Friday, 21 December 2012

On this day to end all days...

...apparently(!), here's what's been on my mind in the planet's final moments.

Starting with a serious note, it seems that the latest gun atrocity in the States has been sufficiently shocking that, finally, there may be some real debate on gun control. The President is openly supporting a ban on assault weapons which, while hardly a cure-all, would at least be a start and suggest the conversation was beginning to happen. Let's hope some small good comes out of what has been an unimaginable horror for those of us detached from it.

But turning to the forthcoming apocalypse (as I write there are just a couple of hours to go). It seems there are now two mountain redoubts built by aliens to shield the believer from the end - one in Serbia, one in France. The small French village at the foot of one of them has had so many visitors (over 10,000!) that they've had to seal the area off and the Mayor had called for people not to go there. This raises questions:

How are people supposed to get into the hideout once they get there? How does one enter a mountain? Is there a door? Some sign, invisible to those of us who think these poor souls are deluded nincompoops, pointing the way?

What do they think they'd emerge into? I've read tales of the end coming about in various ways, from another planet hitting us, through rapture to zombie apocalypse (which plenty of people seem positively itching to happen). What exactly do those, assuming they'd got in, think there'd be left to come out to? Would you even want to?

Anyway. I was thinking about all this in the Post Office queue the other day, as you do. I was waiting to collect a parcel that they'd been unable to deliver, and it being near Christmas - why are people bothering? The world's going to blow up. - there was a bit of a wait. So I perused the various posters etc., adorning the walls. One of them, helpfully, informed one that the little cubby-hole from which undelivered parcels could be collected would be open extra days and longer hours in the build-up to the festive period, in order that people could 'collect there parcels' (sic).

This at the Post Office. The very deliverer, at least until recently, of the written word no less. Makes me wish I were sealed in a mountain sometimes, it does - fair gives me the shivers.

Happy apocalypse, all.

Monday, 10 December 2012


I've had to leave this one a couple of days because it made me so angry that I couldn't trust myself to write about it either coherently or, frankly, within the bounds of the libel laws. So I hope that what follows is at least vaguely cogent.

I've always hated prank calls. Always. That whole type of comedy escapes me completely, and hasn't been funny since it was new, Candid Camera style. But that was basically sixty years ago. All the modern incarnations of that type - Fonejacker, Dom Jolly, Gotchas and the like - I can't stand them. They irritate, humiliate people, get their laughs at others' expense and, worst of all, simply aren't bloody funny.

Or at least, worst of all up to now. Now, of course, as part of the fall-out from such a 'prank', a nurse is dead at her own hands and two DJs in Australia find themselves suspended, vilified worldwide and accused of having blood on their hands. Called murderers, even, by some of the more hysterical posters on the website, Twitter feeds and Facebook page of their employers. Advertising suspended as sponsors rush to pull out. Threats against the two DJs and the digital security of Austereo. They've paid a high price for this phone call.

Not as high, of course, as the now bereft family of Jacintha Saldanha. It may well be that she was suffering with mental health issues beforehand. It may well be than any other person answering the phone would not have reacted in anything like the way she did. The tragic outcome could not possibly have been foreseen, 2Day FM's owners said. No, no they couldn't. But, quite apart from the fact that they're not funny, they're tasteless and they're unoriginal, that's exactly why you shouldn't do these things in the first place. You don't know who you're dealing with. You don't know how they'll react, what sort of trouble they'll have to deal with in the aftermath, when you've got your laugh and hung up.

All you can do, if you go ahead anyway, is accept the consequences. 2DayFM may rightfully claim that the extreme consequences couldn't have been predicted, but it's not inconceivable that anybody falling for their jolly jape could have lost their job. They must have known this would cause a very large fuss - this is the Royal family, for fuck sake.

Their protestations that they couldn't know what was coming ring pretty hollow, regardless of how truly they may mean them, especially in the light of their previous in this regard. Their licence has twice been placed on probation under threat of closure, and another of their efforts went horribly wrong when a 14-year-old girl revealed live on air that she'd been raped when she was just twelve. Then there's Kyle Sandilands, responsible for that poor girl's revelation, who has a string of misogynist, hateful and generally unpleasant incidents behind him - calling a journalist a 'fat bitch' and the Australian Highway Patrol 'scum' live on air among them. So I don't think it's being unreasonable to expect a modicum more care from the radio station when they're considering something like this.

Have some compassion for the DJs, I've been told. They didn't wake up that morning intent on killing somebody. They're distraught, beside themselves at what's transpired. Well, yes. Perhaps in time I'll feel some compassion for the two, who must indeed be feeling absolutely terrible. But just at the moment, rightly or wrongly, I think that's exactly how they bloody well should be feeling. And, but for the fact that it would only put people out of work who had nothing to do with it, I'd be pretty pleased if their wretched radio station closed down as well.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Scouts' honour

A welcome bit of news to update a piece I wrote a few weeks ago about George Pratt, the eleven-year-old thrown out of the Scouts for being an atheist.

It seems the Scouts are reconsidering their position, and are thinking about amending their pledge to recognize that some kids have no religious affiliation. I applaud their willingness to at least talk about it, and can only hope the change is pushed through. I'd be very happy to withdraw my criticism of any organisation that shows right-mindedness in this regard, and open their doors to everybody. Fair play to them.

Let's see if it actually happens - perhaps Master Pratt would do them the honour of rejoining, if, ironically enough, he can practice one of what is supposed to be the main tenets of Christianity, and forgive them what they've done.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Countdown to the apocalypse

This handy countdown clock has been set up on the interweb for those wanting to keep tabs on how long Earth has left. It seems the world is to end, as 'predicted by the Mayans'™ at 11.11:11am on 21st December, so any plans you had for Christmas you'd better not pay for up front, people.

I have questions, of course. Why such a specific time? Were the Mayans getting their predictions mixed up and confusing the end of the world with the Armistice? How's it going to happen? Does that time represent merely the start of the end of the world, or is everything simply going to blink out of existence at that precise second? Does anybody really believe that's going to be it?

The answer to that last one is, of course, regrettably but rather inevitably, yes. Check this page out. It brings news that the Russian government has had to make official announcements on the matter, and various cults around the world are no doubt preparing for the end. Among my favourites, though, is this lot. Their enigmatic leader 'AB' suggests he doesn't necessarily believe in this end of the world, of course, but he is preparing for an inevitable something. He does acknowledge, though, that some of his group do indeed think that 21.12.12 is it. How exactly those members are preparing to survive the end of the world, one can only guess at. What I imagine is the usual assortment of kit for survivalists – tinned food, water, a gun, an underground shelter and some warm weather clothing – are not going to get you through the planet exploding.

Anyway, with end of the world dates piling up (remember Harold Camping, whom I wrote about earlier this year? He's finally knocked it on the head, but others will no doubt be along in his stead in due course.), pretty soon we're going to have to count down to pretty much any date you care to mention if we gather them all together.

I'll see you, if not before, on the 22nd.  :o)

Thursday, 29 November 2012

On the response to the Leveson Report

After months of investigation, interviews with hundreds of witnesses, and a pretty thorough investigation into the practices of the press in this country, the Leveson report was predictably damning. Also predictable was much of the response to it, particularly from within Westminster. To, very, very briefly summarise the report's 2000 pages, the stuff which seems to have been picked up for highlight is:

A new regulatory body, entirely independent of the government, of serving newspaper editors and of business, should be established.

Some politicians have been much too close to the press.

Press behaviour has, at times been 'outrageous' (see below).

The report is critical of the relationship between John Yates (former Assistant Commissioner at the Met Police) and some elements of the press.

Interestingly, possibly anticipating much of the likely response to his report, he also suggested that legislation should enshrine in law the obligation on the government to protect the freedom of the press.

There are also, of course, ongoing criminal cases with regard to some of the practices that have been uncovered recently, which could add further context to anything Leveson says.

So, what we've got is a call for regulation to punish press excesses, but a recognition that the press freedom which is so long-standing and so valued in this country is to be protected. And a bit of a bollocking for their conduct, of course:

"There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist. This has caused real hardship and, on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained. This is not just the famous but ordinary members of the public, caught up in events (many of them, truly tragic) far larger than they could cope with but made much, much worse by press behaviour that, at times, can only be described as outrageous."

I entirely agree that the freedom of the press, so easy to take for granted when it's such a fundamental part of our culture, must be protected. But it's possible to rein them in without damaging that freedom. It would not be difficult to frame some kind of legislation compelling retractions and apologies to be published on the same page, at the same size, as the original story if that story turns out to be false, for example. This would still leave papers free to publish the stuff in the first place, but would perhaps make them more careful to check their facts (a sadly forgotten old journalistic habit anyway) before they ran something. Or perhaps moderate their tone when they run something which basically calls an innocent man a murderer before any trial has been conducted, to cite just one of their recent shameful episodes.

Anyway, needless to say, the politicians have been prompt to respond. Cameron, in typical Tory fashion, has been chief among them in urging caution in implementing legislation. God forbid a Tory government ever had to actually be responsible for something. To be fair to him though, he's accepted most of the report's findings and called for prompt action, as have all the major parties. But he said in his Commons statement that statutory regulation would make the country 'less free'. A glib generalisation, for me, though it's very gratifying to hear politicians of all stripes arguing against regulation of the press - the debate in the Commons this afternoon was pretty intelligent and reasonable by their usual standards, which goes some way to showing how importantly this issue is viewed by all sides of the House.

Clegg, a Liberal in both senses of the word, felt sufficiently differently from the PM to make his own statement, rather than let Cameron speak for the coalition as a whole. He felt the proposals for legislation were workable, and that the press had gone too far to be trusted to act responsibly in future without them.

If I've understood the proposals correctly, it seems that any legislation would only underpin the authority of the new, independent regulatory body, it would not regulate the press itself. For me, the press have pissed away the rights and privileges of 300 years of complete freedom by using those freedoms as an excuse for some of the most outrageous, immoral and apparently illegal practices in the hunt for sensationalist bollocks. With digital media threatening the printed press much worse than any legal responsibilities ever would, that behaviour is not likely to change if it isn't forced to. It's time to do something - like Clegg says, the 'worst thing would be to do nothing'.

Leveson's lessons must be learned, for the good of our society as a whole. Let's hope they are.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Doing your bit

That most unseemly of modern-day phenomena, trial by tabloid, has plumbed new depths this past week. A certain Phillip Schofield somehow managed to make himself look like a complete tit and make David Cameron look good with his utterly ludicrous effort to ambush the PM on TV. He is, obviously, being heavily criticised for it from most quarters, but the damage may already have been done. "Paedo Tories outed on TV," screamed the Star, in typically measured tones.

As a result, senior politicians have been forced to defend themselves against this worst possible accusation from a man who freely admitted he'd just got the list off the internet. The same man who, when equally baseless rumours circulated around a decade ago that he was Jason Donovan's partner, dismissed them as 'just rubbish you find on the internet'. How times change, eh, Phil?

Cameron's response was admirably restrained, to be honest. In hitting out at the move, he urged people to think very carefully before making such accusations about people without evidence, and of course, that such accusations should be made to the police.

With the Leveson Inquiry now formally closed for new information 'except in exceptional circumstances', it's a pity Schofield and/or This Morning's editor can't be dragged in front of it to explain themselves. It was a horrible, base and idiotic thing to do, which could have ruined the lives of anybody unfortunate enough to find themselves on such a list. Schofield and the editorial team should be utterly ashamed of themselves.

I would never usually advocate such a thing, but there is a demonstrable need for legislation to stop this type of gutter journalism. It's particularly outrageous from a publicly funded organisation, by the way. The Beeb's DG has resigned this past week in the swirling scandals generated by Jimmy Savile and a subsequent piece on Newsnight which made similar, if probably better-worded accusations about a senior Scottish Tory. He, perhaps alone in this, has acted honourably - it's time for others in the press to follow his example and have a look at themselves.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Can't please everyone, can you?

It seems the re-election of Obama to the Presidency in the US has not made quite the positive impression on absolutely everybody that it may have done on some of us.

Everybody's favourite bad-haired billionaire Donald Trump can only be described as less than pleased by the outcome. He didn't hang about in expressing his opinion as to the outcome of the thing, and it was quickly picked up by the world's media. An example of the response here, with much of what he said, but to pick out a couple of favourite highlights:

"Lets fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! The world is laughing at us."

"This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy! Our country is now in serious and unprecedented never before."

Hmmm. Those pesky democracies which, when the result doesn't go your way, aren't democracies, can rather wind up somebody who thinks that their wealth gives them the right to do what they want, can't they? Surely, since he's quite so rolling in cash, the universe should arrange itself as to his wishes. I certainly know what I'm laughing at.

The very mechanism by which the American people have decided their own short-term political future has him screaming like a spoilt child. It's quite amusing - partially stymied in Scotland by locals who didn't want a golf course, and wind farm and hundreds of homes on their doorstep, and now again in his home country by the votes which are among the few things he still can't buy. Lovely.

As for the content of his rant itself - if anything, the world is in fact, I think, drawing something of a collective sigh of relief. With all the pollsters claiming it was too close to call, the voters in the end gave Obama a reasonably comfortable victory, and a firm mandate to at least try to make some of the real change he's been striving for. With Congress and the House of Representatives so split it's difficult to see how he'll ever be able to get anything too radical through, but at least he's still there to try.

As for Romney, you have to wonder how much some of what he, and other Republicans, have been saying lately has worked against them. I've written in recent entries on some of the scandalous comments coming out of the Religious Right's mouths lately - just maybe they stirred something in more rational-minded people and got them out there to vote.

Whatever actually settled it, I'm glad it's gone the way it has. These are unstable times and the last thing I personally wanted to see in the White House right now is a right-wing religious fundamentalist on some kind of modern-day political Crusade. Let's all hope Obama doesn't squander the opportunity the voters have given him, with any luck getting up Mr Trump's nose again in the process.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Just like buses

You wait months for these, think they're dead and buried, and then two come back in consecutive days. Flush from having a story published online yesterday, I've just been told that I've actually won fourth prize in this competition, which I entered back in summer. Or 'summer', as it's now known this year.

I can't point you to the story itself yet, as it's going to be published (in print!) in an anthology of the best entries. But I can tell you how gratifying this is, and what a spur it is to get writing again when the inspiration to do so had gone missing these past couple of months.

When the story's out, I'll point people in the direction, if anybody's interested.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

We should all feel the loss of a good man

Some time ago, I wrote an entry about a woman I'd never met, the mother of my best friend since childhood, taken by cancer when my friend was still a teenager. Just yesterday that same friend also lost his father, again to cancer, and finds himself parentless at just 41.

I cannot begin to imagine the pointless fury I'd feel at such indifferent cruelty on the part of an arbitrary, mindless disease were the same thing to happen to my parents, but, having spoken to him, I know he'll deal with it stoically and with fortitude that would probably be lacking in my own case.

His dad was an old-fashioned gentleman (I mean that as the highest possible compliment) of the very strongest morality. Fiercely independent, private, stubborn (though always with a glint in his eye), his sense of right and wrong could be absolutely relied upon. I first met him when I was just just a kid, and his character and innate goodness were obvious even to my ignorant then-16-year-old eyes. That did not change right up to the last time I saw him, just a couple of weeks before he passed away.

He and his 90-odd-year-old neighbour, also a widower, looked out for each other right up to the point where neither of them could do so any longer, and he talked eloquently to us, the next generation down, about what he'd seen and done.

When somebody good, somebody who's left, particularly in his children, something positive to the world, is lost to it, we all lose something. I have nothing but admiration and respect for his memory, and can only pass on my sincerest condolences to his extended family. Most particularly his son - my mate - and his daughter, both astonishingly strong, exemplars of care and attention that they've been. They were both with him right to the end. He can have asked for no better company during his last few days - my heart goes out to them.

I've had a short story published

The lovely people at Wyrd Books, who specialise in gnosis, the supernatural, the inexplicable, have been kind enough to publish a short story I sent them. The way their site handles text has made line endings, italics etc a bit awkward, but the words are all there.

If you're interested, you'll find it here.

I have short stories entered into various competitions all over the place, but this is the first I've had any kind of success with. I'm clearly some way from being of sufficient standard to actually be published in print, but I'm nonetheless pretty happy that somebody in the professional writing 'industry' saw something in this piece, at least.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Not all are equal in His sight, apparently

It may be a recurring theme on these pages but there was, in the news this week, yet another example of religion being used as a discriminatory tool. George Pratt, an eleven-year-old who'd been a Scout for some ten months, has basically been thrown out as a result of his atheist beliefs.

I happen to disagree with the premise of Ally Fogg's otherwise excellent article in the Independent on this matter - I do think this is a call for faith rather than a call for obedience. His refusal to take the Scouts' oath on the grounds that it requires duty to be sworn to God seems to be the sole reason for his exclusion. This after ten months with the organisation with no reported trouble. I accept that people may ask why he'd seek to join a body whose aims and values he does not share, but the fact is, he does share many of the values of the Scouts, or he wouldn't have been with them for ten months.

In response to asking why he'd want to join, all the other shared values would seem sufficient to me. A modicum of flexibility on the part of the Scouts may be in order, too, if they want to admit kids who are genuinely keen to join. But this one value seems to be the one which matters more than all the others. No matter how well he's done, no matter what he's brought to the group and they to him, out he goes.

And on that flexibility; the Scouts allow children of other faiths to take an amended version of the oath, replacing 'God' with 'Allah', for example, for Muslim children. Fair play, so they should. The fact is, though, that they would not dare exclude somebody on the basis of their religion. Religious kids are protected from such discrimination, while atheist kids are not. So faith, any faith, gets you in - or simply being prepared to stick your hand in the air and lie while you take the oath, pledging to do your duty to a God you don't believe in. That'll get you in too. It seems the Scouts would rather take a chance on having a kid like that in their ranks than let somebody in who has the principles not to take their oath under false pretences.

Their loss, as far as I'm concerned. They've lost a bright, obviously intelligent (other interviews with him reveal he's thought about this carefully, having been left to make his own mind up by his parents), morally upright kid and made themselves look like an anachronistic, discriminatory laughing stock in the process.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Sometimes the blogger's work is done for him.

One of two things is happening with what I'm about to describe. Either the extremist elements of the Republican Party are a rich seam of material for Joe Blogger, or they're in fact supreme self-satirists, taking us all for a ride and having a quiet laugh when they read what's said about them. I can't help but think that such a sophisticated sense of humour is probably beyond people like those in what follows, though.

Both these stories are new news to me, so forgive me if I'm late to some internet party that everybody else is already enjoying, by the way. Our first comedian to step up to the mic is Congressman Paul Broun who, on September 27th made this speech to the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman's Banquet. It's only a minute extracted from the whole thing, but it may be worth pointing out that the Congressman sits on the House of Representatives' Committee on Science, Space and Technology. That's Science, Space and Technology, just in case I didn't emphasise that sufficiently. Go and have a quick listen. I'll wait here...

Heard what Congressman Broun had to say? Yep - you heard it correctly. Evolution and the Big Bang theory are "lies straight from the pit of hell...". It's all coming right out of Satan's gob, through his obvious agents like Steven Hawking, Einstein et al, with the specific intention of depriving what would otherwise be God-fearing people their place in heaven. It may be worth repeating - that's the House of Representatives' Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Mr Broun should be congratulated for inveigling his way into a den of what's very obviously minions of Mephistopheles. Know your enemy, Congressman.

Anyway, who's next? Oh yes. Charlie Fuqua, Republican candidate for the Arkansas House of Representatives. A man with some excellent form behind him, having already called for the expulsion of Muslims from the US and described slavery as a 'blessing in disguise', he really is almost living up to my imagined pronunciation of his surname. The bulk of the Republican Party having swiftly distanced themselves from him on that one clearly has not discouraged the man, though, and more power to his elbow for going the extra mile in the name of extremist lunacy with his latest endorsement of the death penalty for 'rebellious' children. Marvellous. He is, of course, being a Christian fundamentalist, strongly pro-life. So a clump of cells is sacrosanct from the moment of conception, the preservation of which beyond the choice even of the mother, but once born the child, should it turn out a bit naughty, is fair game.

These would be funny if they were not quite so genuinely held beliefs, and, more worryingly, shared by what I hope is a small but vocal number of other people. It's that, and the fact that the Republican Party itself has sought to condemn outbursts like these from extremist nutcases, that convinces me these are not engaging in some great joke at everybody else's expense. They're just dangerous, fundamentalist loons who happen to be in politics.

Edit: Added Thursday October 11th.

Today's Republican 'Loon of the Day' award winner is Wisconsin state representative Roger Rivard, with his "some girls rape easy" comment. He seems to be a man who doesn't know, once he's opened up a nice hole for himself, when to stop digging. Here's what he had to say. Twice.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Running out of stuff to sell, George?

I've written on here in the past about the dogmatic determination on the part of the Tories to sell off absolutely anything. Anything they don't want the bother of running, anything they think they can make some quick cash from, anything they can use to please the Thatcherite economists in the party, is ripe for selling.

Now, it seems, even our rights can be sold off. This piece of nutcasery is the latest example of the sort of thinking that goes on in the Cabinet, and further evidence that they simple cannot think of anything but money. Money will sort everything out - if only employers could treat people like chattels, free to dispose of them as and when they see fit and for whatever reasons, then there'd be more businesses starting up and more jobs available. Terrific!

Of course, given the likely Ts & Cs on those jobs, and the type of people you'd be working for if they only started a business on the understanding that they could just ditch you whenever they felt like it, who's going to want those jobs? Perhaps we should set a price on our dignity as well, maybe we could sell that off, and then feel free to go and work for these Victorian-style workplace despots the Tories apparently so admire.

We're talking about loss of redundancy cover. Loss of the right to fight unfair dismissal. Doubling the amount of notice of return to work from maternity leave. Other details are patchy. And companies, while unable to force existing workers to sell their rights, would be free to offer only those terms to new employees. This is, frankly, absolutely staggering.

Over-reacting? Think of the money? Not only is this piece of lunacy another tacit admission of the failure of their economic policies (people are so desperate for money that they'll sell off their basic employment rights! Yay!), but what bloody good are shares in a firm which has sacked you and gone bust, only to then rise again as a Phoenix company? Not an inconceivable outcome.

There must be rank-and-file Lib Dem members (and voters) with their heads in their hands at the moment. How did they ever end up in bed with such a crew of right-wing, thoughtless, uncaring, patrician nincompoops as these? This would be laughable if it were not quite so insidious. Osborne, not that he ever feels any such emotion of course, should be hanging his head in shame. Even if he can't see the moral wrong in these proposals, surely, surely he could have seen how they'd be received by normal working people? I despair sometimes, I really do.

None so blind

Extremely interesting reality/documentary hybrid on the Beeb last night. In Conspiracy Road Trip (an odd title, but what the hell...), comedian Andrew Maxwell travelled the American heartland with five British creationists. He was, it seems, trying to show them the veracity of the theory of evolution by introducing them to a series of scientists who would present their evidence for it.

The five were also asked to speak, one at a time, to the other four to outline their own feelings on the matter. What struck me was not so much the unshakeability of their beliefs - it would be a poor theologian whose entire belief system collapsed over a few days aboard a coach in such circumstances - but the apparent lack, in one or two of them, of the values they all purported to hold dear.

We had four Christians and a Muslim; two women, three men. They were variously presented with evidence from paleontologists, geologists and historians, for example a string of hominid skulls found in one, one-mile deep rock seam in a single African valley. Theories and explanations bounced back and forth - interesting stuff. In some cases, though, their faith (or simply their human prejudices) completely blinded them.

When discussing the beginnings of life on Earth with a professor of astro-physics, for example, the Muslim lad, Abdul, claimed he 'liked science', but then went on to decry it, saying that, " should not present things that they don't know the same way that they present things they do know. It's a sleight of hand..." This, of course, completely misses the point of science, which to my knowledge has never done any such thing. It's called a theory of evolution for a reason. From Darwin to modern scientists, the word 'theory' is still stuck in front of it. Why is it OK for religious adherents to view their great religious texts as literal, perfect and unquestionable truths but cry foul at the very idea that science may present anything as 'fact'? Far better the openness about areas of ignorance which is what science actually presents us than the closed-eye certainty of creationism.

The oldest of the group, a chap called Phil who'd taken it upon himself to be their father figure and spiritual guardian, was a fine example of Christian hypocrisy. One of the girls, Jo-Jo, admitted she wasn't much of a church-goer, as she had trouble reconciling her beliefs with the tenets of the Church. Her best friend, for example, is gay, and she "wouldn't change him for anything." The fact that she was asked about this led to Phil accusing the director of being a 'bully', calling him a 'disgusting human being' and a 'pathetic director'. He then (having checked first with the preacher that the church they were about to attend wasn't a 'gay church'), took the opportunity during the service to tell the group not to talk about homosexuality and the Church. "If the subject comes up, don't go near it...," he told the others. "Just turn to the camera and say you're being bullied. We're here to talk about evolution and creationism."

He was asked, outside the same church, if he'd directed the group on what they could or couldn't talk about. He flatly denied doing what he'd just been filmed doing. 'Disingenuous', Maxwell called it. Lying, I call it. There was only one bully on the trip, and it certainly wasn't the director. Phil, it seems, saw all scientists (even the devoutly Christian paleontologist who saw evolution as God's work) as part of some grand conspiracy to deny the 'true' age of the Earth (6,000-odd years) and bring about a Godless way of life. He criticised the fact that no 'creationist geologist' had been brought on the trip to question the scientists' evidence. Evidently he saw the point of the show rather differently to the producers, and perhaps also knew he didn't have the intellectual wherewithal to contest their claims adequately. He also showed just how much he loved his neighbours, and how much forgiveness he had in him, by refusing to speak to the girls for some time afterwards because of their reluctance to toe his line.

As it turned out, the two women at least showed themselves open-minded enough to want to 'do some more research' in one case, while Jo-Jo said that though her faith was unshaken, " doesn't mean that God couldn't have caused evolution. I'm not wanting to be closed off. There's too much evidence." Fair play to her - I have absolutely no doubt that her life was enriched and broadened by the experience, without her faith having been shaken in the process. I very seriously doubt the same can be said for Phil.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Welcome to reality

An outstanding and humbling piece of TV last night. I strongly recommend that you catch Welcome to India on the Beeb's iPlayer if you can, before it disappears. The first in a series of three, it was a programme that would have shown even the most stubborn of ingrates counting their blessings in western Europe.

Some startling facts emerged from this programme - that some 17% of the world's entire supply of gold is in the homes of Indian housewives, for example, a figure to exceed the combined total of the reserves of the UK, the US and the IMD. Gold, in fact, featured heavily in what followed. The wealth stored up in that total is not, does not, of course, filter all the way down the production chain.

We were introduced to the lads who smelt gold in very small quantities on the rooftops of Calcutta houses, mixing the raw materials by hand. Raw materials which included strong acids and liquid mercury. They 'cleaned' their hands by rubbing them against the nearest wall, taking the top layer of skin off in the process.

Further down the scale, though, were the lads who leave their single-room dwelling, which fifteen of them were sharing, at 3am to go to work. Walking the (briefly) quiet streets of Calcutta at this hour, past the dozing bodies of countless hundreds of people sleeping out in the road (any one of whose stories could surely just as easily have been told), they swept up the dust and shit (literally) from the road in the gold district and processed it, looking for the tiniest flakes of gold. Hunting for dust-sized flakes from people's skin or clothes, they eked a living from the street.

One entrepreneurial chap had decided the drains offered better opportunities, as so many people wash in the road that there must be gold down there. Standing in a culvert that was basically the size of an upright coffin, shovelling black mud, rubbish and sewage into bags to sell on to larger-scale operators, they formed part of an economy in which two-thirds of the country's GDP is 'off the books'. With his meagre income he and his friends had, through their willingness to stand neck-deep in filth every day, earned enough to rent a room of his own. One room, about the size of a British box room, in which he and five or six others would be able to live happily and escape the prison of fifteen-to-a-room rented accommodation he was used to. I could not even begin to adequately describe the toilet facilities. Our entrepreneur, though, was a very happy man with the new arrangements.

There were other stories. People living in shacks of bamboo sticks and plastic sheeting, trying to grow fenugreek on the beach or run an illicit bar, dodging council demolition trucks intent on destroying their homes. Lads selling pirated books to people in cars, dodging traffic on the busiest main roads in the city and sleeping in the park. None of these people complaining about their lot, all of them quick to smile, all looking out for each other.

I will make a point of watching the other two programmes in this short series. My girlfriend and I were looking at each other during this first episode, marvelling at how extraordinarily wealthy, how incredibly fortunate we are. But for an accident of birth any one of us could just as easily be living the same life, or worse, as those featured. I urge you to catch this if you can - as well as a lesson in our own good fortune, it will also serve as a reminder that for all the mindless, vacuous, tissue-thin celeb-obsessed bollocks that's on telly these days, it's still capable of pedagogical and emotional power.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Trial by media

I have no doubt that you've seen the allegations being made about the late Sir Jimmy Savile in the press lately. I don't propose to lay them out here - it's easy enough to find them. His family are, needless to say, not happy about it, and I can see why.

History is littered with tales of posthumous trials. Perhaps the most infamous of them is the 'Cadaver Synod' – in January 898, Pope Stephen had the corpse of his predecessor, Formosus, dug up, propped up on a seat in court in full Papal regalia, and tried for perjury. Formosus was found guilty and stripped of his Papacy, some seven months after he'd died. (He must have been gutted.) It's one of the more bizarre episodes of post-mortem justice in history, but serves as a handy reminder of the pointlessness of trying somebody when they're already beyond punishment.

That's particularly true when that trial happens not in court, but in the media. This particular kangaroo court can be held openly as there's no possibility of the accused coming to the stand, no jury to prejudice, at least not in court. I can't understand the timing of it – surely in a case like this, it would be better to make the accusations while the subject of them is still alive? As things stand, Mr Savile cannot defend himself, he cannot be punished if he actually committed the offences alleged, and if the allegations are true then the victims must go on suffering knowing that nothing can be done to bring the perpetrator to justice.

What, then, is the point of making the allegations now? I've already heard, in discussion of this, that somehow he was regarded as above punishment because of his fame, should any allegations have been made while he lived. The alleged victims therefore felt it was either pointless or, worse, risky to speak out at the time. This strikes me as unlikely – these days fame seems to expose people to greater scrutiny, greater punishment and greater opprobrium than would be the case if they were unknown (though there will always of course be some people who believe their idols incapable of doing wrong). I can't see how his fame would have protected him, should anybody have chosen to speak out sooner – quite the opposite in fact.

It's a horrible, horrible case because now either the man's name is being dragged wrongly through the mud or, much worse, a despicable set of offences has gone completely unpunished. Pretty damn grim all round – I bet the red-tops are absolutely loving it.

Child-free flights

Saw this story on the Beeb recently, and it reminded me of the last flight I took, just over a week ago. It was absolutely full of kids – at least 35 of them. Since the airline I was flying with boarded 'people flying travelling with young children' after those who'd paid extra to get on quickly, there were no more than 30 or 40 of us left to board when they'd all got on.

Now I usually sit as far away from any kids on the flight as possible, but since they were everywhere on this one, there was no such escape. I had to sit with a child, a girl (don't ask me how old she was, I have absolutely no idea how to place kids' ages), right behind me. Let's guess that she was around six, though I honestly have no idea. She was, in fairness to her, as good as gold all flight. The same cannot be said for the much younger sprog at the back, still a babe in arms, who absolutely screamed his/her lungs out for the entire flight. I'm talking 35 minutes' delay sitting on the tarmac before taking off, then 2 hours' flying time, then the taxi to the terminal. This kid absolutely went for it from the off, and his/her commitment to bawling for the duration was total. Add that gob to the general cacophony of other kids on the plane, and I'd have gladly paid considerably extra to take a flight without them.

So here's my idea on how you handle this:

Any route with more than one flight per day has one of those flights made 'no children'.
(One flight per airline per route).

Punters wishing to take that flight pay, say, £20 on top of their ticket for the privilege.

Those £20s collected are used to buy kit for the other flights, full of kids, to make the kids' journey more comfortable for them. Any oddments that will shut kids up for a couple of hours; toys, alcohol-infused dummies, whatever – I have no idea what they'd need. (Can you tell that I'm not a parent?)

Or those twenties could be sent to childrens' charities.

Happy days. I wouldn't make this compulsory, of course – that would be discriminatory against people with kids. But I wouldn't mind betting that any airline which introduces a child-free flight will fill it pretty promptly, even at higher prices than the other flights. I'd certainly be buying.

Anyway, on my flight Baby Big Lungs eventually quietened just as the seatbelt signs were switched off and people started to get up to collect their stuff to disembark. Such was the number of kids on the flight that the crew felt obliged to ping the cabin with a message to ensure that all children were supervised in the general mêlée getting off the plane. That kid behind me clearly felt she was being hard done by, having behaved more or less immaculately for the whole flight. 'Supervised?' she said loudly, in an outraged tone, and got a laugh from the whole plane.

Big Lungs was clearly outraged as well because, at this, clearly having had enough of a breather, he/she switched the foghorn back on and started screaming again. It was a joy to get into the peace and tranquility(!) of the passport queue. Like I said, child free flights – where do I sign?

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The first counter-blows have been struck!

Those who know me will immediately recognise how pleasing I find this story from the Beeb today. I complain fairly frequently about our complicity in the Americanisation of our language, and my workmates take great delight in trying to get a rise out of me by using American words and American pronunciations at every possible opportunity.

It's an old joke that the UK and US are two nations divided by a common language, but for a long time it's felt that the weight of change was very, very heavily in America's favour, an inevitable consequence of the widespread British consumption of US mass media. So it's nice to know there are a few little counter-jabs scoring in our favour at the moment.

Number one target should be the execrable word 'tuxedo'. If we can get them calling those 'dinner jackets' then we really will have landed one right on their linguistic solar plexus, and perhaps have done something to hold back its apparently unstoppable infiltration of our spoken and, worse, written language. I'm not holding my breath though.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Time and a place

I've just been through Piccadilly Circus on a bus, on the way to work. At all the exits to the tube there, and on the street junctions, were groups of young lads and lasses dressed in Santa Claus outfits, handing out flyers.

Now, speaking as a lover of Christmas, I find this irritating and slightly depressing. Can we not be allowed to live our lives chronologically correctly, as the occasions actually fall? Christmas in September, Easter in February, school uniforms being plugged the moment the summer holidays start (how I hated that as as kid...) There are weeks between, for example, November 5th and Christmas, during which time thoughts can more reasonably be turned toward it, I think. At least by then it's dark and cold, as it's supposed to be at Christmas. This morning was pleasant and sunny - the Piccadilly Circus girls, for example, were wearing those 'sexy' Santa short skirts and stockings, which I could not see them being so cheerful in come December.

But since we're busy moving everything forward in the calendar, why stop there? Let's all go to the beach in January, and demand birthday presents 9 weeks in advance. Why not turn up for meetings days before you're supposed to? Can we please be allowed to enjoy the last few rays of the sun before we start putting twinkly lights up?

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Justice for the 96

Back in November of last year I wrote this piece, on the successful efforts of countless thousands of people in applying sufficient pressure on the Government to fully disclose documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster.

Those documents would not ordinarily be released for another 7 years, and their content shows that there are plenty of people with good reason to wish they hadn't been. Many of the families, and many within the football supporting community as a whole, have suspected all along that there was a cover up of the facts of the case. But just how shocking some of the revelations are has led to the Prime Minister standing in a packed and silent House of Commons to offer a formal apology for what he called the 'double injustice' of the original disaster and subsequent smearing and blame of the Liverpool fans.

Some of the main points raised by the independent review, but never published before today, include:

  • New evidence about how the authorities failed, including documents which show a delay from the emergency services when people were being crushed (evidently up to 41 lives could have been saved if the emergency services had acted differently)
  • Shortcomings in the response by the ambulance service and other emergency services in addition to failings by police
  • Rescue attempts were held back by failures of leadership and co-ordination
  • Victims' families were correct in their belief that some of the authorities attempted to create a "completely unjust" account of events that sought to blame the fans
  • "Despicable untruths" about the behaviour of fans were part of police efforts "to develop and publicise a version of events that focused on allegations of drunkenness, ticketlessness and violence"
  • Police officers carried out police national computer checks on those who had died in an attempt "to impugn the reputations of the deceased"
  • 116 police statements amended or shortened to remove negative comments about South Yorkshire police's handling of the incident
These quoted from the BBC's website. 

23 years of campaigning for the truth are finally over, but this must not be the end. The findings of the original public enquiry must be quashed, and the people who have lied, the people who have covered up, and the people who have blamed the fans must be punished. The police's part in this must be revealed to the full glare of public scrutiny, and those responsible both for exacerbating the disaster and then smearing the victims in the aftermath must be punished.

I particularly want to see Kelvin MacKenzie sued for what he did. "The Truth", screamed his despicable rag, The Sun, while the victims still lay in the morgues. Liverpool fans caused the crush. Liverpool fans robbed the dead. Liverpool fans spat at, abused and urinated on police officers. It must be true, right? Football fans - tribal, snarling, atavistic scum, right? The Sun said it was their fault, and millions believed them. All now proven, as has been said all along by those who were there, to be utter lies. His former paper's forthcoming apology will cut little ice in Liverpool, where sales of The Sun have never recovered after what they did, and never will.

I want to hear Thatcher apologise for basically demonising football fans for years afterwards, choosing to believe the lies of a police officer over what eye witnesses were saying, and for her government's refusal to properly and impartially investigate what happened.

There is no sense of celebration, of course. The families and friends of the victims have vindication but not yet the full justice they crave. But they will. As I said back in November, the truth will out in the end. Tireless work by campaigners, notably among them Andy Burnham MP, who deserves great credit for his determination on this matter, is finally going to get justice for the 96.

It's not just footballers who should learn an Olympic lesson

We've all seen the pictures of the Chancellor being booed heartily by the crowd in the Olympic Stadium when he took part in a medal ceremony. The reaction of most people seemed to be amusement and it is, in fairness, always slightly funny to see a politician getting the bird when they stick their head above the parapet.

But the Tories should be careful to heed what was a pretty emphatic warning. The sound did not come across as a few malcontents - it seemed as though the entire stadium, 82,000 people, were joining in lustily. That is a significant and representative sample of the electorate they have to face at the next general election, letting a deeply unpopular Chancellor know what they think of him. Not that I believe it was an entirely party political thing - witness the reception Cameron and Boris Johnson, Tories both, received at the parade of Olympians outside Buckingham Palace on Monday 10th.

Rather, this was, I believe, a firm statement of the distaste people feel for a man who's making savage cuts to budgets across the public sector, across services that affect everybody, and ignoring the howls of protest that he's doing so too quickly and too deeply. The reshuffle (or rearrangement of the Titanic's deck chairs) they just undertook left Osborne bizarrely unaffected. He seems absolutely bomb-proof, of all the possible candidates Cameron could have moved. I don't know if this represents blind faith in their dogmatic approach to spending policy, blind faith in Osborne himself or simple, stubborn stupidity.

Whichever it is, the Tories may find out to their cost just how heartfelt those boos were, how indicative of the strength of feeling against the Chancellor, if they do not heed them.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Humbling experience at the Paralympics

Sunday was spent at the Paralympics, in the Olympic Park, on a day pass secured by a mate. They've worked things a bit more informally for these games than they did at the Olympics - £10 gets you into the Park, and you can then watch any sport at which there are seats available. This does not, regrettably, get you into the really popular events like the velodrome or the athletics, but it still represents bloody good value. I'm pleased to report that the Park was absolutely swarming with people - the British have clearly embraced the Paralympics just as they did the Olympics.

If any of what follows is patronising to the people about whom I'm writing, I humbly apologise, I certainly do not mean it to. I was particularly keen to see wheelchair basketball - it looked brilliant on the trailers and I hadn't got into the basketball arena when I'd been to the Olympics before. It did not, needless to say, disappoint. A decent crowd in a towering, steep-sided arena, seats with terrific views at no extra cost to the tenner you'd paid to get in, and the same sort of enthusiasm and excitement which characterised the Games a few weeks ago.

What was different, of course, was the athletes. Seriously, sitting there watching them was an awesome experience, in the genuine and true sense of the word. What else can you feel for the Italian basketball player, no legs, only one hand, tearing about the court and scoring baskets? I can't begin to imagine my own response should I find myself wheelchair-bound but I'd be absolutely chuffed with myself if I showed even 10% of the determination and drive that these athletes have. Sitting there with a beer in my hand, knowing my own portly body does no more than play a bit of footy on a Tuesday and get dragged to the gym when I'm not feeling too lazy, makes you sort of wonder what the fuck you've been doing with your time, and how much you take your own body for granted.

The Italians won that one, anyway, leaving a South African side yet to taste victory in the competition, but the honest truth is, I couldn't have given less of a damn about the score. I was, and here's the bit in which I may unwillingly patronise the players, thoroughly bloody impressed with all of them.

Same goes for the wheelchair tennis doubles I also saw. A British side, enjoying the same sort of support all the British Olympians enjoyed, defeating a couple of Canadian lads in straight sets. I've never watched competition tennis, so have no frame of reference with the non-disabled professionals, but what I saw had pace, power and intensity, with one of the British lads in particular showing a deftness of touch on the volley which any tennis player would be bloody thrilled with.

Late in the evening, back home, I saw Pistorius's surprise defeat to the Brazilian lad and his subsequent criticism of the winner's blades in the post-race interview. Here's the story if you missed it. It was a reminder, if any were needed, that the Paralympians take their sport exactly as seriously as everybody else, and that, regrettably, the politicking, arguments and possible cheating are the same. It's sport, basically, exactly as the Olympics are. But the South African's comments were nonetheless disappointing, especially in the light of what he had to go through to be able to run alongside so-called able-bodied athletes just a few weeks ago. He fought a long battle to prove that his blades give him no advantage over runners using only their own legs, as it were, a battle he eventually (and officially, in the eyes of the sport) won. He should perhaps remember that when he thinks about criticising somebody else's blades in future, if he's not to damage the sport's credibility in some eyes.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Is it really worth this?

Another example of religious ideology driving people to do stupid, evil things in the news at the moment. Sometimes I despair of it, I really do. This poor girl is the latest victim of zealotry, with extremist reaction leading to threats to burn Christian homes - religious fervour once again being used as a wedge to divide people.

I've heard, and understand, the responses to my problem with theological extremism. It's not religion, it's people that are the problem. Well, yes. Of course - but would the response to some perceived slight in any other walk of life, any secular insult, provoke such a reaction? Remove the ideology, and you remove a stronger reason for hatred than any other I can think of.

I am, once again, reminded of the great quote from Mark Twain - a man who, despite being a Christian himself, saw religion and what it does to people rather more clearly than many of his contemporaries:

"The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilt."

Let us hope that matters calm down in this instance, before it comes to that.

What say do we have left in our own lives?

I can't, generally, understand what it is that drives people to suicide. I'm fortunate enough never to have found myself in a position where it's even crossed my mind, and of those poor people driven to it, it's often thought of as 'selfish', particularly when it traumatises other people (train drivers, for example). I can't begin to empathise with people so full of despair that they seriously contemplate it, still less actually carry it out.

But the case of Tony Nicklinson offers an insight into the life of a man who has made this decision rationally and clearly. I'm lucky enough that I can't empathise with him, but I can at least understand his reasons and certainly defend his choice. He has, though, been denied that choice by a court. A court which has condemned him to live that life against his will, either because it has allowed concern for the letter of the law to weigh more heavily than human considerations, or for some other reason I can't fathom.

All he's asking is that somebody who cares for him, or a medical professional, be allowed to help him carry out that choice without being prosecuted for murder. But that concern for those he'll leave behind, and the fact that this has been done openly, has worked against him. It seems the law denies us that choice in our own life. The only reason for it, as far as I can see, is to prevent murder being dressed up as assisted suicide, but that possibility exists anyway, regardless of what the law says. There are bad people out there who could do this to somebody vulnerable - that will be a fact notwithstanding the wording of the laws.

Certainly any religious pressure not to take one's own life are outrageous - what right does a theological organisation have, for example, to tell an atheist they must adhere to their doctrine? Even if Mr Nicklinson is a Christian he's living, in his own words, a very real hell - you would hope a benevolent deity would be sufficiently understanding to forgive him his choice. It's also to be fervently hoped that such considerations played no part in the court's ruling.

So let's assume it was down to the law, and no more. If we can't even, in a sound and rational state of mind, take this decision for ourselves any longer, what rights to self-determination do we have left? I sincerely hope, for Mr Nicklinson's sake, that he eventually will be allowed the peace he's after, that he will be free to make this most fundamental of choices for himself.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012


Having absorbed as much of the Games as possible, and absolutely loved the entire thing, I was fortunate enough to be at the closing ceremony on Sunday thanks to my girlfriend getting tickets in the first draw, way back when.

She's been volunteering throughout the Games, and has had experiences she'll remember forever; indeed she attended the closing ceremony in her uniform, having come straight from the men's marathon earlier that day. The goodwill and thanks to her and all the volunteers from organisers and public alike where heartfelt and fulsome. I'll add mine - what an incredible job they all did. My missus came home exhausted from long days on her feet, but when I met some of her colleagues they, like her, expressed nothing but admiration for each other and enjoyment of their experiences. Hats off to all of them. My g/f most of all, of course - no doubt she was the best of the lot.

The closing ceremony itself was another exhibition of extreme Britishness, just as the opener had been. I occasionally felt like I was there under slightly fraudulent pretences, given my indifference to music and its pivotal role in the whole thing. But I enjoyed it immensely, as much, I hope, as a proper music fan would have done, and came away from it regarding it as an all round good thing. Spectacular, amusing again, and smoothly done.

Slight criticisms? It could have done with being about 45 minutes shorter - I got into bed at around 2.45am as a result of its finishing time, and bits of it were slightly flabby. George Michael should never have been indulged to perform that second one, a new song that nobody knew, from an album which came out the next day. Absolutely bare-faced, and the audience sat largely still and pretty mute as he performed it. An odd, incongruous few minutes which jarred with the tone of the rest of the show.

Good bits? Everything else. Stomp and Fat Boy Slim being there, both being from Brighton like me, was a particular joy. And I got as close as I'll ever get to addressing one of my enduring regrets - I never saw Queen live while Freddie M was alive. Amazing light shows from the seat-mounted LEDs all over the stadium. Cracking fireworks and some top set building. The beauty of the flame itself unfurling and dying slowly.

It wasn't for everybody, I suspect - I don't know what the vision of a modern Britain was of the older couple from just in front of us who left, no more than a third of the way through, during one of the show's noisier sections, never to return. But for me, yet again, it somehow succeeded in capturing Britain, exemplifying our modernity, diversity, our willingness to poke fun at ourselves.

It was, like so much of these Games was, an absolute joy to behold, and a great privilege to be there. The stadium is absolutely wonderful, and though I strongly suspect I'll be disappointed, it'll be a crying shame if it's handed over to a football club. (This from a die-hard footy fan, by the way - we made a legacy commitment to athletics during the bid process, and should be held to account for that commitment.)

I shall miss the Olympics terribly and look forward with great enthusiasm to seeing some of the Paralympics live. Evidently I'm not alone - more tickets have been sold for the Paralympics than ever have in the event's history, with those Games on course for a sell-out.

Truly, the British have shown, and are showing, the best of us to the world these past weeks. Can we take that best to heart for ourselves, I wonder?

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

A once-in-a-lifetime privilege

Last Saturday has already gone down in the annals of British sporting history, with gold medals all day, but particularly the three in the Olympic stadium in one dazzling 45-minute spell in the evening.

This was, for me, the day that I got to use the only tickets I'd been able to secure, for a morning's handball in the Copper Box. Taking the advice, or rather the dire warnings, on travel and getting to the venue early, I was up at six to meet my mate and head up to the park. The travel was, in fact, a doddle, as was getting through security and into the park. Friendly and efficient welcome, everybody chipper and a state of happy expectation. A slight hiccup when one of the many volunteers greeting crowds from vantage points on the top of step-ladder high chairs, on spotting a Belgian flag, yelled, "Good morning, Germany!" through her loudspeaker. Never mind - in keeping with the general atmosphere of goodwill, they took it in good heart.

Excitement grew pretty quickly after getting our bearings; I even posed for a photograph - willingly - in front of the Olympic Stadium, with a union flag. Anybody who knows me will realise the double-rarity value of such a thing. So, we headed to the Copper Box in plenty of time for the couple of games we were to see.

We saw a valiant GB side, put together from nothing in the past six years to compete at these Games, get handed their usual thrashing, and then saw South Korea v Serbia. A couple of hours very well spent in a cracking venue, with a loud, positive crowd really getting into both games. Handball is a game I've always thought would go down well in Britain if it were played to a decent standard, and it's been one of the success stories of the Games.

The rest of the day, though, was genuinely one of the great sporting experiences of my life. My mate and I spent the rest of the day and all evening in the Park, sitting watching British successes on the two huge screens they've put up there. All around were noises of cheering from the huge main stadium, from the hockey stadium, the basketball arena and around the screens themselves. As darkness fell and the big stadium filled up, partly emptying the park in the process, those without tickets to go in gathered in front of those screens and saw those three golds in quick succession. For all of them, but for Mo Farah in particular, there was jubilation. I saw, and felt, national pride without it spilling over into jingoism, and no trouble. It was an entirely positive experience. We left just as Jessica Ennis was receiving her gold medal, hearing the 80,000-plus in the stadium singing the anthem as we made our way out.

However much I was enjoying the Games already, nothing had compared to that Saturday. I have, needless to say, sat up late into each night since, trying until the early hours to secure tickets for anything else, anything, anywhere, without success. With so little time left I've basically given up trying now, and must instead look forward with huge anticipation to the closing ceremony, which I'm lucky enough to have a ticket for through my girlfriend.

With just four days to go as I type, it's been a huge success so far. They've ballsed up the ticketing, as I predicted in a much earlier post months ago, and they've ballsed up the mascots - in the Megastore in the Park, ranks of forlorn Wenlocks and Mandevilles sat unsold, while this new lion thingy which has appeared lately was flying off the shelves - but they've got the Games themselves right. Throw in a British public which, both in the excellent volunteers and the vast, positive, celebratory crowds, have switched off our innate reserve and pessimism for a couple of weeks, and you've got an absolute bloody marvel.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Absolutely loving it so far...

I'll come back to the tickets later, but now's not the time. The Olympics so far have been nothing short of wonderful so far, with huge, enthusiastic crowds (80,000 people turning up for a morning session of athletics mainly comprising heptathlon heats!), cracking venues and British success. Two people, in particular, caught my eye today. On a day when we won three further golds to go fourth in the medals table, a couple of bronze winners stood out for me.

Firstly, Rebecca Adlington. Winning a bronze in the event she won at Beijing, I think expectations of her were hugely over-inflated. Interviewed after today's bronze-winning swim, she apologised to everybody who thought she'd take gold. What the hell does this woman, who's won four Olympic medals for Britain, have to apologise to anybody for? She is an absolute heroine who is rightly feted, and owes the fans and her country nothing. Congratulations to our greatest female swimmer of all time who, far from saying sorry, can hold her head up wherever she goes.

Secondly, Alan Campbell. This shows how much effort he had to expend in winning his bronze, and how much it meant to him when he collected it. That somebody can drive themselves to such extremes of endeavour, and react so emotionally when they're rewarded for it, shows just why people love the Olympics so much, even with all the attendant corporate zealotry and occasional cheat. Oh, and the ticketing. Like I said, I'll come back to that later.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

A very British affair

Give one man the task of defining Britishness in three hours to the rest of the world, and asking him to do so in a fashion that won't leave everybody thinking, 'yeah yeah yeah, but it was shit compared to Beijing', and you've given him a hell of a bloody job.

Danny Boyle is to be hugely congratulated, and probably honoured in time, for the show he put together. We couldn't do the type of thing Beijing did - we're not that sort of country, we're not that sort of people, and we certainly can't throw the kind of money and resources at it that they did. He'd made it clear this was to be a celebration of British culture, particularly music, and an inclusive ceremony, which it certainly was.

There were moments, of course, that must have entirely baffled the rest of the world - indeed, the first thing I did when I came back from the friends' house where I'd watched it was check out some of the reaction from the Washington Post, the New York Times etc. They freely admitted that, even with their crib notes, some of the sections, particularly during the history of music bit, left them baffled as to what the hell was going on. But in anything that British, that was inevitable - giant-headed punks on bouncy metal legs moshing to the Sex Pistols - you don't get that in Atlanta or Beijing.

There were moments of great beauty - if there's been a more splendid torch lighting at one of these ceremonies, I can't remember it. There was some excellent comedy - I can't stand Mr Bean, but his little moment during Chariots of Fire was genuinely funny.

Surely, though, surely, most notable was the moment that left me at least gaping in shock. It's her. No, it's not her, it's a look-alike. "Good evening, Mr Bond." Fuck a duck - it's the bloody Queen! In a Bond film! An unbelievable moment, and I can't be the only person who wondered who first pitched that to her, and how. Fair play to her for agreeing to do it.

In the end, though you could never expect us to compete with the Chinese for spectacle, I thought Boyle recognised that and realised it had to be different. The only thing which went noticeably wrong was McCartney's apparent inability to hear his own monitor and ballsing up the first few bars of Hey Jude. I suspect Boyle would have taken that if he'd been offered it at the start. Ultimately he, and all the volunteers and performers, did us proud on this most British of evenings.

Similarly British was the bump with which we've come back to Earth on the opening day of the Games, of course, with the cyclists who did Britain so proudly in the Tour de France unable to dominate the road race with just four men and no other countries prepared to work at the front of the peloton, and Cavendish's medal hopes disappearing once again. A great shame for him, and we finish the first post-ceremony day of actual sport without a medal*.

*That's medal, the noun. It's not a verb - I repeat, NOT a verb. Don't even get me started on that...

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The great Olympic countdown

It's almost upon us. The actual sport starts tomorrow, even before the opening ceremony, which my mole inside the stadium for last night's rehearsal declared 'awesome'. Boris Johnson's voice is umming and ahhhing from great speakers at London railway stations, burbling imprecations to walk or cycle. Various unions have completed their strike ballots. We're ready.

Ready too, are the missile installations apparently sitting on buildings near the Olympic park. I think we all thought that they were there to deter, or even bring down, terrorist attacks. But another thought occurs. Such has been the furore over the policing of the branding of these Games that the Mayor himself has waded in to criticise the heavy-handedness of what he's called the 'brand army', and Locog has felt it necessary to issue a PR 'myth-busting' fact sheet in response to some of the more outrageous stories. So we can all rest easy – you "probably will" be allowed to enter the Olympic Park with a Pepsi logo on your shirt, says Lord Coe.

'Ambush' marketing will not, however be tolerated. Is this what the missiles are really for? "Sir, there's a plane approaching the stadium with a 'Lipsmacking thirstquenching acetasting motivating goodbuzzing cooltalking highwalking fastliving evergiving coolfizzing Pepsi-Cola' banner trailing behind it."

"Open fire!"

Notwithstanding some of the inevitable British negativism around the Games, some of which I understand given the pointlessly excessive brand protection – don't even get me started on the chips monopoly – I am, in reality, really looking forward to them kicking off. I remain convinced, despite loud statements of disbelief from naysayers who believe the opposite is true, that the independent assessment of the financial impact on our economy being a positive one is correct.

And on a more visceral, seeing-the-everyday-reality-of-the-Games level, I'm seeing volunteers daily on my commute. The buildings in the Olympic Park all look great. The sun's out, though that will not last of course. Brad Wiggins' magnificent victory in the Tour de France has further whetted British appetites for sporting success. The beach volleyballers have said that, even if it rains (IF it rains! Hah!), they'll eschew the permitted long trouser and remain in bikinis. Yay!* What more signs do you need that it's going to be great?

*Apparently blokes also play beach volleyball - but who knew that was an Olympic sport?

Friday, 20 July 2012

A licence for violence?

So PC Simon Harwood has been found not guilty by jury of the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests on the grounds, it seems, that they believed he'd used 'reasonable force'.

Having been through due process, I have to accept their verdict. But I don't have to bloody well like it. In fact, particularly given the verdict of the inquest last year into the same event which found his use of force anything but reasonable, it's difficult to see how they could come to such a conclusion. It is, frankly, a scandalous decision, particularly in the light of the now-emerging facts* that Harwood has previous incidents of aggression and disciplinary issues on his record as a police officer - more on that in a moment.

The video obtained by the Guardian clearly shows him being pushed while he's walking away from the police. He was also, it seems, struck with a baton, which ultimately caused his death just a few minutes later, due to internal bleeding. Quite how this constitutes reasonable force is beyond me, given that he had his back to the police. The use of a baton seems to be commonplace in the policing of protests which are turning violent, and it does not seem particularly discriminatory at that. Hitting somebody with a baton should be an action of absolute last resort for a police officer, not a standard way of dealing with large crowds when things get a bit nasty. Their tactics, though, seem to be getting increasingly aggressive, with kettling commonplace even if things are peaceful, for example.

This latest development seems to add weight to a fear that a police uniform affords one carte blanche to be violent, without fear of repercussion. It's particularly worrying that a jury could not see this because it seems to offer tacit approval to such tactics, as if the current age of security paranoia justifies such aggressive policing even in the minds of the people who could find themselves on the end of it.

Mr Tomlinson's family have said they'll pursue the matter through the civil courts. Though that may afford them some theoretical justice with a different verdict, it's not going to see Simon Harwood punished for what he's done. He was allowed to retire from the force on medical grounds in 2001 while still under investigation for another incident, before being re-employed by the police, initially as a civilian, and then as a copper, avoiding any further investigation. Bad enough then, that justice was not allowed to run its full course on that occasion. The system for checking applicants for the police service has since been changed.

But this time, the criminal legal process has run its course, and look at the result. Like I said, an apparent licence for violence as soon as you put a police uniform on your back, and an absolute scandal.

*The jury, of course, would not have known this during the trial, and rightly so. But it does say something about the character of a man charged with protecting the public and preserving the peace.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Café con lechery

I've just returned from the usual week-and-a-bit sojourn to the house I'm (extremely) lucky to part-own, with my girlfriend, in the Galician hills. This will go some way to explaining why nothing's been written on here lately. Shall I make another blog entry, or shall I continue to lounge here by the pool and drink beer in the sun? Tough call.

Anyway, spending time at said poolside with a mate who's single has introduced me to the concept of café con lechery, the process of discreetly spotting attractive ladies through one's sunglasses while enjoying a coffee at the bar. Not that I indulged, of course, in such conduct unbecoming an attached individual – I have eyes only for my beloved, and write only to record the process as a matter of anthropological record. Moving swiftly on...

I'm not much of a sun worshipper, preferring the colder months of less sweat and more football, but it was on this occasion a blessed relief, given the wretched weather we've been having in Britain, to have an excuse to actually use the bloody shades for any reason other than to just pretend one is cool by wearing them indoors, for example.

I was struck by the difference in the faces between people here and there when I returned. The Galicians were complaining about having a shit summer because there have been days when cloud has interrupted the usual diet of pure cyan skies and, yikes, even occasional spots of rain! Also, the temperature has dropped into single figures overnight (*gasp*) because the wind has been coming from the north. This is what, for them, constitutes an awful summer. Given how resolutely absent the sun has been from Britain this year, I can only forgive the fact that British faces, by comparison, looked pale, drawn and rather sullen on the Gatwick Express as we headed home.

It's to our credit as a nation, I think, that we put up with this pretty stoically. We are, honestly, world, friendly once the initial reserve is overcome, tolerant, fairly happy and uncomplaining people. But even Brits have to see the sun once in a bloody while. May it shine on us for the remainder of this season, so everybody else gets the chance to indulge in that sunglassed pastime I was introduced to by my mate last week. It's not for me, obviously; I only have eyes for my beloved – did I mention that?

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Take any possible situation to its logical conclusion...

...and you get this.

This is, eventually, what can happen when you allow 'ambulance-chasing' solicitors/lawyers to advertise, and begin to foster a litigious culture. So worried are people about being sued that the fear of same, and the desire to avoid it, overtake concern for a person's well-being, maybe even concern for their very life.

As the sacked man, who should be being rewarded, not fired, said, "I think it's ridiculous, honestly, that a sign is what separates someone from being safe and not safe." Quite so, Mr Lopez. The sign does no more than keep his erstwhile employer safe from being sued, and any decent lawyer could doubtless work their way round that in court anyway.

All respect to him, and to his colleagues who have resigned in protest. It may be that, in an effort to protect themselves safe from litigation, the company providing lifeguards for this beach are now unable to keep people safe because they don't have enough people to cover it. How splendidly clever of them.

What a brilliant example of the causality of human greed and stupidity that is.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Tangled webs

So the Chief Exec and now the Chairman of Barclays have both resigned in the great 'rate fixing' scandal. It seems there's to be a Parliamentary Inquiry into the goings-on at all the major banks, and the murky world of inter-bank finance is going to be held open to the scrutiny of a public who will, largely, no doubt understand very little of what's revealed.

I'd certainly never heard of LIBOR before this all hit the news, but it seems it's a peculiarly important piece of financial data which apparently affects all of us. This is typical of the alarming lack of both transparency and clarity in banks' dealings with each other, and exemplifies the sort of labyrinthine complexity and secrecy they seem to have relied on to be allowed to continue doing things to suit themselves, unhindered by concerns of scrutiny. Or morality, apparently.

That's the problem with the 'market will see things right' dogma of Thatcherist economic theory, which dogs us to this day. The market does not run according to what's best for the economy. The market runs to make money for all its constituent parts – the banks, the brokers, the über-rich individuals like George Soros, who can, for example, affect exchange rates simply because of the vastness of their wealth.

I am very, very far from an economist, but one thing I do know about finance is that, while I suspect none of this nefarious conduct is done with deliberate mendacity, instead being undertaken purely in search of profit, that search means that all the cogs in the machine are little solipsists, turning in the direction which suits them best as an individual entity, rather than working as one to run the machine smoothly. The result, inevitably, is a broken machine.

Labour are not likely to engage fully with the Parliamentary Inquiry, so exactly how 'cross party' it's going to be remains to be seen. They're calling for a wider-ranging Public Inquiry, with a judge reporting, as with the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. It seems to me that they're looking to that, rather than a Parliamentary Inquiry, because a PI could drag on for ages, beyond even the next election. The quicker Parliamentary version may, for example, reveal (as well as other banks inevitably having done exactly the same thing as Barclays) a rather laissez faire attitude to the banks during Labour's administration, more befitting their ideological opponents than a supposedly left of centre party, and do them harm before the next election. Though I may just be being cynical.

So yes, there's a global economic crisis, the causes of which are far more complicated and wide-ranging than the simplistic evil bankers' misdeeds some of the tabloids have presented us. But I believe that, had the major financial institutions not been allowed to get away with so little outside scrutiny for so long, we may have been in a slightly better position to ride it out than has proved the case.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The price of peace

So the Queen has begun a historic visit to Northern Ireland, the main talking point of which seems to be the fact that she'll shake the hand of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. I can understand why so much focus has been on this upcoming moment - various journalists have alleged in the past that, not only was he active in the IRA, but he was a member of their seven-man Army Council. The IRA, of course, claimed responsibility for the bomb which killed the Duke of Edinburgh's uncle Louis Mountbatten, and two children, in 1979. So she may well understand all too well that there are plenty of people who have lost loved ones to terrorist actions who will be less than happy with this.

It's therefore a lot easier for me, as somebody who's never been in that position, to say this. But this is, I think, part of the price that has to be paid, and will continue to have to be, to bring about an end to the Troubles. If McGuinness, Gerry Adams and the like had not realised that the way to secure their ends was through the ballot box and not through terrorism, and if the governments on both sides of the Irish Sea had not been prepared to be particularly forgiving of what had been done in the name of 'freedom', there'd have been no Good Friday Agreement. Perhaps things would never have changed.

If Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, for example, can put aside years of mutual hatred and suspicion, and work within a political framework that seemed impossible when I was growing up, then that price has been, for me, worth paying. Anybody who lost somebody in the bombings of Enniskillen, or my home city of Brighton, or anywhere else that suffered during the Troubles, may of course feel very differently, and I'm in absolutely no position to tell them they're wrong.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Taking their ball away

The Church of England, with its response to proposals to legalise same-sex marriage, has shown once again that it is a very long way from modernising. They've behaved rather like a kid threatening to remove his football from the field if the game is not played in exactly the way he wants, by claiming that if they were 'forced' to conduct gay weddings, it would be "impossible for the Church of England to continue its role conducting marriages on behalf of the State".

Make us do it and we'll split from the State so we're no longer the 'official' wedding provider, this is saying. Well, not only is this a ludicrous overstatement of the 'dangers' facing the Church, of which more in a sec, but if I had my way their bluff would be called. Since they're already legally obliged to offer weddings to any UK resident regardless of their religious affiliation, but routinely refuse to conduct re-marriages, for example, how exactly would their role be any different from now, other than in being more inclusive? They don't worry about legal challenges from divorcees who want to marry again, but they do worry about legal challenges from gay people?

They talk about the erosion of the old values of marriage when they should be happy that there are people out there who still want to commit to such an institution at a time when divorce is on the rise and the number of weddings not far above its historic low. Obviously these are just not the right kind of people for them.

For me, they should be allowed to take their ball and told to sod off. Since three quarters of weddings in the UK do not take place in a church anyway, and I believe strongly that the Church should play no role in government in any form, what's to be lost by completely 'divorcing' Church and State in this case? There are plenty of modernist people within the Church who could conduct a ceremony with religious content for those who want it, and plenty of beautiful locations to hold those ceremonies which are not owned by the Church – it doesn't have to be within the four walls of a CofE building. Whether they'd be prepared to leave the CofE to protect the rights of gay people to marry is another matter, of course, but I'm quite sure society, and the concept of marriage, would survive without the Church.

If the law is changed, that only leaves one thing to be sorted out for genuine equality in this area in Britain, which is the right for heterosexual people to commit to a civil partnership rather than a marriage. Surely, in search of equality, this has to come eventually as well.