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.