Thursday, 29 December 2011

Goodwill to all men. Providing their theism is EXACTLY the same as yours.

This punch up, between priests of rival orthodoxies within the same religion, beautifully sums up the idiocies of religious divides, and the hypocrisy of the Church(es). I have no idea what they're fighting about - it could be some minor detail in their respective theologies, or who gets the best pews, but these men are priests, showing themselves up as all too human. This is no better or worse than drunk blokes getting shitfaced and having a set-to on a Saturday night - the difference is that said drunkards rarely offer themselves up as representatives of God, guardians of morality and guiding lights for us fallen.

I know I should be laughing at it - certainly if it were shown by Monty Python or something, sped up slightly or shown to the background of Benny Hill's theme music, it would be partnered perfectly. But it's real, so I find it irritating. Some tiny difference in the way a holy text is interpreted (by people, of course) or how the ceremonies should be undertaken, or some other seemingly trifling difference can lead to this, or worse, to perpetual conflict, escalating even to war. You need only see how Shia and Sunni Muslims have fought with each other (over what's essentially a difference of political opinion on who should have taken over their prophet's position as leader of the Muslim 'nation' on his death hundreds of years ago) to take my point.

To an atheist, this conflict over what's basically a matter of historic opinion is utterly bewildering, but to a Muslim, it's a fundamental article of faith, one that a very few of them are prepared to fight, kill and die over. I can understand wars fought over oil, territory, subjugation of people - understand them happening at least - but not this. Those priests fighting are merely an unedifying example of exactly the same sort of pointless schism between people who should be showing compassion and understanding to each other, given the inherent similarities of their beliefs in particular.

I know it's a ludicrously extreme example, but to me, this is like the septuaganarians of the Aylesbury and District WI hurling chairs at each other across the church hall in a dispute over whether their cakes should be covered in Royal Icing or rolled fondant - it's that stupid. The difference of course is that the good ladies of the WI would do no such thing because they'd realise that, though they may want the cake decorated differently, fundamentally it's still a bloody cake. Those priests would be better off sitting down with a cuppa and a slice of said delicacy and discussing their differences like men. That is all.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

First Warsi, now Cameron not recognising the facts

David Cameron's recent assertion that Britain is '...a Christian country, and we shouldn't be afraid to say that...' is irritating to those of us whose secularism is important to us, but more importantly, it's not backed up by the facts.

It's true that in the 2001 census, some 73% of the population described themselves as 'Christian'. But that is a hugely broad, poorly defined and easily misinterpreted figure, especially when you take into account the actual practices of a lot of those people. Indeed, the PM himself said he was a 'committed but only vaguely practising' Christian, whatever that means.

Much more recently, the National Centre for Social Research conducted its 28th survey into British Social Attitudes, covering pretty much everything from politics, through transport, the environment and religion. This does not just ask people to define themselves as Christian, other, non-religious etc. It actually asks people about their religious beliefs and practices. Its findings bear little resemblance to the picture of Britain that the PM, and recently Baroness Warsi, would paint. The NCSR found that 50% of British people characterise themselves as having 'no religion', while 20% see themselves as CofE, 15% 'other Christian', 9% Roman Catholic and 6% 'non Christian', presumably other faiths. Full results can be found here. Of those who do count themselves religious, more than half never actually attend a service of any kind. Most tellingly, only 14% of the population actually attend services weekly, and the numbers are falling - affiliation to the Church of England has halved since 1983.

This doesn't look like a Christian country to me. It looks like a largely secular, but at the same time multi-faith country that should not be being governed by, or in the interests of, any one of those religions. It's another example of those in power conveniently ignoring the facts in favour of their own world view, and it's particularly frustrating to people like me who think that government should be secular, with the Church (of any faith) having absolutely no role in policy making when those policies affect everybody.

Cameron did, at least, leaven his comments slightly - more on what he said here. But his central assertion that the 'Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today' rings pretty hollow to the millions of us who, like me, have somehow managed to piece together our own moral code without ever having read the thing.

Monday, 19 December 2011

To live in the hearts of those we love

Saturday was the 25th anniversary of the passing of my best mate's mum. I spent Saturday with said mate, driving to Brighton, going to the game, the usual Saturday stuff. He, as he has done ever since I've known him apart from fleeting moments, kept any thoughts he may have been having about her to himself.

I never met her, not becoming close to him until after she passed on, but would like nonetheless to pay tribute to her here. At his wedding in May, remembering her in his speech, he quoted one of his favourite sayings. 'To live on in the hearts of those we love is not to die.' A beautiful sentiment and one he lives by, remembering her the way he does. Indeed, I'd go further. He is nothing less than a living embodiment of his late mum's qualities, as well as those of his dad of course, and a lasting legacy to her life that shows that she is still, through him and his sister, having a positive impact on the world. She would have been, rightly, hugely proud of both of them, as they are of her.

If everybody's life were led the way hers was, such that its lasting impression is one of a pure goodness continuing to be done even after they were gone, of the human qualities we should all hope we have within ourselves being passed on unmistakeably, the world would be a much, much better place. I don't know what sort of bloke he'd have been were she not taken from her family when she was, but I do know that he, and his sister, would certainly have been no less than they are now – the absolute finest, the most human, the most empathetic and selfless people you could ever hope to know.

I hope he'll forgive me for making this most personal of entries but, when I've spoken to him about her in the past, I've felt that I've never really been able to do justice to what she's left the world. The highest possible tribute I can pay her is that she, and all her qualities, indeed live on in their hearts.

Hans Blix has the last laugh

So North Korea's 'great leader' departs, fairly prosaically as it turns out, handing the reins over to one of his sons in the bizarrely paradoxical way of Marxist hereditism which characterises the leadership of the place. I shall be re-watching Team America in his 'honour', and urge you to do the same. As a piece of satire, reducing a man whose cult of personality deifies him in his own land to a figure of mockery, it's matchless. But the real world will be watching to find out if the next in line is a moderniser or merely a clone of his father politically, ripe for further attention from Messrs Parker, Stone and Brady.

Team America had Hans Blix's meddling in Kim Jong-Il's affairs punished by his being fed to sharks, of course. In reality the Swede lives on to see, like the rest of us, his puppet nemesis no doubt turned into a god by his cowed people just as his father was. There's an extremely interesting 15-minute piece on the Beeb website at the moment about the country, giving a glimpse into this oddest of nations.

Given the highly militaristic nature of the place (a country of about 22 million people in which the armed forces number over a million!), the outside world is a bit concerned that North Korea is developing (or could develop) a nuclear ICBM capability, so the choice of successor and his likely direction are of considerable interest to other governments.

I've said before that our politicians may be grasping, corrupt, careerist dogmatists, but at least we are free to say as much, and don't have to go and bow before statues of them. We are fortunate indeed to live in a place not governed by people like that loon - I may think little of our current PM, but at least he isn't feeding UN Weapons Inspectors to his pets. Oh, hang on, that was the film, wasn't it? Anyway, you take my point..

Monday, 12 December 2011

The duality of man

Last weekend was one passed in extreme good cheer, spent with 14 friends at an enormous house in Oxfordshire we'd rented for the weekend. We 'Orphans' organise our own Christmas each year, going away for a couple of days to do things our own way before we head to our families. Drink is taken, much food is eaten, music and singing done well and done terribly, real fireplace, the lot. Jolly bally good times had by all. My love, respect and thanks to all who were there, and to absent friends who couldn't make it this time round.

Drama on the way home, though. We'd not been on the road fifteen minutes when we saw, right in front of us, a cyclist sprawled in the road, flat on his back alongside his wrecked bike. The car who'd hit him was just pulling over, as did we and a car behind. We ran to him to find him unconscious and bleeding heavily but breathing. I won't go into too much detail, but while we waited for an ambulance and stopped traffic from ploughing into him (and us), the minutes felt like they stretched into hours.

One of our number was particularly superb in her response. (You know who you are!) I salute her calmness, caring nature and willingness to literally get blood on her hands to help this man. Anyway, the ambulance turned up after what was probably around 10-15 minutes, but felt like years, closely followed by an Air Ambulance, a helicopter which deposited more paramedics in a field adjacent to the road before taking off again immediately.

While the paramedics were tending to the man - 'serious head injuries', 'life threatening', 'not stable, non-responsive' - the farmer whose field the chopper had landed in mooched over for a chat. "Whose idea was it to land a helicopter in my field?" We pointed out that there was a man lying seriously injured in the road and that they put down as close to him as possible. Clearly this didn't satisfy our landowning friend. "I've got animals. They get spooked." I'm not entirely sure why he was directing this at witnesses - perhaps he felt we'd demanded that the thing land right on his field, dropping smoke flares to better assist the pilot in getting exactly the right spot to scare the horses to maximum effect. Obviously, you know those waggish pilots, they did what we asked rather than worry about what was best for the injured bloke. "Who do I take this up with?", mister farmer asked one of the police officers.

The dichotomy of response between my friends, other witnesses there, the medical crew and police, and this totally solipsistic git with not the slightest care for the well-being of somebody badly hurt basically on his doorstep, was startling to me. I assume the bloke will, in the event he ever needs emergency medical treatment, insist on road transport to get help to him, lest his livestock be bothered again. Merry bloody Christmas, mate.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The joys of Parliamentary privilege

The freedom to say pretty much what you want (while staying within the arcane Parliamentary restrictions, of course) at Westminster can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it allows people to speak freely, bring to light goings-on which may otherwise remain hidden from public scrutiny, and can be quite entertaining. But the politicians must be careful what they say, even when they're in a position to speak freely. Tory Health Minister Simon Burns provided a splendid example today of why politicians, in the main, obfuscate, duck direct questions, waffle – all without saying anything of any great substance or answering whatever question they've actually been asked.

This startling piece of frankness, a completely fatuous comment made about members of 38 Degrees (a group of people from all walks of life who have come together online with the intention of letting the voices of the electorate be heard, thereby applying pressure on politicians to listen to them or at least be accountable for not doing so), betrays what some politicians evidently feel about the people they're supposed to represent. The other side of that blade I mentioned, the one which betrays an MP's real thoughts when (s)he temporarily forgets that the cameras are never off, can really cut quite nastily.

I'm a member of 38 Degrees, a group which has had some success in applying, for example, pressure on the government over the proposed National Forest sell-off, mainly through huge numbers of people signing petitions or writing to MPs. Far from being zombies, members are consulted on which issues they'd like the group to focus, and how we feel about the layers within those issues. What's important to us, what isn't, where we think government is right or wrong, or has no choice. Only when there's a clear mandate from such consultations is any specific campaign launched. It's another example of the force for democracy that the internet is rapidly becoming – giving people the means to voice their opinion, and the strength to make that opinion count for something.

Evidently the Minister thinks us plebs are not capable of deciding if government policy is wrong, even if they're broadly backed up, as in this example, by the medical profession which the proposed changes will affect. The people who pay for and use the NHS having a say in how the representatives they elected to manage it do so? That just won't do. Clearly we're just a mindless mob, doing what we're told by pesky, annoying, big mouthed, interfering busy-bodies who just won't let the government get on with it unquestioningly. Tut tut.

Well, Mr Burns (how appropriate – "Smithers, release the hounds..."), get used to it. You're there to represent us, not merely to resent us, and as previous administrations have found out to their cost, if you don't like the electorate having their voices heard, and are happy to dismiss us so casually, you'll find the bill for your arrogance waiting for you at the next general election.

Coogan et al are holding a mirror up to all of us

Steve Coogan's evidence, given at the Leveson Inquiry yesterday, was compelling and damning in equal measure. Compelling because it was, to be fair to him (after he presented himself as a man merely doing his job, saying that fame is a side-effect of what he does, that he'd never promoted himself as a personality per se), an unusual experience to hear him speak as himself. His argument does indeed hold water – how little we hear him speak with the voice of anyone other than Alan Partridge or one of his other characters. It's not Steve Coogan he's selling. So we got a short glimpse into how he sees both himself and the industry he's in.

And damning because, though most people who find themselves well-known through working in 'showbiz' must understand that there will be unwanted attention, he revealed some of the very worst excesses of tabloid journalists in their hunt for 'news' on celebrities. Now it could of course be argued that, at the time the invasions of privacy he spoke of were happening, he'd brought it on himself by having an affair. Personally I reject that view because he's never set himself up as some guardian of, or commentator on, moral standards or behavioural mores, so certainly cannot be accused of hypocrisy. I also personally believe that what happens within (and outside of) a couple's own marriage is a private matter for them, unless they're actively opening it to public scrutiny, as many 'celebs' do, or telling everybody else how to conduct theirs.

That's why it's so important that this whole tawdry mess be unravelled and the perpetrators of what are, frankly, crimes, are brought to justice. Regardless of whether you think he deserved to have his bins rifled through, his phone tapped and to be duped by tabloid reporters into confirming what they already thought, there can be no argument that his then wife was an entirely innocent victim of the whole thing. Bad enough that her husband had cheated on her, she then had to find out, as Coogan put it, 'all the lurid details'.

I wrote on these pages that the News of the World's activities and closure would doubtless not be the full story, but exactly how commonplace it seems to have been, how entrenched in the tabloid press as an accepted means of getting dirt on famous people, is truly astonishing, to me at least. It now seems that the figure quoted early on in this whole affair by Milly Dowler's parents' lawyer of around 7,000 people having had their phones hacked, for example, was startlingly accurate, with the police's own figure coming out at around 6,700. Coogan called the day the NotW closed 'a great day for the press', and railed against the people who came after him, naming some of them publicly in his evidence.

So it is, to those of us who don't like that kind of 'journalism' and don't consume it, extremely gratifying to see the harshest possible spotlight turned on those responsible for producing it. But I can't help thinking about something else I've said on here too. Given how many millions of people do read the celeb gossip mags, do watch TV on the same stuff, did read the News of the World, should we really be surprised that this goes on to feed that appetite? I was shocked at the scale and depth of it, but not that it happens in the first place.

And how ironic that the inquiry into those activities is itself now being lapped up by the public, with the focus of the media of course on the famous people lining up to give evidence. Like opposing mirrors in a corridor, this whole thing reflects itself back to infinity, with us standing right in the middle, watching ourselves get smaller and smaller and smaller. With any luck, Leveson will shatter one of them, and our society will end up with a much clearer view of itself.

Monday, 14 November 2011

I'm an ordinary TV viewer... get me out of here

I can just about see it with X Factor for example, providing you put to one side the preposterous notion that it's a talent show and accept it merely as 'entertainment'. Strictly Come Dancing too, OK, I can see why people like that. But this is both depressingly inevitable and at the same time utterly incomprehensible to me. What the bloody hell do people get out of watching this bilge?

I had the misfortune, for the first time, to catch most of an episode this week. It will be the last time I do. I simply cannot see what's entertaining about watching Z-list celebs, predictably a mélange of on-the-career-down-slopers, people who were famous 30 years ago and people I've never heard of in the first place, subjecting themselves to the ignoble tasks demanded of them by this show. What is anybody, anybody getting out of watching some poor, desperate, overweight, too-many-facelifts luvvie sod dunk their face into a writhing box of cockroaches? I simply can't understand it.

And there's always one person on it who disappoints you by going on there. What the hell does Willie Carson need to demean himself on this for, given the career he had and the esteem in which he's still held by the horseracing community? He can do himself no good on there - he's betting his dignity and it's not a bet he can win on this vehicle.

I also thought that the days of using live animals to create entertainment were largely behind us, so why is it acceptable to watch them eaten alive, crushed, smacked aside, whatever, simply because they're invertebrates? Are the same people who watch this also campaigning against fox hunting? Or telling the Spaniards they can't fight bulls? Morally, what's the difference? Do the producers of TV programmes now get to decide which animals can be disposed of for sport and which cannot?

Throw in those insufferable, smug gits Ant and Dec, and you've got a show which pretty much ticks all the boxes that dictate which TV I avoid. It need only feature contestants sporting Palace shirts as some kind of unspeakable, ersatz uniform, and be sponsored by the latest off-shoot of a mobile phone company (probably some ghastly all-mushroom ready-meal outfit), and you'd have the full bloody set.

But over 11 million people can't be wrong. Can they?

Monday, 7 November 2011

Warsi - what is she good for?

An interesting piece in the Telegraph from Tory chairman Baroness Warsi recently which has prompted some fairly vociferous comment from the British Humanist Association. It's here if you particularly care. What bothers me most about this is not her florid and I'm sure quite admirable sentiments on inter-faith communication. No worries there. Remembering though that she is a Cabinet minister, and while in opposition held the post of Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action, she should really know better than to exclude people without faith quite so completely. A cohesive society should surely, after all, include everybody.

Thing is, she does know better, but she's got form in this area. She's not forgetting us, she's basically leaving us out deliberately because we're apparently not worthy of consideration. Consider her comments at the Conservative conference in 2009 when she called secular people 'intolerant and illiberal', or her speech to Church of England bishops in Oxford in 2010, in which she claimed that “vocabulary of secularist intolerance” exists. She also said that, “those who are religiously observant are more likely to volunteer and give than their non-believing or non-practicing counterparts.” This is, of course, bunkum, by why let an irritating thing like the facts get in the way of telling your audience what they want to hear?

A person in such a position of authority, and part of an elected government, albeit one elected by a minority, should not be so quick to not only alienate but actively dismiss a significant percentage of the electorate. She would certainly do well to remember that the Big Society her party's PM is so keen on looks quite a lot smaller if you strip people out of it who have no religion. She's evidently only worrying about what religious people of one stripe are saying to those of another. Though she may perhaps wish it were otherwise, we atheists are still at least allowed to vote. I hope she thinks about that before she demeans us again so readily in future.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Jim fixed it for him

My friend Mike, a better writer in his sleep, I suspect, than I ever will be even in my better efforts, has placed what I assume will be a one-off entry prompted by the recent passing of Sir Jimmy Saville.

It can be found here, and I strongly urge anybody who enjoys good writing and a bit of nostalgia to give it a read.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Do you think Mail writers wonder why people hate their paper?

The Daily Mail has long been the standard bearer for the very worst, the absolute worst of right wing, intolerant, bigoted, out of touch prejudice peddled as 'old fashioned values'. Far worse than the Sun, because it pretends to be something it isn't, by disguising its vitriol in a more formal tone than is used by the red tops and trying to come across as reasoned and intelligent.

But this article is a new low. At first it appears to be a condemnation of the racism which is still occasionally heard at football matches in Spain. I was vaguely surprised at the tone of the first few paragraphs. But the last lines give away the writer's intent. Basically, all he appears to be doing with that first part is setting up this pay-off, enabling him to say that we're so much better off than those really nasty Spaniards that a couple of black footballers allegedly being racially abused by fellow professionals is nothing to get too worked up about, that they should merely have 'got on with the game'.

I don't even really know where to begin with this. It's a statement of such mind-boggling nastiness that blind fury is the only reasonable response. How the hell does he think such progress in eradicating racial abuse from our stadia has been made in the first place? By tolerating the 'mild' stuff? Those last two sentences absolutely epitomise everything I hate about this disgusting, abhorrent rag. "I know you feel insulted," he says. No you don't, Mr Doughty - only a black person can have any concept of what it must feel like, and though I don't know for absolutely certain, I'd be stunned if the writer of this tripe is black. Only the fictional paradigm of the cowed, downtrodden, Princess Di-loving, white 'Anglo-Saxon' middle Englishman that the Mail so assiduously asserts comprise our population could agree with this, let alone write it.

'Right Minds' the section is called, edited by one Simon Heffer, who should be ashamed of himself for allowing this to appear under his name. "There are worse things to complain about," says Mr Doughty, rather giving himself away. Right minds? Extreme right minds acting as apologists for alleged racism, disguised as reasonable argument, is the truth of the matter. Mr Doughty has chosen to publish this piece before investigations into the allegations have even been completed, so clearly feels that the alleged victims have not been 'abused', regardless of what's actually been said to them.

Fortunately, plenty of people (myself among them, though it meant registering with the Mail Online in order to comment on their articles, which has resulted in me feeling rather filthy and ashamed, as if I'd been caught doing something unspeakable by my mum) have vented their disgust at the thing, clearly showing that word has got round of what's been written. I hope (though have no faith in this happening) that the response of considerably more 'right-minded' people to his piece will make Mr Doughty, and his editor, think a bit more carefully before publishing such bile again in future.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Manner of Gaddafi's death is difficult to feel too sorry about

The 'liberation' of Libya, to use the interim administration's own term, and the resultant capture and on-the-spot execution of the despot Muammar Gadaffi, has been featured in the news as much for the way in which he was killed as for the significance of the revolution itself.

Firstly, I must state clearly that from an ethical point of view it would have been better for justice to be seen to be done 'properly', in an open and fair trial. Of course, the sort of summary justice dealt out to him is not the way to deal with a captured and unresistant prisoner. But the various calls for an investigation by other governments, including those who have been happy to lend military support to the rebellion, rather stick in the craw.

Gadaffi died at the hands of his own people. A people he'd subjugated for 42 years. A people who lived in fear of him, thousands of whom he'd allegedly imprisoned, tortured or killed in the manner typical of tyrants like him. Any trial he'd undergone would have inevitably ended in his death anyway, so what exactly would it have been held for? Would a trial have been put on so that justice be done, or would it only have been to make it OK to kill him, make it official, that with the sanction of a judge his execution would somehow be different? He'd still be dead one way or the other and any trial would have felt, to me, like a salve on the consciences of the states who'd helped overthrow him, killing many of his supporters in the process.

He'd also have been given the opportunity to turn it into the kind of grandstanding farce that Saddam Hussein's trial often degenerated into. And look how his execution turned out - the clamour to kill him, while understandable, was so hysterical that in his last moments that evil, murderous bastard somehow became the dignified one, the only one to come out of the process with any credit. So any judicially approved killing would not necessarily have been much better.

And where were the howls of protest at the execution of other dictators in the past? Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, for example, were executed after a show trial so hastily arranged and carried out that he was dead before the TV cameras could get there to cover the trial, let alone the execution. Not a peep from other governments at the time, as I recall.

So, as I say, I entirely understand that to make the process legitimate, to lend weight to a new regime's judiciary, to see justice administered ethically and to avoid lowering themselves to his murderous level, it would of course have been much better for him to stand trial. But I find it difficult to feel any sympathy for him, and I find it even more difficult to find any credibility in the clamour for an investigation coming from outside Libya. I hope the Libyan people can now be left in peace to find their own way forward, and that they do so peacefully, without the societal divisions that are so clear in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Monday, 17 October 2011

The truth will out. Eventually.

I've written on here before that, for Joe Public at least, there is no power but the vote. Happily, today showed that this is no longer necessarily true, thanks to the power of the internet. As much as it may be used to look at pictures your gran would disapprove of, try to scam innocent people out of money, sell complete tat or waste time by laying out the minutiae of one's life in Proustian detail to an uninterested public, it can also be capable of catalysing great things.

The Commons website which allows people to set up favoured issues which they'd like to see debated, and which, should they pass 100,000 signatures in support, is instrumental in getting those issued debated in Parliament, allowed the reopening of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster debate.

Today, after 22 years of campaigning by the families of the 96 innocents who lost their lives, Theresa May stood in Parliament and promised full disclosure to the Hillsborough Independent Panel of all the documents relating to Cabinet discussion of the disaster in its aftermath. That disclosure should reveal the full truth of the causes, the reaction of police and fans, and the scandalous, shocking rubbing of salt into gaping wounds by a press intent on demonising those supporters, those victims. The families will, hopefully, finally get the full story and have their dead loved ones (and all the other Liverpool supporters there) fully vindicated, as they indeed were by the Taylor Report.

Over 139,000 people signed this particular petition in a short space of time, giving sharp focus to the strength of feeling that's still there, and the number of people to whom this was important. As an example of power, some power at any rate, being put back into the hands of the people, this was outstanding. It also allowed Parliament to show that it hasn't completely forgotten that it's there to serve the electorate, not the other way round, and that it can act as one and do the right thing.

A more comprehensive run-down of the debate can be found here. One poster rightly says that it's a shame that more MPs couldn't be bothered to turn up for a debate which was so important to the public, but I suspect many of them knew that which way it was going. Had there been continued resistance from the Government I'm pretty sure there would have been a lot more there. And the families of many of the dead were in the public gallery to see this important step towards justice for the 96. All in all, a good day for British justice and democracy, I reckon, and it ain't too often you can say that.

Another day to be grateful for

Another wedding on Saturday, and once again I felt fortunate to witness a joyous occasion for two people cut from the very finest cloth. A bright blue sky, entirely cloudless, and unseasonably warm. A reception in a beautiful old manor house, bits of which dated back to the 12th century, right on the banks of the Thames in one of its more beautiful stretches. And, once again, a crowd of good people you felt happy to be part of getting cheerfully drunk and throwing some shapes. (Not me, of course. Everyone knows I don't dance, and in any case I retired to my room with a cocoa at 9pm to read some poetry and meditate. *cough*)

Anyway, here's to you indeed, Mrs (and Mr) R. All good health and happiness to both of you.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

How to react to Knox's freedom?

Hmm. The Knox/Kercher case (for that's what it's become, despite the fact that there were two co-accused in the dock with her, one of whom, her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, has also been acquitted – you'd never know this from the headlines). It's extremely difficult to know how to feel about it. The dichotomy in the media portrayals of her by supporters and opponents has been revealing insofar as, I suspect, the truth of her character lies somewhere in the middle. She and Sollecito were, in the eyes of the media, condemned as guilty from the moment they were photographed canoodling just a week after the murder. Perhaps this condemned them in the eyes of the Italian police as well because, it seems, part of the success of her appeal was that they appeared, during their investigations, to look for clues that fitted their supposition of guilt, rather than objectively consider all evidence as it emerged. They also, in a move which is enough in itself to introduce 'reasonable doubt' to the case, completely botched the handling of the forensic evidence. (I heard on Radio 5 for example, that one of the pieces of evidence recovered from the murder scene, which became central to the prosecution's case, was not put in a sealed bag for 42 days after it was collected. What the hell???)

But aside from the handling of the case itself, there was also the weird behaviour of the accused, manna from heaven to the news media. It does to most people, I imagine, seem odd that Knox and Sollecito behaved apparently indifferently, even oddly, under questioning, but that does not make them murderers. They'll live the rest of their lives, whether they're innocent or not, guilty in the eyes of millions because of that one photo of them which we've all seen.

The truth is, no matter that the police seemed to fuck up the investigation, no matter that you can interpret evidence either way, no matter that it's all too easy to read guilt in oddness, no matter the vehement protestations of innocence or assertions of guilt, there are probably only three people on the planet who know if Knox and Sollecito are guilty – themselves and Rudy Guede, who's still in prison for the murder and whose own appeal failed some time ago. Anybody else who 'knows' is likely deluding themselves. All we can do is hope that the appeals court has got things right, that the murderer is behind bars, that innocents are free. So I hope Knox and Sollecito are indeed innocent, but not because I care about them one way or the other specifically, other than in the abstract sense of wanting justice all round of course. I hope they're innocent because the friends and family of Meredith Kercher, themselves victims of this appalling crime (who have rightly criticised the fact that the victim herself seems to have become a forgotten footnote in the whole thing), are now again being punished themselves, this time with the possibility that two of the murderers of their loved one have walked free.

That is reason enough to hope that justice has indeed been done, because their suffering must be indescribable, and it can only have been worsened by what's gone on in court. However little difference it will make to them, at least if Knox and Sellicito are innocent, it would mean their additional suffering won't have been for nothing.

Friday, 23 September 2011

How many more will it take?

Other than on the issue of only some states imposing it*, I don't propose to have a go at the US's use of the death penalty here – as I've said before on other matters, in a sovereign state, with a democratically elected government, it's not up to us to tell somebody else how to do things in their own country. Rather, I'd prefer to say something about the principle itself.

Troy Davis was executed in Georgia last night after a 22-year gap between his alleged crime and his punishment. There has been widespread protest in and outside of the US about the certainty of his conviction, particularly since 7 of the 9 witnesses who originally testified against him have subsequently retracted their testimonies. I don't, of course, have any idea if he was guilty or not. What I do know, though, is that there was doubt. There was doubt as to his guilt, so the possibility is there that the State of Georgia has killed an innocent man. Putting aside all the moral arguments as to the principle itself for a moment, that possibility, for me, is the single strongest reason not to have execution on the statute book.

How many cases of miscarriage of justice have there been in democratic societies where the wrong person has been executed? How many more must there be before it's stopped everywhere? Look at Britain's record – Derek Bentley and Timothy Evans, among others, paid the ultimate price for crimes they didn't commit, and the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, Winston Silcott and Barry George probably would have done if we still had execution on the statute books in the UK. I could go on – it's not a short list. The risk is simply too great - if even one innocent person is executed by the State, any State, then the price paid for the punishment, deterrent, whatever you want to call it, is too high. And I am part of a significant percentage of the British public, still the majority I think, who do not want the State killing people in my name, which is basically what they'd be doing.

And that moral argument I mentioned? Taken at its simplest, for me, it breaks down to this. You killed somebody. That's wrong – everybody knows that. So we're going to, er, kill you for doing so.

Where the hell is the sense in that?

*You can be executed in 35 of the US States, but not in the remainder. That I simply don't understand, because we don't have the large differences in county administration and legislature that the American states do, so the British mind can't quite get the idea. Particularly baffling for me, for example, is that in 2004, in New York, a section of the state's death penalty law was declared unconstitutional. New York subsequently abolished the death penalty in 2007. I recognise that each state's laws are different so what may be deemed unconstitutional in New York may not even be part of the law elsewhere, but this is a very clear example of the differences I'm talking about that to a British mind are extremely difficult to understand.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Shades of Gray

An interesting piece of utter nonsense on the Beeb's website at the moment. This is one of the more bizarre treatises on the theological/atheological question that I've ever seen, if indeed that's what he's trying to do. It's difficult to tell what his reasons for writing it were, because it's an oddly-structured thing, which bounces from one idea to another a bit, so you'll forgive me if my response to it necessarily does the same.

If you can be bothered to read the whole thing, you'll see that he uses Graham Greene's apparently unusual conversion to Catholicism as his starting point, saying that Greene could not be particularly bothered to remember why he converted, but continued to accept Catholicism anyway. He says that this was partly brought about by 'the challenge of an inexplicable goodness' Greene found in a priest he'd got to know. He doesn't mention if Greene had anything to say on the goodness he encountered in atheists he met, but anyway, we'll leave that for now.

Gray's piece, perhaps in an effort to understand Greene's seemingly odd position, rather meanders on to how it's in fact science, not religion, that's full of myth (on which I'll respond in a mo) and then, bizarrely, this:

"In most religions – polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions – belief has never been particularly important. Practice – ritual, meditation, a way of life – is what counts. What practitioners believe is secondary, if it matters at all."

If it matters at all??! What a piece of complete tripe that is, and it's roundly contradicted in many of the 400-plus responses to his piece, by people to whom belief is a fundamental and extremely important part of their theism. And try telling this to the 'martyrs' who kill themselves and others in the name of Islamic fundamentalism, for example. His next paragraph is also alarming:

"The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn't come from religion. It's an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe."

Writing as an atheist myself, only an atheist could produce such a piece of tosh as this. Of the countless billions of people all over the world who practise a religion, how many of them would even be aware of this 'inheritance'? I rather suspect that most people's religion comes from within themselves, an innate feeling of what's right, or is passed on from believing parents, without the slightest knowledge of the history of scholarly input into the belief system itself. They simply believe, because it feels right to them. It fits. I strongly suspect, for example, that if the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that the existence of God was merely a 'proposition you have to accept', his Church and its followers would be utterly startled at the suggestion that it was anything other than a fundamental truth.

Gray then goes on to basically turn his guns on science. He says that it's a 'vehicle for myths', that humans 'can't overcome the fact that they remain animals', and that 'however rapidly our knowledge increases, we'll always be surrounded by the unknowable'. Well that's the bloody difference between science, and religion, isn't it? How many religious tracts did you ever read which accept that we're animals? Contrast the idea that we're made in God's image with Desmond Morris's work The Naked Ape, for example, which very vividly and readily accepts that we are animals. I have often said during discussions with friends on this stuff that I think we're just 'apes with big brains'. I think he's completely mistaken to believe that humans can't accept this – plenty of us do.

And what kind of 'vehicle for myths' would adopt the fundamental standpoint of 'we don't know, so let's study it and see if we can become any more enlightened one way or the other', which is how I view science? Surely any 'vehicle for myth' would adopt the starting point of certainty and work backwards from there, filling in the back story as it went?

Anyway - Gray is not finished yet. His most bonkers statement, 'humanity doesn't exist, there are only human beings, each of them ruled by passions and illusions that conflict with one another and within themselves', is startlingly odd. Of course we're all filled with such conflicts, but that doesn't mean there's no such thing as 'humanity'. If that were so, nobody would bother with scientific endeavour, or with religion for that matter. We'd all be living solipsistic lives where nobody ever did anything for anybody else, regardless of motive, unless it also directly benefitted them to do so. What a bleak world that would be. Fortunately we don't live in such a place. One thing I do know is that, regardless of whether it's driven by religious belief, innate goodness or whatever, there's plenty of 'humanity' in most people – it's just difficult to define it simplistically. That does not mean it doesn't exist. You see it readily enough when people rally to help strangers in times of crisis, natural disaster etc, where empathy for the suffering of others is felt by atheist and believer alike. What is that if not humanity?

Last point on what he's written.

"Evangelical atheists who want to convert the world to unbelief are copying religion at its dogmatic worst. They think human life would be vastly improved if only everyone believed as they do, when a little history shows that trying to get everyone to believe the same thing is a recipe for unending conflict."

Quite so. But most of us are not doing that. I certainly don't go around knocking on people's doors trying to 'unconvert' them, or whatever you'd call it, in stark contrast to Jehovah's Witnesses, for example. I merely seek to live my life free of the influence and direction of the Church, be it Christian or any other, and have all children left free to decide for themselves rather than be taught any set of religious beliefs as fact during their education. That's not the same as some kind of atheist imperialism.

And Graham Greene? His Catholicism which John Gray finds so difficult to comprehend, and on which he misses the likely reason so completely? I rather suspect that his desire to marry Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a Catholic convert herself, was behind it. An all too human exigency which he himself acknowledged when he said he, "…ought to at least learn the nature and limits of the beliefs she held." But that's clearly too difficult for John Gray to comprehend, so he comes up with this piece of negative drivel in which he both dismisses religious belief and scientific endeavour at the same time. Some achievement, that, Mr Gray.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

I don't know much about art, but I know what I like

My girlfriend showed me this, this morning.

This is the greatest piece of art installation I've ever seen, and it does huge credit to Osaka that they would pay to have such a beautiful thing installed at a station.

Genuinely, I realise it's just a piece of digital genius-ery, but when we can produce things like this, it always makes me wonder how it is we also allow such violence, cruelty and starvation at the same time. What a strange and enigmatic animal humanity is.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Holy cow there are some stupid people about

I realise that footballers are not known for their intelligence. (Bear with me, this is not a post about football posted to the wrong blog.) But this shows one of the particularly stupid ones. In case anybody's not completely aware of what his nonsensical English is trying to communicate, he appears to be one of the numerous people across the planet who believe that the 9/11 attacks were not the work of terrorists, but some kind of giant US Secret Service-led self-inflicted sham, whereby they blew up the towers themselves, killing thousands of Americans and others in the process, faked the planes striking the buildings with holograms or something(!!!) and then laid the blame at Al Qaeda's door to give them a mandate for their war(s) in the Middle East.

The breathtaking stupidity of this belief is hardly worth commenting on. Nor is the smug self-titling of the so-called 'Illuminati', those who smirk at the ignorance of non-believers and think they're in on some giant conspiracy that the rest of us simply can't see. I've got no time for any of that bollocks. Needless to say, his employers are taking a dim view of what he's written, being a) managed by people with an immediate understanding of the suffering of people involved in tragedy and b) owned by Americans, and he's removed the post since it hit the news.

Typical of the attitude of those 'in the know' conspiracy theorists, though, and in a further demonstration of a total disregard for (or ignorance of) the consequences of his comments, he's not exactly backing away from what he said with his later follow up. And here, as well as his stupidity and arrogance, he also brings to the party his complete ignorance of the function and place in society of Twitter. "If you don't like what I have to say un follow me!! Some things get took way out of context...", he says indignantly. What. The. Fuck??? 'Out of context'? It's Twitter, you total dickhead – exactly how were you expecting to contextualise a statement limited to 140 characters? Do you even know what 'out of context' means? And are you suggesting that what you meant was not the message conveyed by the first tweet?

The stupidity, insensitivity and disrespect for those who suffered or lost people in the attack, having to put up with ignorant wankers like him claiming their loss was a deliberate governmental act, really winds me up. Footballers as social commentators – here you see the result.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The one-eyed leading the blind

Came across this on the BBC website. It's interesting to me not so much for the response to the individual himself – bigoted reaction to a person like him is hardly that surprising; there are regrettably too many people about with too much time on their hands, too much ignorance in their heads and too much hate in them to be able to not care about something like his gender orientation. Indifference is, for me, the only rational response to something like this. Why should you care about the gender orientation of somebody you've never met and are not likely to, dancing on a show you've doubtless never watched before and probably won't anyway? I don't understand what people get worked up about stuff like this for, I really don't.

I do though, I think, understand what TV producers get worked up about, and that's what did interest me about this – the way that the company who make this show is clearly using some 'conservative' (hmmm) reactions to him to further its own ends. They are, by extension, using him as well, and he either can't see that or (I hope) can see it but doesn't care, and is a knowing participant in this little circus, using them to further his own 'career' as a celebrity.

This bit is quite a telling example of what I'm on about: 

Dan Gainor, of the Culture and Media Institute, called Bono's casting "a ridiculous, agenda-driven move" by the show's producers. "This is the latest example of the networks trying to push a sexual agenda on American families," he said.

Mr Gainor is quite right that it's agenda driven, but it's certainly not for what he thinks. The only agendum driving the producers is the gimlet-eyed focus on viewing figures and, by extension, profit. They know the value, quite literally, of a bit of controversy and its attendant publicity, and must be absolutely delighted with the fuss that's been caused. This also gives the lie to this bit:

However, Dancing With The Stars' executive producer Conrad Green… added the show had no agenda other than entertainment and was seeking to represent a range of people.

What a load of sanctimonious bollocks that is. They're seeking to get as many people as possible to watch the show and all other considerations are secondary. I bet they all had a bit of a giggle in the production office when he worded that statement.

So this reflects, basically, poorly on both sides, as is often the case. You know that you've got a media circus when the person coming out of it with most credit, playing the defensive mother's role perfectly, is Cher, for fucks' sake.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Shooting yourself in the foot with a starter's gun

The disqualification of Usain Bolt from the final of the Men's 100 metres at the World Championships over the weekend was notable as much for the self-inflicted wounds suffered by television as for the event itself.

The false start rule has been tinkered with aggressively over the last few years, getting steadily stricter in an effort to get sprinters away first time. This is partly about stopping sprinters deliberately false starting as a way of unsettling opponents, but it's also partly about the demands of television companies who, having paid to cover live sporting events, don't want those pesky events interfering with their schedules, and therefore want races to go off on time, first time.

So what we now have is automatic disqualification for the first false start offence. Now, quite obviously, no sprinter is deliberately going to false start now. Any false start is going to be a genuine mistake. No matter, though - the rule makers have had their say. So we had, in Daegu, the ludicrous position of the best known athlete in the world, Olympic champion, world record holder and massive favourite, and the reason people scramble for tickets for the 100 metres, not starting a race which went off late anyway because of one false start.

Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. If this has been done to satisfy TV companies, then they got what they deserved. As usual, the poor souls in the stadium, who'd paid good money to see the best athletes contest the final, did not. Even if you watched the race, can you name the winner without looking it up? If you can, you're better informed than I am. Media coverage of the race has, and will, focus exclusively on a man who didn't even run it, rather than the winner. Such is the sacrifice that the athletes, and spectators, must offer up to the great televisual gods.

Seb Coe, in a fashion entirely in keeping with the head in the sand, 'nothing wrong here' attitude of athletics governing bodies and nicely resonant of his response to the Olympic ticketing cock-up, has said he sees no reason to tinker with the rules for the Olympics next year. In which case, they'd better just hope that there are no false starts involving major names in any of the heats or semis of this competition, or we could end up with an Olympic 100 metres gold won in well over 10 seconds. Hardly blue-riband quality for the highest profile event anywhere in athletics. They really, really need to think about where their priorities lie.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Paralympics may suffer because of the Olympic ticketing farce

This is the last time I'll complain about the ticketing arrangements for the Olympics because I desperately want to write positive stuff about the Games on here in future. But this needs to be said.

Having, as you may have read, secured the grand total of one pair of tickets for an as yet undisclosed first round fixture in the handball, I'm now getting a string of e-mails from the Games organisers about various other stuff (travel, Olympic news etc).

The latest was the announcement of the ticket sales for the Paralympic Games, which almost immediately follow the Olympics. I haven't even bothered to read it. I'm not going to bother applying for tickets for the Paralympics. This is not because I have no interest in Paralympic sport - quite the opposite. It's because I've been so badly put off by the Olympic ticketing arrangements that I have absolutely no intention of repeating the experience.

Once bitten, twice shy, as they say. Given the total shambles which has preceded this, I wonder how many other potential spectators at the Paralympics will be deterred in similar fashion. I'm simply not prepared to apply for loads of tickets, get my hopes up, have money taken for I-don't-know-what, months in advance, only to then be disappointed again.

I still sincerely hope that the Paralympics are as well supported by spectators as the Olympics. Given the passion and love for sport in this country it certainly would be under normal circumstances, I'm sure. But the arrogant dismissal of any dissent about the way things have been handled may just stick in people's throats enough to screw things up, leaving empty seats at venues where athletes who deserve better are doing their thing.

This would be a great shame, but the fact is, the Paralympics could end up paying the price for the Olympic ticketing organisers' hubris, money-grabbing and deafness to legitimate complaints.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Hopefully Big Brother will be considerably smaller this time round

With depressing inevitability, and exactly as predicted on this very blog, Big Brother makes its reappearance tonight, this time within the tawdry confines of the Channel 5 schedule, with a 'celebrity' version launching this evening.

God help us. With a recent bout of societal self-examination following the rioting, I would have hoped that this is the very last sort of thing that people would get behind. My first ever entry on this blog, back in June 2010, bemoaned the cultural bankruptcy and vacuity of this vehicle, but predicted it would be picked up by one of the other channels when C4 were done with it. Channel 5's output is not exactly overflowing with high quality original content as it is, and this will do nothing to raise the bar generally. It seems they're quite happy to recycle Channel 4's rubbish for them.

I sincerely hope that, particularly in the light of the recent trouble, this will bomb completely and disappear from view once and for all. If it does, I know, of course, it will not be as a direct result of what's gone on in our cities lately. But I do believe that such trite celebrity bollocks is one very small reason among the myriad causes that sparked the trouble. Not Big Brother specifically, you understand, but the celebration and elevation of celebrity regardless of the talent or achievements of the people enjoying it, which in turn leads to a sense of entitlement to wealth and fame without any discernible reason for gaining it. Maybe, just maybe, there will be a negative reaction BB in the post-riot television landscape, and it will suffer from its own emptiness.

I'm not holding my breath, though - the fascination some people have for these Z-listers seems endless, and there is talk that Charlie Sheen will be one of the 'guests', which will doubtless draw in those who regard car-crash television and live personal breakdowns as entertainment, just in case he goes nuts. Frankly, I don't care if he starts sawing his housemates' heads off with a butter knife, though I suspect the producers would be secretly delighted if he did. I won't be breaking what's now a years-long habit and watching so much as a minute of it.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London rioters should not be excused by anybody

Anybody who knows me will know that I'm of the pinko-liberal, bleeding heart lefty persuasion. Well in what follows, I make no apologies for sounding like a Daily Mail reader of the worst order.

I of course will not need to inform or remind anybody of the violence going on in cities all over England last night. What I'd like to react to is the bollocks being spouted by some people in reaction to it. Let's be very, very clear first of all. What started as a legitimate and peaceful protest, with a genuine reason for the gathering, in Tottenham has been followed by entirely deliberate, entirely ignoble and entirely inexcusable theft, violence and destruction from kids.

Not disaffected, disengaged, disenfranchised kids, though doubtless there were some with legitimate claim to any or all of those feelings among the number. But what passes for normal kids in large cities these days. Kids who think they're it. Kids who value 'respect', or their own bizarre version of it, and material stuff like the right trainers, the right iPod, the right phone, above pretty much anything else. Just kids - the generation we appear to be bringing up at the moment.

They simply enjoy smashing stuff up, and simply have no conscience or qualms about theft because they live in a society where it has been, for some time in schools for example, unacceptable to individualise punishment. They get away with misbehaving all the time, so why should the last few nights' escalation of that to outright crime be any different in their eyes?

Yet still people seek to excuse them. To pick just one example, Gavin Knight, writing on the Guardian website here, largely gets it spot on with regard to the nature of the 'gangs' that have allegedly perpetrated these acts, but his assertion at the end we are distancing ourselves from the problems of young people who 'desperately need a voice' is frankly laughable. We distance ourselves from them because we are nothing like them. I too am angry - angry at the fear I feel in my own city for the safety of my friends, angry at the destruction, but I don't react in such a manner. Nor do millions of other Londoners just like me, many of whom are fearful and suffering. I don't care if the mindless hoolie dickhead who robbed the injured kid as he was helped to his feet (I'm sure you've seen the footage) has a voice or not - I don't want to fucking hear what fuckwits like him have to say. All he'd do if we listened to him, assuming he could string a fucking sentence together, is seek to excuse himself. Seek to make it somebody else's fault in the way typical of the solipsist arrogance which affects so many of his peers.

If these kids are so deprived, how is it they all have access to Twitter, access to the Blackberry devices by which this mayhem was spread? Did the only gangsta with a mobile go knocking on the door of all the poor kids in the estates to get them together? And what? They all quickly welded pushbikes together like the fucking A-Team in a lock-up, to better expedite their 'insurrection'? I don't bloody think so. Many of them already have the material trappings that are seen as valuable now, but it's not enough. They want more, and they also see a chance to smash some shit up while they get it.

So, on this occasion, I'll hear none of the apologist bollocks. These kids must be made to realise that there are consequences, that there is punishment, for this sort of shit, or it'll go on and on and on.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

What happened to the old journalistic habits?

A story which doubtless plenty of people found amusing in the last couple of days I instead found pretty bloody irritating. Picked up by pretty much everybody, including major and respected news organisations like the Beeb, the Telegraph and others, it was the suggestion that users of Internet Explorer have been shown to have a lower IQ than those of Google Chrome, Firefox etc.

Not a greatly vital story, nor one that too many people will take seriously, but it wasn't that I had a problem with. As I said, pretty much everybody picked this up and printed it, with the research coming from a company called AptiQuant, who claimed to have studied almost 100,000 people to glean the results. It seems it was readers of the item who noticed that this company had only seemed to exist for around a month and used photos of employees of another company entirely. It was clearly a hoax, which pretty much all the media outlets had swallowed.

"Nobody at AptiQuant was available to comment," was a resigned line I read on one of the sites who'd originally run the piece. No, no they weren't, were they? Of course, if anybody had thought to try to elicit a comment, or even check the validity of the tale, with this company before they just ran the thing, they may have rumbled it for what it was and actually been the only one to do so. Instead, in the rush, as usual, for instant news, everybody just pumped it out. An old fashioned journalistic habit of checking the facts before publication could have made a major difference, but those habits seem to have been ditched and the recycling of PR releases and spoon-fed, bite-sized 'news' has taken their place. What an indictment of the modern news media that is.

I've heard it all now

I'm used to smokers' denials of health problems being related to their habit but what I heard today marked a new standard in self delusion, albeit I assume done jokingly. A workmate was grumbling about pain in his wrist. Arthritis, he said. In weather such as today's, humid and wet, it was particularly troubling.

Now I pretty much automatically link any health issue (coughing, shortness of breath, severed head etc) to smoking, just to wind up my colleagues, but the link between smoking and arthritis is genuinely pretty well established. This page, for example, lists a number of studies and evidence. So naturally I said his smoking was exacerbating, and could have even caused, his problem.

Not so, though. My colleague is clearly some kind of arthrological authority, and knew exactly what had caused his condition. Too much table football during his youth. Yep, too much table football. Clearly a far stronger candidate than smoking. What do those doctors know, eh?

Friday, 29 July 2011

1 down, 8 to go

I'm sure everybody saw this story of the kitten which spent an hour in a washing machine in Scotland, only to emerge shaken but alive? An extremely cute little thing, her story was one of the most watched items on the BBC website in the last few days. When they put a film up on the web, they use the same headline as on the main story to caption the film. That resulted in this coming up on the website:

Most unfortunate. They've since changed it - I guess because somebody must have noticed that it makes it look like they eat kittens up there or something...

Oslo atrocity should carry lessons for the media too

Firstly, the thoughts of all of us must go to the victims' friends and families. All respect to the Norwegians for the dignified way they've responded to what must be unprecedented in their history, on their soil at least. But it's the media response, as usual, that I wanted to comment on.

Firstly, our own expectations. After it became clear that this was not a Muslim fundamentalist attack, of which more in a moment, but a Norwegian killing Norwegians, I don't know about you, but I had an expectation of some shaven-headed, boggle-eyed hard case, covered in tattoos and looking the living embodiment of violent fury waiting to pop. What emerged, initially at least, was a faintly pleasant looking, seemingly ordinary kid, smiling back at the camera. Later, the press got hold of shots of him which better suited their imperatives - namely of him holding an automatic weapon - and we got the shots we probably subconsciously expected of him. Once again, the question occurs - did the press print the type of thing the public wanted, driven and encouraged by sales when they've done so in the past, or do they do this regardless, foisting a sensationalist agenda on us whether we like it or not?

Anyway. Whatever mad, unspeakable motives drove such appalling acts, it seems the press had made up their minds what was going on almost instantly, and certainly before the truth started to emerge. Al Qaeda, or some other agent, were certainly to blame. 'Helpers of Islamic Jihad' came up too, allegedly claiming responsibility. News media all over the world were quick to link the attacks to Norway's part in NATO operations in Afghanistan, for example.

I know it could be argued that the media merely observe what's going on and announce it as it happens, so had every right to report the Helpers' claim of responsibility for the attacks. But the fact is that Al Qaeda are now a very convenient bogey man that the press can hang the blame for pretty much anything on while they wait for the truth, or something more exciting, to come out. In the desperate rush to be first with the news, consideration seems to be sacrificed cheerfully. It's clear that atrocities are now being practised on both sides of this extremely ugly coin, by both Muslim extremists and anti-Muslim right-wing extremists. But matters are not being helpd by the fact that, by the strictly dictionary definition of terrorism, the noun at least, the press are fighting for both sides. Scaring people, making them think that Islamic terrorists are everywhere, can strike anywhere at any moment, is merely building them up stronger than they actually are, and doing one aspect of their work for them. Now we've got this apparently lone nutter being linked with the EDL in England. Giving that lot any credibility as a terrorist force is the very last thing we need in a country, and even a continent, already in the grip of the kind of hysterical reaction which inevitably follows such events.

It seems this sort of immoderate, reactionary, sensationalist stuff is far from unique to Britain, looking round at some of the world's press reacting in the first few hours after the attack. Perhaps, just perhaps, if the media took a more considered view of these things, and reported the facts once they'd come out rather than desperately scrambling to get any tosh out there first, the increasingly bitter divisions which are reaving even the most stable societies like Norway may have just a little bit less fire in them.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Not such surprising News of the World we live in.

A word on the News International scandal that seems to be getting bigger, deeper and worse by the day. I won't bother rehashing the details here, I'm sure you're familiar with them, but there's a handy run-down of some of the stuff that's been emerging lately here.

This is, frankly, why I haven't bought or read a 'red-top' newspaper since I was a teenager. They're rags. They have a long and ignominious history of using their reach, influence and contacts for all the wrong reasons, not to mention the access to millions of people which they use to peddle whatever agenda they may have, rather than actually reporting news. It's bad enough some of the stuff they write - just off the top of my head, I recall the Sun's disgraceful incrimination of the Liverpool support after the Hillsbrough disaster, or that same paper dismissing Brighton as a town of 'junkies, homeless people and queers' after it emerged Brightonians were against Thatcher's Tories holding their annual conference in the then town.

More recently there was the utterly scandalous treatment of Christopher Jefferies, a suspect (later completely cleared by police) in the murder of Jo Yeates in Bristol, whom various tabloids all but called a murderer before any trial had even commenced, let alone a verdict reached, seemingly on the 'evidence' that he looked a bit eccentric. I could go on.

So while it seems new lows have been reached lately, I'm not sure that's the case. Raking through the shattered pieces of the lives of bereaved relatives of murdered schoolchildren by hacking into their phones may seem like the absolute nadir of this sort of thing, but I suspect it's just a case of them having actually been caught out this time. And now, it seems, they're beginning to feel the hot breath of public outrage. Finally these practices are being dragged out of the dark underworld in which they go on, into the harsh glare of media scrutiny. Oddly fitting that it should take the media to expose the media's worst excesses, but however these people are made to reap what they've sown, it'll do for me.

But there is a fundamental element to this which, so far, seems to have gone largely unremarked-upon. I'm not really sure the public, or at least that part of it which buys these bloody things and feeds into the process, are deserving of the right to their outrage. As well as the sort of stuff that's allegedly coming to light now, (some) newspapers do have a long history of investigative journalism, exposing malpractice, financial wrong-doing, corruption, paedophile networks, you name it. The contacts, resources, ingenuity and sedulous determination of an investigative journalist can bring any number of such nefarious goings-on to light, and can be a great force for good, but what do we get instead? We find 'celebrities' having their phones tapped to satisfy the constant 'need' for malicious gossip. Journalists following actors around and photographers camping outside their houses in the hope of being the first with the latest nugget of tittle-tattle, and the hacking into voice-mail messages of a young murder victim, to who knows what detriment of the police investigation into her death?

Such are the ends to which these foul means are directed. And the public lap it up. The Sun is still easily the biggest-selling daily newspaper in Britain, and the NOTW, which is at the centre of these latest allegations but doubtless by no means the only one guilty of them, is easily the biggest-selling Sunday. They do this because they're encouraged to do so by people buying them.

Well, finally, hopefully, the way in which this type of 'news' is gathered is being exposed and the response to it is salutary. Advertisers and charities pulling out of association with the News of the World before the allegations are even proven has a satisfying sense of poetic justice about it. I don't for a moment expect this to mark the beginning of the end of the celeb gossip type of news reporting, but it may yet mark a watershed for which the less hysterical elements of the British mass media, and the consumers of it, will be extremely grateful.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Latest piece for Wonderlance is up

A bit dated as I wrote this just before the penultimate Shuttle mission, but with the last one about to launch on Friday morning US time, it's still timely. On the price, and value, of human exploration of space.

Article here.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Olympic ticketing disgrace reaches new depths

Well, with the revelation of what I've been 'lucky' enough to be allocated in the great Olympic ticket Fucky Dip, they've somehow served to make me even less happy with the way things have been done. Having applied for tickets for a wide range of sports, across a wide range of prices, across a load of different dates, I've been given precisely one pair of tickets for an early round of the handball. Nothing else. For the privilege of posting me these tickets, which they won't do until next summer but for which they've already taken the money, I've paid an additional £6. That's about as outrageous a piece of profiteering as you could expect to see anywhere.

But worse - in the same email, there was the reminder that there are 'still tickets available in football, wrestling, handball, volleyball and hockey', and that I can apply for tickets in those sports in the 'second chance' application process in the next few weeks. Well I'm intrigued that there are still tickets left in those five disciplines, given that I applied for tickets in four of them. There is no indication given as to whether the tickets which will be available soon are unallocated tickets from the first ballot, which I simply didn't get, or are new tickets held back from the first lot and only being made available now. Either way, it feels like they're gleefully rubbing my nose in it. My mind again goes back to the insistence of the organising committee that this is a process about which the public know more than any previously. What utter bollocks.

My partner has been similarly 'lucky' to have got two tickets for the closing ceremony. A fortunate woman, yes - plenty of people would be happy to get them, and indeed she is. But she's received absolutely none of the tickets she applied for in the actual events which make up the bloody show that the closing ceremony is closing. So we'll get to watch a bloody great parade of athletes, none of whom she'd have seen in the previous two weeks doing what they came to Britain to do, and possibly some highlights of the whole jamboree on the big screen, just, again, to rub her nose in what she's missed.

So, having completely disenfranchised everybody without a Visa card, anybody without access to the internet and anybody on a low income who would not have money in the bank in advance for these things, they're now going about disenchanting the very people with the actual damn tickets. What a terrific way to make the ticket holders feel good about the whole thing - handing out tickets scattergun to people in some bonkers lottery which leaves football fans watching dressage and archery fans watching wrestling, because that's how the draw came out for them. People will, as is often the way, have to sort this out for themselves, and get tickets for sports they actually want to see, through the ticket exchange website which will no doubt be set up by LOCOG for the ticket holders to deal with a mess which is not of their own making.

What an utter, utter fucking shambles. Expect to hear more declarations of how happy the organisers are with how it's going in the media any day now.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Olympic ticketing farce is a peculiarly British affair

Don't get me wrong - I was absolutely ecstatic when London won the bid for the Games, and I'm entirely pro having them in the city. I even tried bloody hard to work for LOCOG, and almost succeeded. So none of what will follow here means I'm changing my mind about having the Games here - it's an all-round good thing. It'll bring regeneration, tourism, optimism, all the things we all know about, to London. The facilities will be done on time, built well, and they'll be well organised, with an army of volunteers giving up their time to make it happen.

None of that, though, can excuse the shambles that has been the sales of tickets, and the typically British, nothing's wrong, ignore the stench of the dog farting in the room response. I think, in most cases, when you buy a ticket for any event, you want to know only three things: when it is, where your seat is, how much it is. Unless you happen to have been lucky and got a ticket for a final or something, none of those three things are known to anybody at the moment. People left with hundreds, or thousands of pounds taken from their accounts with absolutely no idea what for.

Can you imagine this at Top Shop? Or Sainsbury's? "Here's your bill, we'll let you know if you've got the men's trousers you wanted or a bikini in the next three weeks." You'd tell them to fuck off. Most irritating, though, is the typically British response, which has arrogantly insisted that this is the best way, that in fact it's the best Olympic ticketing process there's ever been. Paul Deighton, LOCOG's Chief Exec, even said, “I don’t think there has been a ticketing exercise where potential buyers have had so much understanding of the process.” Well you could have fooled me, Paul. I have not the faintest idea how much money you're going to take from me yet as, not knowing weeks in advance how much money I'd have in my bank account on whichever random day it was eventually going to be emptied, I had to give them my credit card details. As I don't yet have the statement for the period covered by whenever they take the money, I not only don't know what I've got tickets for, if anything, but nor do I know how much they'll cost.

What I do know is that some people already seem to know what they've got, as there are stories circulating in the media of people who have applied only for men's 100m final tickets, and got them. So how all this constitutes the most transparent, most understandable, fairest way of distributing the tickets is utterly beyond me.

The arrogance, the insistence that all's well, the complete disregard for the legitimate complaints of people who can see the inadequacies of the system, are typical of the response which always seems to come from big business in cases like this. They know they'll sell the seats, and they certainly know they'll fill the corporate seats they've kept back in such numbers, so they simply don't give a shit. That's why they're able to be so complacent, so indifferent to the complaints.

So I'm still looking forward to the Games. I'm still hoping to have got tickets for some good stuff. But there had to be something to make the Olympic nay-sayers feel like they were right all along, and in this case, it's the ticketing.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Praise be

It's not often you'll read praise for the Church in these pages, or for individual members within it, but one member of it I do have a bit of time for is the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his comments, shortly to be published in the New Statesman, are an indication as to why. As a supposed moral guardian, or whatever you want to call him, for our society, I of course have a fundamental problem with him being strongly guided by his faith. But that doesn't, of course, make him always wrong. Some issues are plain to anybody with a functioning moral compass, regardless of the source of the 'magnetism' to which it points.

He's never been afraid to speak out, which is important for a man in his position, but never before has he made such a scathing and wide-ranging attack on government, at least never that I can remember. He's pointed particularly to the coalition's peculiar notion of what constitutes a democracy, given that the government is introducing sweeping changes which, in his words, people did not vote for. I've already, in this blog, had a pop at the government's plans for NHS reform, a direct contravention of a Conservative manifesto promise, and this is one of the plans attracting his ire. But he's also had a pop at plans for education, at the cuts, at their seeming lack of empathy with the public, pretty much everything.

Though I don't expect them to, they would do well to listen to him, or at least pay heed to the fact that he's felt the need to speak out. He may not be my idea of a moral compass, but he is a decent barometer (sorry about all the meteorological devices) of society's thinking insofar as, if he's pointing at 'stormy', they would do well to pay attention. The next general election is already only four years away maximum, and could be sooner if they're not careful. They may not like what he's saying, but they should in fact be very grateful that he's said it. Check out the New Statesman website for the whole thing - they're already on there.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Apocalypse? No.

I'm happy to steal USA Today's excellent headline for my title, after yet another loon, in this case one Harold Camping in the States, disappointingly finds that his 'Bible guaranteed' end of the world has not come to pass.

I always wonder, when things like this happen, in the case of cults or whatever, those that don't kill themselves en masse anyway (such as the Branch Davidians, or those in Kampala in 2000, or the Heaven's Gate cult in 1997), what happens in the first few minutes, the first few seconds, after their promised Rapture fails to happen? How long do they give it? A few seconds, a few minutes? Just in case your watch wasn't set right or something? Do they open their eyes, tentatively at first, to see if the sun's still in the sky and their bodies still very much bound to Earth?

Mr Camping especially may have some explaining to do. He said the apocalypse would come not only on a specific date, but at a specific time - namely, 6pm 'wherever you are'. So, for example, if it hits 6pm in the westernmost part of the planet according to the dateline, was he expecting this Rapture to to start there and then sweep round the planet like the day/night terminator, sticking strictly to a pre-determined timescale? "Can't take these people up yet, it's only five to."

The main problem with this nonsense is not, of course, with Mr Camping himself - he's just one more nutcase who finds himself disappointed to go on living, and can take his place in infamy until the next one inevitably comes along. It's with the poor, deluded souls who swallow it and basically prepare for the end of their lives. There may possibly be some vulnerable people in that group, who have had a genuinely held belief completely shattered and must now somehow just pick themselves up and get on with it. As usual with these things, the people least needing such disappointments are likely to be among those suffering them.

All is not bad news, though. This magnificently entrepreneurial organisation has sprung up in the States to show the world that, hey, not only are we atheists happy to leave you to your belief systems, we're animal lovers too.

What larks. Given their 'unprescedented (sic) demand' lately, I wonder if they'll now be deluged with phone calls from disappointed and slightly embarrassed clients wondering if there's a discount on offer now the Rapture hasn't happened?

My best friend's wedding

I believe this was the title of a rom-com some years back. I haven't seen it, but any film made in that name cannot possibly have come anywhere close to conveying the experience my friends, family and I had over the last couple of days at my best mate's wedding. The reality of the expressions of joy, love and happiness and the depth of feeling for both G and R, and for G's late mum, were far more real, far more moving and far more genuine than any film, no matter how well made, how well written, can possibly hope to communicate.

What an absolute joy it is to spend time with such a crowd, to gather for a wedding of two people I humbly suggest are made of the very, very finest stuff, and to pay tribute to the parents, those still with us and those not, who brought those two up. I don't think anybody takes their friends and family for granted if they have any sense in them, but it's not often that we're gifted the chance to show those dear to us just how much they mean to us, to say it out loud, without sounding like we're pissed and maudlin.

This one had it all. A beautiful venue, full of character, sitting in a glorious spot in the most beautiful county in the country, in my humble and admittedly biased opinion. A day of bright sun, blue skies and cooling breeze, just as you'd order it if you could do any such thing, for an outdoor wedding. Staff and suppliers at the venue who worked bloody hard, cheerfully and flexibly, to help make it go off successfully. A band you should think yourself accursed if you've never seen, with a rapper who'd come from New Zealand, New Zealand mind you, for this.

A heart-stoppingly beautiful bride, a groom loved and respected so very much by everybody there, who spoke so sincerely and so movingly, and a crowd of friends and family of the very finest character. Oh and a sing-song round the piano at the bottom of a grand staircase to round it all off. There was even some booze.

It did, truth be told, at times, feel a bit like we were in a film, though a script writer trying to pitch it may have had it rejected as being a bit too feel-good. Any studio would be right to reject it, of course - it would only make for a pale imitation of the fun of the real thing, and how the hell would you cast Chris M? You could never accurately bring his musical stylings and bonhomie to the screen. Oh, and I seem to be the only person at the gathering who can play neither guitar nor piano. A constant stream of talent lining up to entertain everybody just coz they can and they want to. I was quite humbled by all of you.

To anybody reading this who was there, I don't know about you, but I had a bloody great time. It was fun, eh? Congratulations to both G and R. Have a great honeymoon. I look forward to seeing you two grow old together happily. Or older in your case, G. ;o)

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Imogen Thomas has a strange idea of what constitutes a reputation

No doubt you're aware of the less than edifying case just heard in the High Court in which former Big Brother 'star' (surprise surprise - can there be a more depressing phrase in our modern culture?) Imogen Thomas tried to have a gagging order lifted which had been imposed by a judge at the behest of a top-flight footballer with whom she'd allegedly had a six-month affair. The judge in this particular judgement ruled that the footballer's privacy was guarded under Human Rights legislation. So far so modern day Britain.

But outside the court after the ruling, Ms Thomas complained that her reputation had been 'trashed', and that she'd been 'thrown to the lions'. Well, I've got a few problems with her point of view, frankly. Firstly, she'd probably gone to the Sun with her story, as according to the judge, she had been identified by the newspaper 'probably with her consent'. This is not the action of somebody too desperate to protect their reputation - all you've got to do is keep your mouth shut about your indiscretions. Hiring Max Clifford, as she'd done, doesn't do a great deal for any reputation you may have for a desire to protect your good name either.

Secondly, the judge said there was 'strong evidence to suggest' that she'd tried to blackmail the bloke for £100,000, as he is a family man and she told him she was going to sell her story. (Sound like the 'love' she professed for him so far? No - I didn't think so either). The judge also said that there was evidence the footballer had been 'set up' for meetings at hotels, at which he'd be photographed with her. Thrown to the lions? She'd doused herself in zebra blood, draped a string of impala cutlets around her neck and chucked herself into the den with gusto, if you ask me. She has got exactly what she deserved. And a nice legal bill, hopefully.

A word on the people protected by the privacy injunction in the first place, too. I don't condone or have any sympathy for the man himself, whoever he may be - it's not difficult to find out who it is by looking on the internet, if you care. I don't, frankly. I don't give a damn about who footballers are or are not sleeping with, I really couldn't care less and don't know why people read such stuff. If you have a high profile and you misbehave you know the risk of exposure and public scorn that you face. But his wife and kids are entirely innocent in all this, and an injunction protects, up to a point, their privacy. They do deserve the protection of the law - if Ms Thomas did in fact give a damn about anything but herself, she may have given that some thought.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Lib Dems reaping what they sowed.

Vote Lib Dem, get Tories, wasn't that what Labour said? How little the Lib Dems could have suspected they'd have been covered in quite so much blue when they did the deed, and got into bed with the Conservatives. Having become almost indistinguishable in the eyes of voters from the Tories whose laps they appear to be sleeping in, they were viciously punished by those same voters in the local elections on Thursday.

To entirely alienate your own support is political suicide, but that's what they seem to have been intent on doing since May. Their profile has been sufficiently low that they appear to be simply rolling over and becoming silent, nodding patsies, willing accomplices to the spreading of a virulent strain of neo-Thatcherism. What must have at first seemed to them a chance at a say, a hand in running things, power, could turn into a disaster which will push them further from that power than they've been in generations.

The AV vote turned into a disaster as well, with Clegg ending up being the unwitting standard bearer for the 'No' campaign. And their leader in Scotland has quit in what's been a disastrous week for them. You have to wonder if they're wishing they'd either done a deal with Labour or refused altogether and potentially forced another election. Thing is, in many ways they've got what they craved - a share of power, the referendum - and it's potentially killed them as a political force. Just a reminder that you have to be careful what you wish for. And what you vote for.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Bin Laden's demise not a cause for celebration

These things seem to follow a pattern now, don't they? Every major news event in the world seems to be presented to us as part of a template, both inside and outside the media itself. Broadly, it runs something like: media frenzy in the first couple of days, in this case swamping even the royal wedding, generally accompanied by the first jokes to be circulated around the world in a matter of hours. Then comes the endless round of repeats of the same footage, the same questions, the same information, analysis and speculation from a media that clearly feels it has to extract every drop, out of a story which drops in their laps as this one does, while they can.

Then, of course, come conspiracy theories. He's not dead really - they've got him in a cell somewhere. He's been dead for years. He's actually in the employ of the US as a handy bogeyman to pin their anti-terror efforts against. He's got sick of it, approached the US with an agreement to stop his terrorism and disappear forever if they 'appear' to have killed him. All bollocks, I suspect - what possible motive would the US have to announce anything other than that they'd killed him, if they've done so? Quite apart from anything else it will quench the US public's apparent thirst for justice (revenge?) for the supposed brains behind the 9/11 atrocity.

The slaking of that thirst, however powerful it was, has manifested itself in Americans celebrating at Ground Zero and the White House. While I completely understand that there must have been a powerful desire to get this man, this leaves a slightly unpleasant taste in the mouth. It has horrible echoes of the scenes of some people in some anti-American parts of the Arabic world celebrating the Twin Towers deaths, which quite rightly outraged and appalled people around the world, America in particular. The outrage which greeted those scenes will not be repeated here of course, but it's still people celebrating the deaths of strangers to them. It may be an odd thing to focus on, given the years, resources and lives spent hunting this man, and what his organisation has done all over the world, but for me it's a most interesting human element of the whole story.

Relief that he's gone? Yes. A sense of justification, vindication, even vengeance? Yes. Fair enough, particularly in New York perhaps. But celebration? It just doesn't seem right to me. And what's going to happen now, what further killing, what further atrocities will be committed in the name of vengeance for his death? Another turn of this macabre wheel, another list of innocent names read out perhaps. A cause for celebration it most certainly isn't.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Politicians' conspiracy of silence on AV

On May 5th there's a referendum on what may be one of the most important and fundamental changes to our electoral system for decades, but you'd never know it from the almost complete absence of coverage on it in the media.

I think partly this can be blamed on the almost total silence on it from the mainstream politicians. We were told that Cameron and Clegg, despite their coalition, would be freely and openly campaigning on opposite sides of the argument. Well, having occasionally seen Clegg say a few words on AV, I've seen absolutely nothing of Cameron on the subject. Or Miliband, for that matter.

The fact is that the existing system has served the two main parties rather well over the last few decades, giving each of them long periods in office at various times. I think both Labour and the Tories think that if they say nothing, it'll keep the profile of the forthcoming vote low, and the turnout will be correspondingly poor, giving no real mandate to the winner regardless of the result.

It's got bad enough that I've been picking up any leaflets being handed out on this at tube stations etc, simply to get some information on the arguments either way. I suppose at least, in an environment reasonably free of the mud slinging and overblown rhetoric which often characterises election campaigns, people will be left to make their minds up based on the actual facts offered by both arguments rather than who shouts loudest.

For my own part, I think I'm going to vote in favour of change. The current system does not exactly encourage change or innovative government, leaving as it has done the two main parties bickering like children over ownership of the same stale bag of biscuits which changes hands between them all the time. Also, the argument against it that 'one person, one vote is fair' is frankly rubbish when boundary changes, social demographic distribution and gerrymandering can mean that 20,000 votes in one constituency can return one MP and 3000 votes in a neighbouring constituency produces the same return. If you happen to live in an opponent's heartland you go into the booth knowing that your vote is likely to make no difference.

But the best reason I've heard is that AV reduces the impact of votes for extremist, minority parties like the BNP. That's reason enough for me, frankly.

Will you listen to yourself?

I caught a few minutes of some thing on telly the other day, I know not what programme it was, which irritated me intensely in its format anyway and then left me laughing out loud at something one of the hysterical popinjays on it said.

The segment I caught involved a single dad who dressed almost exclusively in black T-shirts and combat trousers receiving a fashion make-over from what the TV companies inevitably call 'experts' and, worse, his own 9-year-old son. A series of hideous colour combinations and shocking, mutton-dressed-as-lamb clothing choices were considered before they eventually settled on an awful, 70s-style floral print shirt, which peeped out over a mustard coloured tank top under some kind of blouson-style jacket. He looked, needless to say, ridiculous. A 40-something year old of a certain, how shall we say? Of a certain body shape, should not be dressing like that.

He then went on a blind date, during which we were invited to believe that he was taking and acting upon advice given to him by his child, fed to him through an earpiece which his date did 'not know was there'. Only if they were unable to see a bloody great appendage stuck to the side of his head did they not know. An utterly nauseating piece of viewing that I can only assume was aimed at kids, so superficial was it. But it was something said during that earlier fashion makeover section which made me laugh.

As he stepped out of the changing room dressed as I described earlier, and everybody agreed how much better he looked, the squeaking fop who'd been chosen to dress him hung a long-handled man bag over his shoulders with the words, "Now, this is not just for fashion, it's useful too." I almost had to play those few seconds of the thing again to make sure I'd heard him correctly. Was this individual even aware of the words coming out of his own mouth? He was persuading the subject of the show to take it on the grounds that it, a bag, an item designed essentially to carry stuff, could carry stuff in addition to its primary function, which was clearly just to look good.

I realise that this is basically one of the fundamental principles of the fashion industry and an entirely pointless thing to complain about, because it simply isn't going to change, but I just think it absolutely encapsulates beautifully the shallowness and vacuity of fashion generally and, perhaps more pertinently, people's willingness to accept its absurdities unquestioningy. Personally, I'd have told him and the kid to eff off...