Monday, 27 February 2012

If you're going to do something, do it properly

Two themes dominate Spanish news and conversation at the moment. One is the lack of rain – it's been an extraordinarily dry year there so far and there is a severe danger of total crop loss in some regions. One area which had 195mm of rain in the first three months of last year has so far had 2mm this year, for example. A genuine worry and another sign, if any were needed, of the increasingly rapid changes to our weather patterns.

The other is the alleged mendacity of the King's son-in-law, one Inaki Urdangarin. More details here, but one datum which is missing is the size of the alleged misappropriated pot. Spanish news channels claim up to €17 million is missing and there may yet be criminal charges. The case has divided opinion in Spain along the lines you'd expect in a country where left and right are politically still much more clearly delineated than they are in Britain. He's been condemned as a thief by an already convinced left, defended as innocent until otherwise proven by a more pro-Monarchic right. It's a case which promises huge ramifications for the Spanish monarchy already, even more so if it turns out he's a criminal.

What struck me, as usual, though, was an odd side-effect of this story. Spanish celebrity culture makes our own seem like an amateurish, high-brow, passing fancy. In the birthplace of Hello magazine, this case is manna from heaven for the countless gossip channels (yes, channels), magazines, newspaper columns. On shows (nicknamed tertulias, though the word has much more genuinely artistic roots than the sort of telly it now applies to) filled with z-list celebrities – often former Big Brother contestants, to give you an idea – people literally yell and scream at each other about the latest celebrity scandals. Often they will invite friends and relatives of those involved on to the show, so they can yell at them too, and show clips of other shows in which to give yet more z-listers a chance to respond to, or with, some slur. And so the cycle of self-feeding continues. It makes Jeremy Kyle's show look like Melvyn Bragg discussing poetry with Will Self and Will Gompertz. High-brow it most certainly is not.

On one occasion last week, around lunchtime, one such show was in full swing. Two lines of four guests, I have not the faintest idea who any of them were, faced each other and variously sat, stood, pointed, gesticulated and sulked as they exchanged opinions on the Urdangarin scandal. I cannot understand a word of this as they all shout at the same time, and we were going out anyway, so we switched it off. We went out, had a coffee and a chat with friends in a bar, went for a quick beer and another chat with more friends in the village square (it's that sort of place), then went for lunch. A leisurely lunch was followed by another coffee in another bar, and then a few frames of pool in yet another bar. (It's that sort of place too). When we came home some hours later, the same show, with the same host and the same guests, was still on, talking about the same thing. Indeed they were now showing clips from a few hours earlier in their own show to invite comment from yet more guests, and the people who'd been on there all along.

That kind of commitment to celeb gossip, to scandal, and to shouting at each other, is awesome in its way. I have nothing but disdain for this kind of thing but at the same time a kind of grudging admiration for just how sedulously they go about it. If this were British TV, at some point, a real programme would have to be put on, and not much short a royal wedding, or the death of a Royal Family member or serving PM will clear the airwaves in such a fashion.

I'm due to return to Spain in July at some point. I can only wonder if the same show, with the same bickering, exhausted, furious, empty-headed panellists will still be going at it then.

Life imitating comedy

I've spent the last 10 days in Spain, of which more in another post. The first seven or so of those ten I'd spent in some discomfort, let's say pain in fact, with what felt like a trapped nerve in my shoulder. Therefore, as part of a couple of days spent in Valladolid, the old capital of the country in the days of Felipe II, it was arranged that I see a physiotherapist who'd helped my girlfriend's mum when she'd been rendered all but unable to walk with a similar problem in her hip.

My girlfriend came in with me, to translate, should it be necessary. As it turned out, my pidgin Spanish (and, OK, his flawless English) saw us cope alright – she needn't have been there. That made her all the more pleased to have remained in the room given what followed. I'd had my shirt removed, of course, not a pleasant sight as it is, so I'd been variously sitting on the edge of the table, laying face down, laying face up as instructed, in such a state while he worked his arcane stuff.

About 40 minutes in, I was invited to stand up, move to the end of the table and then sit down astride it with my back to him. I'd rather lost the inhibition inherent in sitting with no shirt on because I was already starting to feel the benefit of his work, so I sat down confidently, directly facing my girlfriend at the other end of the room.

There followed what can only be described as the sit-com sound of the loud ripping of my jeans, as they split in farcical fashion, right across what would delicately be called the nether regions. I looked up in shock at my girlfriend, who was unable to breathe, absolutely helpless with mirth, mainly at the face I was evidently pulling, the memory of which it seems will sustain her for some time if she needs a laugh.

Now here's the thing. I'm a fairly reserved individual, easily given to embarrassment at my own public misfortunes. So this is something I can easily believe reddened my face considerably. But what was actually running through my mind was that I had on, basically, a pair of comedy underpants. Let me explain. We're fortunate in having a house in a beautiful part of Spain, in a small village in the Galician mountains overlooking a lake, in a region not unlike the Lake District. There are few people there, so there are few shops. The market comes twice a month and it's a major event, with everybody from the area around the village coming to shop, to exchange gossip, to sell their home-grown food.

This is where many people buy their clothes. I do not take many clothes out there when we go, preferring to travel as light as possible and keep clothes in the house, but this compels me in some cases to buy clothes at the market. Carnaby Street it ain't. The clothes are not there to satisfy the whims of the fashion conscious. I had been unable to buy my preferred plain, black boxer shorts, so had instead assembled a stock of garish, multi-linear, multi-coloured boxer shorts of varying degrees of tastelessness, because that's pretty much all there's been available out there when the market has come.

Therefore, on leaving the physio's premises, I had to walk the busy streets of Valladolid with my coat held in front of my body to hide my shame, and find a menswear supplier who could outfit me with replacement trousers.

I shall, I think, check in a bag next time we go and, take a stock of black clothes out there with me. I will, after all, have to hold a funeral for my stone-dead pride anyway.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Art for money's sake

I've just seen a trailer on one of the digital channels for a show called 'The Next Big Artist', or some such. It's yet another 'reality' show where people are pitched up against each other, and in front of judges, to subject their talent to criticism by those judges and the public alike. You get the idea.

Well, needless to say, I've got a few issues with this 'concept'. Firstly, it's totally, totally unoriginal. Doesn't anybody in TV even care that this is exactly the same as has already been done countless times before? Why do they simply take an idea and wring it out again and again until there's nothing coming out of it, and then keep using it anyway? Like a 10-times used teabag, this will produce a watery brew indeed. And did the producers of this particular strain not notice the inherent contradiction in an entirely formulaic programme being used as the vehicle to 'find' an exciting new artist?

But there's a greater issue with this incarnation particularly. I realise this is an issue with all these 'reality' programmes, but its particularly true of this one. In the case of music or talent shows, they inevitably become popularity rather than talent contests. But art, of all these forms of expression, is surely the most subjective, the most personal of them. One man's profound statement on the emptiness of modern culture and the hopeless nature of being is another man's bog nailed half-way up the wall. How can you make art a competition? It's not 8-year-olds being asked to design a Christmas card, for God's sake – it's going to be rather more earnest, rather more fractious than that. It'd make for even duller TV than it's likely to be if it weren't fractious, at least. And how can you possibly expect it to be judged objectively, even by professionals, let alone by the public, if indeed that's what they're proposing to do? Even if they can indeed be objective, isn't the whole point of art, modern art in particular, about the individual's response to each piece? A direct contradiction of objectivity in the first place.

So the concept is fundamentally flawed from the outset, in addition to all the other faults I've already complained about. So expect bonkers pieces put together by chin stroking, earnest, wilfully odd young artists desperate to make their mark in a crowded marketplace where actual talent is held, to my ignorant eyes at least, at a considerably lower premium than how fashionable an artist happens to be. Expert judges will nod sagely, explaining for us halfwit masses just how important what this glued-together collection of plastic triangles, stuffed kittens and human excrement has to 'say' is.

I say masses – I strongly suspect the audience for this latest clone will be pretty small. The problem TV has is that, unlike an artist, who only needs one influential, preferably wealthy nutcase to find Catshit Plastic And The Pointlessness Of It All worthy of two hundred grand to make it big, it lives or dies by the judgement and attention of the viewers. I suspect I may be with the majority on this one and giving it a miss. Sometimes the public are not bad judges, after all.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Playing catch-up

It's emerged this week that over 100 members of the CofE's clergy have written to the Church's General Synod calling for the clergy to be allowed to decide whether to offer civil partnership ceremonies on Church premises. This is welcome news from one point of view, but it also highlights fundamental inequalities in the way different Church thinking discriminates against people in this country. This is an explicit, legal inequality as well - the 2010 Equality Act(!) removed the previous prohibition on civil partnerships happening in places of worship, but made it clear that no church or religious group should be forced to hold civil partnerships if they don't want to.

While I would usually defend any move that prevents people from being forced to do things they don't want to, that cannot be the case where it's an open invitation to discrimination. We've already seen court cases where guest houses were prosecuted for refusing to take in gay couples as guests, for example - other laws explicitly forbid discrimination against people on the grounds of their sexuality, so why not this one?

In another example of what, to an atheist, are only slightly divergent threads of the same theology thinking and acting completely differently, this has led to the bizarre position whereby, for example, Quakers and some Liberal Jewish people can celebrate a civil partnership in their place of worship, but CofE members cannot. (There's also still the fundamental problem that civil partnerships are denied to straight couples, and that 'true' marriage (ie not a civil ceremony, a marriage in the real sense) is denied to gay couples, but that's another entry all of its own.)

The letter has not been made public but its existence shows that some members of the clergy are rather more in touch with modernity and the make-up of their flock than the General Synod, but that has its own problems - it could lead to further schism within the church, even more tangled and subtly divergent strands of religious thinking. But I hope the General Synod realises it's out of touch with the society it serves. Numbers of church attendees are falling dramatically, as I've said before, and they're only really holding up at all, certainly in larger cities, because of the increasing numbers of the flock being drawn from immigrant communities, rather than British people, who are (happily for me) becoming more and more secular. If the churches are serious about reversing the decline in attendances, they need to move with the times and treat everybody the same, so I hope the Synod pay heed to the contents of the letter.

I realise that allowing the clergy freedom of choice in this matter opens the door for differences in treatment of poeple across the country, depending on one's local clergyman's point of view, but that's got to be better than a blanket ban. At least people would have some chance of finding a church which would allow them their ceremony in a place of religious significance to them. They've moved to allow female vicars, they can move on this one, if they're serious about engaging with society as it is now, not as it was when they were all young clergymen themselves.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

That's the way to do it

In Britain, we've heard lately of large companies making billions of pounds of profits (particularly some of the utilities) while their customers struggle to pay increasing prices, and their staff do not receive bonuses which reflect those profits.

This story has shown that there's another way, and that there are boards out there in the world who recognise the value of the people who put in the work which creates those profits in the first place. One interesting thing is that many of the employees actually phoned to check if a mistake had been made – thereby displaying integrity and honesty, and a sense of loyalty that had been earned by their employer's decency and was being reflected back at them.

Good on them. If only there were more such companies about.