we find David and Wayne Palmer. David especially, as portrayed urbanely by Morgan Freeman-esque Dennis Haysbert was a black President who was trustworthy, full of resolve, shot through with integrity and a grace under fire that we can only hope real polticians might have. In short, a credible black president.

Meld the two together and we have, ta-daa, Barak Obama, whose name incidentally rhymes with Palmer.

My argument is that since Vietnam polticians have been portrayed in documentary, but crucially in fiction, as duplicitous, power-crazed, self-interested, incompetent, foolish and always somewhere on the spectrum of corruption (apart form Kevin Kline as Dave and Michael Douglas in The American President which doesn't really count because it was a sort of pilot version of the West Wing). West Wing and 24 have marked a cultural shift, in that it is okay and believable to create fictional Presidents who are true public servants, resistant to the corruption around them and with the good of America and its people as their driving force. Perhaps they have played some part in opening peoples' minds a little.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

End of the century

In October 2000 the high oil price under Clinton was reached. It was $28 dollars a barrel.

In January 2008 the price under Bush reached $100 a barrel.