Sunday, 30 January 2011

As ye sow, so shall ye reap

What's this? A biblical quote in this most secular of blogs? I haven't gone all theological on you, it was just a thought that occurred to me as I watched Novak Djokovic dismantling Andy Murray this morning at the Australian Open tennis.

Two reasons, really. Firstly, if you are not fortunate enough to have access to EuroSport, and instead relied on British terrestrial television, you'd have thought that the tournament began and ended with the Men's Singles Final. It's the only game the Beeb have shown, and it has to be asked if they'd have bothered doing so had Murray not made it. Djokovic has played some of the best tennis I've ever seen from him during this tournament, the best player in the tournament has undoubtedly won it, but nobody without EuroSport has seen any of it here, which is a shame. Basically, if it's not Wimbledon, or it's not a Brit involved, terrestrial TV in this country doesn't want to know. So we have this two week tennis mentality where it's everywhere in June, but as soon as Wimbledon's over, that's it, odd exceptions like this morning apart.

And as for Murray, I genuinely believe that he fell for all the 'best chance to win a Grand Slam' stuff and underestimated his opponent, a stupid mistake given that they're mates and practice partners. He should know how good Djokovic can be and not assume he's beatable just because his surname isn't Nadal or Federer. But never mind, Murray's quite capable of beating himself - his demeanour on court betrays whatever he's feeling, another mistake which will help any decent player on the other side of the net. I think most tennis fans think it's simply a matter of time until Murray wins a Slam, but it doesn't work like that as Tim Henman, who had a much better temperament when things weren't going his way than Murray has, ably demonstrated with his close-but-no-cigar career.

(Literally as I type this the Aussie presenting the trophy has just said, "Andy, it's just a matter of time before you fulfil your destiny." See? Your destiny, not that there is such a bloody thing, can't beat your opponent for you. You have to win.)

(He's just said it again!)

Anyway, enough brackets. I find myself oddly indifferent to his results. He's gracious in defeat, granted, but on the court he's still some way off having the head to win a Slam, and that makes it difficult to warm to him.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Can't see the wood?

That's because the Government are happy to see all the trees cut down. Or, more typically for the Tories, offloading them so other people can save them the bother of having to do it themselves:

The comment from their so-called Environment Secretary is particularly laughable. Exactly how taking something that belongs to the nation, if nature can belong to anybody, selling it off and just assuming the new owners will have the best interests of the environment at heart (or, worse, simply not caring if they do or not) constitutes an environmental protection brief is completely lost on me.

But this is, again, a move driven by dogma. There is no resource, no asset, nothing that the Tories can't see as an opportunity to flog off to make money. Their idealogical zeal cares for the pounds first and absolutely everything else some distant second. I genuinely think this one has shocked some people, as at time of writing this almost 300,000 had signed a petition against the plans here:

But, though it shouldn't shock people because it's what the Tories always do, I think that voters have simply forgotten what it is they put in power when they vote for this lot. The very best possible scenario that can come out of this is that, assuming the new owners do not want to actually level the bloody forests, they protect their 'property' and fence it off, restricting access to everybody else. The worst case scenario doesn't bear thinking about. Remember that the Government are also 'giving local planning back to the people' (ie divesting themselves of that responsibility as well) so the protection afforded forestry by planning decisions made at a national level could disappear if a community sees an application to 'develop' a forest as essential for the local economy, regardless of how short-sighted it may be.

Where the hell are the Lib-Dems in this? I haven't heard a single dissenting voice from them. Is the outward unity of the coalition really more imporant to them than safeguarding our national forests? They really have sold their souls if it is.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Wonders will never cease

So Sky have done something, at least about Andy Gray. He's been sacked, as evidently he has a bit of 'previous' with this sort of thing which they clearly acted upon pre-emptively, lest it damage their reputation even further.

I've already commented on what actually happened so will just say here that I think a shake-up of their coverage is long overdue anyway and this may be the start of it. It certainly will be no weaker for the loss of Mr Gray, who perhaps needed a 'transfer' elsewhere anyway, after so long with the same outfit.

It remains to be seen what will happen to his partner in crime, Mr Keys.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Sexist Sky-nosaurs

I realise that this is a football-related comment and many will think its place is on my football-specific blog, but this addresses a wider issue so I'm putting it here. Many of you will doubtless be familiar with the leaked conversation between Sky presenter Richard Keys and his analyst colleague, former pro-footballer Andy Gray. In case you're not, in an exchange in which they believed their mics were off, before Sky's coverage of Wolves versus Liverpool on Saturday, they considered the appointment of a female linesman;

Keys: "Somebody better get down there and explain offside to her."
Gray: "Can you believe that? A female linesman. Women don’t know the offside rule."

Then, later, Keys: "The game’s gone mad. Did you hear charming Karren Brady this morning complaining about sexism? Do me a favour, love."

Well, do me a favour, boys. This exchange took place before the game, a game in which Sian Massey, the linesman in question, distinguished herself by getting the major decision (every game has one), from which Liverpool scored their first goal, spot on. But no matter - she'd been weighed, measured and judged by the two 'experts' on her gender alone, before a ball had been kicked.

The fact is, she'll have gone through exactly the same training, assessment and fitness regime as the men, or she wouldn't be there. All the fans want is competence. Frankly, they could put a trained gibbon on the bloody line, as long as it gets the big ones right, I wouldn't care and I suspect most others wouldn't either. I didn't hear the ref and linesman (both men) who missed a stick-on penalty during the Blackburn-West Brom game get stick for being blokes, despite showing a level of competence some way below that of Ms Massey.

I'm a footy fan, not some great gender equality polemicist, but this is absolutely typical of my main gripe with Sky these days. Keys and Gray exemplify the lazy, complacent, old boys' club attitude that seems to come across from them during their live games especially, in stark contrast to their superb coverage of cricket, or Jeff Stelling's excellence on the Soccer Saturday show on Saturday afternoon. But they've dominated live football coverage for so long that they clearly see themselves as part of the establishment and consequently obviously think they can behave so smugly with no fear of any backlash.

I'd sort of expect it from Gray, given the era he played in and the almost exclusively male world in which his entire career has placed him, but Keys in particular should know better, working as he does at a company which employs some excellent female broadcasters. Perhaps Sky should consider moving Georgie Thompson, who knows her sport inside out if her appearances on League Of Their Own are anything to go by, onto the flagship live football coverage. She'd certainly not hamstring it with the sort of glib complacency that his exchange with Gray typifies.

But I'm not holding my breath. The next time they appear on TV together, as no doubt they will, I can't see Sky actually doing anything about this after all, they'd better at least look like they mean it when they say sorry.

Friday, 21 January 2011

The Italians do scandal MUCH better than us...

I tell you what, the scandals sweeping Italy about their PM's alleged indiscretions make our Politicians' infidelities and foibles look positively prosaic. Not for Snr Berlusconi some middle-aged, John Major and Edwina Currie type affair with a colleague's wife, kept quiet until you were safely out of the public gaze. Oh no. He goes for a 17-year-old 'It-girl' widely known as 'Ruby the Heart-Stealer', a proper name for a PM's mistress if ever I heard one.

If you're going to lose your iron grip on power due to a sex scandal, you might as well go the whole hog and have the world find out that you wanted her dressed as a nurse, and that she'd get 'as much money as she wanted' to keep quiet. Nope - better go on telly and refute every single lurid detail, one at a time, just in case anybody in Italy hadn't heard them all. And she, of course, is just the latest of a string of them.

I realise that I probably shouldn't find this quite as amusing as I do, given that it's yet another example of a man in power abusing his position monstrously, and especially given the age of the girl involved. But when a man who's already legendary for his infidelities and crookedness still tries to retain power when it's come to this, frankly the only recourse you have left is to laugh at him.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Keeping out the Joneses

You may recall my entry on that nutcase Terry Jones, the American pastor who threatened to burn a copy of the Koran. Well, it emerges this week that he's been forbidden from entering Britain by the Home Office. I wasn't even aware that he was coming here in the first place, but he had evidently been planning to speak to a "right-wing group" (BBC's words) called 'England is Ours' at a rally in Milton Keynes. Just what we need - nutters like him preaching to large numbers of the converted about the 'evils' of Islam. That'll really help inter-faith and race relations in this country. I freely admit to knowing nothing about them, but I suspect the aims and likely membership profile of a group calling itself by such a reactionary and insular name would not fill me with warm and fuzzy feelings either.

I wouldn't usually condone the quashing of the right to freedom of expression, but in this case, I'm happy to make an exception. Abu Hamza was prosecuted, among other things, for stirring up racial hatred, so it's only right that the opposite end of this particular extremist spectrum should be prevented from doing the same thing. The danger that impressionable and/or ignorant people may listen to such extremism is too great to allow it to be heard, frankly.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Cameron's spots the same as Thatcher's stripes

So David Cameron wants fundamental changes to the NHS which will, among other things, create more 'competition' between it and private medical services, and which have been branded as little more than privatisation by critics. Leaving aside the commitment in their coalition agreement with the Lib Dems, in which they said, and I quote, "We will stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care," this is a bizarre concept to introduce to a publicly funded, not-for-profit organisation, the sole purposes of which should be to care for ill people and offer preventative advice. Exactly what sort of competition does he envisage?

"Undercut BUPA for a week's stay in intensive care and win a year's supply of Walnut Whips! You could even, if you perform exceptionally, win some medical equipment!!!"

We have, of course, yet to see the full text of the proposals, but I simply can't understand how you can introduce competition into an organisation like the NHS. Is it to remain free, apart from the bits you have to pay for? But never mind, according to Cameron on the Today programme this morning, the NHS is 'second rate' anyway, so any change is bound to be an improvement. Again, I quote: "I don't think we should put up with a second rate - with coming second best. We should aim to be the best."

See, that's where the NHS has been going wrong all these years. Instead of all the people who work their arses off within it wasting their time and energy caring about patients and making people well, they should be focusing on being better than Germany, or Spain, or Italy's medical care provision. That's what's really important.

So, Cameron will doubtless press on, trying to take the Lib-Dems with him. He clearly knows his stuff - I had no idea he was a medical practitioner, but evidently the negative comments from the Royal College of GPs and the BMA, apolitical organisations both, that the changes are unneccessary and savings and improvements could be effected without such drastic changes, have made little impact on a man who obviously knows better than they do. The plain fact is that the Tories will push on with stuff like this regardless of the advice from significant sections of the medical profession because they're idealogically compelled to do so. They can't not, because the NHS is one of those organisations that they simply can't understand. It's not there to make money, it's not there to make anybody rich, so it's an utterly foreign thing to them. A bizarre, huge, complicated abstraction that clearly does something, but the arcane depths of its function and its reason to exist are utterly opaque to them.

This hasn't changed since Thatcher's time and never will. I'm pretty sure that if it wasn't such a hugely important national institution that millions of people rely on, they'd ditch it altogether, and leave us with something like the American model, where you need a credit card when you need an ambulance, or you rely on charity. They know that would be catastrophic for their vote, so they can't take it that far and have to come up with some sort of fudge which satisfies their dogmatic impulses but can be twisted to sound like improvements to the service. The new caring, sharing Tories? Bollocks.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The horror, the horror

In an utterly bewildering process which entirely passed me by, I've been set up with a Facebook account by my girlfriend. I've not done this with any intention of actually doing whatever people do while they're on Facebook and fully expect a flurry of shocked e-mails from people who never thought I'd do such a thing. Indeed, literally within moments of the thing being set up I had 18 e-mails to my personal address, about a week's worth under normal circumstances!

It's rather been set up for the entirely selfish purpose of drawing attention to this, my blog. And, even more self-indulgently, occasionally the pieces I write for Wonderlance. I have no real intention of 'passing the time' or whatever, on the thing. It was, in fact, instructional to me to see just how many people were on it at any one time. I do hope that nobody is bothered by the messages she sent out when she set me up - I'd wanted it to be as passive and unobtrusive as possible but the e-mails currently piling up suggest it hasn't been exactly how I'd hoped.

Never mind - I've passed over to the dark side and it's too late for me, my son. We'll see what effect it has on the numbers passing through here and whether my sceptical mind can be persuaded of the benefits of having done what everybody who understands social networking much better than I do has been urging me to do for some time.

On the Tucson shootings

I don't propose to retread the details, they're extremely easy to find all over the news media. Rather, this is a personal response to yet another mass shooting incident in the States on Friday.

A look through the American news media's analysis of the reason for the incident, rather than the analysis of the actual events, reveals a lot of soul searching about whether American politics has become 'too heated', and in particular whether the right-wing rhetoric from the likes of Sarah Palin (not just her necessarily, but it's her name that's coming up most frequently) is encouraging this sort of thing, however indirectly.

What strikes me, as usual in cases like this, is what's missing. I have yet to come across, in the mainstream news media, any mention of their gun laws. It's not, of course, for me to suggest how the Americans should legislate in their own country, their constitution and legislature is their own affair, but what I will say is that to English eyes, the lack of a really visible debate on a national level about gun control is bewildering.

How many have to die in incidents like this before this even becomes a matter high up on the national agenda? I realise they've got plenty going on to worry about but the American response after cases like this always leaves me bemused. Take Charlton Heston's response, for example, after the Columbine massacre. He suggested arming teachers and banning trench coats, which could conceal weapons.

What the fuck? I realise he was a spokesman for the NRA so was hardly speaking from a neutral position, but this is utterly stupefying. His suggestion for dealing with a High School shooting involved bringing more guns onto campus? And is the gun so sacrosanct that talk of banning it cannot even be countenanced, while at the same time he readily advocated banning an item of dress? Why can one thing be banned but the banning of another not even be up for debate?

Like I said - as a sovereign state, the US legislate as they see fit within their own borders. It's their right and their problem, but, again, this veneration of the Second Amendment, which was first laid down in a very, very different world in 1791* seems, to outsiders, very strange indeed when you see a Tucson, or a Columbine, on the news.

*The validity of using the Second Amendment as the basis of the right to carry a gun outside an 'organised militia' is still a matter for legal debate within the US, as even a quick research of their legal history will show. Indeed, there is also historic legal debate even about the definition of the words 'bear arms' and what it means in practice.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

What lies beneath your feet

I think one of our cats is trying to kill me. The little kitler* just made her closest attempt yet to trip me at the top of the stairs and send me plunging to my death. She then, like most assassins I assume, left the scene as quickly as possible and assumed a practised look of complete innocence.

I'm not certain what brought this on, but I have one suspicion. In these straightened times it has proved necessary on occasion to serve own-brand cat food rather than the gourmet variety which 8 out of 10 cats are said to prefer. (How they go about asking these cats and gleaning their responses has never been made clear to us, but I'm prepared to accept their statistics).

Tonight was one such occasion and, just perhaps, said cat's measured response to being fed less than tip-top quality scran is to attempt to KILL the man who served it to her.

*I didn't invent this term.

Odd where you find things that wind you up

It was no surprise to me to receive at Christmas two copies of The Queen's English, and how to use it, a book titled in such a way that nobody could be in any doubt as to its subject matter. It's a handy guide to correct grammar, punctuation, clarity, brevity in English, you know the drill. The sort of thing I'm happy to see on bookshop shelves.
(I also strongly recommend Lynne Truss's excellent Eats, Shoots and Leaves, in a less formal but equally informative, similar vein).

Within its pages, though, offered as an example of excellent use of English, with which I have no argument, there was a passage extracted from an angry Reverend Doctor Peter Mullen's letter to the Daily Telegraph, in which he rages at the beaurocracy foisted upon him by the Church of England. In it, he says,

"I am trying to be a priest, but I haven't time. When I was first appointed vicar... the diocesan annual returns were on one side of A4. Nowadays, the annual returns are a foot thick and a bundle of perfidious obscurity, hedged about with health and safety and absurd questions about light bulbs, and serious enquiries as to what the PCC is doing to reduce our carbon footprint - all because the Church has taken up the pagan fantasy of global warming."

I suspect regular readers (Fred in Cheltenham, if I can steal from Les Dawson), will know which bit of this I have a problem with. I don't, as I've said, have any argument that it's well written, but the gall in a representative of the Church calling global warming a 'pagan fantasy' is so outrageous I haven't quite got the words to adequately describe it. Just to be clear, you think an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity created the universe and everything in it in six days (He had a rest, remember). That He sent an angel to tell a virgin that His son was coming to Earth through her, a son who performed miracles like raising the dead and rising from his own grave, and then ascended to Heaven, and will yet return. I could go on - you get the whole faith idea, no doubt.

However, the scientific reality of the slow (but accelerating) rise in global annual mean temperatures - a pattern which has been, and is being measured and tracked as a fact - and the overwhelming evidence of changing weather patterns, a retreating ice shelf, melting glaciers and everything else, that's a fantasy? Fucking hell. Perhaps my definition of faith is awry, but I had rather hoped that a religious faith would not blind people to scientific reality, still less persuade them to dismiss other people's beliefs as 'fantasy'. Pot, kettle, black.

I sincerely hope he's just enjoyed the coldest December Britain has had since records started being kept of these things, which will in no way be related to climate change, of course. I've probably said before in these pages that atheists are frequently portrayed as arrogant in their certainty. I would present Reverend Doctor Mullen's letter as evidence that this criticism can equally be levelled at the theologists.