Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Having your cake and not eating it.

I was struck at work the other day by a bizarre but extremely common phenomenon. In an earlier post I explained how biscuits are frequently on offer in my office, and the same is certainly true of cake. We're blessed with some excellent bakers, and there's often a cake sale for some cause or other which, purely in the spirit of good citizenship you understand, I'm always happy to support.

A couple of weeks back one of the more renowned makers brought in a Victoria sponge, an impressive thing of several inches in height, looking like something out of a fine patisserie. What followed can only be described as an Andy Capp-style melee, with a big cloud of dust, hands and forks swarming round it like it was the only watering hole left at the end of a very long dry season.

As the dust settled and the victors, for that's the only word to describe them, moved away from the plate with their slices, you may well expect there to have been just a few crumbs on a slightly battered plate. Remnants, nothing, only a suggestion that there was ever cake there in the first place. But that's where the First Law of Cake kicks in, the bizarre phenomenon I mentioned. There was, entirely untouched, standing alone as if on guard over the plate itself, a single slice remaining. The scrum had somehow contrived to contain exactly one person fewer than there were slices available (not that it had turned up pre-sliced - how does that happen?).

That slice stood lonely vigil for much of the rest of the day, for the First Law of Cake is immutable - 'Thou shalt not take the final slice'. Some part of the collective subconscious dictates that it would simply be bad manners. Certain form must be observed, a ritual carefully followed if some curse is not to befall us all:

1) After a decent interval, it's OK for somebody to make some comment to the effect that 'nobody seems to want' the last bit.

2) Later still, it should be remarked that it can't be left there overnight because it'd 'go hard' and be wasted.

3) Finally, somebody shall announce, such that the whole office hears, that they're going to have cake, so there, and help themselves, but under no circumstances must they take the whole slice. They shall cut a piece of it off, leaving a stub. The same shall happen with the next person, and the next, cutting the remains into steadily smaller chunks until the last piece is so small that nobody feels bad about leaving it.

4) The last rites. (I only assume this happens, because I've never been the person responsible for this task). One of the last people out of the office, on the pretext of clearing away the plate and cutlery, finishes it off in the kitchen. Either that or the routinely-blamed-for-everything and possibly mythical 'cleaners' finish it. Or that final piece goes in the bin, that it too takes its share.

This has been the case wherever I've worked, however large or small the cake, however many people involved. People are funny, ain't they?

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Methinks the ladies (and laddies) doth protest too much

Got caught up in the demonstration in central London on Bonfire Night, trying to get home from work on a bus. Just as the crowd left Trafalgar Square, so did my bus. The driver tried to nip ahead of them to get clear, but was stopped by the police, and within moments there were hundreds swarming past, down Whitehall, many of them thumping the bus windows as they went. Journey over – after a long wait, I bailed, and had to make my way home another way.

"I don't know, a bit of everything," the woman behind me said to somebody she'd called to tell she'd be late. Clearly she'd been asked what they were protesting about, and she got it pretty much spot on. I saw, variously, anti-fracking, anti-corruption, anti-government, anti-corporate anti-bloody everything else banners. But I also saw some nonsense about a 1066 law being invalid ('No to your feudal system!' - WTF?), the usual Class War banners, Anonymous banners, etc - a motley lot.

I've written on here before of my belief in the right to protest, even of my admiration for people who bother, but this sort of stuff frankly winds me up for the sheer juvenile, unfocused pointlessness of it. Every generation a group of disaffected young people take up this same cause, raging against the system that so down-treads them and promising 'revolution'. Every generation the same result – nothing. Hundreds of those same people were filming the march they'd joined on cameras or camera-phones – hardly the accoutrements of the starving, huddled masses. Glowing torches, if you like, with their myriad lights pock-marking the thousands; standards borne for the very consumer society of which these young ones are so contemptible. Who do they think makes those devices, runs the networks, provides the bandwidth to 'share' the results on bloody Facebook or wherever? Greenpeace?

Similarly, hundreds of them wore the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask which has become so popular as a symbol of this movement. This is, apparently, one of the top-selling items on Amazon and eBay(!) and the best-selling mask in the world. And for every one of them sold legitimately, Time Warner, another business-world behemoth, picks up a few coins. That'll show 'em – well done, all.

This ignorance of these basics is not what really irks me, though – it'd be an odd demonstration indeed if every person who turned up was focused exactly on what were the real causes of our societal problems, and fully availed of all the facts of whatever matter troubled them – who among us is? What irritates me is the plain fact that nobody seems to be offering an alternative among all this naysaying. Down with the system, they cry - to be replace with what? Something else! What? We don't know, but something else.

Even 'opinion formers' seem to have this problem. I listened, last night, to the interview between Russell Brand and Paxman, which has gone viral lately. Brand attended that same demonstration and is one of the more visible speakers of the movement. He has, importantly, access to the mass media to shout about it. I have a lot of respect for him – he's genuinely and extensively involved with charities in the prison/drug addiction sectors, and is an eloquent, passionate, even angry campaigner on behalf of a movement which needs visible proponents like him. But even he fell short during this joust on what form his ideal system would take. Challenged on his never having voted, and asked what the system he'd have would be, he answered only what it would not be, listing again the failures of our present political system. He said there are better-informed, better-educated and better-placed people to make those decisions than he. Where? Who are these people, and why aren't they more visible? Revolution is coming, he proclaimed. The same cry we've heard ad nauseam for generations, with no actual plan for bringing it about.

It isn't coming. Not with the present tactics, at any rate. This system changes only from within. It may well cater only for a corporate and societal elite, as Brand complains, but not voting, marching down Whitehall and hurling fireworks at the Palace of Westminster is not going to change anything. The only real power of the people is the vote, and nowadays our right to withdraw spending, ironically. If you don't like it, you have to work with the system as it stands to change it – set up your own political party, tell people what you will do, not merely what you won't, galvanise voters to your cause and make changes from inside the system. Two World Wars, for all the huge social, political and economic upheaval they wrought, could not change the fundamentals of the way that system works, so a few banners and a mask are not even going to get noticed. Changes may have occurred but the basic structure is the same so you have to work with it if you want to alter it. You don't vote? Then why should the politicians give a fuck what you think? They have nothing to lose in ignoring you.

Even assuming this movement somehow gathered the wherewithal to bring their revolution about, would it do us any good in the long term? The last genuine people's revolution in a major capitalist society was that of Russia in 1917, and look what legacy that left – something so fundamentally corrupt, so vicious, so open to abuse by the power-hungry that it only lasted two generations or so itself before it too crumbled, brought down once again by the people it purported to embody. What do they have now? A capitalist democracy, of sorts.

I can't see it happening here. We're too comfortable – however many people live in poverty, however much inequality of wealth and power still dominates our socio-economic landscape, we've been willing players in this game, and have little excuse in particular since, as a nation, we bought into the Thatcherite 'money is God' ethos of the eighties and early nineties. Nothing to do with those kids on the march, I know, but then many of those eighties voters were the similarly disaffected youth of the seventies. See how this wheel keeps coming round and round?

So. They will continue their marches. Continue their 'broken society' trumpeting. Continue their entirely negative, entirely unfocused, entirely non-constructive message. All they'll achieve is what they did on Tuesday night – piss off a few thousand commuters and maybe get themselves nicked in the process.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

If music be the food of love, shut up and let me listen to it

Was at the Aldwych Theatre last night for Top Hat, a reworking of the old Astaire/Rogers film. All Art Deco and 20s-glamour escapism, it was the sort of old-fashioned feel-good stuff that goes down well when times is hard, such as they are now.

I did, of course, greatly enjoy the thing. But my missus is quite keen on pointing out that I'm naturally negative, and she's probably right - there is always something. The audience comprised the usual mix of grey hairs, coach-fulls of tourists, couples and family groups. The sort of decent, normal, working British people that occasionally REALLY BLOODY WELL WIND ME UP! God forbid any group who've gathered in the same place with the specific intention of watching artists who can sing and dance fantastically, should sit quietly and actually watch them do so. Oh no. We had, variously, in descending order of wind-me-upness;

First: mobile phones going off, twice, despite the usual reminder to switch them off. The first one had the bloke fumbling around in the dark, trying to locate the off switch on his own phone, and went on so excruciatingly long that somebody behind him eventually shouted at him to shut it up. The second one was even more unforgivable - directly the intermission happened, vast swathes of the crowd were straight on their mobiles. I can't quite imagine what normal Average Joes and Josephines have going on in their lives that's so utterly crucial and urgent that it can't wait beyond the duration of an evening's entertainment. Clearly one of those secret agents/Prime Ministers/whatever forgot to switch theirs off after said interval, because one went off in the second half right in front of the bloke whose phone had so shamed him not an hour earlier. Evidently this individual learned nothing from the first bloke's humiliation and embarrassment. FUCKWIT!

Second: if you find you're unable to go through an entire hour-and-a-bit of each half of a piece of musical theatre without eating, do try not to bring your sweets in the Noisest, Rustliest Bag In The World™, spend 10 minutes passing them backwards and forwards between your family members, and have taken special care to make sure that each individual sweet within the Noisest, Rustliest Bag In The World™ is then wrapped in extraordinarily loud, crinkly wrappers. That way the people in the three rows behind and in front of you will be able to hear the songs and maybe even some of the dialogue.

Third: once the lights have gone down and the singing begins, the show has fucking started! Shut the fuck up, stop fiddling with the binoculars in the seat in front of you (which will not come out of the holder without a quid going in first) and watch the thing. If even the nice, grey-haired, late-middle-aged lady behind you has to lean forward and tell you to shut up, you must realise you were talking at an inappropriate time. Heed her words.

It was a crying shame because it's difficult to concentrate on what's going on in front of you when you're being distracted by what's going on below, behind and to the left of you.

And relax...

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

True colours

I've always had, like all the 'bleeding-heart lefties' they so despise, a healthy contempt for the Daily Mail. It's always been a sort of vaguely amused version though, the sort of feeling you get when confronted by somebody whose views on race/immigration/sexuality come straight out of a 70s sitcom. They have, though, these past few days, revealed just how vile they really are.

Last Saturday they ran this article on Ed Milliband's late father, attacking a man who was in no position to defend himself any longer. When Milliband used his right of reply on Tuesday to point out that his father had in fact served this country in the Navy during World War II, and that he did not share the dead man's political ideology, they responded with this. Far worse, though, they printed a picture of the man's grave, with the caption 'Grave socialist', and it emerged they'd sent journalists incognito to infiltrate a Milliband family memorial service, something for which even they have had to apologise, calling it an 'error of judgement'.

Perhaps to bring into sharp focus just how far out of line they are, even Cameron has criticised the piece, saying that if someone attacked his father he'd 'do the same thing' as Milliband, who's demanded an apology. (Cameron, I have to say, has again showed his human qualities with his response to this, just as he did after the rugby player pulled the 'bunny ears' stunt outside Number 10. What a pity his politics are as they are.)

With the exception of that grave shot, the Mail remains unapologetic, and in this whole affair have shown their truest colours in all their infamy. How quick they were to (rightly) criticise people who joyfully danced on Thatcher's grave so recently, and how hypocritical to do so as blatantly as they have on the grave of a political opponent's father.

I'd usually shrink from ever linking to Mail articles on this blog - many of them are simply deliberately provocative, designed to stir up righteous indignation and visits to their website - but these have to be seen to understand the true nature of this rag. I can only hope, in time, that this kind of tactic backfires on them where it really matters; circulation. Regrettably though, I suspect that the type of people who actually buy the Mail wholeheartedly agree with not only the sentiment expressed in these pieces but the way in which they've been expressed at the expense of a dead man's reputation.

Horribly for me, this has resulted in me having to agree with Alastair Campbell, never my favourite Labourite, in calling the Mail 'vile', 'backward' and 'far-right', and suggesting it represents "the worst of British values posing as the best". A plague upon them.

Follow-up edit: An excellent run-down of the generally cheering web-sphere response to this whole thing can be found here. I particularly like the tweets where other people explain how their fathers 'hated Britain' too, especially, "My dad shouted 'Bugger it!' when he couldn't find a car parking space in Hemel Hempstead in 1979."

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

An offer you can refuse. But don't need to.

The Catholic Church seems to have been sending some rather mixed messages in 2013. Forgive me being rather late to this but I don't keep that close an eye on the goings-on at the Vatican so didn't catch this at the time. It seems that in May the Pope, in a quite startling departure from accepted tenets, came out with this in an open letter to La Reppublica.

It's not exactly a once-in-a-lifetime offer - the head of a Church you don't belong to reassuring you that a God you don't believe in will forgive you and allow you a place in a Heaven which doesn't exist if you 'follow your conscience' - but from any secular viewpoint it's certainly a positive sign of moderation and modernity from the Pontiff. Any kind of recognition, especially from the Catholic Church, that atheists can be good people, is to be welcomed. It suggests at least a man who recognises the shape of the wider world in which his Church's followers live. The Church of which he's nominal leader, though, moved quickly to disavow any such notion.

So much for modernising - central tenets are going to take rather longer to change, it seems, than even the Pope may prefer. There are, though, some areas where the modernising momentum is clear. Check this out.

This is one of the most bizarre examples of mixing old and new I've ever seen; the Catholic Church showing that they can be both thoroughly modern on the one hand and simultaneously archaic on the other. It seems that the Church is now on Twitter [it probably has been for some time, but I'm a) not on Twitter and b) in any case extremely unlikely to 'follow' a religious Twitter feed, so was unaware of this]. I wonder how many aggregate years in Purgatory were saved overall as a result of this offer to the contrite. And who keeps the numbers, if anybody? Is there some celestial logbook somewhere, in which a heavenly functionary marks the time off for those eligible with a Godly pencil, or has that too been modernised, computerised even? I'd love to ask this Sacred Apostilic Penitentiary how they track these things. (Who appointed them, by the way, thereby giving them the authority to pronounce on these matters? Shouldn't they regard this as the exclusive right of God?)

Anyway, the Pope and his modernist tendencies. He may, to use The Tablet's Vatican correspondent's words, be 'seeking to have a more meaningful dialogue with the world', but there's only so much he can do, no matter how determined he may be. This is, after all, a 2000-year-old institution with some 1.2 billion members and a multi-layered, complex organisational structure. His job must be like trying to steer the largest ship on a gigantic ocean - no matter which way he's looking, or which way he turns the helm, the thing changes direction so slowly that it's imperceptible. Any changes he tries to make now are not likely to make the slightest difference until he has, in the eyes of his Church's members, long joined all those good atheists upstairs. Oh, hang on, that was one of the things that hadn't in fact changed after all, wasn't it? Oh well. Never mind.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Taking the biscuits seriously

As a result of a discussion at work the other day, I realised that it's been a good couple of years that I've been writing this blog already, and have yet to make an entry on something very, very close to my heart. There are many things people find important, of course – politics, religion, morality, climate change, music, whatever it is. And indeed I've written on those matters, but I've somehow missed the fundamental subject of biscuits.

Now my capacity to eat biscuits, as anybody who knows me well will tell you, is enormous. I would, quite happily, eat my way through an entire pack of dark chocolate digestives with a cup of tea. Only a sense of shame and a vague awareness that it's probably not good for you to do so prevents me from doing exactly that whenever the opportunity presents itself. And the disapproving stares of others who may have had their eye on a biccie, in the case of a shared pack.

At work there are very frequently biscuits in the offing, so I have to moderate my scoffage for all of the above reasons. Apart from, that is, the occasions where the generous person who's provided them has made the inexplicable decision to buy horse biscuits. Now don't get me wrong, I appreciate that I'm in a minority here, possibly a minority of one, but I regard Hob Nobs (even when they've been disguised under chocolate) as horse biscuits which have somehow found their way into the human food chain. Mixing equine foodstuff with proper biscuits in the same factory is just careless, frankly, and asking for trouble.

That it happens, and people seem to have turned a blind eye all these years, accepting these horsey treats into their homes, is probably down to oats. I'm often asked why I eat flapjacks if I'm so set against Horse Nobs, as they've become known in my office, which is to miss the point. I don't have anything against oats per se – mixed with the right ingredients; sugar, honey, chocolate etc, they're delicious. It's the Nobs specifically I can't be doing with. I can't fathom how people can't spot their error as soon as they bite into one, but it seems I alone in the world can see the truth – everybody else unaccountably regard them as delicious.

Other than that, though, there are just a couple of additional exceptions to my pretty broad biccy taste. One is custard creams - some kind of yellow chemical mix compressed into a mould and dipped in paint, they are neither custardy nor creamy for me, and the taste is... well, yellow, if such a thing is possible. The other is ginger nuts. No, no, no. Biscuits should a) not burn the roof of your mouth like a too-hot curry and b) come out of a cup of scalding hot tea after an indecently long dunk entirely unchanged by the experience. Now a digestive, sadly dismissed by many workmates who regard them as 'plain', a digestive knows how to behave in cup of tea. Get the timing wrong, and your digestive will punish you by falling apart as you lift it out, in protest at its treatment. You have to treat them with respect and delicacy to gain the full reward of their deliciousness.

I fancy that I know how to treat all biscuits, so I'm never happier than with a cup of tea and a tube of them for dunking. I merely ask, dear reader, should you ever be kind enough to come round for a cuppa and bring biccies with you, that you do me the service of selecting a pack made with human consumers in mind.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

We're gonna need a bigger helicopter

I don't often do film or TV criticism on these pages - I've reserved that for Wonderlance in the past - but every now and then, a film comes along which completely redefines the boundaries of filmmaking. Sharknado is not one of those films. It does, though, warrant comment here.

For those among you not sufficiently down with the kids to be in on the 'nado phenomenon, it's a made-for-SyFy Channel film about sharks deposited in the streets of Los Angeles. By a tornado. But enough of the plot - I don't want to confuse you. Here was a film which combined the prodigious talents of actors formerly from, among other gems, Beverly Hills 90210 and Saved by the Bell with the sort of special effects budget which the likes of ILM can only have nightmares about. 

The result was both utterly magnificent - a modern-day Plan 9 from Outer Space - and extremely knowing at the same time. Lifting shark-death method and chunks of dialogue from Jaws, including a riff on Quint's legendary USS Indianapolis speech ("So, six people went into the water, and one little girl came out. Sharks took the rest."), it's all too aware of what it is. The tagline alone is enough to tell you that - 'Sharknado', the poster reads. 'Enough said.' Definitely - this is a film with its balls hanging right out, and it ain't afraid of how cheap and funny-looking they are. In fact it knows that's why you're staring.

It became something of an internet sensation after it debuted in the US, so its showing here was keenly anticipated by fans of a certain genre - bad films. So successful has it been that SyFy have already announced a sequel, to come out just next year, set in New York. Enough said.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Royal baby shambles

According to the CIA, there are over 350,000 people born every day on our already teeming planet. The gigantic majority of them will come into the world the way they'll remain for their entire lives, from the point of view of all the others - anonymous, save for their family and those close to them.

Now there has been, of course, one particular exception to that dominating the media these past few days. I write from a broadly neutral position when it comes to the royal family. I'm far from a flag-waving Monarchist. Nor though am I some kind of abolitionist Republican - I do not believe the removal of the monarchy would do the country any good. The absolute domination of the broadcast and printed media of the birth of the latest royal kid, though, I do take serious issue with. (And, of course, here I am, both feeding it and feeding off it by adding my own contribution to that panoply).

This is not news. This boy, one of those 350,000+ who came into the world today, is no more newsworthy than any of the others, as far as I'm concerned. His life is, more or less, mapped out ahead of him. He could, of course, be one of the very rare exceptions among royalty who lets it all go - all the trappings, the lack of freedom, some of the attention and privilege which goes with his lineage. Even if he does, he'll be protected from the worst of life's realities by his name and his family's money. More likely he'll lead the kind of life Princes Andrew or Edward do, not ascending to the throne and the kind of burden of duty the Monarch bears until he's at least the age Charles is now. He will, in all likelihood, live his life within certain pre-defined parameters.

The same can't be said for almost all of the other kids born today. Of course, the vast majority will live their lives in obscurity. Born today were people who will do terrible things - murderers, warriors, ideological extremists. But also born today somewhere were people who'll do great things in art, literature, politics, environmentalism, architecture, diplomacy. Somebody may have been born today who will become as famous as the royals. Maybe somebody who will do something great for all humanity. The canvas for almost all of those countless thousands is more or less blank, and some of them will fill it with lives that will astonish, that will be much more fulfilled than that of our royal newbie.

This is not a criticism of him, of course - in his innocence he has no more idea of what's in store for him than anybody else. I wish him well. But I extend those same wishes to all the kids whose births didn't make the news today, whose as-yet unlived time stretches out ahead of them, to be lived who knows how, for who knows how long?

Monday, 8 July 2013

Hunting the bus nutter

Typical - you wait forever for an entry about buses, and then one comes along all at once. Or something. Anyway, financial realities have meant that, in recent months, I've had to forego the freedom of a Travelcard and commute to work by bus. Not for me the devil-may-care, jet-setting man-about-town jollity of changing from train, to bus, to tube at will. No – I now sit on the 159 from Streatham all the way to Trafalgar Square every morning, and then do the return journey in the same way every evening. In many ways it's been a boon – getting on at the start of the route, I always get a seat. You can see the outside world. If you open windows you actually get air coming into the bus. And they're very unlikely to get stuck in a tunnel 200 feet underground.

There are, though, of course, drawbacks, as you'd expect for a monthly saving of £80 on a three-zone Travelcard, with all its attendant flexibility. You can't just change your route home mid-commute if things have all gone a bit pear-shaped – at least not without paying again. It takes longer, particularly on the way home, for some reason. You get squashed by gigantic individuals sitting both in the seat next to you and most of yours. You occasionally have to sit with your feet either side of a drying puddle of somebody else's vomit. Mercifully (and selfishly), I'm pleased to report that this last hazard is something I've only seen happen to other people.

By far the greatest difference, though, is the bus nutter. Now I'm sure that the sardines packed on the suburban trains into London each morning run the risk of finding themselves next a train nutter, but trains are big. There are a lot of people on them. Even if there were two train nutters aboard, your odds of finding yourself next to one of them are long. I did the train version of the rat run every morning for years, and I was much more likely to see a fight than encounter an oddball. This is not the case on the bus, so you have to do what you can to minimise the chances that you'll end up his (it's always a man) travelling companion for the duration of your trip. This means, frankly, surreptitiously scoping out the people waiting at the stop in the morning to see if you can spot him.

This morning's candidates were a twenty-something lad swigging from a half-empty bottle of Gordon's at 7.30am, or a bloke in a suit who, eschewing the seats provided at the bus stop, sat on a six-inch high concrete block muttering to himself. He smoked tar-black roll-ups and stared openly at anybody turning up. He didn't get on the bus, instead wandering off to whatever business to which he had to attend. This prompted the thought that he'd decided that one of the rest of us was the bus nutter and he wasn't going to take any chances. And, frankly, who's to say he wasn't right? I often listen to funny podcasts on the bus into work, occasionally having to fight to stifle a laugh, and could well be on several regulars' shortlists of dodgy individuals to be sat as far away from as possible.

One of the unequivocal rules that all London commuters understand about their daily routine – if you look around for the morning's Designated Bus Nutter and can't identify him, it's you.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The tragedy of art imitating death

My absolutely favourite British writer of them all, Iain Banks, missed seeing what he knew would be his final novel published by just 10 days. His publisher, when they heard of the grim prognosis for his cancer, rushed the process to try to beat his illness to the punch, but it wasn't to be.

As with all his work once I'd first read him, I bought the novel on the day it was released and read it quickly. I finished reading it on the bus home last night. For the double tragedy of it being the last words he ever wrote and the nature of his death, and the contiguity of his illness with the similarly terminal decline of the book's main character, I had to fight back tears which would have no doubt had my fellow passengers assuming I was the bus nutter when I finished it.

The book is, you see, as well as being as powerfully written as all his work, about a man raging against the dying of his own light as cancer has its way with him. This horrible resonance was, apparently, a coincidence, with the first draft finished when he found out about his own illness. It makes every word, of course, doubly meaningful. How much did he change once he'd found out? How much of the dying character's raging, bitter tirade against a vacuous society and the disappointments of most people's lives when measured against their own, younger, more idealistic selves was actually the voice of Banks?

That's what made the final chapters in particular, and finishing the book, so poignant. The quarry which forms the geographical and metaphorical backdrop for the book is an ever-advancing abyss, which stares back at you when you gaze into it. His dying character dismisses such feelings as the solipsistic ravings of a drug-addled drop out friend, and vents his fury at society, at his friends, at himself and the cancer that's taking him.

I hope that's not how Banks felt, that he was able to face his own end with something approaching acceptance, but who'd blame the man if he didn't? To have such a gift, to be able to express yourself so eloquently through work which resonated strongly with your readers, leaving them awed at the scale of such a giant imagination, and then be denied the right to express it fully - I can't begin to imagine how he felt.

So I was upset that there will never be another Banks release. Upset that I'd finished it, that there was no more to come from the man, that such a talent has been taken from us. I usually hate the rush of grief-junkie teeth gnashing which follows the death of somebody famous, the desperate desire to show how hurt you are that Diana's gone, but in this case I'm one of those who will feel the loss his absence represents quite keenly. I'm just one of millions who never knew the man but felt the power of his work, and what a great power it was. Cheers, Iain.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

If you change your mind...

I saw The Book of Mormon recently. Bloody good fun it was, and considerably more positive about the Mormons than some of the hysterical conservative press would have you believe. The Mormons are a funny lot - their absolute faith in their president being a living prophet, and their belief in the existence of the golden plates for example, despite nobody ever having set eyes on them, are excellent standards of the blindness of religious certainty. They are, though, to be praised for their response to the musical itself. Not for them mass demonstrations, burning torches and the promise of damnation for the creators. Rather, they've plastered central London with adverts for their faith and generally tried to engage with it. Kudos to them.

On that certainty, though. This piece on the Beeb caught my eye not long after I'd seen the show. I've written on here before about some of the central tenets around which religions are built - the concept of original sin in the Catholic Church, for example. The struggle between such pillars of belief systems and the need of all faiths to modernise if they want to engage with modern people, particularly in the West, cannot be a simple one.

We live, in Britain at the moment, in a society which is riven with examples of the trouble these certainties can cause, whether they're theological certainties or secular ones. Aircraft grounded on the way in from Pakistan, vehicles stopped mid-motorway, attacks on Mosques - knee-jerk reaction to an act of unspeakable and all too human brutality in Woolwich, nothing to do with religious teachings. At such times, it's only natural to lean on one's own convictions, the beliefs that sustain you when things are shit. When those convictions are born of religious faith, though, is that necessarily helpful? The divisions between religious and secular, and between the faiths themselves, seem to be widening at the moment. A little more doubt, a little more questioning, would probably do us all a bit of good.

It is such questioning, such reinterpretation, that has allowed some religious thinking to survive at all in a smaller, less credulous and more integrated world, and find its place in the modern West. It can be done – the same Church that persecuted Galileo for stating that the Earth revolved around the sun, heresy at the time, found itself formally exonerating him in the late 20th century, when it was kind of stupid to argue otherwise. The Vatican now has its own 'in-house' astronomer, no less.

If only all such changes of position could be so completely arranged, so comprehensively and neatly played out. I wonder, over the centuries, how many groups of learned elders have pored over their religious tract of choice, seeking guidance from their Almighty on some startling new revelation, some new science which casts doubt on the previously solid pillars around which their faith were built? At what point did the Vatican realise, for example, that Galileo was right? Did they secretly realise he was on to something even during the man's lifetime, only to hide the truth, knowing how dangerous to their Church it would be? Given the AIDS crisis in Africa, will they ever get round to addressing the use of condoms? And how would the various Churches deal with First Contact, when and if it eventually happens?

I have to go back to The Book of Mormon for what I suspect lies behind the response to some of the more shattering revelations science may afford us from time to time. (And, yes, those revelations may yet of course back up things that the theologians have been saying). One of the better songs in the thing addressed how to deal with thoughts or feelings that conflicted with Mormon teachings.

"Turn it off, like a light switch. Just go click! It's a cool little Mormon trick! We do it all the time. When you're feeling certain feels that just don't feel right, treat those pesky feelings like a reading light, and turn 'em off."

It'd be cool indeed of some of the more outdated, conflicting and downright idiotic religious shibboleths could be similarly excised, but as Galileo's pardon took 360 years, I'm not expecting miracles.

Health scares

I've written in these pages before about the Tories' fundamental inability to grasp the concept of the NHS, a huge organisation which does not exist to make money and is therefore completely beyond their comprehension.

Latest suggestions on a prominent Tory forum include limiting the number of times anybody can visit a GP. This, of course, goes against an NHS constitutional principle that access is based on clinical need. God forbid you should have some problem which required repeated visits. "Well, Mr Smith, I'm afraid to tell you that several tests on your shoulder pain have proved inconclusive, and you've now run out of visits. If I were you I'd go home and pray it's not an acute case of gammy-arm-falls-off-at-the-jointitis. See you next year!"

It's only fair to point out of course, that this is not a stated policy aim of the government, merely a right-wing discussion forum shooting the breeze. Like most Tory Health ideas though, the very concept, of course, has been less than warmly welcomed by the professionals it's likely to affect. The Chairman of the BMA's GPs committee certainly hasn't pulled any punches - Health Minister Jeremy Hunt has evidently irked the BMA on GP-related matters generally: Hunt "...keeps on tweeting and speaking a childishly superficial and misleading analysis of a very complex problem," according to the good Doctor Buckman.

Petitions are already being raised, objections voiced. Some of the Tories' more hare-brained ideas on the NHS have already died as a result, in part, of the hugely negative reaction from both professionals and public. With any luck this will be still-born too.

Monday, 22 April 2013

The sun shines on the righteous

I've written in these pages before about the joy experienced when getting together with a substantial chunk of my mates to celebrate the wedding of two of them, and I was privileged to be invited to another such occasion on Saturday.

Set just outside Sudbury, in the heart of Gainsborough country (which, while still far from being in full leaf, was appropriately bucolic and entirely beautiful), this was a day when it finally felt like spring had arrived in all its glory. After what's felt like six months of unending grey and dreary cold - hang on, let's rephrase that - after what has been six months of unending grey and dreary cold, the sun warmed us nicely from an azure sky as the guests were taken to the venue on an old Routemaster. (Number 159 no less, the route home for me down to Streatham; so kind of the bride and groom to think of us south London dwellers in such a fashion when they must have been busy!)

A cracking venue, marvellous food - as I said on the night, never before in my life have I seen too much dessert, I wasn't even sure such a thing was possible - and the couple picking up the tab for the drinks all night, all combined to make this a most convivial occasion. One thing, though. No matter how beautiful the weather, no matter how lovely the setting, no matter how much fine food and booze, these things are only as good as the people which complete the occasion. And what very, very fine people these are.

As I've often said on here, I genuinely think I'm ridiculously fortunate to find myself surrounded by such good people, and privileged to call them my friends. That two of them should be kind enough to invite me and so many others to their wedding is humbling and gratifying, as was the kindness and cordiality of their families, the joy in the best men's speech and the general atmosphere of goodwill in the whole thing. I joked on these pages after the stag do that the stag (now the husband, of course) was batting way above his average, but the truth of the matter is of course that these are both people of the very, very finest qualities.

That I got so pleasantly blotto*, saw those two outstanding people get married and spent the evening in the company of most of my closest friends left me counting my lucky stars once again. I wish the new Mr and Mrs M all the very best.

*Rumour has it that I was seen front and centre, singing loudest, into the early hours at the post-reception sing-song. I can only, in response to those rumours, quote the groom's own speech, as he introduced the best men, fearful of the contents of their forthcoming address. "Filthy, lying mouths..."

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

In the horse's mouth

Last weekend, a few football fans in the north and south of England decided to do their bit for the stereotype of us all as snarling, atavistic, violent neanderthals, with trouble in both London and Newcastle. A few Millwall fans at Wembley decided they'd have a bit of a scrap amongst themselves, no doubt eliciting a rolling of eyes among the thousands of peaceful Millwall supporters all too used to being seen in that light regardless of the facts of the matter, while old enemies Sunderland and Newcastle did the dance of the thousand fists on the streets around town in the north-east.

(On that, Sunderland and Newcastle fans could easily identify each other from their shirts, but how did the Millwall fans know who to hit and who was hitting with them? Did somebody nip off to the gents' and knock up a few quick flags on bog paper, improvised heraldry for the idiot few to tell themselves apart? That'll baffle me for some time...)

Anyway, one individual has quickly become the 'icon', if that's the right word, for this display of first-class fuckwittery. 45-year-old Barry Rogerson has learned quickly that it's one thing to go around hitting fellow football fans, but it's quite another to punch a police horse. This nation of animal lovers does not take too kindly to that sort of thing, and our Baz has quickly found his name, age and former occupation plastered all over our beloved press.

This piece in the Express is particularly magnificent, encapsulating perfectly both the utterly moronic childishness of his actions, and the press's gleeful, pious response to it. Mr Rogerson has evidently realised how badly his actions have played out to a British public which probably has a regard for, and relationship with, animals which is unique in the world. If his taking part in the disorder in the first place was childish, his rapid backing-away from his actions subsequently makes him sound even more like an eight-year-old kid trying to pull the angelic innocent act in front of a sceptical parent.

"I'd like to apologise to the horse... ," he says. Only in Britain would this not sound utterly bonkers - I'm quite sure the horse is ready to shake hooves and put the whole thing behind them. Then this, from his wife, which is probably the best line in the whole piece: "He normally never goes out anywhere without me. I let him out once by himself and look what happens." See, officer? He's just a kid who got too excited, threw up his jelly and ice cream and then had a hissy fit, lashing out when the party broke up. So he faces a wrathful public, probably a wrathful wife, and will soon face the judgement of the law. Bet he's pleased he went to that game.

As a football fan myself, and despite not having anything violent or anti-social in my past to answer for in that regard myself, I feel the need to redress the balance a bit. We fans face enough mistrust and disdain from people outside the game as it is without Mr Rogerson and those like him doing their bit for the negative stereotypes. I'd urge you, if you have time, to read this, and this, or just type 'football fans charity' into Google and have a look at what comes up. The huge majority of us are just people, doing many more good things overall than bad, just like the rest of the population. If anything, the common bond and understanding of support, of any team, makes it easier for us to come together and act in unison where there's a need.

Most fans are mortified when they see this sort of stuff, so please don't go thinking that the photo of Barry Rogerson, face covered, punch mid-swing, which so many people have seen (and had confirm their opinion of football fans) is in any way typical of us.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

InkTears of happiness

Bit of a deserved plug for a friend of mine, this – Michael Scott Thompson, a writer with a bit of success in competitions behind him already, has picked up another prize. His story True Colours has picked up the runner-up gong in this year's InkTears short story competition. I've read it and can strongly recommend it as worth a read when they publish the prize winners in May.

Congratulations once again, Mike.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The witch is dead. Ding dong?

I have a difficult line to tread on this one. If I'd written this 15/20 years ago, this would have been an ill-considered and exuberant celebration of the death of a woman who polarised opinion then, and who continues to do so now. I've read hagiographic, fawning praise and open celebration of her passing today, with very little in between. But, oddly, the moment I was told of Margaret Thatcher's demise, I felt nothing. No sense either of vindictive happiness or sadness at her passing. This is, you'd think, a reasonably normal response to learning of the death, at an old age, of somebody you never knew.

This was not, though, if you grew up in Britain when I did, a woman you didn't know, at least in some form. You certainly knew of the effects of her policies - you could see it everywhere. Millions unemployed, the emasculation of the union movement, the complete abandonment of Liverpool, the selling off of the UK's major nationalised industries, her disgraceful protection of Pinochet - I could go on. Worst, for me was the fundamental change of mindset which her economic policy engendered in Britain. The deregulation of the banks and the promotion of an attitude that money was everything, that a social conscience and a sense of social responsibility could be sacrificed in the pursuit of money. That's what most effectively encapsulates the damage her dogmatic pursuit of her ideology did to us, for me. (I realise that, for many, the worst thing her government did was Clause 28, but I would argue that it's her economic policy, with Lawson at no.11, that has had the most lasting impact, done the most damage. We're still reaping what she sewed then today).

So fundamental was the change in British attitudes that the Labour Party had to move miles to its right to make itself electable again - the idea of socialism, even in a modern form, was anathema to people who were earning hundreds of thousands, and borrowing up to seven times their salary for a mortgage they'd learn to regret later, when the 'bust' part of Thatcherism's boom/bust economics inevitably rolled round.

Her political ghost, her influence, hung around the Tory party right up to the modern day - maybe it still does. She may only have died this morning, but her phantom presence could obviously still be felt guiding the minds of the more right-wing, patrician elements at Conservative HQ from the day she resigned back in 1990 'til now.

I've read that, regardless of one's views on her politics, she deserved respect for being a genuine and committed politician, who had the strength of conviction to stand up for what she believed in totally, and who blazed a trail for women in politics. I'd say that, in fact, both of those things only serve to further damn her from the perspective of the present day, looking back. For years afterwards, women in frontline politics in Britain, particularly on the Tory side, were compared to her. This is not a comparison I'd want making, were I a woman entering politics, even if I were a Tory, because of the antipathy Thatcher engendered in many people. People would wonder if a female Tory was 'another Thatcher', rather than considering them for their own merits. And in an effort to appear completely unlike her, we ended up with the supposed opposite, 'Blair's Babes', a ghastly byword for all that was wrong with latter-day Labour's style-over-substance politics and a completely damnable reduction of those women's abilities.

And those powerful convictions of hers were, ultimately, among the things which brought her down. She was utterly incapable of contemplating a change of course - remember 'the lady's not for turning'? She held so true to her word that Thatcherism became a byword for dogmatism, and ultimately brought her into conflict with even her most loyal colleagues. She couldn't face the prospect of bending, even slightly, to the views of others. Geoffrey Howe, a Tory I do have the utmost respect for, perhaps delivered the coup de grace. Delivering his resignation speech to a packed and silent Commons, he made it clear that her intransigence over Europe (she was almost fanatically, paranoically anti-European, politically speaking) had driven a fatal wedge between them. He said:

"The conflict of loyalty, of loyalty to my Right Hon. friend the Prime Minister – and, after all, in two decades together that instinct of loyalty is still very real – and of loyalty to what I perceive to be the true interests of the nation, has become all too great. I no longer believe it possible to resolve that conflict from within this Government. That is why I have resigned. In doing so, I have done what I believe to be right for my party and my country. The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long."

Under a month later, she was gone – her icy veneer finally cracking as she left no.10 in tears, clearly stunned at what she perceived as a stab in the back by her own party. In truth, they were just trying to keep the Tory ship afloat and needed a more human face, and a more flexible mind, to take over. That stubbornness is one of the reasons she's so reviled by many to this day – adherence to policy and the free market was more important than people, and anybody even slightly on the left of the political spectrum will never understand or forgive that, nor the fact that there are unsettling echoes of it in Cameron's Government.

So while I may not feel the sense of grim joy that may have been the case when I was younger, I can't say I feel any sense of loss at her death either. That she left an indelible mark on British society is unarguable, but that mark is a horrible, dark stain which reeks of money. I signed a petition set up to try to help prevent her being given a State funeral, a petition which was opened while she was still alive. I didn't do that out of any ghoulish desire to see her die - that's how strongly people feel about her, how strongly I felt about her. So while I may be treading that line more carefully than would once have been the case, and would certainly join in the condolences to her family, who have lost a mother and grandmother after all, I'm still standing fairly solidly on one side of it.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Smoke without fire

I have what could reasonably be described as conflicting opinions on smoking. On the one hand, I've never smoked in my life. My g/f and I don't allow people to smoke in our house, banishing them to the garden if they want a ciggy, and if it were up to me everybody would give up smoking completely.

On the other hand, I can't stand the smoking ban. Don't get me wrong, I see the benefits of course, and suspect I hardly need to go through them fully here – the lack of stink on one's clothes/hair, the removal of the effects of passive smoking from the pub's employees and punters etc etc. But it's not that I have a problem with. Firstly, there's the fundamental nanny-state mollycoddling in banning an elective and legal activity, which should not be up to government. I just don't like that on a fundamental level.

Secondly there's the sort of smoker/non-smoker apartheid which has developed as smokers huddle outside pubs, indulging their habit in all weathers while the non-smokers either have to come outside and breathe their smoke anyway or abandon their conversation while they remain inside. Then there's the smell – pubs now smell of farts and sweat, which cigarette smoke used to mask rather effectively.

Now it seems that even e-cigarettes are coming into the line of fire of certain health groups. I think they're marvellous things, and I've never used one. My partner's mother, a committed smoker all her adult life despite a heart attack and two hospitalisations for breathing difficulties, had just these past few days managed to get off real cigarettes completely by using them. Eight days without smoking when she'd previously been singularly incapable of giving up.

They smell of warm candy floss rather than smoke. They contain no tar. There's no risk of passive smoking – they emit water vapour, not smoke. They allow people to stay together inside. In theory at least. (Recently a workmate of mine was told by an All Bar One manager that it was 'company policy' that e-cigs are forbidden in their bars. I can find no mention of this on their website or within their corporate communications – he and his companions chose to leave, taking their business with them. I just don't understand that attitude. The pub trade in Britain is in crisis, you'd think they'd welcome something which encourages people back inside.)

It also appears that the BMA is not taken with them. Despite Professor John Britton, the Royal College of Physicians' tobacco advisory group leader, pointing out that nicotine itself is no more hazardous than caffeine, the BMA want them 'heavily regulated' because they 'don't know they're safe'. There's also a concern that they could 'legitimise something that looks like smoking'. Well smoking real cigarettes is already confirmed as unsafe, hugely so. It also looks exactly like smoking, and is legitimate. So what would they rather have, in the absence of being able to simply make everybody stop completely?

I was, I'll confess, unaware that they could be legally sold to kids – that certainly should be regulated because anything which plays a role in starting children smoking should most wholeheartedly be discouraged. But most adults – almost a million in Britain already, apparently – buy them, I strongly suspect, as part of an effort to at least cut down on the real thing. That has certainly been the empirical evidence I've seen – plenty of my workmates now hardly smoke real fags at all, and a few have stopped altogether, thanks to e-cigs.

If a real hard-core smoker like my g/f's mum can give up because of them (and one of her friends now wants to try to do the same thing, having seen her success), then anybody can. You'd have thought the BMA, and others like them, would encourage something like that.

Monday, 25 March 2013

What happens in Dublin...

I'd like to tell you a little bit about the city of Dublin, where I spent a fun couple of days this weekend just passed. Regrettably, I can't because apart from a restorative circuit of St Stephen's Green on Saturday lunchtime, I saw precious little of it which wasn't the inside of some drinking establishment or other.

I don't think I've been so thoroughly (or pleasantly) soaked in alcohol for a very, very long time, and in the true spirit of stag and hen affairs, what happens in Dublin stays in Dublin. (Either that, or my memory of the thing is inexplicably patchy. One of those two things is definitely the case). I can tell you bits of what I do remember, though.

We were, by any measure, a civilised bunch. Not for this intrepid eight the cringeworthy shame of humiliating the stag in a mankini or some other sartorial horror. Indeed we were described by one of the musicians playing a pub we visited as, "...the best-behaved stag party in Dublin." I recognise that this would be a source of shame for some stag groups. Not for me. I've always hated sort of shit and have no desire to see even a good mate's bare arse on even the most ribald of weekends, let alone parade it though the streets of an unfamiliar city and then try to gain access to a pub.

So, gain access to pubs we did. Without any difficulty at any one of them, on account of the fact that even shit-faced we were a civilised lot. I was then, once inside, faced with the task of making up for the years of lost 'real' Guinness drinking I'd inflicted upon myself by never having been to Ireland before. I can report, dear reader, that I did my best. We all did. The Guinness is indeed different, though not as much as some would have you believe. But nowhere was it served badly, nowhere did it have that metallic tang it acquires if it hasn't been cared for correctly, and nowhere did it taste better than in the 360-degree Dublin panorama that was the bar at the top of the brewery.

I congratulate the eight men, good and true, who did their best to drink their own weight while at the same time not descending into that awful Brits-abroad stereotype. Good luck with the forthcoming wedding, Mr M. (Don't tell anybody I said this but he's batting well above his average there).   ;o)

I look forward to seeing all of you again on April 20th.

Edit: I've just had a flashback of one of the more vivid sights of the weekend. A lad sitting on the stone steps of one of Dublin's grander buildings, being copiously sick into his own hand, while his killer-heeled girlfriend kicked him repeatedly in the ribs. Oh, Dublin in the spring...

Thursday, 21 March 2013

3 into 1 does go, sometimes

I have, to say the least, been indolent in my blog entries lately. But there's nothing like a bit of self-indulgence to prompt a renewal of effort. I should warn you that if you find self-congratulatory back slapping nauseating, look away now.

I have, in what I hope will also be sufficiently energising to renew my efforts at writing fiction, sort of been published in print for the first time. I say 'sort of' because I am only one of twenty writers published in this book, and a very long way behind some of them.


Some time ago I entered a competition organised in an effort raise money for The Arthrogyposis Group, in which the idea was to write a short story which linked a black queen chess piece, a bunch of flowers and a ten-pound note. I entered and, already to my considerable delight, won fourth prize. This brought a very welcome two hundred spondoolies which I banked and spent some time ago, but much more gratifyingly the promise of an actual printed, tangible book in which my story would appear.

It had originally been planned for Christmas but, and this is something I understand all too well after spending 20 years as a print buyer, things were evidently rather delayed. This evening, when I got home from work, there was an envelope containing said document, entirely unexpectedly. I can't tell you how pleasing this is. Anyway, enough of the patting of my own back.

Should you feel sufficiently interested to buy the thing, you'd be supporting a good cause. And I'd be extremely flattered. For God's sake don't feel obliged, but it's available from here for a tenner including the postage if you feel like it. Just promise not to compare the winner too closely with mine - it's an absolute lesson in just how far I've got to go before I can consider myself a writer.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

A good day for equality?

The Parliamentary vote on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was, in many ways, something of a landmark. That it should pass with such a strong majority should, I suppose, be viewed positively. But something in the breakdown of the votes still irks me.

The motion was passed by 400 votes to 175, giving it a strong mandate as it moves to the Lords (one wonders what they will make of it!). It's that 175 that gives rise to disappointment. This was a free vote – no whip was issued, giving MPs free rein to vote as they, or their constituents in an ideal world, saw fit. 136 of the 'nay' votes were Tories – almost 80% of them. That's nearly half the Parliamentary Tory members. Given that 35 Tories abstained, this means only 127 of them actually voted in favour – fewer than voted against.

This means that the majority of the rank and file MPs of the largest party in our government believe that people should be denied the same rights as everybody else simply because of their sexuality. And that's what it boils down to – they may make indignant noises about the sanctity of the union between  a man and a woman, or various other bollocks, but that's just Emperors' new clothing over the naked truth of the matter.

I'll be watching this one through the Lords with interest, because I can't see it passing into law unscathed – there will be objections from a Lords which is rather less representative of the general population than the Commons, and the disquiet among so many Tories will surely give Cameron cause to think, and possibly water it down to keep his own party happy. Cameron himself, to give him credit he rarely receives in these pages, has vocally supported this bill. But he's got a problem on his hands with so many of his party in open opposition to it.

Assuming this does, down the line, pass into law, all that will then remain will be to give heterosexual couples the right to civil partnerships currently only enjoyed by same-sex couples. Then we really would have across-the-board equality in these matters. For now, on balance, I think this was a good day for equality – a single step in the right direction, at any rate.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Who's next?

It's been a bad few weeks for high street retailers. Nothing unusual in that, at the moment, but the last couple to have gone (or at least look like they're going) are names which we're all very, very familiar with.

I've never been into music, and though I do really enjoy films, I'm not an obsessive watcher of them by any means. Even so, hearing that HMV had gone into receivership struck a chord that will resonate in all of us. As a kid I used to go into the big HMV in Churchill Square in Brighton and browse the film section - videos when I was young, DVDs later, of course – or, rarely, the music section. This is one of those shared experiences which pretty much anybody can relate to - it didn't matter if you were a hardcore death metal-head or a serious classicist, what you were looking for could probably be bought there. Later, they added head- and earphones, books and mags, 'cool' bags and T-shirts, everything the yoof of the day may need. Ultimately, it didn't matter – a very long, drawn-out death is finally coming to its conclusion and 4,000 people are, in all likelihood, going to lose their jobs.

Blockbuster is another one; another of those collective experiences most of us have shared at some point. When videos arrived for the masses, they used to have to get multiple copies of the big blockbusters when they came in, and there'd still occasionally be a wait for the very biggest of them. Disappointed, you'd have to browse the racks of cases looking for an alternative, now and then taking a chance on something you'd never heard of. What was that chance based on? Who starred? The design on the case? What the shop staff said? That shared experience has also died a slow death, and now it seems Blockbuster too is in the final throes.

It's easy to see what's killed off these high-street institutions. "Internet killed the video star," said the local paper in Brighton, where HMV still had (has? I don't know) a store in the main shopping centre. Indeed the internet is, of course, the killer, but it has millions of accomplices – everybody buys their films and music from Amazon, Play.com and the like now, don't they? At Christmas, you can do all your shopping without getting off your backside, if you're so inclined. And millions are so inclined. The market simply moves the trade from the high-street to the large online retailers, goes the capitalist thinking, and the jobs move with it. Adapt or die – pretty simple economics.

We should, though, stop and think on what we're doing here for a moment. The big online stores employ, of course, far fewer people than they would if they ran shops selling similar quantities of merchandise. It's how, no doubt, they can offer products so much cheaper – lower wage bill, lower rent, lower utility charges; just a few fuck-off warehouses in strategic bits of the countryside and a sophisticated distribution network and Bob's your mother's brother. It certainly lacks something of the romance of our younger selves' experience of shopping for the latest must-have album.

I am no different to anybody else – I've used these online retailers plenty of times, though I don't buy music at all, but even I have bought books, gifts, household appliances, all sorts online. And I believe we've lost something valuable in ditching those collective experiences I mentioned earlier. These days, people don't even necessarily buy an actual artefact at all – they download films, music and books digitally. These objects, sometimes things of beauty and collectability even before the actual content – the music, film or story – is taken into account, have been reduced to a series of binary data, nothing more than electronic pulses to convey the creative efforts of all those people who conceived and produced them. So we're losing something there as well.

All these things have a knock-on affect. If fewer and fewer of the packages are being designed and produced, there's a net harm done to the design and production industries which feed off them. And if retailers keep closing, shopping centres become run-down agglomerations of charity shops, pound shops, pawnbrokers and the like, the grim flag bearers of hard economic times. I fear, though, it's too late. The small, independent places which survive (I assume because of a resurgence of interest in vinyl) now stand out even more as little beacons – when I pass Fopp, one such place right by my work, it's always full of earnest-looking men (always, always men) still scratching that itch, searching through racks of music or film for some arcane gem. So the need is still out there. Just not, it seems, in sufficient numbers to sustain these familiar names. And that, for me, is a loss to all of us.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

If I ruled the world...

In conversation with one of my workmates today, she happened to mention that if she ruled the world, the first thing she'd do would be to ban e-readers (Kindles and the like) and execute anybody flouting that ban(!)

Now, putting to one side her enthusiasm for what I suspect would be near genocide, given the ubiquity of these things, I actually agree with her preference for the printed form. Wereplenipotentiary world leader, I certainly wouldn't ban them, but nor do I want one. I can see how useful they are for holidays, commuting etc, but I just like books too much to want to ditch them. The beauty of a well-designed dust jacket, the satisfaction of handling them, the smell when they're new.* The visible progress as you make your way through them. The author's signature on the fly leaf, if you're lucky. The contentment of surveying a full bookshelf, perfectly parallel spines, upright like so many soldiers; simultaneously alluring and alluding to their content, all jostling for your attention, each suggesting a cheeky re-read. You just don't get that with e-readers.

But I'm digressing a bit from what was to be my original point. Digressing quite a bit, actually, because what I actually wanted to say was that, of all the things you could do with absolute power at your disposal, all the wrongs you could right, all the failings and everyday unfairnesses you could sort out, this was the first thing she wanted to do? Ban Kindles and start bumping off 'refuseniks'? I even offered her the chance to think about some more far-reaching and beneficial options, but she stuck with her choice. The theory was that the ban would be a quick undertaking, something that had been bugging you that you could now get done swiftly and move on to more important stuff. Like changing that dead lightbulb before you get on with building the extension.

So - forcing an end to conflicts, reaching for Mars, sorting out Third World debt, feeding the hungry millions? All in good time. Get rid of those wretched gadgets first and all, or at least more, would be right with the world.

*I used to buy print for a living. If you didn't already know that, did that sentence rather give it away?