Monday, June 30, 2008

Breaking news! Bush has environmental concerns... he's pulling the plug on solar energy...

Imagine the government saying that, because they're not sure about the full effect of sun lotions and solar creams, they put a ban on the stuff and recommend instead extra doses of UVB, preferably in the early hours of the afternoon.

No, don't laugh. Bush is doing the same about the environment. Courtesy of my friend Neal, I came across this article about Bush's green concerns. More oil drilling and less solar projects (banned for two years), that's what GW Bush says. I thought that we were fucked in Britain, but my American friends, you really aren't doing too good...

The tabloids? They don't pull their punches

Amy Winehouse at Glastonbury and the mystery "punch"

Did she or didn't she punch a fan? Glasto 2008 was the perfect example of how the words 'media' and 'reality' rarely sit together. It's not the first time that Amy Winehouse makes their day, but this time a fleeting scuffle with someone in the crowd turned into the singer "lashing out" and "throwing punches at the audience". Some accounts almost depicted her as Southgate's own Hulk Cogan. Make no mistake, at Hagley Road to Ladywood we despise the woman, but looking at footage available on BBC online (watch it here), we don't think she actually punched anybody. The Telegraph was the most cautious, with only a fleeting glimpse of "a scuffle" with [a] fan. "[S]he appeared to swing a punch at a fan", writes today's Independent, adding that "as she sang "Rehab" towards the end of her hour-long set, she clambered into the pit in front of the stage and got into a scuffle with a member of the audience". Yet, according to The Guardian, it all "look[ed] suspiciously like a quick succession of punches" and there you are, reader, picturing that poor sod on the receiving end of a Tyson-like knocker treatment.

The NME sports a proud "Watch Amy Winehouse 'punching' a fan at Glastonbury" headline (along with Glasto boss Michael Eavis pointing out that the singer reacted to someone in the crowd "touching her boobs"), and the Daily Mail can hardly conceal their delight with a sequence of shots that leave us even more puzzled. In their online version, Winehouse becomes a graduate from the school of hard knocks. She both "punched", "elbowed", "charged in" and "aimed blows" at a fan. If they had more space available it'd probably turn out that she alone battered a whole mob... But for moral lecturing -as usual- no one can outdo The Sun. This is their perfect territory: "Winehouse on the warpath" is the UK's best-selling paper's headline, the plot further thickened by the statement that "Amy Winehouse made Pete Doherty look angelic after punching a fan" and, with every other word reminding us of her drug abouse, more castigatory stuff about her "obnoxious" behaviour. What a bad woman this Winehouse is.
So obnoxious that not a single day goes without them devotedly talking her up. Boy don't they need her.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

On top of Euro 2008

After a curse that lasted 44 years, Spain beat Germany 1-0 in the final and claimed the 2008 European Championship. People got (understandably) overexcited. (footage by Johhny T)


The Western powers went into Iraq with all guns blazing, so why the kid gloves approach with Zimbabwe?

The best article of the week was written by The Times' David Aaronovitch, someone we hadn’t been too kind to in the past. Writing last Tuesday on the subject of Zimbabwe, the columnist displayed some intellectual honesty and admirable coherence. He advocated foreign military intervention as the sole hope left in order to free the Zimbabwean population from Mugabe's horrendous grip. In the wake of yet more rigged elections, all hints suggest the dictator has no intention to step down.

Aaronovitch has been one of the most fervent pro-Iraq war zealots, turning a blind eye and a half towards the repercussions of Bush and Blair's military gamble. This time, however, we're on his side. If only those who were suddenly so anxious to bring democracy to Iraq, out of all places, showed Aaronovitch's same genuine concern for human rights across the world, things may be slightly better. Zimbabwe is being suffocated to death but you don’t hear the neo-cons priests and Blairite souls reciting that "you can't appease a dangerous dictator", "do nothing in front of genocide" and "those pacifists against-wars-come-what-may are all a bunch of Chamberlain-like chickens".

"The idea that Mugabe will cave in to sanctions or diplomatic pressure is absurd", Aaronovitch writes, adding that "unless you regard the recent burnings, rapes, beatings, murders, threats, arrests, starvings and raids as some kind of exotic preamble to negotiation, then what seems clear is that the Zanu (PF) military-security group has no intention of allowing any transfer of power to an elected opposition, no matter what a whingeing world says about it".

The Western powers went into Iraq with all guns blazing, in spite of a background which consisted of an explosive Middle East, belligerent neighbours, as well as a country so ravaged by internal divisions and ethnic and religious sectarianism. So why the kid gloves approach with Zimbabwe and a (comparatively and relatively speaking, of course) easier geo-political scenario?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

This celebrity binge? Pure trash...

...and why a diet of bad television and shit magazines can have short, medium and long-term effects.

Physical laziness is an integral part of human nature. And it's not always that bad. Think of the appeal of an evening spent slouching around, arse firmly stuck to the settee, watching a DVD as you stuff down high-calorie food and a few drinks. Aware of the pitfalls of an existence outlining Wayne and Waynetta Slob's, we're constantly reminded of the importance of healthy eating, 5-a-day, exercising and doing sports.

Intellectual idleness follows the same pattern. Although having your mind floating about can also be insidiously pleasurable (to the point that you don’t even see it happening), the 5-a-day adverts or government schemes on the subject are notable by their absence. The articles you read become shorter and shorter and the pictures in the magazines that you buy get bigger and bigger. The stuff you watch on telly has got more and more premium numbers to call and votes to send and the celebrities stuck in that jungle become increasingly hilarious…Suddenly you know by heart Big Brother Chanelle's sexual CV while Lee v Alex on The Apprentice give you sleepless nights.

Until one day you find that using your brain becomes a dreadfully tedious proposition, the equivalent of your dad asking you to hold those wall-brackets up for 10 minutes while he's mounting the shelving unit. Huff. Something to shrink away from at all costs.

Why pick up a book if you can flick through Heat, Star, Closer, Reveal, More, Now (Zoo or Nuts if you like extra inches of naked flesh) and look at big photographs? Isn't an image of a wasted Sarah Harding all over a bloke much easier on the eye than a couple of sentences strung together by some Chilean writer you've never heard of?

And why should you bother with those long, complex, arsy articles that pad those "intellectual" broadsheets when you can get The Sun or the Daily Star which are a right larff, and whose nipples on display are larger than any of the articles? Why watch those late-night programmes that go on about wars, the economy and question time and only interview people who pronounce every "t"? Big Brother 12, Britain's Got Talent, tits, gossip and sex scandals are all much more entertaining.

First, there's the social acceptability factor. "Politics, current affairs, opinion columns, the news…they're all just so totally boring". You learnt it a long time ago and no-one's going to bully you for that. You automatically picked up that it's quite a cool thing to say, especially because everyone but maybe the geeks repeated it at every turn. Or think of the fag-break at work. They’re all gossiping about last night's Celebrity Freak Show and Jordan's new acrylic body part and there's a lively debate over whether that would make the celebrity's 25th or 26th set of implants. Do you really want to be left out?

And what the fuck is this credit crunch, anyway? Boooooring. I'll get me celeb/tits magazines and even though it's just a fiver, can I pay by Visa by any chance (and hope it doesn’t get declined)?

No doubt some trendy high-priests of proto-intellectualism will dismiss it all by arguing that the best thing about "celebrity culture" is that you can always switch the telly off and that no-one's forcing you to buy celebrity magazines. After all, the cultural version of double chocolate cake and supersized burgers & chips is just harmless fun.

There are, instead, short, medium and long-term side effects of a market saturated in in-yer-face mediocrity and triviality.

It's this same "bad intellectual diet" that makes it possible for the government to send your best mate to Afghanistan while you think that he's going "to fight for our country against the long-bearded ones" and that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 (come on, let's have it!).

It's this cerebral dearth that dampens the indignation towards sky-high house prices and rising income inequality.

It's this KFC of brains that makes it routine for your manager at the call centre to tell you that chances are they may be relocating and half of you won't be needed at all next week - and she can do it because none of you are on a contract.

It's this junk-for-thought that can make your gas, water and electricity bills routinely go up, in the style of Cristiano Ronaldo's ego, and in a state of total impunity.

And it's the same bad diet that makes it possible for councils to collect your rubbish once a fortnight while your Council tax reaches aberrant levels and hundreds of thousands of pounds are lavished on the Luxembourgian Festival in Victoria Square.

So it's true, this celebrity binge is bliss. For those who pull the strings.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Sex and the City: The Movie

Unless you're a hardcore fan, the film will probably leave you feeling a bit pissed on the superficiality of the whole affair

A review by EMMA MUNN

Darren Star’s Sex and the City (which will hereby be known as SATC due to typing laziness) is something that most women love and most men hate, unless they are gay or metrosexual and find Manolos fabulous. It’s a generalisation but it’s true.

I fall in the (obsessive) love side, and have followed the series since the beginning, mainly because of my love of fashion.

So, like the majority of 20-something women, I almost messed myself when, last year, I discovered a film was being made. Cue endless re-watches of every episode, nail biting and scouring the internet for clues. Is it true that Miranda dies?! What about Samantha getting cancer again?! Will Carrie and Mr. Big finally tie the knot?!

Well, the answers to those questions are no, no and yes in fact, because I eventually got to see the film yesterday, after many months of near-breakdowns and doing my boyfriend’s head in about Carrie’s outfits.

If you’re anything like me, you’d have found series 6 of SATC (especially the finale, An American Girl in Paris Parts une et deux) one of the most heartbreaking, tear jerking and applause-inducing pieces of television ever made. It quite simply left you begging for more. Following on from Samantha’s (Kim Catrall‘s character, promiscuous patron for STIs and misjudged clashing colours but arguably the star of the show) recovery from breast cancer, Carrie’s (Sarah Jessica Parker’s curly haired sex columnist) flash-in-the-pan romance with an arrogant Russian who took her to Paris, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon’s fiery redhead lawyer) deciding that her husband’s terminally ill mum can live with them and Charlotte’s (Kristin Davis’ love-hopeful traditionalist) adoption of an Asian baby there was a hell of a lot of stuff to look forward to and a hell of a lot of unanswered questions.

From a fan’s point of view, the film was exactly what I wanted and more. Endless flurries of jaw-droppingly beautiful clothes, skyscraper heels, glamorous bars and glamorous people, basically so much glitter that you almost feel yourself frothing at the mouth from all the, well, frothiness.
Also, if you are an avid fan (desperately trying not to sound like a weirdo, here) you start to care about the characters and really wonder about what they’ve been doing, so in a way it was like catching up with old friends. Old friends who have a significantly fatter current account than you do, are sexier than you and manage to get you in to lots of pretty bars with waiting lists, that is. Oh to dream.

So, given all that, what does it offer to non-fans or newbies?
Well, sod all really.
Unless you’ve at least experienced one of the latter series of SATC, the film will probably leave you feeling a bit lost and disillusioned by the whole thing, and will probably also leave you feeling a bit pissed on the superficiality of the whole affair. Because, even though I adore this show, SATC is obviously a very superficial series. Fashion and nice photography has always been the primary objective. The script is okay, but just okay. It's weak, and that's a big shame. A meatier script would have made this film perfect, and above all more accesible to non-fans, who may not give a toss about the fashion but would have had a stronger plotline to hold onto.
The strange thing about the film, however, is that in all the two and a half hours (yes, only half an hour less than Titanic so bring a cushion) of it, there’s an undeniable sense that the storyline is second place to Carrie’s wardrobe. In one scene, Carrie is asked to do a bridal photo-shoot for Vogue, and after much protesting (what’s wrong with you, woman?) she agrees. Cue five minutes of nice angles of her face, and her reciting the names of the designers she’s modelling,
“Christian Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Oscar de la Renta… and CHRISTIAN LACROIX!!!) and another scene where she cleans out her wardrobe and walks around wearing her old outfits from seasons past (yes, THAT tutu, too) while her pals vote, with cards, whether she should keep them or not.
This kind of stuff is great for a couple of minutes, but there are only so many times one can say ’Oooh! Lovely dress, I remember that one… Nice… lucky cow…” Cue rabid froth once again.

And yes, Carrie does marry Mr. Big. Once almost, one properly. She’s still knocking about with him, which does bring the “SATC is female empowerment personified” argument into question. You go out on and off for ten years, he dumps you 48 times, he stands you up at the altar, but he emails (hello?) you a love letter by Byron and all is forgiven. Ms. Greer would have something to say about this, maybe. Also, there is a very drawn out scenario regarding Miranda's very sweet husband's infidelity (he shags another woman because she's very busy and she's gone off sex) which leaves you screaming at the screen for the great majority of the movie, until flogged horses come into view.

Samantha, as always, is hilarious, with some of the funniest scenes in the film. The best being an aborted Valentine's Day surprise involving sushi, "I got wasabi in places one should never get wasabi", and Charlotte's shock pregnancy will have you rooting for her after her long, heartbreaking struggle to conceive.

In short, SATC: The Movie is perfect for long-term fans like myself, girly nights in and something to watch when you’ve been dumped, but if producer Michael Patrick King wants to attract new fans from this film, he’s going to fail spectacularly.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Nick Hornby, "Slam" - a review

The finest English writer of his generation, Nick Hornby is always a pleasure to read. Too often, his stories are hastily packaged as "typical male", "hilarious" and "funny". Hilarious and funny, they may be - though that leaves out the high concentration of lifelike drama, neuroses, hang-ups and introspection that characterises all of his books - but the "typical male" tag is as lopsided as one of Luca Toni's shots. Simply, wrong.

With his latest novel, Slam, Hornby decides to take on a teenage audience. If you're one of his fans, that may put you off until you actually decide to read the book. You'll barely notice, the only change being that the whole story is from the point of view of 15-year-old Sam. A skate obsessive (the book will teach you that the expression "skateboarding" is considered as uncool as Michael Bolton's hair), Sam is an ordinary teenager, bored, into Playstations and stuff, but fundamentally alright.

Sam lives with his mum, a young lady of only thirty-two, a woman who actually managed as she raised him on her own. But it's all about to turn into a big mess. Sam's life will have to kiss a premature goodbye to a world of posters and skate-related tricks. His first 'proper' girlfriend, 16-year-old Alice, is pregnant and she wants to keep it. Family patterns are about to be repeated.

But before we give away too much, it's worth pointing up that Hornby doesn’t take any moral high ground. He's just an amazing social observer. His is an extremely accurate picture of today's Britain, a country where thousands of young teenagers who fear they may be no good decide that having a baby is the only doable way out of a merciless race for high grades, money and success. And, for better or for worse, that's become absolutely normal. A place where a kid having another kid is now completely devoid of any social stigma, never mind posing a million practical (and many other) problems.

There's Sam's school and their completely useless teenage-pregnancy Support Scheme (a "strategy") based on filling a form that says you're doing OK and then filling another one to say that you're satisfied with the same scheme. There's prejudice, whereby Alice's ultra-liberal academic parents are subconsciously convinced that, even though he's not, Sam is and will always be a "chav" because he comes from a single-mother family.

All of which comes across subtly. It's up to the reader to decipher whether Hornby is pro-choice or anti-choice and to make up their mind about where they stand.

What matters is that Hornby's style as a narrator is as engaging as ever and if you're not particularly busy, you'll devour the book the same way you guzzled A Long Way Down, About A Boy and High Fidelity. His language is absolutely real and accessible, while his psychological vignettes make you wonder if he's got some supernatural power in his interpretation and articulation of how people really feel. In fairness, there is, by Nick Hornby's standards, a minor narrative weakness. Sam's dreamlike trips to the future add little to the narrative and somehow increase the risks of predictability- if anything, they're quite counterproductive. But it's a minor glitch.

Slam isn't Nick Hornby's strongest book, but the truth is, that’s what happens when the standards set by his previous work were at such a high level.

Slam is now available on Penguin Paperback

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Oxford Murders - a review

A film that turns out more elitist in language than its original book version is quite a rare feat

As big screen readaptations go, comparisons with the original version (in this case Guillermo Martinez's award-winning novel) are never too kind. The Oxford Murders was doomed from the start. If the book version was already blighted by sections that are incomprehensible for all but PhD students of Abstract Logic and Mega Philosophy, Alex de la Iglesia's film version will simply make that DVD eject button too tempting to resist.

And it's a pity. Because the Oxford Murders carries all the premises for a gripping tale of mystery and creepy symbolism. No sooner has young American (Argentinian, in the original version) mathematician Martin (Elijah Wood) arrived in Oxford that his elderly landlady is found murdered in her wheelchair.
The only clues are a cryptic message and a circle scrabbled next to it. It's the door to a fascinating conundrum that involves respected academic Arthur Seldom (John Hurt) and a couple of ladies who are quite eager to inspect Elijah Wood's particulars. Perhaps they were big Frodo fans to begin with. We'll never know.

Yet, a film that turns out more elitist in language than its original book version is quite a rare feat. There are, for want of a better expression, visual references here. Yet, the viewer's drowns in a vortex of Heidleberg's Principle, Fibonacci series, Godel's Axiom, Whatsit Theorem, ThingyBob Maxim - stuff you'd only grasp if you've studied the stuff.

If that wasn't enough to get on your nerves, here comes the acting i.e. the nail in the coffin. Deliberate though it may be, the Thespian, uber-hammed-up nature of the dialogue is totally out of place. In the book Arthur Seldom is more subdued and less of a megalomaniac, but John Hurt, of course, can handle it. Everyone else though, including Frodo Wood, is as stiff as a morning boner that is put to no use.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Jeremy Clarkson, a stopped clock

It's not often that we agree with Jeremy Clarkson. In yesterday's Sunday Times article "Oi, get your hands off my lapdancers", the Top Gear presenter was in full-on belligerent mood. "[E]very single town in Britain these days is equally terrible - a vomit-stained centre full of estate agents, charity shops and building societies, ringed with a prefabricated, fluorescent sprawl of people in purple shirts trying to sell you Pentium processors and button-backed leatherette sofas".

As they say, even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day -which is why we quite liked Clarkson's pulling down of contemporary Britain. However, we still thought he was a bit too harsh. Where else would such self-important gob heads like him be allowed to make crap taxpayer-funded programmes on national television and be regularly given a newspaper platform to spurt out populist venom of the most ignorant kind?

Stick to driving fast, Clarkson. And no, fuck red tape and nanny state. Do not fasten that seat belt.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I Am Legend

Will Smith joins the new wave of disaster movies

In The Pursuit of Happiness, Will Smith was alone in a jungle-like, ruthless 70s' metropolis. In Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend, set in a post-apocalyptic 2012, the metropolis is desolately empty, its entire population wiped out by a deadly virus. And so there he is, Smith (Dr Robert Neville), with his gorgeous Alsatian Sam, trying to make sense of a world whose only living creatures are light-dodging humanoids. But what makes I Am Legend interesting is that the proto-zombies are mere extras in a tale of human despair and man/dog companionship rather than its essential ingredient. The film is more catastrophe than sci-fi. Luckily the scenes depicting a machine gun-toting American are few and far between (because at times you fear it may go down the slippery slope of "rambofication"). The film is great in conveying how you'd cope if you were left to fend off, completely alone, in the aftermath of an end-of-civilisation-like disaster. There's a very thin line between holding on to a sense of purpose and losing the plot and the boundaries blur when Will Smith begs a female mannequin to say hi back to him in a deserted DVD shop.

It is often said that arts in general are a reflection of our times. The post 9-11, Iraq War, clash-of-civilisation sense of insecurity seems to have spawned a whole new genre of disaster movies. Just like the 1970s (plagued by world terrorism and permanent fear of a nuclear war) were punctuated by the Airport series, Cassandra Crossing, Tower Inferno, the Poseidon Adventure and assorted sci-fi calamities, the last five years have set off, in succession, TV series like Lost and Invasion along with blockbusters like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 28 Days Later and more recently Cloverfield and I Am Legend. Viruses gone mad, survivors' colonies, wilful doctors, inexplicable events and (super)natural disasters seem to epitomise the current sense of uncertainty as it's pervading our society. It's almost a case of extreme fiction applied to exorcise reality. Sometimes, though, the two blur, Amy Winehouse being a case in point.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bush's farewell tour

...and the sniping at Obama

George W Bush has embarked upon his farewell world tour. More redolent of those dead-horse-flogging bands (i.e. Human League doing that "re-wind" thing yet again) than it is of a world-respected politician, most would like to see the back of him as soon as possible.

Yes, it is overly simplistic to argue that the President of the US alone is truly responsible for the course of world politics.

And in fact the Bush years shouldn’t be merely considered as the time when a gaffe-prone idiot became President.

Bush's eight years in power marked a seismic shift in world politics because of a whole neo-con Republican cabal (with a very specific political agenda) that lurked behind his cheeky-chappie simpleton-like ways.

Most amazing is the fact that they still stand a very good chance to snatch another four years in the White House. Someone as dodgy as "Geronto" McCain is the Republican candidate. The American economy has hit an insidious slump. The credit crunch is biting. The Middle East is in a much bigger mess than it was when Bush took over. U.S. soldiers are still dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. But just witness how effective the Republicans' sniping at Barak Obama has turned out. Also courtesy of eight months of vicious charges at the hand of a dreadful Hillary Clinton, Obama is now forced to tiptoe around in fear of upsetting the dominant forces.

Catapulted to the elections by a combination of devastating Republican policies and yearning for a new approach to politics, Obama is now hemmed in by redneck thinking on one side and Clintonite grudge on the other. A rock and a shit place, as they say. Not to mention the perma-contrarians (read: the Nader voters), those who still believe Al Gore and George W Bush are basically two faces of the same coin. They won't vote for Obama.

In which case, there's an extra reason to support him.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Coldplay and wet music

The most cryptic review in history and why music and politics rarely mix

Last week The Independent's reviewer Andy Gill explained why Coldplay get on our nerves. As their latest release, the Brian Eno-produced Viva La Vida, is already outselling their 2005's hit X&Y, it's good to know that we're not alone in our distaste. There are millions out there who find Coldplay's music extremely annoying, safe, oily and too much to bear. Coldplay may have learnt how to recycle paper, but they are as apathetic and bland as a Wendy house. Remember those days of Live 8-related excitement? Chris Martin was on telly to celebrate the new wave of goodness and loved-up sentiments but when given the chance to explain why the arms trade is evil and poverty is bad he simply didn’t have a fucking clue and was ripped to shreds.

Andy Gill got it right when he likened Coldplay to "the epic solemnity of state funerals, their huge, heartbreaking cord changes sucker-punching you with emotional logic while sapping any anger or political engagement".

However, here's where we ditch Coldplay and focus on the reviewer. Fuckin' hell, mate, stop writing as if you were penning a PhD in sociology. Gill's endless review - and the good points he argues - are totally eclipsed by the most cryptic language that's ever graced the earth. Each single paragraph has to be re-read several times to make any sense. And it's not a case of wagging-your-finger type of ignorance. It goes beyond dexterity with words. It always baffles me when people feel the need to write in such a deliberately obscure, elitist manner.

Just check this out. Andy Gill wrote: "But at least Oasis promulgated the kind of spirit and energy that galvanises the soul, rather than the notion that all problems can be assuaged by impotent sympathy set to repetitive piano ostinatos". What the fuck is a piano ostinato? After close inspection, I guess he means that at least Oasis carried some raw energy rather than just be about soppy piano ballads.

Or this one: "lines feeding off the soul-carrion of the insecure and lonely while offering no solutions, merely crumbs of solace expanded to wedding-cake size by the music monumentalism within which they're set […]", or "[…] did Blairism effectively wipe out the ideological component of modern pop, emptying it of grass-roots political impetus in favour of less troublesome, easily harnessed celebrity-gesture politics".

But before you end up pissed on self-masturbatory (or, as Gill might say, "auto-onanistic") language, let's remain on this subject of "celebrity-gesture politics".

Gill talks about the Coldplay formula "poisoning" this generation, but perhaps he got lost in his own literary maze. I mean, Mr Gill, look at the previous generation - U2 and Bob Geldof, Simple Minds' Mandela Day, Sting and his rainforest-related distress or Phil Collins' wet odes to the homeless...You'd have had to have been a pretty nasty piece of work to disagree with the vague goodness of their message. Because that's the limit of music and politics together, and one that crosscuts generations. It's hard to pull it off without coming across as a sanctimonious, churchy, wishy-washy Bob Geldof. Bands that managed to convey a coherent, gritty, subtle political message without sounding naïve, pathetic and indulgent can be counted on fingertips. In my book, The Smiths, The Housemartins, The Jam, Pink Floyd and Radiohead were amongst the very few who did the trick. Even The Clash, at times, ran the risk of falling prey to rabble-rousing posturing.

So I don’t know what Andy Gill means when he writes that "rock'n'roll used to be a rallying cry", but I dearly hope what he has in mind is neither Billy Bragg's politicking nor the Sex Pistols pulling faces.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Lorry drivers, empty shelves and a vicious strike

Is there such a thing as a right-wing strike?

September 2000. Lorry drivers are on strike against rising fuel prices. Britain's at a standstill. The scenes on TV are evocative of 28 Days Later: panic buying, mental queues at petrol stations, empty supermarket shelves and anxious old ladies moaning that their local Tesco is running out of supplies. I remember seeing my old university teacher, a staunch leftie Hullite by the name of Shaddy. "Militancy is back, Shaddy", I went, "surely it cannot be a bad thing? These people are taking a stand against the government". I must have sounded like such a naïve prick.

Shaddy shook his head. "Nooo", he said. "You know how I feel about New Lerh-bah, but this time they're doing the right thing not giving up to the strikers". I was taken aback. "What they're doing is seriously reactionary", he continued, explaining why bringing the country to a standstill in the name of lower tax for their own exclusive benefit was wrong. "It's not the Government they should go for", he added, "instead it's the speculators, the big oil companies, they control the lion's share of the oil price and make zillions out of it".

Eight years later, and I can finally see what Shaddy meant. Those eerie scenes are back. Hauliers are on strike across Europe. They've just kicked off in England again and last week, in Spain, they were at the helm of one of the most vicious blockades in history. "La huelga", that's how the Spaniards call it, ground the country to a halt. It brought empty supermarket shelves, mile-long motorway queues and - above all- one dead, dozens injured and hundreds of damaged lorries and trucks. A group of lorries that were not on the picket line were set alight, leaving the driver with 25% of his body severely burnt.

How is that right-wing? The right to strike is sacrosanct, and it goes without saying that if hauliers have resorted to such extreme measures, they must feel pretty desperate indeed. But there are two aspects that should make us feel instinctively unsympathetic to their cause.
One, the way they went about it. The notion that "if I can't eat, then nor will you be able to" is simply vile. You cannot stop a nation from functioning. By all means, go on strike, make your employers feel the pressure, but you shouldn’t directly and intently punish innocent people, let alone the whole country. The Spanish blockade was incredibly aggressive. Those who didn't stop straightaway at picket lines were attacked, their load chucked out and their tyres slashed. The entire nation was literally brought to a standstill. With roads jammed up, hospitals or old people's homes started running out of supplies. Bear in mind lorry drivers are not the only ones who are feeling the pinch with prices -fuel in particular- going up. And until the situation goes back to normal, the short term effect is more expensive grocery items. The hauliers' action affected the most vulnerable people twice over. Can you imagine if each and every category struggling to make ends meet started doing that?

Which begs the second point. The lorry drivers' industrial action was selfish, instinctively anti-society and totally devoid of logic. We all look after number one, but they really took the piss. This vague "blame-the-Government" exercise carries dangerous consequences. Asking the Government to lower their taxes, and impose "minimum tariffs" just for them shows how lopsided their view is. Fuel taxes may not be pleasant, but are essential, both for environmental and redistributive purposes. In any case, especially in the wake of fuel prices shooting up, V.A.T. on fuel is only responsible for a tiny percentage of the price. None of those hauliers, none of them, denounced those who are truly responsible for the current hike: oil companies and oil speculators. How about a boycott of the oil companies who refuse to lower prices? They're the ones rubbing their hands with joy as we all - equally- share the burden of the cost of living going up.

With Euro 2008 under way, has anyone noticed the name of the Bern stadium? Wankdorf, it's called.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Trains in Britain...

...and their duties to their shareholders

For a very long time, the railway system has been one of the biggest scandals of today's Britain. Ok, let's just say it, since British Rail was privatised. For years, we've been negotiating our way around a maze of train fares, "journey planners", advance bookings and arcane notions of "peak-time". But the scandal was something you wouldn't hear about. At best (or worst), the media would report news of train crashing or derailing. But Virgin and the rest making obscene amounts of money and receiving obscene state subsidies....? Nah...It's the market, ennit? The best providers, aren't they?

Nobody could have put it any better than Mark Steel. Take a look at this brilliant article from The Independent online. There, at last, a true, thorough and honest look at the state of trains in 21st century Britain. In no specific order:

- the packed few 2nd class carriages and the never-ending succession of empty first class ones;

- the extortionate prices unless you book 7 months in advance when the moon is at a certain angle and you're between 5'5 and 5'7 tall and your surname contains between 3 and 4 vowels;

- the appalling delays;

- the perennial "engineering works" that have been disrupting lines (especially Sundays) for 10 years at least.
The answer? "No private company is going to run a railway because they want to run a railway. They have a duty to their shareholders," Mark Steel was told by a PR man.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The 65-hour working week

It is more than likely that the return to pre-1917 labour legislation will affect the shitties, lowest-paid jobs

"This is more like a push back to the 19th century than a step forward along the 21st century". Last night, Spain's Work Minister, Celestino Corbacho was the only one to speak some sense. After four years of the Blair & Brown Governments pushing forward the proposal, the European Union finally buckled. The legal limit for weekly working hours is set to return to pre-1917 levels: from a maximum of 48 hours, it will now be raised to 60 (65 hours for certain professions). Though, until recently, the French and the Italians had vetoed it, Sarkozy and Berlusconi's electoral successes saw off Spain as the only country at odds with the British proposal.

The 48-hour week was one of the most significant social conquests of the 20th century. In place for 91 years, it was introduced to curb the horrors of the Industrial revolution: Dickensian tales of people spending a whole day slogging away. After a century of legal protection, if your boss requires you to work 60 hours a week, it'll simply be a case of put up or shut up.

You may be justified if you harbour the sneaking suspicion that the people who are going to knock themselves out for 60/65 hours aren’t going to be the gentlemen sitting in the European Parliament. It is more than likely that the return to pre-1917 labour legislation will affect the shitties, lowest-paid jobs, perhaps those that only immigrants (but hadn’t we been told there was too many of them?) will be ready to take on. So if, until today, you may have been able to utter that "at least I'm only putting up with this shit for 48 hours a week", now you may have to revise your figures.

The change was justified as a "necessary measure" to tackle "global competition" - as if stripping workers' rights one by one was the way to stand up to India, China and Bangladesh. What next? Sweat shops? Allowing back child labour "in order to survive in this globalised village" and all that bollocks? One thing for sure: they've never had it so good, our bosses. Not for a hundred years at least.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Big Brother 9

The same old, trite, tired ingredients: Big Brother hits the screen - and we're only at Number 9

It was the first programme to lead the way for the binge of 'reality' and celebrity-obsessed television that characterised the Noughties. Initially, the experiment carried a certain charm. Big Brother was almost an Orwellian test in which the behaviour of ordinary people locked in a house was going to be analysed and put on a 24-hour watch for everyone to consume. The programme even featured a psychologist to comment on the contenders' actions. In the end, the viewers decided that the winner would be an ordinary Scouser by the name of Craig. There was little or no scandal at all; a few rows, the occasional rivalry and the contestants' frustrated bursting into tears while they'd be pouring their heart out in the Big Brother chair. The winner himself was quite content to round off his celebrity moment with an inoffensive Christmas charts flop, the video for which featured Craig wearing a high-neck woolly jumper and hugging a child by a fireplace and a Christmas tree. In spite of the tremendous success of series 1, it was decided that the programme had to up the ante and come up with something more shocking.

Any pretence of taste and complexity was shed when the BB makers dropped the psychologist and got rid of any 'fancy' analysis. For the stakes to be raised, the common denominator was to be further lowered. For the beast to grow and massive tabloid coverage to be secured, foul and tacky behaviour was to be required in industrial strength. It was a plain and simple escalation. If series 2 featured a gay bloke talking anal sex live on telly, then series 3 would star a mouthy transvestite; series 4 may be host to a shockingly vile chavette, but the next one was to sport a messed-up anorexic. And the spiteful weirdo on series 5 would pale by comparison to the latest BB's outrageous guy with Tourette's syndrome. Big Brother turned into an unashamed recruitment agency for Z-celebrities presented as a feast of self-obsession. The contenders wouldn’t just flirt or snog. With each series, shagging would get closer and closer to the viewer's face and nudity would increasingly amount to pure routine. They'd have sex right in front of the cameras, flaunting it to the extreme, fully aware that only that way would tabloid headlines be secured. It was all oh-so-shocking. The one who would swear more, talk less sense and spread more semen was to be granted almost overnight throwaway celebrity status.

It was only a matter of time before the same programme-makers who egg on outrage and scandal would end up with the same ingredients splattered all over their faces. It was time for the very notion of dumbed-down, cheap, voyeuristic TV to backfire. The opportunity arose in January 2007 when Celebrity Big Brother, the first example of "televisual incestuousness", featuring people "on telly for having been on telly"[1], ended up in a row of massive proportions over a scandal surrounding racist bullying live on TV. A bunch of brain-dead contestants, invited on the show in the hope they'd say something hilariously stupid or disgraceful, ended up racially taunting their Indian housemate. That time, it just went too far. Channel Four was found guilty of "serious errors of judgement" and accused of showing contempt for the code of broadcasting[2]. The cult of celebrity-for-the-sake-of-being-celebrity has now bizarrely turned on itself.

Whereas it is perfectly reasonable to argue that popular interest for stars and celebrities has always existed and that anyone who envisage a world that works otherwise is guilty of intellectual snobbism as well as of contempt for human nature, it is also true that the 'celebrity cult' reached in the UK in recent years has become nothing short of endemic. For instance, Britain boasts a proud history of TV soaps, no doubt the purest form of escapism, but one that would still have its roots in gritty realism and social drama, think Brookside, Eastenders or Coronation Street. And although that too was enjoyed by an audience of millions, it never carried the same dumbed-down pervasive nature of 'realities', proving that you don’t have to vulgarise everything in order to be successful. People used to become famous because they could sing, act, or dance. Now you're handed celebrity-status because you shout the f- word louder than your fellow contestant in front of a camera, better so if you have a stammer and you're ready to hand it on a plate to an audience that will have you for breakfast as the latest entertainment chimp.

[1] "Big Brother encourages us to embrace a condition far worse than racism", by Howard Jacobson, The Independent, 20/01/2007
[2] "He's up 4 Eviction", by Nicola Methven, The Mirror, 25/05/2007

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Prude, not prude and old Mrs Whitehouse

To sneer at Mrs Whitehouse is no longer as it easy as it was

"Hey you Whitehouse, ha ha charade you are", sang Pink Floyd on their legendary Animals album. Thirty years on, and the queue of commentators conjuring tricks to suggest Mary Whitehouse wasn't that wrong after all is growing.

It's a bit like growing older, turning dull, and seeing sense. As your chins multiply, it clicks that yes, your folks were right about cannabis turning your brain cells into gorgonzola. Or that, really, your daughter routinely looking like a slut at the age of 15 isn't on. Even the most liberal-minded chap has got to find it quite perplexing. To sneer at Mrs Whitehouse, the rabid guard-dog of decency, morality and prudishness, the bitter old lady who'd be thrown into spasm by glancing at Sid Vicious pulling faces, is no longer as it easy as it was.

Something in our uber-libertarian society has conked out - may that be the bloodcurling vortex of Jade Goodyes and Jody Marshes, the vertigo-inducing succession of Big Brothers and tits'n'arses, or "streetcred" now routinely stemming from boasting how paralytic you were the night before (and ha ha, you puked all over the taxi mat), or the "familiarisation of violence", as Howard Jacobson puts it in a brilliant article for The Independent.

"If we are to argue that television and the trash subculture of magazines and papers which it has spawned contribute to the national tone", he writes, "then we cannot neatly separate sex from violence, or sex and violence from celebrity, or celebrity from fame and greed, or fame and greed from triviality, or triviality from worthlessness, or any of the aforementioned from the all-round cheapening of life which was ultimately the target of Mrs Whitehouse's Christian campaign".

Saturday, June 07, 2008

This week's news round-up

By Johnny Taronja

After 18 months, Senator Barack Obama is the Democrats' official candidate for the White House. We just hope that Hillary Clinton's infuriating stubborness won't wreck his chances. The fact alone that John McCain is in with a chance after 8 years of Republican-sponsored wreckage is indication of the havoc wreaked by the Democrats' internecine fight.

In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi's government passed a White Paper that defines prostitutes as "a danger to morality and security". Oh the irony.

A leak at a nuclear plant in Slovenia during the week was the painful reminder -this time, luckily, just a reminder - that no, nuclear cannot become the only inevitable source of energy.


The death of Bo Diddley. A legendary inspiration to hundreds of rock bands, the guitarist from Chicago ensured that the Stones, the Clash or Led Zeppelin became who they were.


It really looks like Cristiano Ronaldo is going to leave Man Utd. What he can possibly do with £150,000 (after tax) is everybody's guess. A big house once a fortnight may get boring after a while!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A hotline to God

Tony Blair and the launch of his Faith Foundation

Saint Tony, Messiah Tony, Sanctimonious Tony, Manic Preacher Tony. At Hagley Road to Ladywood we've long harboured the suspicion that Mr Blair is honestly convinced is at the good end of a hotline to God.

When his website announced the creation of his Faith Foundation, many instantly pictured the next step: St Tony revealing it was God who invested him of such a divine, magnificent task. We'll spare you the bleeding obvious - too many are the articles pointing out the irony of Blair preaching "interfaith harmony and respect" after graduating at the school of the arms trade while bombing the shit out of nations.
The pattern is eerily peculiar: blatant lies (you may wonder what his mate God thinks of that), starting a war, invading a country - then preach about peace and harmony, " a fairer and better world".

The danger is that Blair's former employees may find the temptation to emulate him too hard to fend off. Picture the scene: David Blunkett setting up a "Monogamy task-force", John Prescott taking up the unique role as "Ambassador for Five-A-Day" or Peter Mandelson chairing the "Anti-Poverty Network". Stranger things have happened.

Monday, June 02, 2008

'Madchester': anything to glorify?

Drugs, gangs, bland tunes and what goes wrong when you hear about "musical revolutions" from the press

Anniversaries are a godsend when it comes to filling editorial gaps. Shock/horror, some magazines have remembered that it's now two decades since the days of "Madchester".

The headlines call it a 'musical revolution', but forgive us for saying the expression is used somewhat liberally.

If that's the yardstick, I suspect, soon they'll celebrate the 10th anniversary of Baddiel and Skinner doing Three Lions by branding it a true rock'n'roll watershed. Or they'll run a feature about the merits of Sabrina's Boys Boys Boys and the way she defined a "subculture".

Because, aside from the Stone Roses' overrated album and a couple of hummable Happy Mondays' tunes, all "Madchester" consisted of was gangsters taking over Manchester nightclubs, drug barons bogged down in territorial disputes, stabbings aplenty, drive-by shootings and people getting fucked out of their heads on E.

Cool, man. Oh yes. You read all those inside accounts that "the lads were all loved up", yawn, from lived-in, "street", "hip" people ("man"), giving away astounding anecdotes of foil wrappers, Shaun Ryder letting off a round of bullets, millions of pounds going down the drain in Barbados and "ecstasy casualties". And they talk about it as if they were all part of something messianic, a "collective revolution" in fact.

But if there was one, it meant absolutely nothing. Nothing that wasn’t swallowing chemicals and deforming your mouth for the remainder of the night.

As drug dealers proceeded to rake up millions on the back of armies of people sweating like paedophiles in a playground and gurning like hordes of zombies from Shaun of the Dead, Madchester's music remained a tiny dot in the background.

Were I a member of the Happy Mondays I'd find it extremely frustrating that my band is going to be remembered for geezers scoring heroin at 3am or getting shitfaced backstage while dealers are kneecapping each other. But I suppose some people are easily satisfied.