Saturday, May 31, 2008

This week's news round-up

The week's news reassessed by Johnny Taronja


There is now general agreement on the idea that Labour's crisis is irreversible. If you ever thought that the Blair years were lined by fairly tame sections of the press (though there were notable exceptions, especially after the Iraq 'adventure'), the same sensation is much more palpable now. The moment the removal man carted the last of Blair's belongings out of Number 10, the lid was off. The entire press became magically aware of the cost of living in the UK and everyday they can be heard banging on about overpriced eggs, council tax, demented electricity bills and repossessions. All true, by all means, and it's refreshing to read about people's real problems but it's the sudden change in tack that looks suspicious. The real issue is why the UK's account-busting cost of living rarely made front page news before summer 2007. It goes to show how non-existent Gordon Brown's clout on the press is.

*****

This week every paper has carried estimates of how much those fatter bills are affecting British families. But as they also reveal the simultaneous multi-millions profits of energy, telephone and water companies (as well as supermarkets - but that's a different story) they all stop short of telling it like it is. Apart from the Mirror's Paul Routledge. "I've never seen a clearer case of private gain before private interest" wrote the legendary columnist in the Friday paper. One case, in particular, rings familiar. "Ian Livingston, the new boss of BT, will get a £7m pay package if he meets financial targets. That should be no trouble, given the legalised larceny of £18 a year 'fines' imposed on customers who can't pay by direct debit".

*****

Economic gloom aside, Britain is undergoing an unprecedented surge in violent crime. Hardly a day, literally, goes by without depressing stories of stabbed teenagers, shot passers-by and fatal beatings. "Time for radical measures" is the phrase of the day. You get Sir Ian Blair pleading for mothers to badger their sons: "Are you carrying a knife, love? Oh and don't forget your packed lunch", or heroic stories of mothers grassing up their own yobbo kids. But as The Guardian reported a pioneering police project (Operation Leopard, the name is), "Harass a hoodie: how Essex police take surveillance to the streets", there they are - the civil rights activists complaining of "civil liberties implications". Stalking and filming criminals and yobs may not be the most noble thing to do, but when you get dozens of people dying every month in parks and outside McDonald's for no reason, it's time for emergency measures.

*****

I am glad the press decided to rip apart king-of-football-mercenaries Nicholas Anelka. Like a sulking child, the overpaid Chelsea forward refused to be amongst the official five penalty takers in the crucial shoot-outs of last week's Moscow final. The reason? He had been played out of his favourite position so, right in the midst of the most vital moment in the history of Chelsea FC, he thought he'd get his own back. At who, exactly? The manager? His team mates? Chelsea supporters? I suppose buying players who happily swap teams like revolving doors carries a massive element of risk and Anelka's career tallying about 300 different teams in less then ten years is odds-on.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Pieces of baggage

Ryanair and the increase in "check-in luggage" fees

Every time I look at the Rynair website, it seems more expensive. Although they were recently forced by the European Union to stop taking the piss and make it clearer that their flights are not really for sale at £0.01, something still doesn’t add up.

Two years ago, the cost of a single check-in luggage item stood around a fiver. Then, in summer 2006 the failed terrorist attacks brought about restrictions on hand luggage, the stuff about transparent bags and puzzled passengers asked to drink their toddler's milk before boarding the plane in case it contained any explosives. Just by chance, it was then that Ryanair started increasing their luggage charges. Officially - and conveniently choosing to gloss over the above mentioned hand luggage restrictions - the company spoke of a mysterious "objective of persuading at least 50 per cent of Ryanair passengers to travel with hand luggage only". It's as if Virgin justified the extortionate price of food on their trains by saying they want to encourage people to have breakfast before they travel.

So keen were Ryanair on their "objective" that luggage fees quickly went up to £8 and then again to £10. At the start of 2008, a cryptic concoction of what is being sold as "bag and airport check-in", makes the cost of a bag currently stand at 15 Euros. Ryanair and similar companies have been moaning like poor sods about unsympathetic legislations, as well as the increases in emission taxes and green taxes - and those have most certainly gone up. Yet how that makes the act of carrying bags three to five times more expensive, is a connection most customers are currently failing to grasp.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

One yank, all gone

Mourning the loss of a forgotten website

There are legions of people who joined a band, spent years locked away in a rehearsal room and didn't make it. My own band was called my marilyn. We tried and strived, amassing hours in our underground lock-up as we carefully crafted songs, lyrics, verses and choruses, overdubs and effects. We had the time of our lives hiring vans and playing up and down the country; we'd dye our hair and conjure up stage tactics; we put out a few hundred copies of a single called At The Disco; we clogged up the Royal Mail as we sent our records to as many labels, tags, radios and management companies as possible (ending up completely skint in the process, having grabbed hold of every jiffy bag available in Birmingham). If you play the lottery and watch The National Lottery Show every Saturday on BBC 1, you may know it's the same frustrating excitement. Because those numbers fly by and nothing ever happens, but it's brilliant all the same.

When we split a few years ago I remained confident that our website was going to remain our everlasting testament. In fact, I didn’t even think about it; the proud product of a few hours of work, featuring photos, posters, useless information like the guitarist's favourite summer vegetable, lyrics and music samples, it was going to preserve all those fond memories for posterity.

But the other day something happened. When I tried to access the site, the computer replied he'd have none of it - the screen was adamant that "the website cannot be found". Gradually, the initial diagnosis of "server glitch" gave way to a sinister certainty. Vague memories of terms and conditions started to resurface, including expiry dates and a domain that would only last for a limited number of years. Fact: mymarilyn.net is no more. A bit like demolishing the Central library. Years to put it up, gone in one yank.

I then remembered an article from a few years ago; someone, in same paper, wrote that the downside of the internet era is that a humongous amount of photos, letters and various documents is at risk of not making it past the threshold of a mere few years. Whereas in the past we'd have physically locked those memories safe and stored them for infinity, today's over-reliance on digital and the internet poses the danger of wiping out industrial quantities of stuff in a relatively short term. Think of a virus, a lost password, an unreliable server, a forgotten batch of terms and conditions. In our case, there was no plan 'b', especially for a cyberinept like myself who'd never heard of the expression "back-up".

So where does that leave us with my marilyn? One thing I've learnt and it's that even audio files of our songs and pictures on my computer aren't safe. If I have my laptop nicked or simply leave it on a train in an act of premature senility, it would only be left to old, scratched, dusty CDs to keep the flame alive. Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Terry Wogans of the world unite

The Eurovision Song Context and the naff within ourselves

Certain things you simply can't get away from. One of the few certainties of my life was that I would never sit in front of the Eurovision Song Context like everyone else. They watch it, moan about it, cry that it's "unfair" and "OTT" then twelve months down the line, are at it again. Well, never, ever, say never. This year I joined everyone else's ranks, and all it took was five minutes before I too started whingeing that it's "all so political", "naff" and "a fix".

Just look at those votes. Refreshingly, even the Spanish commentator, Terry Wogan-style, was pouring scorn on the procedure. Former Soviet-bloc countries that back each other, the Danes -clockwork- allocating their points to Sweden and Norway and vice versa, Serbia voting for Russia and Russia voting for Serbia and so forth.

And what for? A pageant of Barbie-like tarts complete with ample cleavage, fake tan and token homoerotic dancers in the background. Musically, it's mostly a cross between Aqua's Barbie Girl and Dana International, bogged down in early 90s' techno and not moving, all completely devoid of irony. Spain's Chikilicuatre and France's Sebastian were the only acts who introduced satire and a touch of wit to the night (without, let it be said, relying upon tits, arses and stiletto heels) and look how badly they fared.

The UK came last again, but if the contestant of choice is a reject from three X-Factors ago doing a karaoke impression of a Simply Red b-side, then you can blame rigged votes for all you like, there simply will be no chance.

Monday, May 26, 2008

They Nabbed his toys

Geezer Andy McNab and his problem with men crying

Out of the tons of articles written in the wake of the legendary all-English Champions League final between Man Utd and Chelsea, the award for the most mental goes to a piece penned by Andy McNab. The platform, of course, was none other than the Sun, the tabloid that can always be relied upon for mind-boggingly equal dollops of lairiness and uprightness - in the same go. Oh, the Sun. Who else would drop the bombshell revelation that "Man Utd players spent all night celebrating"?

Referring to John Terry's inconsolable tears after his slip-up in last Wednesday's penalty shoot-outs, the headline was: "Is it ever okay for sportsmen to cry?". Enter Sun Security Adviser Andy McNab's. "NO" was his retort. "They become exposed for the wimps that they really are", the hardman wrote, "[T]here's too much of this emotional stuff", and "[T]he pitch should be the place where men are men", rounding it off with "I tell you this - you wouldn’t find any of Terry's blubbing antics in the SAS".

It's hard to resist the temptation to suggest the man must have had his toys locked away when he was a kid. More to the point, no doubt McNab is also of the opinion that cooking is the "wench's" biological duty. Unless, of course, it's a burly barbecue we're talking about. Or raw meat. Preferably heated up under the saddle, between the horse and the man. That's what the elite forces get to eat in the Burmese jungle. Where men are men.

Monday, May 19, 2008

We're in for a treat

It's "back to basics" once again for the Tories

A few weeks ago, David Cameron announced that he wants to ban lesbian couples from having babies. In the meantime, Boris Johnson, infamous for all sorts of gaffes, but more importantly a privileged, misogynist and homo-sceptic worldview that differs from the Daily Mail only in that it’s more articulate, was elected as mayor of London (for those who think Boris' comments and lifestyle are just a bit of harmless fun, see this link).

This week we hear about a proposal to reduce the legal limit of abortion -currently at 24 weeks- on the basis of “scientific evidence” that allegedly demonstrate that nowadays prematurely born babies prior to 24 weeks now have better chances for survival. Thus, abortion should be banned prior 20 or 22 weeks. Alas, the slogan that is still a dominant issue that can determine elections on the other side of the Atlantic but the Tories dare not utter, is what’s really in their minds: abortion is murder.

Moreover, the author of the report that the Tories use as “evidence”, says that his findings have absolutely nothing to do with the way it’s been used in the parliamentary and public debate. Quite the contrary, the report says that there is NO evidence to suggest that there is a better chance of survival prior to 24 weeks. The scientific fa├žade of this farce of an argument is completely exposed by the expressed preferences of the involved MPs: the shadow health secretary wants it down to 22 weeks; David Cameron to 20; Nadine Dorries, the MP who is one of the most vocal proponents of the proposal, while she agrees with Cameron on 20 weeks, she would prefer to see it at 9, but is also willing to compromise at 13. Politics is about compromise, right?

Not surprisingly, when asked about feminism, she said she didn’t really know what it is, and didn’t seem particularly curious to find out either. Why would she, since the issue at stake is not women’s rights, ownership of their body, or how unwanted pregnancies affect women’s lives. It’s good old back-to-traditional-values Maggie Thatcher ideology. But this time it comes with a twist, since now the home in which women belong to is eco-friendly (rather like David Cameron’s house), and you get to it on a bike (like Boris Johnson). The fancy wrapping that the Tory manifesto comes in has little to do with the specific agenda they will be pushing when they get elected soon. But then again, wasn’t it New Labour who invented these rules of the game?

P.S.1: By the time I actually posted this, the decision was taken in the House of Commons. The proposal did not pass. I refuse to celebrate though, as it should not even have been on the agenda. Let alone the fact that it will probably be passed by the next parliament…

P.S.2: Slightly irrelevant, but here it goes: all of Boris’ biographical notes mention that his Great-grandfather was an interior minister of the Ottoman Empire. What they fail to tell you is that he was lynched by an angry mob…

Monday, May 12, 2008

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Gordon Brown? A loser

Labour has no longer a reason to exist, let alone any political ground of its own

Gordon Brown on the Andrew Marr show last weekend will go down in history as one of the all time displays of political ineptitude. Had it not been for the fact that many viewers fell asleep, it could have become the generation's own JFK moment: "what were you doing when Labour's death knell was sounded on daytime telly"?

But if you did manage to keep awake, you may have even felt a touch sorry for the guy. He just didn't have a clue. Here's a pool of pissed-off voters desperate for empathy, a sense of direction and a more sympathetic government. David Cameron understood all that and -in the words of John Cruddas MP- has taken up "the language of relationships and fraternity". Gordon Brown, instead, is bogged down in Dalek-land and the cryptic self-masturbatory language so reminiscent of my old Politics lecturers at University.

Even the dimmest viewer realised that not even King-of-incest Josef Fritzl replacing David Cameron as the next Tory Leader would hand Brown a chance to win the next elections. Such is the plight of the post-Blair Labour Party.

Because Labour has no longer a reason to exist, let alone any political ground of its own. Imagine the next Conservative government increasing tuition fees: who is going to have any credibility to oppose them? "You were the one who introduced them in the first place and then tripled them", would be the Tories' comeback to any hypothetical opposition. And even if Cameron didn't keep his own promises, any cry of foul play would be sneered at as the pot calling the kettle black - remember Tony Blair's electoral pledge that he wasn't going to increase University fees?

Not to mention fiscal policies rubberstamped by a permawink to the City. Isn't it what New Labour pursued until the bitter end? Remember John Hutton's cry that the very rich don't get rich enough? Or Peter Mandelson feeling "intensely relaxed about the filthy rich"? So very New Labour. Just in case the gap between minted and poor keeps growing under Cameron, given that the Blair years made the very rich more loaded than at any time in history, how on earth can Labour claim they'd pull off a better one than Cameron and his Etonian mates?

A new dubious military adventure based on scattered intelligence? Cries of "Iraq" and "hypocrites" will be the instant putdown against any Labour opposition in the Commons. Or undemocratic tricks played by The House of Lords? Labour had a massive majority, a list of promises to reform it and plenty of time to sort it out. And F.A. is what they did.

Any opposition to potential Tory policies against the lower classes will be saluted by a sound reminder that Gordon Brown meddled with the infamous "10p tax" escapade. Privatisations? Foundation hospitals? "You can talk" will be the answer. Along with more anti-scrounger rhetoric. Can you think of anybody outdoing Labour Minister Caroline Flint and her recent, reckless proposals "to force the unemployed to seek work or lose their council homes"? She made get-on-yer-bike Norman Tebbit look like a dilettante. Seriously, if you haven't got much dough in the UK, brace yourself for some pretty dire times. Because at least during the Thatcher years there was the delusion that a Labour government would fix it. Now, instead, the Labour Party is stuck in a rut, locked up, wedged. And people like Flint will, thankfully, lose their seat. In a recent article in The Guardian, Polly Toynbee nailed it just right: "what exactly [do] they intend to say on those middle England doorsteps[?] Um, well, more or less the same as the Tories, but we're tired after so long in office, while they are fresh-faced and eager. It's not an option, is it?"

Most infuriatingly, you can almost imagine Tony Blair's devilish grin behind the scenes. He's the one who sank the ship and then left Brown to deal with the scraps. Imagine how much of a loser the former Chancellor is feeling at the moment...14 years in the waiting only to inherit a party headed for slaughter. Gordon's going to lose the elections while Blair will like to think of himself as "the invincible one". Or better, the man who destroyed the Labour Party for generations.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Wayne and Waynetta's special day

The frivolous, ignorant, air-bubble world that the new generation of footballers and WAGs live in, made flesh. by Emma Munn


For most mere mortals, a wedding day needs to be saved for, assisted by generous parents or at worst, paid for by Barclays.

Footballer Wayne Rooney and his famous-for-going-out-with-a-footballer girlfriend Coleen McLoughlin however are spending £3 million on theirs. A humble amount that no doubt represents their frugal and demure lifestyle, God bless them.

The ceremony is taking place in the Cote D'Azur in France, and their guests are being flown over in specially chartered jets (environmentally aware? moi?) for the three-day bash (I bet OK! Magazine is pissing itself with excitement over this one) Cue the 'explosive' interviews... ad nauseum.

All of this begs the question, and please forgive my excessive use of punctuation;

What on EARTH can you spend £3 million on in 3 days??!!

Solid gold toilets? Toilet paper rolled on the virginal thighs of angels? Chanel napkins? Rare orchids for the buttonholes? Diamond studded cutlery? The Hope Diamond and Faberge eggs as centerpieces on the tables at the reception? And God knows what favours the guests are going to get. Ming vases?

The main problem I have with this is not the tableware, but the sheer immorality of it all. Spending the GNP of a small country on your wedding day is not only ridiculous but offensive. For example; £3 million could by vaccines for thousands of sick people in deprived countries, it could help build hospitals, schools, help vulnerable people... I'm not saying it's up to these two fine creatures to deal with that, but surely any normal person would feel just a little apprehensive and dare I say concerned about how this frivolity looks to the general public.

However, to poorly educated Chavs like these two, these kind of things do not cross their minds. Coleen once said, "Sometimes I feel bad that I've bought so much stuff and some people have nothing," and famously clings on to the fact that she supports charities (her sister unfortunatly suffers from Rett Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder related to Autism) cynics might say, to brush off her 'does nothing but sit on her arse and go shopping with Wayne's Visa' image, and maybe to justify her excessive spending. As if to say 'I do sumfink don't I? I may have just spent £6,000 on a handbag but I need it 'cos I'm going to a charity dinner tonight to raise money, innit.'

The fact is, if you are paid £35,000 a week from the age of 17, you aren't going to think about anything but Cristal and YSL underpants, are you?

Friday, May 02, 2008

This week's news round-up

This week's news reassessed by Johnny Taronja

You had been warned. A few months ago we told you about Facebook's transition from brilliant idea to spamming feast. As the orgy of useless, harddrive-clogging applications runs unabated, this week the BBC revealed how some of the same irritating applications can actually be the perfect Trojan horse into your private details. If you're worried about potential identity theft in the guise of that hatched egg sent over by your mate Samantha, then find out more on this BBC page.
*****

Yesterday's council elections confirm the bleeding obvious: at this rate the Labour Party will disappear within five years. Brown and his mates took a spectacular drubbing as they lost just under 200 councillors across England and Wales. Granted, the collapse is partly due to the cracks of 11 years in power. Mainly, though, it's first-hand evidence that you can knock the stuffing out of a party and its history and enjoy short-term gains. But sooner or later the old chicken will come home to roost and smack you right in the face.

*****
Get used to his face because he's gonna be the talk of the town for a while. A year after Austria hit the headlines with the disclosure of Natasha's ordeal as the victim of a 10-year-long abduction, the police revealed details of a proper House of Horror in the subalpine town of Amstetten where 73-year-old Josef Fritzl managed to keep his daughter Elizabeth imprisoned for twenty four years in his cellar. Following a vile feast of abuse and incest he also fathered her seven children. To say that there's widespread disbelief at how the maniac managed to keep his secret for that long is to understate the facts a little. However opinion columns about the alleged ills of Austrian society are a bit misplaced. Unless you wanna think that Fred and Rose West were a fair representation of Gloucestershire.

*****
Fritzl's deeds are bound to provide the script to the goriest horror film of the 21st century. However, Spain's recent release, REC (directed by Jaume Balaguero), is going to put up some fierce opposition. Exploiting the sub-genre of faux-documentaries (remember Blair Witch Project?), REC contains all the ingredients to scare the living crap out of the viewer. An old, claustrophobic apartment block, a sanitary cordon that keeps it sealed off from the outside world and a pinch of 28 Days Later-like rage will certainly test your capacity to avoid soiling yourself.


*****
For the first time in 25 years England can proudly claim to host the best Football league in Europe. An all-English final in the Champions League is proof of the fantastic state of health of the Premier League. Watching Barcelona's stars helplessly lapdancing in front of Man Utd's defenders was quite a show. The English have finally learnt the art of defending. The only headache now is 80,000 English fans in Moscow. A very unfortunate choice of venue.


*****
What a week for Amy Winehouse. Perhaps her and Pete Doherty really should get together. Their careers are increasingly resembling similar patterns. As she was named holder of a £10m fortune, the Rehab star proceeded to celebrate in jail for assaulting a man. Yet she remains one of this generation's firmest idols. Look and learn kids. Get some coke up your nostrils, look like an extra from Shaun of the Dead and headbutt a pedestrian or two. You'll be in Heat before you know.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Don't vote for a joke, vote for London

There's a lot at stake in today's London elections

In the country of apathy the easy way out is to tar them all with the same brush: "they're all bad, all liars, all corrupt; just all the same". Ducking is generally uncomplicated and easier on the brain. It's no surprise that the London mayoral contest has been lined by non-descript press coverage lazily referring to "the unenviable choice", along with profound analyses stretching as far as "I wish the options weren’t these two". The London elections are on today and "these two", of course, are Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. One voice that sticks out is that of Johann Hari in The Independent, consistently highlighting the true colours of the Tories' 21century 'lite' version in what he calls our "attention deficit democracy". Hidden between a joke, a crack and a ruffling of his barnet, Boris Johnson has actively endorsed fairly nasty (read: Thatcherite) ideas for the best part of his political career. Indeed it's a blessing that he's been kept on a firm leash throughout the mayoral campaign, otherwise his cheeky chappy credentials may have offered him a leg up in the race to snaffle the oblivious. Because when it comes down to policies, Boris simply hasn’t got a clue. Unless, that is, you consider populistic right-wing policies the clue.

Many have noted how weary Ken Livingstone has looked throughout the campaign. At times there's almost the impression that the old bruiser who took on Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair at the height of their power isn’t even that bothered any more. And yet Ken is obviously aware that he's not simply battling against a resurgent right-wing that is sweeping across Europe, but also in contrast to the burden of his own party. With Brown earning a reputation as the epitome of an ignorant establishment cut off from the real world and Labour nosediving by the minute, Livingstone is desperate to avoid the correlation.

"Livingstone as the establishment" is a formula that simply doesn’t work. His political fortunes have always stemmed from his maverick, anti-status quo credentials. Indeed, one of the most underrated political moments of the last 10 years was itself Livingstone's election in 2000. Remember this was the pinnacle of Blairism. To date, Livingstone remains the only person who dared to openly stand up to Tony the Tsar and his formidable machine. In pure Soviet style, Ken got kicked out of the Labour Party and still managed to pull out a stunning victory. Entirely on his own and against Labour's official candidate, a Tory contender and a Lib-Dem one. But this is the thing: he won hands down precisely because he ran as the voice of dissent. In particular, against Blair the control freak and his New Labourite machine. He offered hope to the millions of people who were repulsed by Blairism but wouldn't be cajoled into the hands of the Tories. The rest is history. Livingstone was let back into Labour in 2004 and London restored as part of Blair's empire. Perhaps Livingstone could have done with keeping out of the Labour Party after all. The word "Labour" is less popular than "Ken". No wonder Boris Johnson has been referring to Ken as "Labour's candidate for mayor".

To listen to the Tories today, London's problems are all Ken Livingstone's creation. The same Evening Standard who sat quietly in front of the most revolting political scandals has been spectacularly out in force to frame the Mayor. You name it. Anti-semitic Ken, pigeon-hating Ken, crooked Ken, communist Ken, cronyist Ken. Crime too, of course, is all his own fault. Never mind shootings and stabbings have plagued Britain regardless of the local councils' political colour. In London, crime seems to be Ken's baby. And remember all the patriotic fuss as London snatched the Olympics? Nah, suddenly, the Olympics are bad, an extra-burden to the vexed taxpayer. Another one of Ken's evil ploys. Exactly like immigration. To listen to Boris the Toff, they're all headed for London.

Then there's the issue of Livingstone fighting to make 50 per cent of new homes affordable. Of course there's little a Mayor can do against house prices, property speculations and mortgage policies. However, Ken is promising that building licences will only be granted with the proviso that 50% of new structures are to be made affordable. Lazily, Johnson dismisses that as "nanny state" policies. Of course he would, wouldn't he? Where he comes from, being priced out of the property market isn't the priority.

Last but not least there's the congestion charge. Livingstone pressed ahead in spite of being literally ripped apart by the press and not just the Tory one. I still recall phone-in radio programmes where people would literally demand his head. Then it soon transpired that daily traffic into London had gone down by 70,000 a day and within months the experiment attracted imitators around the world. Similarly, today Ken is announcing a £25 a day charge for gas-guzzling vehicles entering the congestion charge zone. Clarksonites got into fits of rage at the news and that alone should warrant the Mayor plenty of votes. You know Jeremy Clarkson wouldn't vote for Ken. Don't be like him, vote for Ken.