Ash Clouds

Oh the volcanic ash cloud. What will holiday makers do? They’re stuck in Madrid. They can’t get a flight, they can’t get a boat. Oh, the horror of it—the horror!

Now some of those people have managed to get on coaches and now they’re all arriving at Calais. There are too many people at Calais. THERE ARE TOO MANY PEOPLE AT CALAIS! There will surely be crime. They’ll be mugged and robbed and buggered for all they’re worth. Oh, the treachery of that volcano! Oh, the misery for those poor people.

I’ve been stuck in an airport overnight in Menorca; I’ve slept in a train station in Malaysia; I’ve been marooned in places where no one can speak English with no feasible method of exit for a prolonged period of time; and I’ve taken a plethora of 15-25 hour coach journeys all over the world in vehicles you wouldn’t even deem roadworthy (sometimes while also suffering from diarrhoea); yet, even without someone bringing me blankets and cups of hot tea, I am alive and not horrendously scarred by these experiences, because, honestly, they weren’t all that bad.

But maybe I’m wrong. I am, after all, just one man with one opinion. Perhaps the reality of the grounded flights is truly dreadful. Let’s watch the BBC interview the people involved and listen to their tales of woe.

“Hello Sir, how are you bearing up?”

“Not too bad.”

“Hello there, how has your journey been so far?”

“Long, but pretty good to be honest.”

“How have you been treated by the embassy?”

“Very well.”

Right, so even the majority of the people experiencing this catastrophic humanitarian disaster first hand seem to be ‘bearing up well’ as one reporter put it. But still the media insist on portraying the ‘inconvenience’ as a challenge akin to Cook’s endeavour voyage.

Impossible to get the facts these days. Even at the source they try and warp it. And so this brings me, by a knight’s move, to the 2010 General Election.

Last night saw the three main parties tackle foreign affairs. I’ve recorded it with the vague idea of watching it at some point today, but already, having watched just a snippet of today’s television, I’ve had the whole thing summed up for me from multiple angles by multiple people. Not the party policies on foreign affairs though. I’m still no clearer on them. But I do know that last night’s debate was more evenly weighted than the first one, with none of the three men emerging as the clear victor, which apparently heightens the prospect of a ‘hung parliament’. Is that good? I can’t find a conclusive answer. This morning I read contradictory pieces in the Times and the Telegraph, one of which expounds the virtues of such a parliament and the other lambastes it as sure fire economic disaster for Britain. It’s all conjecture and, as such, I have no way to form an opinion on which outcome is the more likely.

I’m told that a vote for Nick Clegg is pretty much deemed to be a vote for a hung parliament, which means that I’m not actually voting for a man, I’m voting for a government coalition that I don’t fully understand. Understanding the implications of these things is important if we are to make reasoned, logical decisions, yet all we are really told about is how tall or short the three party leaders are; how garrulous or reticent they seem; are they posh or common? What are their wives like? The real information – the party politics – is shunted behind a layer of spin and treachery and, as voters, we must grope through this oomska to find out what the difference is between them. And when you do, guess what, it’s virtually nothing.

The difference between Barack Obama and John McCain was the difference between black and white (and not just in looks). What’s the difference between Nick Clegg and David Cameron? They could practically be brothers. Gordon Brown could be their weird uncle. The three men are virtually indistinguishable (and not just in looks).

I keep waiting for someone to say or do something that I consider worthy of a vote – something bold and brave – but it’s not forthcoming. So then, on the flip side, I wait for someone to blunder in epic style so I can write them off. Holiday pictures of David Cameron shooting White Rhino’s with an AK47 would work, but, to date, that hasn’t happened either.

A friend of mine recently summed up the reason for this similarity between the Lib. Dems, Labour and Tories by stating that, although Britain had problems, they are not problems major enough to warrant radical reform and, therefore, the main objective of the three parties – as they were so closely matched in polls – is to seem more appealing than their rivals in order to edge the votes in their favour.

It’s not a new thing; the politics of appearance has always been important, but today it seems to dominate. How you look is more important than what you have to say. Style over content. Celebrity politics. And the media continue to play it up. The papers take sides. Impossible to get the facts these days. Ah, the news is on . . . The stranded Brits are coming home on a luxury cruise liner . . . The volcanic ash cloud has blown away from Britain . . . But I can still see a haze in the air. I can’t see clearly. May 6th. All will be clear after May 6th . . . But will it be better?

 

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Gentlemen Only Lotharios Forbidden

Monday marked the return of the disgraced Tiger Woods to the game of golf and, as expected, there was much anticipation around the occasion. Well not the occasion of the US Masters—that was just a side issue. No, all anyone wanted to talk about was Tiger Woods the person.

And I can understand why. As a person he is somewhat of an enigma. I have to admit that I only recently found out that he is an actual person. Up until his spectacular fall from grace, I assumed that he was merely a golf playing robot—the creation of some mad golf enthusiast. And in many respects he was. He has certainly never acted very human. He especially didn’t like talking to them. The fans were kept at a distance and, judging by the comments made by some of his fellow professionals, so were they. For instance, I read a paper on Monday that asked many of his peers what they would like to ask him if they had just one question. The answers were peppered with the sort of innuendo you expect to encounter on a phone in to ‘The Wright Stuff’. I know golf is a sport for individuals, but nevertheless, it was a poignant and somewhat sad reminder of just how much distance Tiger Woods kept between himself and everyone else.

Yet despite of his aloof stoicism, sometimes the cracks did show. Now and again a bad shot would cause his rage to poke through the armour of tranquillity and although he was usually able to laugh off these tics in post play press conferences, it should have raised the alarm that beneath the smile all was not well.

I never trust a prodigy as a person. History has taught us that a glut of talent is usually offset by some grievous character flaw, which often manifests itself in some form of addiction. It seems to be God’s way of making amends for the gift. “Sorry underlings, I accidentally gave this one 10 people’s golfing ability, but don’t worry I’ll replace his sense of humour with extra narcissism and self-doubt which he will have to neuter with a horrible, debilitating vice.”

In the case of Tiger Woods, his flaws were probably accentuated or perhaps even cultivated during childhood, or, to be specific, his lack of childhood. I say probably because I can’t find sources to verify the claim, although I don’t consider it a wild assumption that someone who learns to play golf before they are two years old and wins an under 10’s championship at the age of three must have spent a fairly large proportion of that period knocking a ball about with a club and a fairly small proportion of that time learning life lessons from Pinocchio.

Still, Monday marked the golf deity’s triumphant return to the course and equally triumphant return to the press conference, which was hailed by the media as a groundbreaking victory for Woods. According to the abundant reports, his genuine smile, his promise to engage with the fans and his praise of his fellow competitors was all proof that he is human and willing to address his flaws and become a better person. But, honestly, what did they expect him to say? Think of it in PR terms – which is, I would have thought, the only way that Woods can think. What else could he have said? All other moves result in checkmate Tiger. So while the media may laud this as the second coming of golf-Christ, I hesitate to give him so much credit.

Tiger Woods has lived the majority of his life as a lucrative piece of marketing material that has been, until recently, denied the chance to learn any of life’s lessons so that he can act in manor befitting the brands he promotes. The news of his multiple misdemeanours not only dealt him a tough hand in life experience, it also outlined how naïve he is. In light of this, I very much doubt that those sponsors that remain affiliated with Woods are willing to place absolute trust in him to do and say the right things, knowing that from now on his every movement will be scrutinised by the press. His speeches, eye movement, smile, laugh, wave, walk—the media will pounce on any sign that his rehabilitation is faltering and, as such, his PR team will ensure that he is better prepped, rehearsed and regulated than ever before.

In the past we at least had his occasional on-course-explosion to reassure us that he was human, but from now on we can never be truly confident that what he says or does is the genuine Tiger Woods. He is probably spending a lot of time trying to find that guy at the moment, although sadly when he does track him down he will never have the opportunity to show us that man—the person Tiger Woods.

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Wonders of the Solar System (Sunday 9pm BBC2)

Ask me about the theory of relativity and I’ll mutter something about a speeding train and a platform, Albert Einstein and patent office workers being underappreciated, before trailing off in confusion. Tell me to explain string theory and I’ll punch you in the face.

Speed = distance / time. That’s about the extent of my ability in physics. I can tell you the speed of something given the amount of time it took to travel a certain distance . . . and a calculator. But if you already had those details then why would you care how fast something was travelling?
“Hey man you’re here!”
“Damn right! Got a beer for a weary traveller?”
“Hold on a minute. When did you leave?”
“What do you mean?”
“What time did you leave your house?”
“I dunno, about 5.30.”
“Ok, and how far did you travel?”
“You know where I live?”
“Yeah, but what’s the distance? . . . preferably in metres.”
“Who cares, why?”
“I’m going to work out your average speed.”
“Fuck you, I’m going to the pub.”

Aside from this useless equation, I’m also aware of something called ‘lambda.’ It looks like an upside-down ‘Y,’ but I couldn’t tell you what it does. No, as far as I’m aware, physics is of no practical use to me whatsoever. I’m too stupid to use it. My brain doesn’t get it. But this is also the reason that I find it so interesting. When I hear about the solar system I’m like a child hearing a fairytale—fascinated, captivated, enthralled.

The problem with making a program about physics though – and probably the reason that so few of them are made – is that, while it may be a feast for the ears and the brain it is not so for the eyes. Very long complicated equations, graphs, squiggly lines, diagrams of unimaginably small particles, Stephen Hawking; in short, physics is not a very visual medium, and although the night sky is beautiful, there are only so many shots of the Milky Way that the average viewer will tolerate before switching over to watch Come Dine With Me.

To remedy this problem the BBC have attempted to fuse astrophysics with natural history in their new factual programme ‘Wonders of the Solar System.’ Or, to put it in their words, “Professor Brian Cox visits the most extreme locations on Earth to explain how the laws of physics carved natural wonders across the solar system.” What this amounts to is Professor Brian Cox subliminally piping physics into our brains while we are distracted by cascading waterfalls and aurora borealis. Funnily enough, it actually works and doesn’t, as I initially suspected, feel stitched together or forced. Some of the location links to the subject seem slightly tenuous, but there is always a link nonetheless. What’s more, it makes the programme a lot lighter. Having someone talk in lightyears, and ‘to the power ofs’ for an hour is too much for the casual Sunday night viewer to stomach, and so the travel clips and scenery shots form welcome breaks that allow the brain to recover and process the information it has just received.

My only worry is how they will sustain this blend of place and theory throughout the five parts. Perhaps they won’t bother. Maybe the last programme will just be a 45 minute lecture on Kaluza-Klein theory, finished with a 15 minute viewer phone in to discuss, ‘Fundamental forces, ‘Gravitation’ or ‘Electromagnetism,’ which is your favourite?’ . . . Let’s hope not.

Despite the fact that most of us have no real understanding of physics and no practical application for it, that’s not to say that it is of no use. Quite the contrary. To watch the beauty of our world juxtaposed with photos of a far off star in supernova—the light reaching us years after it has died, is amazing; and even more so, to hear in layman’s terms our incredible insignificance in the unimaginable massiveness of space. This is how physics is relevant to me. For an atheist, without the fairytale of a magical man in the sky, it’s about as a good a story as there is. The story of the universe we inhabit is more interesting, more elaborate, more intricate and complex than we could ever hope to create in our own minds – more often than not, it’s even more complex than we can hope to comprehend in our own minds. Take solace in not understanding it all and in the likelihood that we probably never will. It’s the perfect metaphor for human endeavour; groping in the darkness in pursuit of something that isn’t there—the non-existent prize. The unobtainable truth. The pointlessness of it all. Revel in it. Enjoy it. None of this matters. None of it matters.

 

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Michael Jackson’s This Is It

This is it. Three words that can be used to express very different emotions depending on the placement of stress or cadence upon the three syllables.

A flat delivery can convey the feeling of being underwhelmed. As in . . . ‘The couple entered the £150k studio flat, looked left, then right, before sighing, “Oh, this is it.”’

However, if the stress is applied to the final word, the opposite effect is implied – an exclamation of how monumentally brilliant something is. For example: “I’m so glad we stretched our budget to £2.5 million. Look at the view from the helipad! This is it.”

Or, given an upward inflection, one can ask a question, such as . . . ‘Sir Fred Goodwin looked at his bonus cheque. “This is it?” he exclaimed in dismay. Then he realised his gaucherie and blushed. There was, of course, a second page of noughts.’

There are many more ways, but my awareness of your attention span and my very limited grasp of prosody deters me from providing an exhaustive list.

I was, however, curious to find out which one I would be using to describe Michael Jackson’s tribute film, This Is It, which was recently released on DVD.

It started badly. All my fears of what type of tribute this would be came to fruition as the dancers from the show took turns to utter breathy, weepy praise down the lens.

But then it got better. They showed Michael Jackson singing and dancing like an actual popstar. I’d almost forgotten he did that. So much of the media attention in the years, months and weeks preceding his demise focussed on depicting him as an insane weirdo, that his status as the ‘King of Pop’ often seemed secondary to his notoriety as the ‘King of pale skin, the disintegrating nose and child molesting allegations,’ and admittedly, it was hard to keep that impression far from mind given Jackson’s appearance on film. His face was, in a bizarre case of life imitating art, the uncanny resemblance of his Thriller character, and he seemed preposterously thin – especially when juxtaposed with the array of beefcake dancers around him.

But despite his now very obvious ill health, the occasional talking heads spouting praise, the director’s incessant ass kissing and even some of Jackson’s trademark schmaltz, the vast majority of the film is Michael Jackson doing what he does best; in fact, doing what he does best, but in a way we have never seen before.

All of us have watched him aggressively tug on his crotch more times than we care to remember, but we have only ever seen it in a practiced, polished and perfected concert, or in an edited and airbrushed, multimillion dollar music video. This Is It is Michael Jackson before the final take.

And it’s this that makes it more interesting than the ‘live in the O2’ DVD that would have surely surfaced had the shows gone ahead. The footage in This Is It was never meant to be aired and so, with its the shaky camera work, poor lighting and half-caught conversations it has all the voyeuristic realism of a documentary.

For perhaps the first time we are watching Michael Jackson not trying to perform and entertain. He isn’t presenting a version of himself to the public, he is himself. And ‘himself’ comes across as a hard working, highly perceptive, tirelessly creative and surprisingly normal individual.

In this sense This Is It is a respectable tribute. Moreover, it makes it clear that the live show Jackson was planning would have been a breathtakingly brilliant extravaganza, which only serves to intensify the tragedy. But it is also fitting. For a man who lived so much of his life in a dream-world, it is the perfect, poignant finale; his greatest spectacle enshrined and immortalised in the collective imagination of his fans.

 

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Sue Johnston’s Shangri La (Available on BBC iPlayer . . . but don’t bother)

And the award for most gratuitous factual programme goes to . . . Sue Johnston’s Shangri La.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Shangri La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton.’ Ok, so to start with it isn’t an actual place. It continues, ‘Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise . . .’ Right, so it’s a blanket term for any concept of paradise. And finally, ‘. . . but particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia—a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world.’ With the Chinese occupation of Tibet I find it extremely unlikely that such a place would exist in this area.

In summary then, this was a quest to find a place that was concocted in a work of fiction nearly 80 years ago, is unique and individual to each and every one of us and – if it ever did exist – has probably been plundered and destroyed by Chinese imperialism. What’s more, this isn’t my Shangri La or your Shangri La, or even a whistle stop tour of achingly beautiful places on earth that could be considered Shangri La. No, it is Sue Johnston’s Shangri La.

Now, I don’t know Sue Johnston, but even if I did, I wouldn’t want to sit down for an hour while she talks me through her personal idea of paradise and I certainly wouldn’t want to fund her trip to attempt to find it, but unfortunately that is exactly what you and I have unwittingly done.

The target audience for this factual programme was very niche. It would have perhaps been enjoyed by Sue’s close family, or aside from that, any women born between 1941 and 1945 who had a working class upbringing in Merseyside and happened to read Lost Horizons at a young impressionable age. In fact, I hesitate when writing the term ‘factual programme,’ as it contained very little in the way of factual content, unless you consider the facts and information about Sue Johnston to be content. Because if there is one thing Sue did well it was talk about herself. I’m now an expert of Mastermind standard on ‘The life of Sue Johnston.’ I know all about her childhood, her mother dying, her divorce, how many children she has, who they are marrying even! But when it comes to the Tibetan people, or Shangri La I am none the wiser.

When introducing a foreign culture, country or indeed anything alien and intriguing to us, the best presenters in this realm are those who don’t try and force too much of themselves on to the viewer. They recognise that the life of a remote Tibetan tribe is far more interesting to us than the life of a former Brookside actress in her mid sixties. We don’t really want to see or know who the presenter is, we want them to be a faceless medium through which the people and places can be distilled and conveyed back to us as accurately as possible. Needless to say, Sue didn’t master this, but in fairness to her, I don’t think the format of the show even allowed her to try . . .

What is paradise? Paradise is unique for all of us. It exists inside our head and, even if we travelled to every nook and cranny on earth, it probably wouldn’t be realised in any actual location. It is a dream, a myth, an enigma that no presenter no matter how accomplished could deliver, because it wouldn’t be our paradise. So in this respect an actor is the perfect choice, because they can plumb the depths of the soul and emote to us the beauty and the splendour along with tears and gesticulation, which is exactly what Sue Johnston did. And whether or not she honestly felt that the mountain of Kawarkapo and the village of Yipung were her long imagined Shangri La, we will never know.

What we do know though, is that the BBC should be more judicious when commissioning a programme that is obviously destined to be nothing but a worthless, self-absorbed, introspective journey at our expense.

 

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Tower Block of Commons (Monday 9pm Ch4)

Pick people that are easy for the public to hate and make them live with people that are impossible to hate. This is a new format for documentaries currently doing the rounds, examples of which include: Blood, Sweat and Takeaways, which followed a group of solipsistic, mollycoddled twenty somethings, leaving their throw away, carefree existence to experience the real cost for those who make their bargain buckets a bargain; Famous, Rich and Homeless, went a step further by throwing various celebrities out on the streets to live with the homeless, shattering their preconceptions that all homeless people are lazy, work shy, freeloaders blocking the door to M&S; and 7 Days on the Breadline, forced the company of several celebrities on a few poor families (in both senses) in Leeds, so that they could learn that some people in this country don’t have enough money. Gasp!

Tower Block of Commons is the latest take on the theme, which sees four (that soon became three) politicians move in with families in dilapidated, poverty stricken council estates across Britain. They are: Austin Mitchell (the fat, old, loud one), Mark Oaten (the one who had the rent-boys), Iain Duncan Smith (the one who quit after a day following his wife’s cancer diagnosis), Tim Loughton (the one who looks like Richard Nixon might have if he wore glasses).

What becomes abundantly obvious early on – as with any of these shows – is the dichotomy between what the politicians hope they will achieve and what the producers know they will achieve. It is a sad irony that the politicians who opted to take part in this show probably did so due to a staunch belief that they were a bit more streetwise than their peers – after all, most middle class people would break out in a cold sweat if a tradesman asked them the time – and by broadcasting themselves side-by-side with the poorest in society they would improve their standing among the electorate, their colleagues in Whitehall and perhaps even change the zeitgeist of negative feeling towards MPs in general. This optimism serves to highlight their naivety in two primary ways.

First and foremost is the delusion that going to live on a council estate with those less fortunate is going to prove that you are fundamentally the same as them and, as such, they will respect you for it. This conviction is rooted in the politicians’ misguided belief that the poorest people in society will be equally interested in politics and as responsive to their policies as the richest. They won’t. The richest tend to get what they want and the poorest tend to get what’s left. The people they are staying with will more than likely have lived a life where politics has had little or no impact on their day to day activities, aside from the constant and belligerent anti-politician propaganda that they read in the tabloids. This engenders a deep seated mistrust in politicians, which is unlikely to be erased over a cup of tea, or a rational debate – such as Tim Loughton attempted with a group of youths outside a shop – because, since when did The Sun give a rational balanced point of view? In Parliament, arguing that MPs should be held accountable for fraudulent expenses claims is a sure to be an argument clincher. On a council estate, “What the fuck are you gunna do about it?” is a winning retort.

The second big mistake – and it’s more stupid than the first – lies in trusting that the programme’s producers have set the show up with the politicians in mind, as a vehicle for their political resurrection. This is an obvious blunder. Television portrays things as it feels fit, and in most cases, this is in the simplest and most shocking way. Tower Block of Commons could have been used as a vehicle to show politicians in a better light, connect them with the electorate and hopefully reinvigorate a lost generation of voters – which, judging by the enthusiastic opening monologues, was what the MPs had hoped for. But why put the effort in to do that when you can just make a 75 year old back bencher dress in a gaudy tracksuit and mock his gaucherie when confronted by the horrors of heroin addiction?

TV in this form is reductive. It doesn’t try to find meaning or solutions, it aims to belittle and humiliate. It follows the current capricious wave of public feeling and in this instance that means creating a show with the express intention of making politicians fail and look foolish.

Sadly though the programme is a double bluff. The politicians are the easy butt of the joke, but ultimately it is the poor families they stay with that suffer the most humiliation; the humiliation of having to live a life limited by poverty, poor health care, lack of education and job prospects. At a time when the focus is on filling the void between rich and poor we aren’t half bad at digging.

As David Cameron says, staring intensely from his poster, “We can’t go on like this.” . . . But what the fuck is he gunna do about it?

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Glee (Monday 9pm E4)

Glee. I don’t like the word. It contorts the mouth into a smile. Not a nice smile like you may experience when watching John Cleese playing Basil Fawlty, but a disingenuous smile, like you might get from watching someone do an impression of John Cleese playing Basil Fawlty.

So, to use it as the sole title word for a new series about a bunch of pulchritudinous American high school students overcoming their personal adversities through the insufferable medium of song and dance seemed wholly appropriate in relation to my personal association with the word.

The show had set itself up for a fall. I tuned in to watch with the sole intention of extracting a few trite clichés from the script with which to flavour the blog flog I was set to give it.

Imagine then my consternation when it turned out not to be a shit, strung out, multiple episode break down of High School Musical (I actually watched it twice to check I hadn’t gone mad). In fact, I can’t directly compare it to anything else in the genre. It isn’t like Skins, because it isn’t a poorly acted depiction of what teenagers wish their lives were like; neither is it of the same ilk as 90210 or The Hills, because I don’t get the urge to kill myself and all of the cast after watching it; and most surprisingly of all, it isn’t like the diabetes inducing, High School Musical. The storyline is multifaceted and the actors aren’t all smiling morons waiting to deliver the next nauseating platitude. The characters they play are well rounded individuals with personalities that are quickly identifiable without being stereotypical, and what’s more, it’s funny; yes that’s right, it’s genuinely funny sometimes.

Ok, it’s not perfect. The script is padded out with Sierpinski love triangles and riddled with the obligatory life affirming messages that are a staple in any programme whose primary objective is to woo the maudlin masses, but aside from that, I can’t slate it too heavily.

So I’ll be watching it every single week then? No, of course not.

It may be well put together, but I still hate it and everything it stands for; the conglomeration of insipid, mindless, mass produced music, the relentless allusion to a non-existent aesthetic perfection, the vain and vulgar worldview it extols. It is as base as any of its rivals – a brazen whore pandering to the capricious desires of the lucrative youth audience – but at least it is something new, engaging and original, rather than the usual re-packaged, re-branded crap – the same ass, but in a new skirt. As a result it beats most television hands down, and for that it deserves credit, even if its ultimate objective is to take the money and fuck us.

 

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