Friday, September 29, 2006


RIP Steve, Published Journalist

The one exciting event in my life over the last couple of weeks was my gaining of a job. That job was writing occasional film reviews for the Manchester student newspaper, Student Direct.

I was fairly pleased with myself. It's not every day you get to see your writings in print. I was duly dispatched to watch 'Hoodwinked', and my humble effort appeared in print this week.

Then, owing to some form of student politicking I won't even pretend to understand, it was all over. The newspaper no longer has a film section. My career as a published film reviewer lasted precisely one review.

Since it was my one and only contribution in print, and all my future efforts are sure to be relegated to this blog too, you may as well have it for completion's sake:

'A Short Review Of 'Hoodwinked''

'‘Hoodwinked’ is an animated re-imagining of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, positing that received wisdom has it all wrong, and giving the four principle characters – Red, Granny, Wolf and the Woodsman – the chance to tell their own version of the story.'

'Ever since ‘Shrek’, children’s films have had to contain jokes for adults and children alike, but ‘Hoodwinked’ is positively schizophrenic in providing half a film for each. The target audience are children young enough to find a world in which actions are motivated by sweets plausible, but such an audience is unlikely to garner any amusement from lengthy parodies of ‘The Matrix’ and ‘xXx’. Still, so many jokes are rattled off that for every miss (Granny doing extreme sports) there’s a hit (a country-singing goat, for instance).'

'It was made on a very low budget, only a tenth of that of ‘Chicken Little’, and unfortunately it shows in the animation, which is only competent. Red, in particular, looks more like a very cute garden gnome than a human child. Equally, the voice cast is starless, relying on character actors such as Glenn Close and Anne Hathaway as well as voiceover specialists like Patrick Warburton, whose deadpan interpretation of Wolf as a sarcastic investigative journalist is the comedic highlight.'

'While its air of smart cynicism hiding a warm heart isn’t inappropriate for the material, its best jokes induce more wry smiles than belly laughs, and it offers nothing unique in this very competitive genre, ultimately rendering it good fun but instantly forgettable.'

The word 'hoodwinked' is a rather apposite summation of how I feel about my erstwhile career.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Rising Damp

Spotted on a packet of Whiskas cat food today:

'Contains at least 18% moisture'.

That could be anything from milk to urine. Really reassuring, eh?

Monday, September 25, 2006


A Little Comment Goes A Long Way . . .

Shorter Anas Altikriti: Let me call for reconciliation between Muslims and Catholics by fanning the flames a little.

Shorter Mark Simpson: A Dutchman wouldn't need to tell me to jump off a cliff, because I'd already be hurtling towards the rocks.

Shorter Andrew Brown: Britain isn't really the same as Sweden. Who knew?

Shorter Dave Hill: My daughter is growing up, it would seem.

Shorter Jonathan Fenby: Actually, military coups might be good for democracy.

Shorter Matt Seaton: Statistics show that the best way to bring up children is to go on 'Supernanny'.

Shorter Anne-Marie Slaughter: Let's discuss the international peace process, while trying to ignore my frightening name.

Shorter Hadley Freeman: The debate about whether skinny models should grace the catwalks has gone on for too long, and I've got some opinions that should restart it.

Shorter Nick Cohen: Charity's great, as long as it comes from the poor. The rich should keep their money to themselves so that I can carry on resenting them in peace.

Shorter Cristina Odone: We live in a risk-averse culture. This is why 'Top Gear' is popular. People are having to go to greater and greater lengths to take risks. That's why we should lower the speed limit and have a policeman on every corner. What do you mean, non-sequiturs?

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Technical Problems

Sorry for the absence. Been trying to make this bloody thing look a bit better, and frankly, I'm shit at it. I'm trying to make it look a bit less template-y, but I haven't got any idea how to write HTML code. I'm hoping you folks will have some suggestions. I have had one idea - having a different header each time you access, like what Mr Holland has. I haven't the foggiest how to go about it though.

On a similar note, I've had a very un-noteworthy week, and haven't got much to blog about. If anyone has any suggestions, I'd be delighted to hear them. Not very professional, I know, but then, you get what you pay for.

Friday, September 15, 2006


A Short Review Of 'A Scanner Darkly'

A sense of unreality pervades ‘A Scanner Darkly’, Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the eponymous Philip K Dick novel. The story concerns Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover policeman with the pseudonym Agent Fred, who is assigned to monitor a group of drug addicts living at his house – including himself.

The film is animated, partly for financial reasons, using a rotoscoping method, in which actors are filmed and then ‘painted-over’. There are other advantages to this besides cost: Keanu Reeves’ animated face is less wooden than his real one, for a start. More seriously, it enhances the sense of paranoia that infuses the material, as Arctor struggles to comprehend the identities of both his friends and himself. As Arctor is forced to question what’s real, the animation reminds us that, in a very real sense, none of it is. However, the film consciously avoids becoming mired down in sermonising about the twin dangers of drugs and surveillance, and a keen sense of the absurdity, as well of the horror, of the character’s situations is evident. In one memorable scene, Rory Cochrane’s suicidal addict Charles Freck hears a narration to his own bid to end it all. It’s this leavening of the mood that saves ‘A Scanner Darkly’ from being a mere lecture.

However, it’s impossible to ignore the political side to the material. Unfortunately, Dick seems a prescient writer. One current advert on TV reminds us that ‘we are on CCTV over 300 times a day’ and exhorts us to ‘give them something to watch’. This commercial exploitation of the surveillance state is completely predicted in ‘A Scanner Darkly’, making the material perhaps even more relevant today than at the time of its writing.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Time For A Brand New Argument

Neil Boorman's article on brands on Comment Is Free deserves a certain amount of praise for its level tone and moments of self-awareness, but it's still wrong wrong wrong. Here's the set-up:

'Six months ago, I began writing a blog entitled I announced on the site that I was going to destroy every branded item in my possession, having concluded that I was suffering from an addiction to the status and aspirations surrounding brands. . . I imagined that this project would find favour with any number of social groups who face the daily pressure to consume beyond their basic needs; parents beleaguered by the pester power of their kids, teenagers under pressure to conform to peers, and any adult whose credit card contributes to the £200bn of consumer debt that we must repay in the UK.'

Now let's investigate:

'How very wrong I was. On the day my story broke in the papers, the blog was flooded with negative posts, which, on reflection, was to be expected; here was another middle-class London journalist moaning on about the luxuries that many around the world cannot afford. Instead of burning these things, why not give the lot away to charity or, better still, just count my blessings and keep quiet?'

This is the one moment of self-realisation in the article. One of the commenters points out that giving your clothes to charity to be taken to the Third World is actually a bad thing - clothes dumping makes it impossible for local clothing manufacturers to compete, there's no shortage of clothes even in the poorest countries of the world, and there is a good deal of shame involved in wearing western cast-offs for people in the Third World. However, while this sort of charity would be undesirable, counting his blessings, giving a few more quid to Oxfam and keeping quiet would have been much the sensible course to take.

'I think this reaction has less to do with charity than the overall value that we have come to place on branded things; nowadays, to willingly destroy an expensive bag amounts to the same moral and cultural neglect as burning a book.'

On the contrary, I don't think that's the case at all. The reason burning a book symbolises cultural neglect is that books represent ideas, and their destruction shows unwillingness to listen to different perspectives. Even the most dedicated High Street addict would be hard pushed to call a handbag an idea.

'Take two white T-shirts. They are identical in size, shape and quality, only one has a logo on the breast. The plain shirt costs £5 from a market stall, the branded version costs £50 from a department store. Considering they perform the same basic function, the rational choice would be the market option. Yet it seems the majority of us would choose the branded option whenever we could afford it. We would somehow be letting ourselves down otherwise'.

I dispute his use of the word 'rational' here. He actually means utilitarian or better still functionalist. Of course, the 'rational' shopper takes more than just cost into account. He does come to admit this:

'Of course, there is another function that the branded shirt performs; the logo on the breast transforms the experience of wearing the thing. To display the brand is to prove to yourself (and anyone who cares to look) that you are of a certain standing, that you are worth something in life. In this respect the brand transforms the product from something of utilitarian function into an object of meaning and desire. That is why we buy overpriced products, from iPods to Heinz baked beans, over cheaper alternatives. I wonder, if my bonfire contained only non-branded items, would the outrage be quite so great?'

He is of course right - to an extent - that brands confer social status and acceptability (although of course in Guardian circles the lack of brands confers the same) but that's not the only reason people buy branded clothes, mp3 players and food products. As Tim Worstall argues, the foreknowledge of the standard of the product you're purchasing is crucial:

'They’re a signifier of quality, repeatable quality. Heniz baked beans did not become the world’s most consumed simply because of an advertising budget, nor because they are a signifier of a higher social status. Rather, because they were, in an age of uncertain canning techniques, reliable in their quality. The brand became the signifier of this.'

It's the same with everything - people will pay more for a Mercedes than, say, a Trabant not just because it looks better or everyone at the office has one, but because it's less likely to fall apart within 100 yards of the factory gates.

Back to Boorman:

'The brand, then, is both a badge of identity and a means of personal fulfilment; no wonder people feel defensive when they're told it is all an expensive con. But that's what these brands really are. The extra £45 paid on that branded T-shirt purchases a fantasy that does not exist, a quick fix of happiness that does not last.'

£45 is not that far away from what you might pay for a gram of cocaine. That is equally a 'quick fix of happiness', but it defies economic rationalisation. As Frank Skinner pointed out when talking about his alcoholism, you don't not do it for the lows, you do it for the highs. Okay, you might argue that cocaine gives you a much bigger high than an expensive shirt, but by the same token, an expensive shirt lasts a hell of a lot longer.

'I would suggest that most rational people understand that consumption provides little sustainable contentment (for all our affluence, New Scientist places us 24th in the happiness league, behind Nigeria and El Salvador).'

I'm very suspicious of people who quote surveys like this. Quite apart from the obvious fact that it's impossible to measure happiness with any degree of accuracy, I also wonder what they want me to do with the information. Is he suggesting Britain would be a nicer place if it were politically more like Nigeria? I always remember a teacher telling me that they have televised executions on a Saturday morning. That'd be fun, wouldn't it?

'They would also concede that the price we pay for these branded things is far too high and is crippling to our budgets. And the ethics of production? The environmental impact? None of this is news to the average consumer. Yet we continue to consume according to want, not need, each day of our lives.'

I've never understood that comment about the ethics of production. I know Nike and the like don't pay their workers much by western standards, but they probably pay more, with better prospects, than the local clothing factory.

'I simply state that this "want" is manufactured and manipulated by the emotional advertising of brands and, at some point in the future, it has got to stop.'

Even if that were a sensible goal, and I certainly don't agree that it is, how? Such comments betray a man enjoying living in a fantasy world rather than sensibly discussing changing the real one.

Evil incarnate.


Bleurgh & Brown-nose

Bizarrely, it seems some people actually care about whether it's Bleurgh or Brown-nose in charge of the Labour Party.

Why? In the first place, this story is now so dull I can't even think of an appropriate simile to describe how boring I find it, and in the second it's become crushingly apparent that all of the mainstream Westminster politicians agree on almost everything in principle, and only differ (and mildly at that) about methods of execution. Here's a laugh for you: 'Keeping The Faith' - 'Labour members, activists and voters backing Tony Blair against a minority of MPs who want to bring him down'. It's absurd - since he has already demonstrably brought himself down anyway by promising to resign, I fail to see the point in flogging a dead donkey.

If I were a Labour party member or whatnot who loved Blair - apparently, there are some - I'd spend my time backing David Cameron, who appears to agree on pretty much everything.

Do they both agree that flinging money at public services must eventually bring improvements? Yup.

Do they both agree that the environment is basically going to hell and Something Must Be Done? Uh-huh.

Do they both agree that the country needs fewer immigrants? Definitely.

Were they both in favour of invading Iraq? Can you guess?

When they do have a disagreement, it's about scale. So Blair is in favour of big invasions of privacy doing lots of damage - identity cards for instance - while Cameron prefers smaller invasions doing a bit less damage, such as poking his nose into your twelve-year-old daughter's knicker drawer. That the government has the right, and indeed the duty, to spy on its citizens even when they are behaving lawfully is not disputed by either.

Really, I fail to see the point in voting in elections in Britain. It's clearly Hobson's choice, and a vote for any of the three main parties is effectively a vote for the other two as well. Either vote for UKIP or the Commies, or better still the Loonies, or best of all go to your polling station and burn the ballot with a cigarette lighter.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Our Chief Export, Meanwhile, Is Bad Grammar

Radio Five Live are running trailers for the footie this week, which includes West Ham v Palermo. Palermo, runs the trailer, are 'Sicily's second biggest export since 'The Godfather'.'


I dispute whether this is what they mean. I think they actually mean Sicily's biggest export since 'The Godfather.' Except of course a football team isn't really an export. And 'The Godfather' wasn't made in Sicily. But other than that, it makes perfect sense.

Without wishing to nudge in on Hutton's arena, did you know that sulphur is actually one of Sicily's main exports?

That page also contains the following magnificent sentence about Sicily:

'The illeteracy rate is approximately 71%'

Useful, apparently.

Friday, September 08, 2006


Put It Away!

I was bored, so I thought would do a quiz.

In Which World War 2 Army Should You Have Fought?

I couldn't complete it. The question 'If I am a leader, I will expose myself to lead my men by example' gave me a very unfortunate image of a vast army wadding across a barren plain with their underwear around their ankles.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


A Mole Located

There is a mole at Comment Is Free. I headed over there with the intention of parodying some of the rubbish that's to be found there most days, only to find that the writer of the headlines and - is it by-lines? - whatever you get under headlines anyway, is already suberting them! Have a look:

Susan Tomes: 'Sometimes basic literacy can be of vital importance.'

No shit?

Ed Vaizey: 'The defenestration of Tony Blair will leave lasting bitterness in the Labour party, with many allies of the prime minister left hoping for a Tory victory.'

Handy hint for writers: avoid the words 'defenestration' and 'decimate' if you don't know what they mean. In the first place, the last time I looked Tony Blair was still in office. In the second, even if he had been thrown out, he wouldn't have been defenestrated unless he'd been forcibly ejected through the window.

Robert Fox: 'The 'one per cent doctrine' was the measure by which the US government could break the rules to enforce its rules.'

Break the rules to enforce its rules? What?

Gerald Kaufman: 'We should go down on our knees to thank Blair'

Oh yes, let's all worship the master.

David Hirsh: 'To brand Israel's acts of violence in Gaza as 'genocide' lets Ehud Olmert off the hook.'

Yeah, I mean, I can't understand why anybody'd be pissed if it was genocide.

Sometimes the articles are just deeply flawed. James K Galbraith's attempt to cast the recent Mexican election as some kind of conservative coup is deeply misguided, and fails to acknowledge that the Mexican elections are a story with two sides to them. He doesn't point out that the AMLO leader Jose Manuel Lopez Obrador, for all his protestations of an unfair count and calls for a recount, didn't bother calling for a recount of the votes for the national assembly, in which the AMLO got their greatest ever result. He also relies for his data on a professor of, believe it or not, physics. Furthermore, he doesn't relate the fact that both the Carter Centre and the OECD have said there were no major irregularities, and the fact that Lopez Obrador's refusal to accept the verdict has considerably lowered his status in the polls, since most Mexicans heartily disapprove of the implicit threat of civil unrest behind his refusal to accept the verdict. I'm not saying I know Calderon won fairly, because clearly I don't, but it would have done his article the power of good to at least answer some of these basic points.

Fortunately, it's not all fusty political point scoring, and George Monbiot has rattled in an unintentionally hilarious piece. I know bloggers write 'read it all' all the time, and nobody ever does, but seriously, if you want a real good laugh - I was having difficulty breathing - read all about the time he was thrown off Greenham Common, and how the women torched a hippie's groundsheet. I'm wiping tears from my eyes even now.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Banana Bomb

The Telegraph has one of the headlines of the year:

'Fun Run Voyeur Held By Banana'

Rather reminiscent of good old Canaan Banana, the former president of Zimbabwe who was convicted of sodomy. Unable to contain themselves, the newspapers were full of headlines like 'Man Raped By Banana' and 'Banana Held On Sodomy Charges'. Immature perhaps, but really rather funny.


Training Day

So I went to Manchester for the weekend, which necessitated yet another voyage on Britain's mighty rail network. Don't worry, I did pack emergency provisions.

I presented myself at Birmingham New Street at midday on Friday. At ten to two, I got on a train. For the next hour, it went backwards and sideways to Nuneaton. Eventually, it made its majestic way northward, and in the end the journey from door to door took me just under six hours. That's only about three hours more than it should do, which as anyone who has braved the West Coast Mainline this summer will know, is actually rather good time.

So for once, it wasn't the delays that annoyed me. What really annoyed me was this. I got on at New Street and bagged myself a window seat - better still, a window seat facing in the direction of travel. Then, brilliantly, nobody sat next to me - yes, space! - until an old man got on. But he didn't sit next to me. Oh no. What he did put on the aisle seat, however, was his man-sized suitcase and several enormous bags. I should explain, he did this without asking my permission, or even making eye contact with me. He just did it. I was now trapped in a cave of suitcase, unable to move an inch - and I really, really needed a wee.

This situation carried on for ages, until at some God-awful hellhole like Macclesfield a different old man got on board, and he had two walking sticks. There was no other seat on the train apart from the one next to me. I suddenly felt a stern tap on the shoulder - a steward. 'Are these yours?' he asked, with a not inconsiderable amount of venom. I pointed accusingly at the Old Man #1, who was shrinking away guiltily, but it was too late. Absolutely everybody in the carriage turned and glared at me, and most tutted loudly under their breath.

Then - then! - Old Man #2 plonked himself down next to me. He proceeded to open a small can of warm Heineken, which it took him at least an hour to drink. I can't wait to be retired - how great it must be when a can of warm lager is an afternoon's activity. The smell of it made my pee situation desperate. I still couldn't get out, because that would clearly involve him moving his lower limbs, which from his bearing appeared to be a Herculean task about equal to a normal person dragging a full filing cabinet down a narrow flight of stairs. By the time I got off, I needed a piss more desperately than at any previous point in my life. When I finally had the chance, it lasted about a minute and a half.

There is, however, a point to all this, and the point is this - don't sit next to me on trains. I know you don't know what I look like, but you'll know from the extent of my glowering, heavy breathing, frowning, muttering and general all-around mardiness. Especially - especially - if you're old. And they say the young have no manners.

Monday, September 04, 2006


A Pub Quiz Punt

Heard at the pub quiz tonight:

Girl 1: 'We need a city with a postcode beginning with 'S'.'
Girl 2: 'What about Swansea?'
Girl 3: 'Where's Swansea - the north of England, or the south?'
Girl 1: 'Swansea's in North Wales.'

Genuinely, I shit you not.

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