Sunday, January 30, 2011

Conviction

What a waste of a film.

In 1983, Kenny Waters was convicted of the brutal murder of a woman in a town in Massachusetts. Little was known at the time that the case was going to become one of America's biggest miscarriages of justice, with Kenny ending up locked away for eighteen years over something he never did.

Tony Goldwyn's Conviction is the true story of how Kenny Waters' sister Betty Anne embarked upon a two-decade long mission to have her brother freed.

At any rate, the story is obviously compelling and even moving at times. The intention is obviously good and it certainly helps that both main actors, Hilary Swank (interpreting Betty Ann) and Sam Rockwell (Kenny Waters) pull off a fine performance.

The problem, however, is that the film fails completely to convey any sense of drama and involvement as the whole thing unravels in a totally mono-dimensional manner. For almost two hours it bangs on about one thing and one thing alone without any subplot, twist or character development or anything that encourages the viewer to give a particular damn.

Compare it with other films based on judicial cock-ups and assorted legal wranglings (In the Name of the Father or North Country to name but two) and the result is a lot of squandered potential and a story that comes across as both drawn out and uninspiring.

In other words, more of a Sunday afternoon TV film than a Hollywood release. Avoid if you can.

Friday, January 28, 2011

127 Hours

One of the contenders for this year's Academy Awards.

Danny Boyle is one of those film directors I have never been able to decide whether I'm a fan of or not.

Some of his films I watched a dozen times each. There was Shallow Grave, one of the best thriller noirs of the 1990s. Or, The Beach, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, a gripping depiction of human nature and the way communities implode under the weight of envy and factionalism.

Then there's Slumdog Millionaire, showered with praise and awards, a touching tale of exploitation and expectations set in modern India. And, of course, Boyle was also the man behind one of best the horror films of the last ten years, the disturbing 28 Days Later.

However, what's annoying about the most famous living British director is what seems to be the 'ultra-cool' and 'in-with-the-kids' factor. Some of his stuff is reminiscent of those 'cool students' circa-1998 who would look at you in amazement at the news that, no, you don't actually like Moby or Fatboy Slim. "What? Really, man? But Moby is sooooo cool!".

Cue the irritating camera work. The fast forwarded bits. The industrial amounts of clipped images. The super trendy soundtracks, and god forbid if the film tallies two consecutive seconds without music in the foreground. And so on.

Trainspotting springs to mind, one of the films I've never been able to actually grasp - which is my own fault no doubt.

Still, you can't fault the man. Radcliffe's biggest export seems to have struck gold again, as his latest release is one of the hottest contenders for this year's Academy Awards.

100% based on true events, 127 Hours is an engrossing tale of survival and endurance. It's the story of Aron Rolston, an adventure sports fanatic who became trapped by a boulder in the Utah canyons in 2003.

Played by the excellent James Franco, Aron inadvertently falls into a crevice with the added bad luck of a massive boulder tumbling til the point it's encased against his arm.

As the place is literally in the middle of nowhere, the protagonist embarks upon a race against time, loneliness, climate and physical pain in an increasingly desperate quest to get out alive.

And what a desperate quest it is. Most viewers would probably wonder what they would have done had they been in his shoes. Not a lot, probably, if you consider that Aron was fighting alone while standing up for five days with all but a trapped arm, a cheap swissknife and a water flask.

Which is what makes this film particularly special. Aron's emotions are portrayed masterfully, with his sense of panic and despair gradually spiralling out of control as his life begins to flash, literally, before his eyes. Bravely, however, the man manages to keep his nerves under control, which is ultimately what will allow him to survive to tell his story.

A must-see.

To Melanie Phillips and the bigots

"Don’t demand the right to spit in the face of gay people, and claim you’re being picked on when you’re asked to stop", Johann Hari, The Independent.

Spot-on.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Paranormal Activity 2

The prequel to one of the scariest horrors of the Noughties.

When the first Paranormal Activty came out in 2009, this blog professed its outmost admiration.

There was a horror film that did what it said on the tin. A slow and relentless build-up which resulted in tons of suspense without relying on monsters, zombies or any sort of camera trick. I obviously speak for myself, but when I watched it, it really freaked me out, which I guess is what a film called Paranormal Activity should be doing in the first place.

One year down the line, and its follow-up came out in the guise of a prequel.

The formula is still the same, except that the story is now centred around Kate's sister's family and a series of spooky events in the weeks prior to what happened in the first film.

There are both a different director (Tod Williams) and writer (Michael R. Perry), but you wouldn't have noticed, given that the same minimalistic touches and meticulous attention to the build-up are applied this time as well.

In short, still very scary, except that this time you more or less already know what to expect, which detracts a little from the tension and the anticipation.

However, if you did miss the first one, this is likely to make you jump big time nonetheless.

The bad news is that a third instalment has already been commissioned for October 2011. As it's very difficult to see where the story can go any further without trivialising it in the style of Saw (now likely to be in its 22nd incarnation) or Final Destination (except that it's never final), one could be forgiven for their scepticism.

Paranormal Activity 2 is released on DVD on Feb 8, 2011.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Blame the weather

Why Osborne's excuse that snow is to blame for the collapse in economic growth is comedy material.

Britain's economy contracted 0.5% in the last quarter, the most in a year, according to the latest from the Office for National Statistics.

While everybody agrees the figures are evidence of a double-dip recession on its way and even the CBI boss accuses the government of "lacking vision" ("Measures that cut spending but killed demand would actually make matters worse", in the words of Sir Richard Lambert), Chancellor George "Trustfund" Osborne had the cheek to seriously blame last month's snowfall and cold temperatures.

No doubt because he had first-hand experience of both.

But let's just suppose Osborne was right. At the end of the day, it is true that last December was the coldest on record.

It still isn't enough to explain entirely such a massive slump to the point of also cancelling out completely October and November.

The truth is that no amount of comical excuses from Britain's Chancellor will cover up for the devastating decisions they've inflicted on the country.

And a simple comparison will be enough to expose his bullshit for what it is.

December 2009 was also an extremely cold month. Granted, not as extreme as December 2010, but still the Met Office described it as the coldest on record since 1995, with heavy snowfalls and widespread disruption to the economy.

Yet that didn't prevent the economy from growing last year for the first time in six quarters (see this).

More. Look at January, February and March 2010. The three combined were all much colder than usual (January in particular was "the coldest over the UK since 1987 and equal eighth-coldest in a series from 1910") and each of them was officially listed as "anomalies" in terms of mean temperatures.

Guess what? The economy grew over that quarter too. No mention of bad weather there, eh?

The truth is, Osborne is useless and this government is so inept that they would still deny a piece of evidence if it stared at them in the face with a sign that said "evidence".

Neanderthals

...More likely she wouldn't with someone like you, Mr Gray. Bargepole and all...

***UPDATE***
And guess who, dear Reader, is sticking by the two Neanderthals? The Daily Mail, of course, with a supremely condescending and patronising piece by Julie Welch.

Look at this dribble of goo in the guise of print:

"Right or wrong, most men – not arty leftie metrosexuals, but the vast majority of blokes – appreciate the game because it offers male-only companionship. Somewhere that isn’t complicated by the presence of women. They want a place where they can be neanderthal and boring, where they can swear, behave badly, let off steam and, yes, be sexist. There aren’t many places left for these emasculated men to simply behave like blokes. Football is one of the few areas of life left that allows them to".

So, according to Ms Condescending, if you don't form a pack with other men, hang around in caves, smash the place up and make monkey noises, you're an "arty leftie metrosexual". Like, if "the vast majority of women" don't just giggle and slog away in the kitchen and talk about make-up and gossip about the latest on Heat magazine they're all bitter lesbofeminists, right?

And since you're at it, Welch. Would you also include racist and homophobic slander as part of the legitimate right "to simply behave like a bloke", or is that too "censorship and criticism"?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The abolition of election campaigning

Why the government's NHS proposals have pushed bullshit politics to untenable levels.

The run-up to the general election. Those dreaded weeks when the country is bombarded with oily messages, grinning politicians hugging babies, kids, huskies, or anything immediately at hand.

Those useless televisual feasts where leaders nod to borderline-whiplash levels, the smarmy "I know what you mean" can be heard over and over, and Nick Clegg calls everyone by name without the slightest grasp that he may be 'overdoing it' a bit.

The quazillions spent on multicoloured placards, posters and assorted ads. The junk flowing through the letterbox, the tedious door-knocking, the bingeing on promises and proclaims.

Wouldn't it be a wonderful idea if all of the above was done away with?

There is now irrefutable evidence that election campaigns are not only useless and a waste of money, but also outright deceitful.

We had plenty of that when Labour was in power and we're having more of the same (except at a faster rate and even more barefaced) now.

For all the industrial amounts of political gobbing off we heard last year, there was no mention from either the Tories of the Liberal Democrats that tuition fees were going to be hiked up; that VAT was going to be increased; that the NHS was going to end up mangled and "reorganised" from the top down; that sick and disabled people were going to suffer cuts of up to a third in their incomes; that child benefits would be touched; that the Education Maintenance Allowance for disadvantaged students was going to be scrapped at a stroke; that more measures were going to come in to make it easier to sack workers...and the list could go on for hours.

And make no mistake. For all the bullshit they will try to feed you, this has nothing to do with "compromise". It is crucial we understand that neither of the Coalition partners promised or even suggested any of the above. It is not as if the Tories or the LibDems are reluctantly taking on board what the other partner had advocated all along.

Far from it. Both Tories and Lib-Dems fervently denied they would have anything to do with each and every one of those policies and, in some of those cases, they actually campaigned against (i.e. VAT rise, tuition fees, etc).

The recent bill on the NHS is just taking the piss.

So here's the proposal.

Do away with election campaigning. Scrap it, ditch it, just knock it on the head. Give all that money to charity. On polling day people will cast their vote on the basis of what they've seen in practice over the lifetime of that parliament and after plenty of evidence of how MPs' decisions actually affected their lives.

That should be more then enough to make up their mind. Bullshit politics has now reached tipping point.

About bleedin time

"Andy Coulson quits as David Cameron spin doctor".

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Shameless David Laws

Where the word "hypocrisy" pokes its ugly rear.

Today's Guardian treats its readers with the squalid spectacle of a Coalition supporter, David Laws, championing the mass cuts that have just been unleashed on the country.

And while there's nothing new in hearing a government cheerleader reciting the usual script, what makes it particularly grating is the fact only last May millionaire David Laws was caught red-handed claiming £40,000 to pay rent to his boyfriend.

Sure, Mr Laws was not the first MP who fiddled the system and defrauded the taxpayer. But he was certainly one of the most outspoken "hard-liners" when it came to pontificating on "the pay and perks of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers", which is where the word "hypocrisy" pokes its ugly rear into the equation.

So for him to smugly lecture ordinary people on why their nosediving standards of living (squeezed incomes, higher bills, higher VAT, mass redundancies and huge cuts to public services - from care workers to the police and from the NHS to food inspectors) are actually a good thing, that's just taking the piss.

This ruthless (as well as electorally suicidal) lack of empathy highlights the importance of not having a political elite stuffed, literally, with millionaires who are clueless when it comes to the price of bus fares or gas bills and the way they impact on ordinary people.

PS. Since we're at it. Laws writes that:

"in April the first Lib Dem-inspired increase in the personal income tax allowance will boost the incomes of basic rate taxpayers, and take hundreds of thousands of low earners out of income tax altogether".

This is a piece of LibFibbery that we're hearing time and again. What they rarely tell you however is that:

a) It won't be until 2015 that the increase will actually begin to cover the full £10K threshold. That's if it goes ahead (there are already reports of grumbles amongst Tory ranks);

b) The forthcoming £1K increase will be cancelled out by the VAT hike and galloping prices.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cliches of 2011 #3

"Young female TV presenters are a response to market demand".

Last week former Countryfile host Miriam O'Reilly won a case against the BBC on the grounds of ageism, after losing her job the moment she turned 50.

It was reported that O'Reilly "had been asked if it was 'time for Botox' and was warned to be 'careful with those wrinkles when high definition comes in'". The case ended with the BBC issuing an apology and Director General Mark Thompson phoning Miriam saying: "Sorry, we got things wrong in the way older women are treated".

One category of people, however, reacted to the news with little sympathy, their views typified by entrepreneur James Caan. On last Thursday's BBC Question Time, he said: "TV channels respond to market demand", adding that "if we're really honest, as a consumer society [we want to see] young, pretty, dolly-looking people" on TV.

And so here we are again. The mythical notion of "the consumer society" evoked to justify anything that suits whichever ruthless practice of the day - nevermind questions of humanity, taste or simple pig-headedness.

It's the 21st-century version of the Ancient Spartans' custom of chucking people off a cliff as a means of 'purging' their population of weakness. "Sorry very much, it's what the market demands", become the default smokescreen for anything, crass varieties of geezerist ageism included.

Shame these people never specify which "market demand" or "demographics" they're referring to.

No doubt there are copious amounts of randy people who genuinely look forward to seeing "young, pretty, dolly-looking people" on the telly, the same way there will always be a constituency for the Sun and various rags of an onanistic inclination.

But what about the equally vast amounts of viewers who are unfazed by all of the above? Haven't they got a right to have their "market demand" heard too?

There are millions out there who don't judge the quality of a programme on the basis of whether the presenter was born in 1940, 1960 or 1991.

Those who would rather television reflected real life (ie not everybody looking like a fembot); those who find this obsessive quest for everything "young" and "fast" and "trendy" and "wicked" both pathetic and patronising.

Or those who think that we've already fulfilled our fix of giddiness or trollop-ness on both the TV screens and the newsagents' shelves.

Ignore all of the above and the market demand becomes a severely crook-eyed one.

Click here to access the full list of cliches (2010-11):
"You've GOT to own your own home";
"
Society benefits from extreme wealth at the top";
"There are jobs out there if you really want one";
"The Royal Family brings in tourism revenue";
"Iain Duncan Smith is a kind and honourable man".

Friday, January 14, 2011

What the government is doing to the sick and people with disabilities

We have one month only to save our parents, our partners and our children.

Contribution by
Sue Marsh.

Dear Mainstream Media
I'm mystified, totally puzzled.

I know there are lots of cuts happening all at once and group after group must be lobbying for column inches or news slots.

Students, middle income child benefit recipients, housing benefit claimants frightened they are about to become homeless, nurses, fire fighters, police, local councils – we all want you to take our cause to heart, to tell people what is really happening on our behalf.

But there is a group who might as well not exist. We have no-one but ourselves, yet our voices are probably the weakest in society.

Most of us can’t physically march, some can’t even speak at all and others don’t know what is being done to them. We have no networks of influential contacts, most can’t attend rallies or flash-mobs.

Sick and Disabled people are now facing cuts of up to a third in their incomes. Since George Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review last October, there has been a steady drip-drip of almost daily announcements that have stripped away decades of hard-fought dignity in just a few short months.

* Employment Support Allowance (ESA) will now be time limited to 1 year (Cost : £4752.80 pa)
* 2.27 Million of the 2.5 million claiming ESA will now be considered fit for work (91%)
* Up to 750,000 of the most profoundly disabled who claim DLA will also be found fit and have their benefits stopped (25%)
* Benefit rates have been frozen (Potential loss of up to 15% of income over 5 yr parliament)
* Housing benefit caps will make many disabled people homeless
* Work support schemes are being scrapped at a time when unemployment is already creeping towards 3 million. The “Access to Work” programme will be scrapped, which helped small and medium sized businesses adapt premises, job centres face cuts and a private, American firm (ATOS) have been given an almost total monopoly in forcing us into work, paid commission for each “success”
* Local councils face cuts so vast (27% over 5 yr parliament) that they have already started to cut vital support services – pulling funding for hospices, axing specialist school provision, closing hospital wards, cutting care packages – the list goes on and on. This article might help to put things into perspective
* Disability Living Allowance is to be scrapped and replaced, whilst adults needing full time residential care and children in hospital will have the basic right of mobility taken away from them, with the scrapping of mobility payments for these groups.

These are not people with a little twinge here and there. A few headaches or a sore finger. They are the Mum with breast cancer or teenager with heart disease. They are our sons with leukaemia or our profoundly disabled sister with muscular dystrophy. They are the college friend who broke his spine in the army or the lover who nearly drowned on holiday and was left brain damaged. The wife or the daughter or the nan who used to run marathons, now fighting for every agonised breath from lung disease.

Most aren't born sick. The odd headache or a twinge in the chest becomes a tumour or a blood clot and life changes forever. That Thursday morning doctor's appointment stops the world from turning and the blood runs cold in your veins. Most face disability in a heartbeat as their car flips into a ditch or their ski comes loose. Lawyers and bankers and producers and columnists don't have a special immunity gene. Their spines crush and their previously taken-for-granted bodies let them down just as easily as those of cleaners or shop-assistants. This is the most important issue any of us will face - and we will face it. One in three will develop some kind of cancer, over 10 million in the UK suffer from a disability or chronic illness.

In exactly one month, DLA is due to be slashed by parliament. By the 14th February, if sickness or disability come for you or your loved ones, (and sadly, the statistics are that one day, in some form, they will) you may find that all those NI payments and tax contributions have been for nothing.

You may find yourself totally dependent on a partner financially, unable to get treatment, care or equipment to make your already unrecognisable life liveable. If you have no partner, you may find yourself in abject poverty, or even homeless as you try to face the un-faceable.

If your soft and perfect new baby turns out to be autistic or dying, you may have to helplessly watch them die. If you think this is dramatic or overly emotional, actually it probably isn’t dramatic enough. I have one month to make you aware of what your future could hold.

Today, we use the only tool we have – the blogosphere.

You can help by posting this and articles like it (see Broken of Britain) on Facebook, websites and Twitter, by calling radio phone-ins and writing to your MP (a template letter will be available at Broken of Britain too) Sign petitions, tell your friends, write to the papers. The hashtag #ombh will be used on Twitter to bring these articles together.

Just help. Please. Before you realise that we were right, but we couldn’t change things in time to save your Mum or your wife or your son.

This article appeared originally at Diary Of A Benefit Scrounger.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The toxic effects of job insecurity

From lower productivity rates to family dysfunction and from poor customer service to depression and lack of motivation. What lies behind David Cameron's calls for "less red tape".

David Cameron's recent plans to make it easier to sack staff in the first two years of their employment have sparked an intense debate over the nature of Britain's labour market.

After the "fluffy years", it was only a matter of time before the crook-eyed default Tory approach to the world of paid employment would resurface.

The problem for Cameron and the bosses' organisations, however, is that - unlike the Thatcher years - there's very little left in terms of workers' protection for the government to wade in with the axe.

Extreme job insecurity in the UK is already a growing reality.

According to the OECD, Britain is in the top three along with the US and Canada (and well under the OECD average) in the strictness of employment protection index (1985-2008), which measures "the procedures and costs involved in dismissing individuals or groups of workers and the procedures involved in hiring workers on fixed-term or temporary work agency contracts".

Given the companies' free access to casual staff on "zero hours contract", or the free use of "temps" (which, by law, can be hired repeatedly on fixed-term contracts for up to four years before any tie comes into place), the lax regulation on probationary period for regular staff, as well as some of the lowest levels of statutory redundancy pay in the Western world, the notion that Britain's employment regulations may be at the core of the current dole rates is simply comedy material.

If we carry on this way, soon the only crusade left for the British Chamber of Commerce and the Tories to embark upon under the guise of "cutting red tape" will be against the right for workers to empty their bladder or take a crap at work.

However, what the last few days also highlighted is the almost total abdication on the part of the left and Labour in the fight against the galloping job insecurity and its noxious effects.

This line from the normally commendable Stumbling and Mumbling blog bothered me to the extreme. While sceptical of David Cameron's proposals, author Chris Dillow also wrote:

"There’s good evidence that [employment protection] reduces workers’ effort and increases absenteeism. This suggests that - at the margin - Cameron’s proposals might increase labour productivity".

Now, the reason why the above quote bothered me so much is that it shows how toxic and widespread certain myths are that even well-informed and well-read people can buy into them without questioning.

In brief, the Daily Mailesque-fable that a permanent job or certain guarantees at work will automatically turn you into a slacker. They ain't gonna sack me, so why bother, basically.

And how can you dispute that if even the usually meticulous and pro-left Chris Dillow can cite "good evidence" on the matter?

Except that said "good evidence" points to three pieces of research from Portugal and Italy which are solely and exclusively focused on specific (and already obsolete) legislation passed in those two countries in the 1980s and 1990s. Those laws were extremely protective - overly protective in fact - in a way not remotely comparable to anything Britain ever experienced, not even at its unionised peak.

It's like saying "there's good evidence that January is not a cold month and in fact look at this link to prove it". Except that it points to average January temperatures from the Canary Islands and Dubai.

The fact is, instead, that there's literally a mammoth body of research out there warning of the toxic long-term effects of job insecurity (click here for a summary).

Over the years detailed studies took place around the world, from the US and Canada to Australia, Sweden, Korea, Germany and more. The findings leave room to no doubt: there is a clear correlation between excessive levels of job insecurity and a variety of negative outcomes.

The initial advantages of "increased flexibility and lower costs" for the employers are undisputed. But little is ever said about the long-term effects that "casualisation may have on important aspects of national economic performance such as skill formation" and, most importantly, the ticking time-bomb that is widespread casualisation as weighed against "long-term financial planning".

But the strongest and most consistent evidence is the one seen across firms, industries, and countries linking job insecurity with "negative employee attitudes, behavio[u]rs, and health" and with the fact - as noted by several researchers - that "job insecurity is more stressful than job loss itself".

Amongst the negative effects, a "powerful negative influence on motivation", "reduced effort" and "poor safety compliance by employees". Low levels of job satisfaction are also associated with negative employee attitudes, lower customer performance and effectiveness with customers as well as with -in turn- a detrimental effect on group morale.

And that's without taking into account what "the longer term negative effects on workers' depression levels", or "the systemic [relation] between job insecurity and marital and family dysfunction" or, even, the proven effects that "parents' job insecurity has on children's school performance as measured by grades" .

The fact that "job insecurity reduces job satisfaction is attributable to the uncertainty of not knowing how to predict or control job threats".

And that's because, while insecurity in the short-term may spur a worker to perform better if the goal is a latter stage of more protection and various perks, an ongoing perception of "precariousness" will start having an adverse effect, as the worker will feel increasingly uncertain that their persistence can be sufficient enough for them to retain their job.

For a worker with little to lose, the lack of ties will offer no incentives to stop them from slacking off or "looking elsewhere" altogether.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tory proposals on sacking people are both useless and criminal

Mass sackings: welcome to The Great Conservative Economic Strategy.

Another fine display of 21st century British politics took place yesterday when David Cameron dropped the bombshell on the millions of unwitting voters that it should be made much easier to sack workers in this country ("Firms get power to sack the slackers", Telegraph).

Now, of course, the Tories don't have a mandate for that. They never mentioned any of their "employment reforms" at any stage of the election campaign. They didn't because they knew that voters would punish them for that. And in fact, at this point, if you're an ordinary worker and you still think voting Tories will do you or the country any good, then you may as well chop your own bollocks off. The outcome will not be dissimilar.

It's astonishing that, in the face of the biggest crisis in sixty years, The Great Conservative Economic Strategy amounts to the sacking of half a million public workers, even easier sacking procedures for everybody else and -of course- higher costs of living.

The Tories' proposal is based on the contempt they have for ordinary workers. If you are an employee, you are - by default - a burden, an irritant, a disposable pain in the arse. Whatever the issue, financial or otherwise, you're the first one who should bear the brunt. No matter how much this may undermine morale or loyalty to the company. No matter how insecure it makes you feel. You're not a person. You're just a cheap pawn.

David Cameron's proposed new "Employment Charter" starts from a fallacy the size of the Millennium Dome: the ridiculously simplistic illusion that if you decrease protection at work, employment levels will rise automatically.

This is so all over the place that it's difficult to know where to start. But let's just say that the post-1997 implementation of the minimum wage and new maternity rules in Britain were followed by the lowest dole rates in thirty years. Look, instead, at the swirl of anti-Union laws and other measures brought in by Thatcher. It did nothing to even slow down the sustained high unemployment rates that kept looming large over the 1980s and 1990s.

Or consider Italy and Spain, where the last ten years saw most extreme forms of casualisation and disposable employment steamrolled in. Their unemployment levels are still looking extremely sorry, in fact worse even than before.

The second fallacy is that the Conservatives are making it sound as if the current British labour market was stifling and inflexible, while it is already one of the most boss-friendly in the EU as it's cheaper and easier to get rid of staff in Britain than it is in most of its counterparts.

Currently, bosses already enjoy the possibility of hiring as many agency or casual workers as they please. These come with no tie whatsoever. They are literally disposable.

If, however, the same boss saw fit to recruit "properly", there is a probationary period of up to 6 months in which he/she can sack said employee on a whim - literally - no notice, no motive, no compensation. Nowt.

After that, the boss will still have up to 12 months in which he/she can still fire him without any possible fear of being done for unfair dismissal or forking out a penny in statutory redundancy pay.

At this point, you will already concede that if a manager hasn't clocked who the slacker is without successfully rectifying the situation, it is he or she who should be sacked and not the worker.

And it's not over yet. While unfair dismissal claims can be brought after a year, you have to work a total of 24 months in order to be entitled to the lowest possible allowance of statutory redundancy, which - please note - is by far the cheapest in Western Europe.

However, egged on by the British Chamber of Commerce, David Cameron thinks that all of the above amounts to "too much red tape" and that the period that allows staff to submit unfair dismissal claims should be increased from one to two years.

But the icing on the cake is the Coalition's proposal to levy a charge on workers who decide to still fight their corner. This may be vintage Tory philosophy, but in this case it just borders on the criminal - as it crucially links access to justice not to whether you're in the right or not, but to whether you can afford it.

And, needless to say, it also ignores the fee that plaintiffs already pay their lawyer, or their union in the form of fees, if it is they who provide legal counsel.

Incidentally, unions rarely decide to pursue claims that they themselves think will lack weight. The amount of pre-screening that is done prior to deciding whether to gamble on a worker's claim is immense. And that's without even including the conciliation and arbitration stage.

And even so, official figures say that, in the first quarter of last year, just 11% of cases taken to an industrial tribunal were successful - and a puny 5% for constructive dismissal. Amazingly, this is the system that bosses complain is "weighed against them" and is "affecting employment levels".

The Conservatives are mistaking increased turnovers with higher employment rates. Their new proposals will do absolutely nothing to get people back to work.

All they will achieve is a system where it's easier to sack unfairly and without scrutiny and a workplace where it will be even more difficult, often impossible, for an honest worker to fight bullying and victimisation or to seek protection against unscrupulous employers.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Youth in Revolt

Another hit from the new breed of US comedies: endearing and hilarious without relying on cheap tricks.

The last few years have seen the rise of a new subgenre of US comedy dramas.

Little Miss Sunshine and Superbad, but also Juno, Mama's Boy and Last Day of Summer were all, on average, less cheesy, more sombre and almost more European in their approach to romance and humour, turning a new leaf from to the late 90s/early 00s gross-out prototype of American Pie and Roadtrip.

Where ten years ago the template was the raunchy antics of testosterone-fuelled teenagers, and the soundtrack ska-punk and Blink 182, the new breed is more random, but also more reliant on quirks and black humour - and the background music a more subdued mish mash of indie-folk and alternative country.

And like its contemporaries, Michael Arteta's adaptation of the novel Youth in Revolt decides to focus on the life of a coming-of-age semi-nerd, a social outcast whose quest for romance is approaching desperate levels.

As always, Michael Cera is excellent in his interpretation. His character Nick Twisp is whimpier, clumsier and more sensitive, but also less popular and lonelier than most of his peers. To give you an idea, "I'm a voracious reader and listen to Frank Sinatra. So needless to say, I am still a virgin" is the way he describes himself.

Right from the start, the viewer is made to wonder how Nick can cope with his tactless family, a collection of a dysfunctional chain-smoking mother and her ex-con oik of a boyfriend on one side, and his "scruffy, graying father" (played by Steve Buscemi) with trophy "bimbette" on the other.

Nick's exsitence is so dull and stifling that even a short trip away on his mum and boyfriend's trailer feels like a welcome change. And it is there that, most unexpectedly, he casually bumps into his "cause to rebel": the all-things-French obsessive and teaser-of-the-highest-order Sheeni, Nick's only hope of finally reaching "the holy grail of manhood".

Except that it's not so easy. The way their romance unravels is just epic. Let's just say that, as the unlikeliest of allies, Nick is joined by his imaginary alter-ego Fran├žois. Based on Sheeni's ideal man (a comically brazen, no-bullshit, badass Frenchman), he is trying to spur Nick into winning Sheeni over and compete with her supercool semi-boyfriend Trent. Needless to say, a chain of complications ensues, some more random and inconsequential than others, but all pure genius when it comes to their entertainment and comedy-value. More we will not say, as you really have got to watch it to get an idea.

Youth in Revolt is at once endearing and hilarious without ever being over the top. A truly excellent film.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The hysterical reaction to Jack Straw's words

The left's own version of tabloid hysteria?

It says something when you have to think 150 times before writing a blog post because you fear your words may be misinterpreted and land you into trouble.

By now, you will be probably aware of the stir caused by Jack Straw's words in the wake of the recent conviction of a gang of nine men for the vile grooming and raping of 26 teenage girls.

In particular, the former Home Secretary was criticised for saying that there is a "specific problem which involves Pakistani heritage men... who target vulnerable young white girls" and that "[W]e need to get the Pakistani community to think much more clearly about why this is going on and to be more open about the problems that are leading to a number of Pakistani heritage men thinking it is OK to target white girls in this way".

The Labour MP for Blackburn added that: "These young men are in a western society, in any event, they act like any other young men, they're fizzing and popping with testosterone, they want some outlet for that, but Pakistani heritage girls are off-limits and they are expected to marry a Pakistani girl from Pakistan, typically. So they then seek other avenues and they see these young women, white girls who are vulnerable, some of them in care... who they think are easy meat".

Now, I'm hardly Straw's biggest fan, but I find some of the reactions to his comments verging on the manic, and it's a shame as they all come from some of my most favourite bloggers: from accusations of "Nazi racial profiling" and "smearing ALL pakistani men" on Liberal Conspiracy to the baffling "Jack Straw's sex fantasy about dark men and white girls" by Madam Miaow, "Jack Straw's scaremongering" on Pickled Politics and "generating double standards" by Chris Dillow on Stumbling and Mumbling.

So here's some thoughts on the issue:

1. Hysteria

Bear in mind that Straw was particularly careful to also say that "Pakistanis, let's be clear, are not the only people who commit sexual offences", adding that "overwhelmingly the sex offenders' wings of prisons are full of white sex offenders".

He shouldn't have bothered. He got likened to a Nazi before you could even utter the word.

This is the disturbing aspect. No matter the disclaimers, the specifications and the carefully weighed words. The same people who, on the left, rightly criticise the tabloid press for whipping up hysteria and frothing at the mouth, are guilty of the same knee-jerkism and are quite happy to throw cries of "RACIST!" and "NAZI!" and "DEHUMANISING PAKISTANI MALES!" at the drop of a hat.

2. Religion and culture, not race or nationality

Jack Straw made one mistake. He was too restrictive with his reference to the word "Pakistani". Religion here matters way more than a specific national heritage.

And, in fact, the chief executive of charity Barnardo's implied it when he said that "[his] staff would say there is an over-representation of people from ethnic minority groups among perpetrators - Afghans, people from Arabic nations, Pakistanis. But it's not just one nation".

Race and the colour of the skin has got absolutely nothing to do with it. Sure, there will always be some racist dunce trying to exploit the issue to make up for their lack of brain cells.

But it would be criminal if we let them deflect the core problem (and that's where too many people on the left go postal the moment you even mention it): the culture of misogyny that is rife amongst certain Muslim communities.

It is a deeply-ingrained culture of misogyny, and nothing else, that still allows the scandal of an estimated 17,000 women a year who are victims of honour crimes, including murder. It is a deeply-ingraned culture of misogyny that makes it possible, according to government figures, for 300 school children a year to disappear for the sake of forced marriages. It is misogyny and its ideology of oppression that makes it possible "to force young girls – some so young that they are still in push chairs", in the words of Yasmin Alibhai Brown – "[to be] covered up in hijabs". And that's just in the UK.

But who will speak out for them if simply raising the issue will land you accusations of "tarring all Muslim men with the same brush" and "the Ku Klux Klan [too] lynched black men in the Deep South"?

Like Johann Hari wrote two years ago, "[I]nsulating a religion from criticism – surrounding it with an electric fence called "respect" – keeps it stunted at its most infantile and fundamentalist stage. The smart, questioning and instinctively moral Muslims – the majority – learn to be silent, or are shunned (at best). What would Christianity be like today if George Eliot, Mark Twain and Bertrand Russell had all been pulped? Take the most revolting rural Alabama church, and metastasise it."

3. Red herrings and whataboutery

I find it deeply counterproductive when bloggers like Chris Dillow, someone I've always admired and respected, feel the need to write: "You wouldn’t ask the “white community” to look into itself if a white guy commits a sex crime, so why ask the “Pakistani community” to do so if a Pakistani does so".

I don't know why Dillow decides to drag "colour" into the debate, so let's just focus on his actual statement. Now, since no comparison is possible between "white" and "Pakistani" (white being a "race" encompassing anybody from Moldova to Iceland and "Pakistani" being a nationality), let's stick to the words "English community" or "British community" to see if they are ever "asked to look into themselves" in the face of problems or specific crimes.

The answer is yes. Older readers may recall the humongous debates and soul-searching that took place at the height of football hooliganism across the 1980s and 1990s.

There were literally thousands of political statements, opinion columns and sociological analyses written to dissect what was being dubbed "the English disease" and the term is still used to these days whenever UK football supporters behave like troglodites (see this and this, for instance).

Of course you do get some people shouting that "it's not just the English!" and "what about the football violence that also takes place in Holland, Italy and Turkey?", but most people understand that exercises in whataboutery and hyperbole will do little good.

Or take the tons of analyses written on the "British drinking too much", or what the government dubbed "the distinctive characteristic of the British drinking culture", its violence and aggression.

So, yeah, "the English" or "the British" have been asked to do some soul searching when it comes to certain problems. And rightly so. Bring it on. If there is a specific problem that is prevalent within your own society or community, what good does it do if you just drown it out with cries that "it's not just us!" and "AAAAARRRGH!". If you really cared about your own "community", why would you make "it also happens elsewhere" and "talk to the hand" the core of your argument?

As a person of Italian heritage, if there's one thing I find most grating is Italy's persistent shying away from an honest analysis of the Mafia on the grounds that it "hurts Italy's image" and "it doesn't do Italy any favours" and "not all Italians are in the Mafia".

And you don't need a degree in sociology and criminology to conclude that the biggest beneficiaries of sweeping cultural problems under the carpet are the perpetrators of said problems.

4. The actual issue

Dillow is right to produce the hard figures about sexual offences (for instance the fact that in Lancashire "4.163 per 10,000 white Brits were arrested for a sex crime, compared to 0.44 Pakistanis"). Once again, Straw said it himself that "overwhelmingly the sex offenders' wings of prisons are full of white sex offenders".

However, Straw also referred to the specific issue of gangs grooming teenage girls for sex. And, in that case, out of 17 cases since 1997, 50 out of the 56 men convicted were Pakistani Muslims.

It was Manzoor Moghul, chairman of the Muslim Forum who said that "Offenders are under the misapprehension white girls are easy prey. The way they dress, their culture, makes them easy pickings". And it was Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a Muslim youth organisation, who said to the BBC that "[t]here are some Muslims who think that as long as these sex gangs aren't targeting their own sisters and daughters the issue doesn't affect them" (see here).

Not regarding girls from different religious or ethnic groups with the same respect granted to their own sisters or mothers is a vile practice. It is not racist to say so.

Cliches of 2011 #2

"You've GOT to own your own home".

This particularly simplistic cliche' shuns a series of complications.

For instance, in an ever unpredictable job market, what happens if your only hope of dodging the dole queue means moving from place to place?

Or, what do you do if you don't do your homework properly and you find yourself saddled with a structurally unsound home or with the family from hell living next door? If you were renting, you'd just tell the landlord and pack your bags. But if you bought it and don't have the extra dosh to sort it out, then you may be up shit creek. If not for the rest of your life, definitely for an awful long time.

But the most unpalatable truth is the one related to finances.

Of course, it's all very nice to own a house if you have the funds, but Britain's the place where an alarming number of people have fallen for the spell of "getting on the property ladder" and the illusion of "asset ownership" no matter how barely they can afford it.

The last 15 years have seen a ridicuous number of tv programmes turning home ownership into the nation's biggest fetish: Property Ladder, Location Location Location, Grand Designs, Homes Under the Hammer, One Year to Pay Off Your Mortgage, and god knows how many others. They all had one thing in common however: the notion that, yes, you too can own a house and point at it while hugging your smiling partner- that's what makes you a happy family. The ultimate dream. The be all and end all of existence.

One thing, however, is never mentioned: the simple fact that it's not your asset and it will not be until the final instalment thirty-plus years from now.

You can be paying back your mortgage religiously over decades, each and every month, easily in excess of hundreds of thousands of pounds of hard-earned cash. But if something goes tits up (i.e. you lose your job), that all goes down the drain and so does "your asset" - which means your home gets repossessed.

Did you know that in the last three years alone in excess of 120,000 families were kicked out of their "own assets" (details here, here and here)? Remember 120,000 is the number of homes repossessed, meaning that the average number of people affected since 2007, children included, may be knocking on half a million.

It's a national tragedy, but one that the media rarely talks about, perhaps because of its supremely depressing nature. Or, perhaps, because it may highlight the unpleasant story that lies behind the most inflated and speculative "industry" in the country, one where average house prices didn't double or triple, but quadrupled (QUADRUPLED), between 1995 and the pre-recession peaks of 2007.

Other cliches:
"Not everyone is obsessed with...";
"Why can't Britain cope with snow?...";
"Society benefits from extreme wealth at the top";
"There are jobs out there if you really want one";
"The Royal Family brings in tourism revenue";
"Iain Duncan Smith is a kind and honourable man".

Friday, January 07, 2011

Acronyms

WDPWLT? WIATA*? Are you wondering what this is all about? Join the club.

The need some people have to drop an acronym or two or three assuming the whole world will automatically understand them must be one of the most grating internet practices around.

Granted, I am slow when it comes to picking up online trends and trendy lingo. I'm still just about managing OTT and LOL and I can't even recall the last time I referred to it as "the British Broadcasting Corporation".

But what's all this. Why do people do it? Why would you want to write ISTM instead of "It seems to me", IMHO instead of "in my humble [or is it honest] opinion" or AAMOF to simply say "as a matter of fact", is something I will never grasp. Are we really in such a rush, or is it because it sounds more trendy, trim and "dude", you know?

I was reading an online debate the other day. It was about media coverage of last month's students protests and a certain journalist's habit of reporting demonstrations with patronising dollops of "oh my god those rallying children aren't they so young- won't you hand those brave young children a hot soup, poor little things?", when I kept stumbling upon people referring to the hospital-evoking MSM.

"Mainstream media", as it turns out. But I'm telling you, it took me a while to work it out. Or maybe I should say ITMAWTWIO...

Oh, well. Acronyms. They cause so much problems you don't even wanna go there.

*WDPWLT= Why Do People Write Like This; WIATA=What Is All This About

Buried

Definitely the most claustrophobic film ever made.

What would you do if you suddenly woke up trapped in a wooden box the size of a large coffin and your last memory was an armed ambush in the middle of the Iraqi desert?

What if all you had with you was a mobile phone, a zipper, a knife and a pencil and you knew that precious oxygen was running out? And wouldn't you just lose it altogether if, on top of choking from lack of air, you also had to deal with the most infuriatingly inept BT-style receptionists as you're desperately trying to get through to various government agencies?

Buried deserves at least three awards.

Originality, to start with. I don't know about you, but I've never heard of a film set entirely inside a coffin and with total continuity from start to finish. For one hour and a half, the viewers are pinned to their seat as truck driver Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds, the one and only actor in the film) is working against the clock trying to conjure up ways of getting out of his box alive. The script, courtesy of Chris Sparling, is simply genius.

Yes, the cynic may have a field day arguing that "why didn't he phone this and that instead", "why was he wasting so much oxygen" and "if only he'd tried to push that lid a bit harder", but the fact is Buried is one of those few films where, at the same time, you don't want to blink in case you miss a precious detail, but you also don't want to watch as suspense levels spiral out of control.

Which is why Buried would also net a second award for camera work. It's brave, in the era of the dwindling attention span, to decide to bet on a film based on limited spacing (to say the least), where the brightest bit is the flickering of a torch and the widest camera shot is from the protagonist's feet.

If you think there are so many yawn-inducing thrillers out there with millions invested on special effects, monsters and assorted camera tricks. Buried instead will feel like a pressure cooker from start to finish and will make you jump and give you sweaty palms by means of the simplest and most claustrophobic of settings. Which is why you'll hear of young Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes again, no doubt.

None of the above would have been possible, however, without Ryan Reynolds' spectacular performance. Which is where the third and most important award should go. It's not every day you hear of films that are 100% centred around one person and one person alone.

And yet, Reynolds pulls it off without a glitch. The way he conveys, in succession, panic, fury, despair, helplessness and the awareness that life is just slipping out of his hands is just timeless.

Ultimately, Buried offers a slightly different perspective on the Iraq war. While a vast array of films has already portrayed the military side of things and the point of view of both Western soldiers and the Iraqis, the work of many working class civilians and contractors in the backdrop is often overlooked.

"I didn't know it was going to be like this over here", sighs Paul while on the phone to the hostage rescue team. "No-one's going to pay five million dollars for me".

And he's not kidding.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Top blog posts of the last twelve months

The following were the most read posts on Hagley Road to Ladywood over the last year. Feel free to peruse if you have time available. Oh and of course, most importantly, thank you to both readers and contributors!

1) Election special: Into the mind of the BNP
Daniel Hoffmann-Gill, March 2010
2) Are the Tories still homophobic?
Claude, April 2010
3) Cars vs Foxes: which poses a bigger threat?
Claude, June 2010
4) The 'siege mentality' of nationalism
Claude, May 2010
5) May God Help You
Claude, March 2010
6) Election special: Conservatives
Jackart, March 2010
7) Five reasons to be proud/ashamed of Britain
Claude, January 2011
8) Why banning Islam4UK is a very good thing
Claude, January 2010
9) A plea to the Left: ditch the pompous language
Claude, February 2010
10) Can evil always be explained?
Claude, January 2010
11) Two months after the vote
Dave Semple, July 2010
12) Why party politics is a pathetic joke
Claude, November 2010
13) 25 years of EastEnders
Claude, February 2010
14) Feeling their pain
Bob Piper, December 2010
15) Lost in the supermarket
Claude, May 2010

Eastenders cot death: too much too crass

Has the BBC soap joined the foul practice of exploiting bereavement for ratings?

BBC News reports that "around 3,400 viewers have complained" about EastEnders' New Year storyline (first announced in November) in which Ronnie Branning turns into a baby snatcher upon discovering that her own newborn has died of cot death.

It is true that the original intention of drawing awareness on sudden infant death syndrome was commendable. But by drowning it out with industrial dollops of unnecessary sensationalism and unrealistic drama, the result was just a mish mash of morbid goo and crassness.

In a statement, the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths said: "Despite the continuing statement [...] by the BBC that 'FSID were consulted on the storyline...', FSID had no involvement in the planning or adoption of the specific 'baby-swap' plotline. The behaviour and actions of Ronnie Mitchell are in no way 'endorsed' by FSID as a typical, or even likely, reaction of a bereaved parent".

This blog has always believed that what sets Eastenders aside from a lot of its pappy televisual competitors is their knack for challenging storylines and social (though not narrative) realism.

Covering the tragedy of a cot death and its aftermath in order to raise awareness and promote infant health would have been admirable enough. But to introduce such an unfeasibly brutal development smacks of exploiting grief for the sake of jacking up TV ratings. Tactful, it was not.

Which is why extra credit goes to actress Samantha Womack for quitting over the distressing scenes.

UPDATE (7 Jan): OK, now the whole thing has turned into a witch hunt as usual, with the hyaenas from the Daily Fail landing on the carcass in search of bits to gnaw at. What the fuck has Womack's past lovelife got to do with anything?

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Top Tories and LibDems against VAT rise

Leading figures from within the government explain why increasing VAT is wrong.

David Cameron:
"You could try, as you say, to put it on VAT, sales tax, but again if you look at the effect of sales tax, it’s very regressive, it hits the poorest the hardest. It does, I absolutely promise you." (April 2010)

Conservative Home:
"Higher VAT is an unacceptable tax on the poor. [It] costs the poorest twice as much" (December 2009)

Nick Clegg:
"Liberal Democrats have costed, in full, our proposals for tax cuts. We can tell you, penny for penny, pound for pound, who pays for them. We will not have to raise VAT to deliver our promises. The Conservatives will. Let me repeat that: Our plans do not require a rise in VAT. The Tory plans do. Their tax promises on marriage and jobs may sound appealing. But they come with a secret VAT bombshell close behind." (April 2010)

Vince Cable:
"A big, sudden jump in VAT would stall any early recovery and hit shops hard. Also, some companies have learnt how to dodge VAT". (September 2009)

The Kids Are Alright

One of the best films of 2010.

What happens when a happily married lesbian couple is turned upside down by their two children's decision to track down their biological father and anonymous sperm donor?

These are the premises behind the excellent The Kids Are Alright, certainly one of the best-acted, most charming and most thought-provoking films of 2010.

Cinema is rife with stories about "traditional" heterosexual parents striving to keep their authority intact, but never before has a film attempted to portray two ultra-liberal lesbian mothers struggling to hold together their family and preserve the values they so lovingly fostered.

The film is centred around five characters, the two mothers, laid-back Jules (Julianne Moore) and control-freak breadwinning Nic (Annette Bening), the two relatively happy and well-brought up teenage kids Laser and Joni, and finally their biological father Paul, played by Marc Ruffalo, an easy-going, self-satisfied, bike-riding organic food entrepreneur.

This bittersweet story is captivating right from the start, an excellent portrayal of quirks, frailties and neuroses not miles away from 2006's Little Miss Sunshine and its superb collection of cringeworthiness.

The combination of Nic feeling threatened by Paul's appearance, Jules' doubts about both her own sexuality and her relationship with Nic, as well as the two teenagers grappling with this new set of stresses are all ingredients for havoc.

Brilliant.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Devil

A review of Shyamalan's first of his 'Night Chronicles' trilogy.

Written (but not directed) by M. Night Shyamalan of Village and Sixth Sense fame, this thriller squanders copious amounts of potential right from the off.

Which is a shame because the premises are indeed excellent.

Any situation involving anyone stuck inside a lift for more than five minutes should be enough to give the viewer sweaty palms. When that happens to five tetchy and unlikeable strangers trapped in the guts of a corporate skyscraper in Philadelphia, that becomes even better script material.

There are two problems however.

One is that the game is given away within a minute. Forget any build up or suspense related to whether any mauling is going to be the work of the supernatural, a deranged nutcase or pure bastard bad luck. As the film kicks off, the narrator (one of the office tower security guards) sets the record straight. This is about the devil and nowt else. Everytime the sense of suspense grows or something ominous happens, it gets killed off by a ready-made answer about the fact that the devil dunnit again.

And while that doesn't completely spoil the film, here comes the second and most crucial glitch.

Instead of focusing inside the lift in order to cash in on the claustrophobic element and the rising tension within the trapped group, the director keeps zeroing in on both the detective and the security guards in the control room. It's almost as if the people behind the camera were reluctant to spend any longer than strictly necessary on the five protagonists and their personalities. The only effect is to water down the whole thing, partly the reason behind a majorly anti-climatic ending.

Ultimately Devil is not at all a bad film. It flows, it's never dull and it's well acted too. Only, a little bit pointless.

Five reasons to be ashamed of Britain

Yesterday we wrote about five reasons that should make Britain proud. Now it's time to look at the glass half empty.

1) The tabloid press
This blog has said it repeatedly. The poisonous role played by tabloids in this country has no equivalent elsewhere in the world, not on such as a scale and certainly not on a daily basis. Perfectly reasonable debates are routinely hijacked, distorted or turned hysterical for the sake of printing the FATTEST headline.

These are people who stop at nothing, whether illegal phone tapping or the publication of outright defamatory lies no matter the consequences, in order to make more money.

The tabloid world is a neurotic one where they will rant against "elf'n'safety-gone-mad", but they'll also be at the top of the queue screaming about "lazy-council-failing-to-warn-of-slippery-road" if it fits their angle on that day. They will cry outrage about a beauty contest for 13 year olds but then publish the most appallingly risque' photos in the same piece.

And it's at least partly due to the tabloid press and headlines like "Afghan-born dole-scrounging lesbian dog mauls mother of two" that Britain's turned into a country of paedophile-obsessed finger-pointing hypocondriacs where celebrity culture, bullying and OTT sexualisation have all gone through the roof.

2) The cost of living
Someone needs to explain why British taxpayers have to pay such massive levels of council tax for third rate services (ie rubbish collected once a fortnight if you're lucky). Or why house prices are so much higher than elsewhere in the Western world. Or why rail fares are the most expensive in Europe while offering such a poxy, overcrowded service. Or why so many people have to resort to borrowing in order to pay their bills (UK consumers account for two-thirds of total credit card debt in the EU). And so forth. Quite simply, unless you're loaded, Britain is not a kind place to be.

3) Celebrity culture
Yes, they have Big Brother, X-Factor and various spin-offs in practically every other country. But what they don't have is such a colossal industry of gossip magazines a-la Heat and the tabloid press (see point 1) to offer the whole machine such a platform for publicity. In the last ten years or so, Britain has reached endemic levels of celebrity-obsession.

This may also explain why there's such a widespread desire to conform and fit in with certain pre-packed images and why nine females out of 10 in 2009-10 were wearing Ugg Boots. Look what Cheryl Cole is wearing! Doesn't she look great? And so can you! Hop to New Look, TopShop and Miss Selfridge and you too can look like her. Can't afford it? Just stick in on plastic. Gowon. Just this once.

4) The loutish Brit abroad
According to the Foreign Office, the number of Britons arrested while on holiday abroad is soaring. Worse, figures show that Britons top the league when it comes to twatty behaviour on foreign soil, whether it's drug-taking, binge-drinking, fights or sexual violence (see this report published by Time magazine).

And it really is embarrassing, because it then becomes easy for people abroad to tar all British holidaymakers with the same brush, even the many who have no intention of behaving like Attila the Hun by cutting and pasting English town centre-style street-vomiting and brawling across to the warm shores of Rhodes, Benidorm or the Algarve.

Why, however, so many British kids, low, middle and upper class, appear unable to control their repressed selves the moment they fly abroad in the summer remains an embarrassing mystery.

5) The state of national football teams
At the next world cup it'll have been 48 years since England managed their last (and only) World Cup. The most expensive League in the world, wages that should justify "top talent", all the build-ups and the talking-up and still FA happens when it's time to deliver.

As for Scotland and Northern Ireland, it feels impossible to believe that in the 1980s and 1990s they would regularly qualify for major tournaments. As for Wales, there's still hope in Gareth Bale.

Click here to read "Five reasons to be proud of Britain".

Monday, January 03, 2011

Five reasons to be proud of Britain

A number of things set this country aside for the better. These are a few alternative ones that springs to mind:

1) Animal welfare
If you've ever endured the sight of ladies (and some men too) proudly donning dead animals' fur elsewhere in the world, cherish the fact that in Britain the same practice is culturally frowned upon to say the least.

Sure, there's still a long way to go, but the fact that both the Queen and her royal guards still insist on wearing bearskin hats is further proof that the country is progressing faster than its rulers.

And this applies to foxhunting and various other cruel practices too. Even the opponents of the ban know that cruel power trips (because "sports" they're not) don't stand a chance as far as the country's public opinion is concerned.

2) Music
Yes, Britain may be suffering from a major trade deficit, but if there's one area where the export balance is firmly active, that's music. Just think of how many legendary bands and songs this country exported over the decades. No other country of similar size has ever produced such a number of music-inspired movements that have been so appreciated and copied around the world.

And anywhere you are in the world, if you turn on the radio, any moment, a singing voice from Basildon, Glasgow, Swansea, Manchester or elsewhere in the UK is likely to keep you company whatever it is that you're doing.

3) Drink driving
In several other countries too many people still see no wrong in taking a car after a night drinking, whereas in Britain even the nastiest geezer would not consider it. OK, maybe some still do, but in the public consciousness the practice is firmly and definitely considered taboo.

4) Food
"What are you talking about", I hear you say, "British culinary heritage pales in comparison with that of France, Spain, Italy, China, you name it". But at least most Britons are open-minded enough to adopt foreign dishes as part of their culture without any fear of food fascism or snotty superiority complexes seeping to the fore.

Few may satisfy the most demanding purists, but it's nice to know that most British towns and cities have a wide variety of international restaurants on offer. Oh, and ale. Overseas they don't know what they're missing. Not to mention the vegetarian "V" marked on the menu. That really is a rare sight abroad.

5) The Right-Wing
This will definitely piss off many readers. But when you look at the state of conservative or centre-right parties in other European countries, Australia or the US, it makes you feel a touch better about David Cameron and his lot.

Don't get me wrong. I think there are at least a thousand reasons not to ever vote Tory in this country, and I wouldn't even under torture, but they have come a long way.

When you look at Sarah Palin, Italy's Berlusconi or Spain's abhorrent Partido Popular and their appallingly bigoted superhomophobic proto-medieval brand of macho-conservatism, Britain's Tories come off best.

Click here to read "Five reasons to be ashamed of Britain".