Monday, 20 August 2007

Let The Game Begin

Imagine this. It is a couple of weeks before the start of a new Premiership season and David Beckham has been arrested, charged with animal cruelty. He says he didn't do it, but the four guys charged with him have confessed and implicated him. He faces a five year prison sentence and a huge fine.

Meanwhile, Rio Ferdinand has been arrested so often in the past few months, he has been banned from playing for a whole season, John Terry is suspended until October after serving a jail term for having an unlicensed firearm and the brightest young star in British football, the one everyone wanted to sign at the end of last season, is refusing to sign a deal until he is offered better terms by the club that thought they'd got him back in April.

It couldn't happen here, could it? You'd like to think not - even if I am writing this on the day that Lee Hughes got out of jail after serving half his sentence for causing death by dangerous driving. Now substitute the names of Michael Vick, Adam 'Pacman' Jones and Terry 'Tank' Johnson and you are just scratching the surface of the fun and games that has been the off-season in America's National Football League.

Of course, having an off season of 6 months does help when it comes to finding time to generate scandal, but in all of the above cases the player concerned managed to do the damage during the season itself and has spent his time fighting afterwards. Indeed Johnson, at the time a defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears, had to get permission from a judge to even play in the Superbowl in February - before nipping inside for two months, a consequence of the firearms offence and a parole violation. Jones, many think, has been harshly dealt with, as the Tennessee Titan's cornerback hasn't actually been convicted of any serious offence - he's just been arrested for a heck of a lot of minor ones.

But it is Vick who is in the biggest trouble. One of the finest quarterbacks of his generation, he has - again as I have been writing this - concluded a plea bargain in which he will admit breeding and training dogs for dogfighting, and allowing them to fight on his land. He faces 5 years in jail and a very big fine. Which is actually a lot better than the federal racketeering charges - basically, a charge that he funded the dogfighting operation and the betting on it - he would've faced without the plea bargain.

Moreover, having served his time, Vick is very unlikely to play football again. This is partly due to the stringent code of conduct brought in by the NFL and their new Commissioner Roger Goodall. Step out of line with Uncle Roger and you are looking at a 10 game suspension, minimum. Moderation has never been a big element of American sport, but I doubt anyone would have anticipated the Goodall revolution. No offense too trivial, no suspension too long, seems to be his motto. And that is for things which happen off the field.

Of course, if you take 1800 young men and pay them upwards of £1m each per year [on average] then you are bound to get one or two bits of misbehaviour. Goodall can never have expected someone to do something as grim as he did. At the same time, the other 1799 can hardly have anticipated a man so puritanical, they are expected to make Snow White look like a slut. Imagine the outcry here if a Premiership player got a 10 match ban if they were convicted of a motoring offence? Jermaine Pennant would just be an expensive footnote in football history, that's for sure.

All of which leaves the Atlanta Falcons without a quarterback, the Titans without their number one kick returner and the Bears without the cornerstone of their defensive line. Out in Cincinatti, no fewer than 9 players have been arrested in the last 12 months and the entire team must be on tenterhooks. The only team cheering will be the Oakland Raiders, who finally got number one draft pick JaMarcus Russell to sign his contract less than 48 hours before the pre-season games began.

With all of this buildup, this has to be one of the most exciting NFL seasons ever. I've not even considered the chances of the Indianapolis Colts retaining their title, of the Bears recovering from their SuperBowl humiliation, and the damage that may have been wrought upon perennial favourites Tampa Bay by their signing of the mercurial Randy Moss, but I can't wait for it all to start.

Monday, 13 August 2007

The Point George W. Jumped The Shark

For those of you not familiar with it, the phrase 'jumping the shark' refers to the point at which something or someone performs an act so far beyond the bounds of credibility that you can never take the seriously again. There's a fuller - although still incomplete - explanation here.

Where George Walker Bush is concerned, of course, there are many reasons to think that he lost the plot a long, long time ago. However, for the past 7 years or so he has at least been saying the sort of thing that his own people want to hear. If he wasn't, why the heck did they re-elect him? But his most recent piece of nonsense surely goes so far beyond intelligable that even the most gullible American must be raising an eyebrow at it. And for me, the point where even the idiots in your own country think you are an idiot is the point where nothing you can say or do, ever again, will get you my respect.

What, you may be wondering, has Dubbya done that even I will now agree that the only reason to keep him in office is the fear of what he might do without hundreds of minions watching his every move? Well, it is a simple thing. He's appointed Cal Ripken Jr as a Special Envoy to the State Department.

I have nothing against Cal Ripken Jr. He is a nice man, a very nice man. A man so nice that everyone cheered when he broke one of baseball's most coveted records, that for the most consecutive games. But that is also the point. He's a baseball player. Which, frankly, if you are looking for someone to go around the world spreading goodwill for your nation, is not the best place to start.

The only point in appointing a celebrity to any political - or, in this case, quasi-political - post, is the hope that they will use their celebrity as a form of endorsing you and your organisation. Which means that, if you are going to appoint someone most people have never heard of, you might as well appoint, well, me.

Baseball is a game which was invented by Americans (yes, I know that there are some disputes about its origins, because I've read this), which means that it tends to be played in places where there has at some point been a heavy American influence. Like North America, Latin America and Japan. Admittedly, in the latter case the influence was markedly different to the other two locations, but despite this, all of these places are by and large pretty friendly to the USA. Which means there is no point sending a celebrity Special Envoy there.

If there were other countries in the world that were big on baseball, but not friendly towards the USA, then appointing Ripken to this role might make sense. But the only country that is, is Cuba, with whom the USA has no formal ties with anyway, other than to occupy a corner of it as a glorified kipnappers hideout. They are hardly going to send one of their favourite sons out there.

Conversely, in the places where America does need a bit of celebrity product endorsement, no-one is going to have heard of Ripken. Or most baseballers. It's a bit like us sending a cricketer as a celebrity amassador to the States.

Ripken has been keen to stress that his role isn't political. But if it isn't, what is the point of doing it? He could be a fantastic envoy for baseball, spreading the word to countries that don't play the game, because then all he needs to do is say "Hey, it must be a great game, because I played 2,632 consecutive matches". Without the political element, his role is meaningless, but without being a celebrity in the countries he is going to, he might as well be another faceless politician.

Cal Ripken Jr doesn't need Special Envoy status, he'd be better able to do what he would be really good at without it. The man who gave him the role, though, really does need a special bus.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Spinning The Wheels That Spin The Wheels

So, yet another Tour de France has ended in farce and acrimony. Three riders failed drug tests during the race, another failed one before they even started and the one time leader was sacked by his own team for allegedly lying about why he missed two tests in the months before the race.

Arguably this is actually an improvement on last year, when the winner was disqualified for drug taking, but it is scant consolation to a race and a sport now vanishing under the weight of its own excrement. Someone needs to start digging their way out, and fast.

Unfortunately, the evidence of the past three weeks is that you can't rely upon the cyclists to wield the shovel, because they'll just dig down deeper. Consider the five dimwits referred to above:
  • Cristian Moreni failed a drug test during the tour. In some ways he's been the most sensible about this, saying nothing of any substance and quietly crawling into a hole away from the spotlight. The guy gambled, lost and knows it;

  • Iban Mayo is arguably the dimmest of the five. Having gotten away with a failed test during the Giro d'Italia he surely must have known that he, of all people, was going to be targeted this time, yet he still did it and was caught at the end of Stage 18;

  • Patrik Sinkewitz was the rider who failed a test before the tour even started. He has now admitted that he used a testosterone cream on his arm. Accidentally. Which is like Prince Charles saying that he 'accidentally' screwed Camilla whilst married to Diana. You knew it was there, you knew you shouldn't have used it and there was no accidental about it. And why put testosterone on your arm anyway?

  • Now for the big two on our ride of shame. Alexander Vinokourov and Michael Rasmussen. Vino, as he is known to the cognoscenti, had a bad fall early on, took illegal drugs to recover and when caught out came out with the most incredible excuse ever, claiming that he had too much blood in his thighs. One can only assume that this is the cycling equivalent of "Sorry darling, wrong hole". Rasmussen, on the other hand, did nothing wrong during the Tour itself. The problem is that he shouldn't have been in it anyway, having missed two tests in the 45 days before it started, so he should have been suspended, but for an administrative error. Having had a stroke of luck to be in it, he made the most of it and was the clear leader before being sacked by his own team, who claimed that he lied about his whereabouts for those tests. That the evidence on this is flimsy - a cycling journalist claims to have seen him in Italy when he said he was in Mexico - is probably irrelevant. The luck that got him into the Tour turned and saw him thrown out.

All of this happened despite the cyclists signing up to a charter against drug taking. Which means that if pro cycling wants to get drugs out of the sport, the last people they can rely upon to do it are the riders. The evidence clearly shows that, whatever is enhanced by EPO and the like, brain power isn't.

The solution to the problem surely lies in the reason why there is a problem. It is not that there is too much money in the sport, or that commercial teams need to be taken out of it, it is the way that the races are organised. There are three elements that every cycling fan loves about the Tour and its kin - the time trials, the sprints and the mountain climbs. Cycling teams consist - usually - of four distinct groups of riders. There are the leaders, the ones who are thought to have the best chance of winning and the best all round set of skills. At the other end of the spectrum are the domestiques, good riders in their own right but lacking the necessary quality to do much more than support their leaders, acting as windshields and basically sacrificing their own chances to promote the lead man. Alongside and often among these are the other two groups, the sprinters and the climbers, whose role is to try and win the sprinting and climbing elements of the race. This is, of necessity, a simplistic view, but it will suffice for now.

It shouldn't take too much imagination to realise that, on the sprint stages, the climbers are at a disadvantage, in the mountains the sprinters struggle and to cap it all everyone has to try and protect and keep up with the team leader. But, having established that everyone on each team is at a disadvantage compared to each other at some point in the race - save for the star, of course - the race organisers decide to make things even harder for them. First of all, the big sprints and mountain stages all either come at once, or come at the end of a 200km+ ride. Then, as a double whammy, any rider who finishes a certain time behind the stage winner is eliminated.

To summarise, if you are a rider in a major road race you are going to be tired, desperately trying to keep up with your team and to cap it all running the risk of elimination if you don't. IS IT ANY WONDER THEY TAKE DRUGS?

The people that run these things need to have a long hard look at how they organise them. Is it really necessary for cyclists to ride hundreds of kilometres through open countryside when the only interested spectator is the odd stray dog whose only desire is to end it all by hurling himself Emily Davidson-style under the wheels of a bike? Is it not better than one clean cyclist comes home hours before the rest than one doped up one finishes in the pack? Where does the entertainment in these things lie? Any half decent marketeer knows that if you have a major product, you sell it in the smallest chunks you can get away with - so why have four major climbs in a day when you can have two over two days?

At the moment, the money and the format of the racing are incentives to take drugs. Reduce the stamina and speed elements needed each day, and instead spread them over more days and what do you get? In theory, cleaner riders and more money. Is that really so hard to do?

Monday, 30 July 2007

The Maternity Bump

Some of you might have been wondering where I have been. In fact, those of you who did wonder had probably assumed that I had run out of things to write about and was about to do the very thing I had promised not to do - letting the blog die. Nothing could be further from the truth. The simple fact is that I knew I wanted to write about this next, but didn't know quite how to phrase this. I still don't. This post therefore comes to you with the caveat that I reserve the right to entirely change my mind about it in a couple of months.

The idea for this piece came at me from two directions. From one side, more vacuous nitwittery from our beloved government about what pregnant women should and should not do. From the other, a whole hour of prime time television devoted to one woman whinging about the standard of maternity care when she had her most recent baby back in April.

People whining about the NHS really, really annoys me. Yes, it isn't perfect, but it is full of hard working, dedicated people who could make a hell of a lot more money doing what they do somewhere else. And yes, there are far too many bureaucrats with far too much power and far too little financial acumen running it. But the whole point of the NHS was not that it would be a Rolls Royce service; the whole point of it was to provide a base standard of healthcare for all, something which didn't exist back in 1948 when it was founded.

You get the NHS that you pay for. If you want a better level of service, the only way it can be paid for is (a) cutting out the bureaucrats (which most people are in favour of) and (b) paying more taxes (which most people are against).

Applying all of this to the whinging reporter, what you get with NHS maternity services is therefore a whole load of women competing for the same few resources. You don't have any right to any better a service than the next woman. In that respect, it is almost a perfectly Utilitarian system - to each according to her needs, from each according to their means.

This doesn't mean that the system is perfectly balanced. Next time you are in a major shopping mall, or at a major train station, stop and look around you. Count the women aged 13-50. Each of them will, on average, produce a couple of kids during their lifetime. It's not an exact calculation - some will choose not to have them, some may sadly be unable to have them, one or two will die before they can have them and one or more (depending upon where you live) will become a nun - but it is a good starting point. Count them up, double it and then multiply that figure by every shopping mall or every railway station in the country. That is what the NHS is up against in funding maternity services. Men may all need to go to hospital a couple of times during their lifetime, too, but not all for the same thing.

Factor in that most maternity professionals are female (and will therefore require the service at some point themselves) and most NHS managers are middle aged men and you start to see the real reason why government policy on this is cock-eyed. You can't get more people into the profession without funding it properly, because you are trying to increase the service using the people who actually use the service themselves.

It isn't even a difficult equation. If the birth rate rises, the number of females in the population will rise. Assume that each of those females needs a service twice in their lifetime and you have a very high and increasing demand for something very specific with no way of paying for more people to be trained to do it. Unless you shed some extraneous paper pushers, some unwanted external consultants (not the medical kind, of course) and divert those resources to the very area where you have a growing demand.

Make babies, not bureaucrats.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

The Cycle of Friendship

Life, as Bob Cratchit said, is made up of meetings and partings. Over the course of it, you probably befriend and lose touch with several times the number of people you stay friends with. I have photographs going back almost three decades and I remember vividly everyone in them, but there's no more than a handful of people in the early shots that I am still in contact with.

Losing friends is easy to do. Over the past five months I have lost three friends who I thought were good, close, mates and I expected to have them for the rest of my life. One of them was entirely my own fault and I have only myself to blame. The second actually came about as a result of the first. We had an argument about what happend and are, I think, both too proud to make the first move towards a reconcilliation.

It is the third one which is a total puzzle. I have no idea what I may have said or done. All I know is that I went on holiday for a fortnight and when I came back they were gone. Moreover, they won't talk to me, so I don't know what I might have done wrong.

Balanced against this is the wonderful fact that no fewer than five friends I thought I had lost touch with have contacted me recently and I have met up with two of them for the first time in years; the other three now live abroad, which might explain why we lost touch in the first place. Hearing from them actually came as something of a shock to me. I'm not the sort of person that I would expect someone would want to track down, at least not for any pleasant reason. Just getting an email from each of these people was enough to make me feel good for the rest of the day.

Even as I have been drafting this (you might have noticed that each entry takes a while for me to finish) something else wonderful has happened. The second person I was referring to above contacted me. It was strange, because they sent me a message to say that they were near my office, which I received shortly after I walked past their office. It's early days yet, but let us hope that we can rebuild that friendship.

Making friends is hard. Keeping them is harder. Losing them is the easiest thing in the world. It's a very hard line to tread without making mistakes.

Monday, 9 July 2007

The Property Ladder Scam

In the beginning there was Changing Rooms. And Changing Rooms begat The House Doctor and the House Doctor begat both Location, Location, Location and Property Ladder, which in turn begat Grand Designs and DIY SOS and whilst all this was going on Changing Rooms spawned Home Front and some of the others produced bastard offspring like Relocation, Relocation, Relocation, A Place In The Country and a whole host of very similar yet subtly different television shows.

Across these televisual generations, a subtle shift took place, from Changing Rooms to Home Front to Property Ladder. Changing Rooms – apart from introducing the nation to the luxuriantly hyphenated Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen and Anna Ryder-Richardson – was all about sending designers into other people’s houses and giving them a swift lick of paint, a light dosing of wallpaper and even some less uncoordinated furniture. (Americans have their own version of this, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition , fronted by Ty Pennington, a man so hyperactive there isn’t enough Ritalin in the world to make me allow him into my home.)

Home Front paired LL-B with the Irish landscape designer Diarmuid Gavin and let the pair of them loose on slightly larger houses with slightly larger budgets and, as the series went on, slightly larger egos. The sight of Llewelyn-Bowen being almost reduced to tears by a woman who he had already reduced to tears with his design was a sight to behold.

I have already written about Property Ladder once this month and I make no apologies for doing so again, as people doing houses up themselves was merely the logical extension of people having designers do their houses up.

Even more subtly, the producers of these shows found a way to save money. In Changing Rooms, the designers each had £500 with which to do a legendarily shoddy job on redoing one room of a house. In Home Front, the budget ran to thousands, but the work was one a grander scale and took much longer. And on Changing Rooms, the budget is simply…nonexistent. Yes, it is one thing to stand back, have your house invaded by film crew and workmen, yet know that the BBC are paying for it, but it takes a special degree of desperation to allow yourself to be filmed spending your own money.

Admittedly, this might be the closest that some people get to being Victoria Beckham, but I doff my cap to whichever genius realised just how cheaply you could make television when given enough property owning nitwits desperate for their time in the spotlight.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Hidden Casualties of the Smoking Ban

As the smoking ban in England enters its second day, it is time for us to remember those who will be affected by it.

I don't mean the vile, smelly polluters trying to puff their way into an early grave. No, the RSPCA had it right with this story.

More importantly, think of all the poor beagles who won't be able to smoke at work any more.

Monday, 25 June 2007

When It All Goes Up In Smoke

Sometimes, you come across something which is so intrinsically wrong that just seeing it makes you wonder if the world knows what the heck it is up to. Things like Travis selling out Hammersmith Apollo, Jeffrey Archer writing a new book, or Pete Doherty not being dead yet.

To understand this post fully, you need to know that the area I work in seems to be some sort of haven for foreign schoolkids. I don’t know what it is about foreigners bringing their children to this country. I went on plenty of trips abroad with my school and I’m pretty sure that we didn’t spend our time wandering around in huge groups, blocking off the pavements and then deciding to congregate in exactly the same place as every other large group to have lunch. It gets so bad around here that I often end up wondering if we shouldn’t put the street signs up in French, German and Spanish. Throw in the Japanese and Chinese adult tourists and it is easy to end up feeling like Gulliver in Lilliput.

Of course, anywhere you get large numbers of tourists, especially large numbers of munchkin-sized tourists, you get purveyors of cheap tat, designed to part the visitors from their holiday money (and why not? How many of us ever change our left over currency back to pounds when we return from holiday?). You have to wonder, though, why, with such a wealth of utter rubbish to choose from, a large party of French scholars has just walked past, all of whom were under 13 and about 50% of whom were smoking fake cigarettes? You know, the sort where you suck on a white plastic tube and the end glows red?

On one level, you can see this as proof that the French race is never going to change. Cigarettes still seem to be good things, no matter how old you are – as evidenced by the fact that the half dozen teachers accompanying the crocodile of miniature garlic crunchers obviously thought there was nothing wrong with all of this. And it is also proof that money-grabbing pikey shopkeepers will never change, either, as shown by the fact that they clearly didn’t see anything wrong in encouraging the next generation of French smokers, even though there was nothing in it for them. Which is, whatever way you look at it, depressing in the extreme.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Birthday Honours

I don't really read newspapers. I did, once, but now I just don't have time. More importantly, I don't have the inclination. Life's too short to be covered in newsprint.

There are two Saturdays a year when I break this rule. These are the first in January and the second in June. Why? Because that's when the Queen hands out honours to the allegedly deserving. And every last one of them gets published in the papers. Which, to a people geek like me, is like giving a rabbit viagra. I don't care about the headline news, which actor got knighted this year or whatever. The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

Look closely enough and you can find all kinds of things that the headline writers missed. Shamefully, this time around most of them failed to spot a gong for Bob Appleyard, one of the great unsung cricketers of the last 50 years. Anyone who can bowl England to an Ashes win having had most of a lung moved for tuberculosis would, in the modern game, probably be knighted the same week, not have to wait half a century for an MBE.

In amongst that list, I also found these gems:

Nikita Tompkinson - Director, transport security, Department for Transport

Next time there's a rumour of a Russian spy in the security service, we'll know where to start looking...

William John Sim - Farm grieve, Balmoral Estate

The Royal Family are so posh, they even employ someone to cry over their slaughtered animals for them.

Gilbert Charles Godwin Keeys - Yeoman Bed Goer, Queen's Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard

You don't want to know what this did to my mind's eye when I read it.

Desmond John Alexander Pawson - Professional knot-tyer and ropemaker

I WANT THIS JOB. How much fun could you have if you spent your whole day tying knots?

Frances Margaret Slade - Former chairwoman of Ladies in Pigs

You get a gong for strap-on porcine bestiality? Cool!

Monday, 18 June 2007

Conspiracy Theory

There’s a conspiracy afoot and it is happening right under our noses. A dastardly plot to undermine this nation’s building trade and its going on right there on our television screens, one night a week (more if you have one of those channels which is solely devoted to home improvement shows). The perpetrator? None other than the doyenne of such shows, the one and only Sarah Beeny.

Now, I am saying nothing new when I observe that Ms Beeny appears to be in a permanent state of pregnancy. The fact that the size of her stomach oscillates wildly during the course of any given programme has been commented on many times before. What always puzzled me was why this happened. (Note, I said ‘why’, not ‘how’. I know how babies are made. Man inserts appendage, gives woman massively disappointing time, withdraws and then goes down the pub for the next 19 years.)

The thing is, you see, that Beeny made her name – and presumably a shedload of money – as a property developer before she became a television presenter. Building sites not generally being regarded as a location conducive to child rearing, I assume that during this time she was in sufficient control of her fertility to avoid squeezing out sprogs mid-project. In which case, why does it keep happening now that she is on television?

My initial theory was that it was a gimmick dreamed up by the show’s producers to keep interest in her show alive now that there is so much competition: “Great series, Sarah. Give us a ring as soon as you’re up the duff again and we’ll set up another one.”

The problem with this approach is that it does give the impression that the poor woman is pregnant 365 days of the year. Every year. Except that, of course, it might not actually be a problem. Suppose that it isn’t really an impression at all. Suppose that La Beeny actually is pregnant almost all of the time, that no sooner has her cervix slammed shut after one baby than she is dragging her poor husband into the bedroom and demanding that he impregnate her again. And again. And again. Until there is a whole army of Beeny babies growing up and ready to wreak havoc on the world of property renovation.

At the time of writing Sarah Beeny is 35 years old. With the aid of modern science, that gives her another 30-odd years of breeding. Even at one baby a year, by the end of those 30 years there will not be a builder left in the UK who isn’t related to her in some way. By the end of the century the whole world could be hers, or at least her grandchildren’s. No path will be laid, not a floor tiled or a bath masticked, without it being done by a Beeny descendent. And if you are not carrying the Beeny gene, well, you’ll never work in the building trade again. You won’t convince me that this is a good thing.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Fade Outs Fading Out

About three months ago, I decided to try an experiment. Having had an mp3 player for all of ten months, I discovered that I actually had so much stuff on there that I now couldn’t remember what I actually had on there. This isn’t because I am some sort of profligate nitwit who buys music, loads it onto his mp3 player and then forgets it is there (I confess to being a profligate nitwit, just not that sort of profligate nitwit). The problem is more that my brother in law very kindly loaded huge chunks of his very extensive collection onto it when I bought it and I’ve never quite worked out what he did put there, other than that it used up 90% of the 30GB memory.

My experiment, therefore, was to see how long it would take to play every album that is on there, in alphabetical order. On average, I get about 30 minutes of listening time a day, Monday to Friday. That’s about 7 songs a day, or 2/3 of an album. Three months in and I’ve not even got to the end of ‘B’ yet – although I have listened to all of the albums whose titles begin with brackets and numbers, before you start getting worried about how much I have on there. It has been a voyage of discovery, with some forgotten gems, some utter rubbish (which I deleted) and some interesting juxtapositions; for example, I’ve recently listened to Nirvana’s ‘Bleach’, followed by 10,000 Maniacs’ ‘Blind Man’s Zoo’ and then The Cure’s ‘Bloodflowers’.

It was whilst listening to the first of those albums that I made an interesting – at least to me – discovery. As ‘Negative Creep’ faded out, it suddenly dawned on me that album tracks simply don’t do that any more. The fade out has, literally, been faded out. Nowadays, every track on every album either has a neat, crisp ending, or runs directly into the next song.

I always thought that the fade out was a bit of a cop out anyway. If a band plays a song live, you don’t expect them to end it by getting quieter and quieter until you can’t hear it any more. You expect songs to have clearly defined endings. OK, every now and then the band might segue one into another, but you can’t do that for a whole show. Not unless you’re Tangerine Dream, anyway.

Despite this, I’m kind of sad that the fade out is no more. It guess this is how I would feel if politicians became extinct, in that I don’t much like them and would take a while to notice they had gone, but at the same time it feels vaguely wrong not to have them there any more.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

The Modern Cloak of Invisibility

Fads and crazes. They come, they go, people buy a ton of crap and never use it again. Swingball? Rollerblading? Who still has a Rubik's Cube? Faster, faster, get this, buy that, quick, quick, before it goes out of fashion. So why, then, has the iPod not gone the same way as all the other pieces of must-have gadgetry. It can't be that it gives you your own choice of music wherever you want it. I already had that, just by remembering the songs and, in many ways, it was better, cos you still can't download Animal Magnet's 'Welcome to the Monkey House'. And the chance to listen to radio? Wow, the portable radio has only been around for 50+ years.

What, then, could be the reason for it? Simple. Headphones. The modern cloak of invisibility. Or, if you prefer, a very modern take on evolution. With headphoes on, no-one can make you hear. And if you can't hear the beggars, they can't pester you.

More importantly, you can't hear the excrement of society, the modern day leper, the chugger. Quite what right these idiots think they have to try and guilt me into giving money to charity I do not know, but being able to wander past them, unable to hear their vile imprecations to hand over cash to their favourite home for rabid barren lesbians, is wonderful. Don't they know that we know that only about 1p in every pound actually goes to the charity, the rest going into their exquisitly designed pockets? Almost exclusively made up of out of work actors, the chugger really is the most loathsome, hateful, lying speciment of pavement blocker known to man. And frankly, if wearing headphones means that just one out of work actor curls up with hunger and is forced to get a real job, then I can't believe I'm a bad person

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Watching the Watchmen

Modern art is, by and large, rubbish. Utter crap. It seems to me that the real talent lies not in being able to do these things, but in being able to pass it off as art. A sliced sheep in a tank of formaldahyde is great art? Please. It's pickled mutton. People have been doing it for centuries. Show Damon Hirst's most famous work to someone from the 16th century and the only response you'll get will be "What the fuck have you done to my lunch?".

That said, I have always had a lot of time for the work of Antony Gormley. You might not think that the Angel of the North is all that special - it is the size that strikes me as impressive, not the idea - but some of the things he has produced are amazing. His sculpture in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral is, quite simply, the most beautiful and moving work of art I have ever seen. I can't begin to explain why, you have to go and see it for yourself.

Now, in London, we have Event Horizon, a series of casts of Gormley's own body which pepper the skyline, each of them facing towards the Hayward Gallery, where another Gormley exhibition - Blind Light - is taking place. You can see them on Waterloo Bridge, on the Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre and indeed on most tall buildings around that area. Except for the Palace of Westminster, who wouldn't allow it for some arcane and soulless reason.

The sad thing is that no-one knows how long Event Horizon will be there. Yet there is something strangely reassuring about having them there, patrolling the city rooftops, watching over us. Watchmen for the modern age. I hope they stay.

Friday, 25 May 2007

The Point of Pantomime

What two things do Charlotte Church, Myleene Klass, Selma Hayek and Emma Bunton have in common with my wife? Well, neither Selma nor my wife have had a hideous and painful pop music career. Only Charlotte is Welsh. And, obviously, only one of them is stunningly beautiful and incredibly talented. But enough about my wife.

The first thing is that they are all about five months pregnant. Which is wonderful, of course, but which also proves that they were all at a bit of a loose end in December of last year. For the four of them I have actually named, this clearly means that they were not busy enough at the time. This is not surprising. They are all, nominally (as anyone who has seen The Charlotte Church Show will testify, very nominally) in the entertainment business. But if you are working in that world, there isn't a lot to do come December. All of the Christmas stuff is recorded months in advance. Christmas concerts are similarly booked far ahead. There's nothing for a D list celebrity to do but sit at home, twiddle her thumbs and - so it would seem - open her legs.

Unless, of course, she can get a job in pantomime.

Let us get one thing straight from the start, I have nothing at all against pantomime. It is a fine British institution which, like cricket, has the added virtue of being completely incomprehensible to most Americans. It can trace its history back for hundreds of years (no, I'm not going to explain it, don't you know how to use Google yet?). It also, very helpfully, keeps talented but cringemakingly dull comedians off our television screens. In fact, I doubt that the likes of Russ Abbott or Bobby Davro have done any other work for at least a decade, whilst I'll bet that it is only the prospect of playing the Good Fairy each December that keeps June Whitfield alive.

The second thing that all of these ladies have in common, then, is that none of them appeared in pantomime last Christmas. Which leads me to the last good thing about panto: It stops minor celebrities breeding.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

The world's most prescient teacher

Mornings. Who needs 'em? They only exist to ruin a perfectly good night's sleep. The world would be a better place if the working day started at 1pm and ended at about 4pm.

Or, at least, that's my opinion. There are some strange, perverted, souls out there who actually relish getting up early in the morning. They go running (ick), swimming (double ick) and even get into the office early (triple ick with carrot lumps in it). Who are these people and why do they want to torture themselves like this?

Even more puzzling is what these people get up to when they are doing all these bizarre acts. Clearly, entertainment is a bit thin on the ground at that time in the morning, largely due to the fact that all of the talented people are still in bed. Which leaves them a choice of children's TV (being up with the kids doesn't count as perverse, because you have so little choice in the matter, you might as well be a slave) or breakfast TV, or morning radio. So far as the latter is concerned, how anyone can listen to Nicky Campbell at 7am without wanting to throttle the smug Scottish scrote I don't kn... actually, that's a bad example, you want to throttle Nicky Campbell at any time of the day or night. Which leaves the huge stinking pile of excrement that is breakfast television.

Breakfast television. A concept as wrong as having Coco Pops for supper, only not as much fun. The worst thing about it is the presenters, all fakely cheerful, smiling away like they wouldn't rather be tucked up in bed, enjoying a spot of gentle self abuse. The uber-turd among these turds has to be Fiona Phillips, a woman who has made an entire career out of being a simpering nitwit. Seemingly unencumbered by anything remotely approaching a braincell, the mornings of millions have been ruined by the sight of this woman drooling over some minor celebrity, giggling as if their every utterance was the funniest thing she ever heard. Fair play to her, it is something of an achievement to be more irritating than the supremely smug Eammon Holmes, but it's not one you would want to put on your cv.

Fiona Phillips has been in the news a lot recently. Apparently, she was regularly spanked as a schoolgirl, despite - according to her - never doing anything wrong. [There are links to this story, but the sites carrying it are not necessarily the best for innocent eyes, so I'm not going to post those links here. If you want to find them, just google the name and the word 'slipper'. On your own head - or indeed rear - be it.]

La Phillips' claim to be entirely innocent in this rings especially hollow. For one thing, no teenager ever thinks they did anything wrong. But more importantly, perhaps this teacher had the gift of foresight. Maybe, just maybe, she was being spanked for her crimes yet to come.

A new way to read

My brother in law, Pat, has a blog of his own. I'd give you the url but, frankly, it's incomprehensible to anyone with an ordinary IQ. You see, Pat works for one of the world's biggest IT companies and the whole blog is written in some strange language understood only by higher beings and - possibly - the socially dyslexic.

(Actually, that's not quite true. I understood the post about coming home from holiday and deleting the contents of your inbox rather than read 1800 new messages - though you would think that an IT company would have a better spam filter)

You'll understand, then, why it was something of a surprise to discover that Pat had been reading one of my blogs. And I was even more surprised to discover that he kept reading it. Then I found out how he did it. Google have this thing called Google Reader, which I had never heard of. I don't understand how it works or anything like that, but if you go to you can set it up to automatically download your favourite sites every time they are updated. You can also get news and sports news, jokes and - though God knows why you would want this - an ice hockey blog.

All of which means that the truly masochistic can now get The Velvet Bear, Skiver's Gigs and You Called Your Kid WHAT? straight to their desktop every time I update them. And that my sister married a masochist.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

That's some organist

Sometimes, a news item just makes my mind boggle:

A church organist was found dead inside a giant plastic bag attached to a vacuum cleaner in a bizarre sexual act gone wrong, a Teesside inquest was told. The body of Ian Kemp, 48, was found lying in the foetal position, naked with his hands and feet bound. The vacuum cleaner was still on. An open verdict was recorded.

Friday, 27 April 2007

Au Recherce Du Tonks Perdue

In another cruel change to my morning lifestyle - wake up, turn on radio, read Foxtrot calendar, wonder why wife is still snoring - XFM have replaced Lauren Laverne as breakfast DJ with Paul 'Tonks' Tonkinson. Now one of the great things about XFM is that they have taken people who were mediocre in their first career - Laverne, Iain Baker (go on, admit it, Kenickie sucked and Jesus Jones were just Mike Edwards' ego trip), Richard Bacon, Shaun Keaveny - and turned them into half decent radio DJs. A sort of media alchemy, turning shit into, if not gold, then something at least more fragrant (though the jury is still out on Keaveny).

With the risibly-named Tonks, the system has broken down. They've taken a very funny stand up comedian and turned him into the most boring man on radio. His show is one long very lame joke, interspersed with the odd funny listener comment. Which he needs, because XFM have suddenly turned him into the least entertaining person on the airwaves. Which, in a world where Chris Moyles still breathes, is something of an achievement.

The End Of The Dance

This is a sad time. A few days ago I learned through the good offices of The Dilbert Blog that one of my favourite cartoon strips is coming to an end, at least as I know it.

I have long been a fan of Foxtrot. It's a gentle story of an American family, interspersed with oddly surreal moments. I realised a long time ago that, no matter how often I raved about it, it was just too American to get a run here in the UK, but that didn't stop the writers of the sitcom Our Family ripping it off wholesale for their early episodes.

Now, cartoonist Bill Amend (pronounced in typically ridiculous US style as 'Ay-mond') has decided to drop the daily strip cartoon and run Sunday-only strips. This is an incredibly brave decision. When cartoonists decide to retire a strip is is usually because, no matter what their stated reason, they have made more than enough out of the strip to never have to work again. Gary Larson could retire The Far Side on the back of huge book and merchandising sales. Bill Watterson and Berke Breathed never licensed Calvin And Hobbes or Bloom County, but both made enough through book sales around the world to give up on them. (It's true - every Calvin t-shirt you see is a fake). But it is hard to find a precedent for what Amend has just done.

On the other hand, Bill Amend has never done what you would expect. How many cartoonists nowadays would pull their strip's website because it was distracting them from the drawing? How many would close a mail service named after one of their characters? In these and many other ways, Amend has always bucked the trend.

So however much I will miss reading about Roger, Andy, Peter, Paige and Jason - and however much the likes of Pearls Before Swine may take the piss - I find myself hating Amend for what he has done, but admiring him for doing it.

Thursday, 19 April 2007


Great doctor. Pain in the arse to have next to you at bingo...

God's worried

An unusual event occurred a couple of weeks ago. I found myself without a new book to read. This hardly ever happens. I am not a voracious reader by any stretch of the imagination, but I do usually have one or two books on the go at any one time and, because I am a fairly slow reader who buys books in bulk, there is usually a reserve supply for me to tap into when I finish one. Somehow the system broke down and I had to turn to the bookshelves for something to read.

The book I chose is a strange little one. It's called 'A Little Light Worrying' and is best described as a very short collection of the works of a cartoonist called Mel Calman. He was the front page cartoonist for the Times for many years, back in the days before the Times went tabloid and shunted the cartoons - and therefore the brilliant Jonathan Pugh - onto an inside page. Calman died suddenly in February 1994, suffering a heart attack in the Odeon cinema in Leicester Square. His last cartoon was of a man in a hospital bed, reading a newspaper saying something like "NHS in crisis" and with the caption "Looks like it's sicker than I am". You can read more about Calman - and indeed a whole host of cartoonists - here.

Calman was known for two characters. One was a worried little man, such as the one depicted here. The other was God himself, who was basically a celestial version of the little man. I can't link a picture here because I simply cannot find one anywhere on the web, but perhaps the most famous of all Calman's cartoons showed God lying on a psychiatrist's couch, saying "I'm not as omnipresent as I used to be".

Coincidentally, as I was reading this book, the Church of England published yet another document wondering where their congregations had gone. The combination of the two made me think. I've never made any secret of the fact that, every now and then, I like to go and mither God on what, technically, is his day off. But the problem is that the times at which I can do this in any sort of formal way simply are not made for a 21st century way of life. This is the schedule in my parish:

8am Holy Communion
10am Sung Eucharist
6.30pm Family Service

Those are times which have not changed since the Industrial Revolution. They are times suited to an agrarian economy. They take no account of modern life, where people work later hours, work at weekends and no longer have anything like as much leisure time.

Similarly, each service is at least 90 minutes long. Do most people have 90 minutes to spare like that in a week? Is there anything going on which could not be compressed into, say, 30 minutes? How many hymns do you need, for God's sake - literally, in this case?

I don't know what Calman would have made of all this, but I reckon God would be much happier if people were having a word for less time more often than trying to fit in around a system that hasn't changed since electricity was discovered. So here's an idea for the CoE (and indeed any other denomination): Why not have shorter services at times when people are on their way home? Forget 90 minutes on a Sunday, why not have three services on weeknights as people are on their way home from work? I bet you far more people can manage one or two visits at the end of the working day than can get out of the house at sparrowfart on a weekend. You never know, it might make God less worried.

(Yes, I know that "God's Worried" was a book by Roger Woddis. Thanks)

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Musing on Glastonbury

The recent scramble for Glastonbury tickets prompted me to watch the movie at last. Not bad, more of a documentary than anything. The one thing that really made me think was the footage of some of the travellers who used Glasto as a refuge after the Battle of the Beanfield. What do such people do now that the festival has fallen under the gimlet wallet of Vince Power and the Mean Fiddler?

And then one of them lit up and started talking about commercialisation. Hmm. Let me see. 'Rizla' is a brand name. 'Soap' isn't...

Friday, 13 April 2007

How fatal are you?

I'm not one for blowing my own trumpet, but over the past few weeks I have realised just how lucky I am. Not for all of the usual reasons - fantastic wife, wonderful family, decent job and home - but just because of how little real sorrow there has been in my life. Yes, like most people my age I am now clean out of grandparents. Pretty close to running out of family members entitled to put 'great' before their title, too. But aside from that? Two uncles when I was younger than 10 and didn't really know them, and a Godfather I hadn't seen for 15 years about a decade ago and that is about it.

What made me think of all this? Well, my parents are moving to a smaller house and insited on returning a whole load of things to me. These included not only some old school photos, but my 18th and 21st birthday cards as well. Looking through the names made me realise that a surprising number of those people are still around now. Three people from school, four from university, a former work colleague and someone who played for one of my old cricket teams and that, to my knowledge, is that. Which is not bad over all of the years. Every 3.25 years someone I know gets it in the shorts. I reckon that is a lot less than a lot of other people.

Unlike many people I know, I've still got both parents on the planet (Dad's connections to reality are a little strained at times, but this is more to do with him being a academic than anything else). My three siblings are still alive, although God knows I've been tempted to change that at times. Basically, everyone I care about has managed to stick around to be cared about. I hope that nothing changes that. In the meantime, consider this: However much I annoy you, it seems that, statistically, its very unlikely to kill you.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Of wine and crepuscular things

It's not very often that I get to combine two of my passions. Wine has long been an interest of mine, right from the time I left university (my first 'proper' job was with Oddbins). Some might say that meeting my wife at a wine tasting was taking things a little to the extreme, but at least we started out knowing that we had something in common.

Owls, on the other hand, are a much more recent thing. Not to the extent of travelling around and seeing how many different species I can see, but just in the sense of an interested and slightly educated observer. If you want to head on down to the Hawk Conservancy in Andover, you will find a number of owls sponsored by very generous wedding guests of ours.

The two don't cross over very often, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had accidentally picked up a bottle of wine which did just that. Altano, from the Douro region of Portugal, is a fairly light red wine, made by a famous port producing family. You can read more about it here, although nowhere does the site explain just why the bottle comes covered in Scops owls. There are two owls on the label, one on the cap and one on the cork, and those are just the ones I have found.

It's the cork that is important. You see, it is a real cork. Made of cork oak. Not a plastic one, or a screw top. A real, genuine, owl-friendly, cork. Which is great, because one of the biggest threats to owl habitat is the current fashion for Portuguese and Spanish winemakers to use anything other than real cork to seal their bottles with. Owls in these countries tend to nest in cork oaks, and if no-one wants the cork, the oaks don't get planted. So the next time you need a bottle of red, get yourself some Altano and do an owl a favour.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Hallowed Hall

Whilst I am ranting about cricket, I want to mention Andrew Hall. Cricket fans will know who I am talking about. For those who don't, Hall plays for South Africa. He's a bowler and sometime batsman, although the former is definitely his strongest suit.

That said, he took part in one of the most heartrending events I have seen on a cricket field. South Africa had only one wicket left. Hall had scored 98 runs. Batting with him was Dewald Pretorius, a batsman so inept he only took a bat with him because he would look even sillier without it than he did with it. Hall stole another run. Up to 99, one run away from a first century in a Test match. But he needed Pretorius not to be out to the next ball. Which he was. What did Hall do? He laughed. The man had played for his team and had taken a run when a run was to be made, rather than decline it and face the next ball. He had trusted a team mate, even though he knew there was a huge risk that the team mate would let him down. And he still smiled.

Andrew Hall will never be a star player. Yes, he's a bloody good cricketer, you don't get to play for your country - any country - without being one of those. But he will never be a Flintoff, a Warne or even a Graeme Smith (thank God, we already have one too many of those). But he's a good team man who knows he is not the most talented in the side, but who tries to always do what is best for the side, even at the expense of personal glory. Give me eleven Andrew Halls rather than one Jacques Kallis every day.

A well known fact about Hall is that, before he became established as a Test player, he was twice the victim of robberies back home in South Africa. Although he was never seriously injured, he was shot in his bowling hand in one of them, which happened whilst he was withdrawing cash at a cashpoint. This kind of thing is why I regard South Africa less as a desirable holiday destination and more like half a million square miles of suicide note.

How not to run the world

American sports get a bad press over here in the UK. American football's just rugby for lightweights who have to play in body armour, right? And baseball is just rounders for grown men?

Well, no, actually. All the protective stuff in American football came about because the game became so high impact, the Goverment threatened to ban it if they didn't make the protection mandatory. And if you think that Jason Robinson is good, try watching any pro running back in action. Some of them make Billy Whizz look slow.

But whatever you say about American sport, they know how to put on a spectacle. Can you imagine them fvcking up the Superbowl? Getting slightly over-excited by a stray nipple, yes, but actually organising it so that no-one turned up? Likewise the World Series - which, for the record, is named after a newspaper, not because it is the final of the world championship. Nope. When the governing bodies of US sports put on a show They. Put. On. A. Show.

All of which makes the International Cricket Council's abject fucking up of their own World Cup all the more unbelievable. How can you have a competition in the West Indies, home of huge enthusiastic crowds and equally large and enthusiastic spectators and not make a success of it? After all, this is the country where spectators have been known to refuse to pay to enter grounds, claiming that watching cricket is a human right.

Simple answer: Set ticket prices so high that the locals cannot afford them. Ban musical instruments from the ground. And bringing your own drink. In other words, ban all of the things that make cricket in the Carribean so special, then price the tickets so high that few of the people you want to be there can afford to be there. I mean, how moronic can you get? The offical logo of the competition features spectators singing, dancing and playing instruments AND YOU'VE BANNED THEM!

The ICC has long been regarded as a joke by most serious cricket fans. It exists solely to make money, irrespecitive of the damage it does to the game by over working it's star players and out pricing it's fan base. As soon as a serious issue, such as the Hair Affair or the whole shambles in Zimbabwe rears it's head, the ICC runs screaming. But to balls up your own tournament takes something really special. I do hope they are proud, because who would've thought that cricket could learn something from the Americans?

PS I don't disagree with the baseball comment?

Saturday, 31 March 2007

A Shameless Steal

A friend published this on his blog a few months ago. I liked it so much, I decided to pinch it. It comes from something called, written by Bill Maher:

As news spreads that teens who pledge chastity have lots more kinky sex, millions of aging boomers ask: Where was Bush when I was in high school?

A new eight-year study just released reveals that American teenagers who take "virginity" pledges of the sort so favored by the Bush administration wind up with just as many STDs as the other kids.

But that's not all -- taking the pledges also makes a teenage girl six times more likely to perform oral sex, and a boy four times more likely to get anal. Which leads me to an important question: where were these pledges when I was in high school?

Seriously, when I was a teenager, the only kids having anal intercourse were the ones who missed. My idea of lubrication was oiling my bike chain. If I had known I could have been getting porn star sex the same year I took Algebra II, simply by joining up with the Christian right, I'd have been so down with Jesus they would have had to pry me out of the pew.

For a bunch of teens raised on creationism, these red state kids today are pretty evolved -- sexually, anyway, and for that they can thank all who joined forces to try and legislate away human nature, specifically the ineluctable urge of teenagers to hump.

Yes, the "What do we tell the children?" crowd apparently decided not to tell them anything. Because people who talk about pee-pees are potty-mouths. And so armed with limited knowledge, and believing regular, vaginal intercourse to be either immaculate or filthy dirty, these kids did with their pledge what everybody does with contracts: they found loopholes. Two of them to be exact.

Is there any greater irony than the fact that the Christian Right actually got their precious little adolescent daughters to say to their freshly scrubbed boyfriends: "Please, I want to remain pure for my wedding night, so only in the ass. Then I'll blow you." Well, at least these kids are really thinking outside the box.

There's a lot worse things than teenagers having sex, namely, teenagers NOT having sex. Here's something you'll never hear: "That suicide bomber blew himself up because he was having too much sex. Sex, sex, sex, non-stop. All that crazy Arab ever had was sex, and look what happened."

Well, that's our story -- of how faith and the party of smaller government combined to turn your kids into a generation of super-freaks. Which shouldn't be surprising: Prohibition didn't work, "Just say no" didn't work, and I understand there's a host of Americans who illegally obtain and smoke marijuana. They're the ones who've been giggling every time I say anal sex.

If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?

This thought occurred to me during the course of the last week: Has it ever dawned on you that you have lost more friends during your life than you currently have?

Some of this is self evident. No-one is going to expect you to be friends now with all of the people you were friends with at the age of 5. Even at the height of Friends Reunited fever I could only recall the names of two friends from back then and one of them was Beverley, my first 'girlfriend'. (Neither of them was on Friends Reunited, either). If, like me, you moved around a lot as a kid then you have practically no chance of keeping up with everyone. And even if you have lived in the same town all your life, other people will have moved on.

Then there are the friends who, through circumstance, you lose touch with. For example, today two good friends of my ex-wife got married. I wasn't invited, nor did I expect to be. I've not heard from either of them since we split up. Similarly, I've not heard from the friends who own this or from any number of her mates that I used to spend a lot of my free time with.

Sometimes, you know you are not in touch with someone because you upset them for some reason. Fortunately, I can't think of many people who fall into this category, although I guess my ex-wife wouldn't have gone off with someone else if I hadn't done something to annoy or offend her.

The ones that I wonder about most, though, are the ones where I have no idea what I have done. Anyone who has read my other blog will know that I met my current wife at a wine tasting when a friend of mine could not attend. I've not heard from that friend in over six months and I have no idea why. When I get in touch, she tells me she is really busy and will get back to me soon, but she never does. Then their is my best friend from university, who I have not heard from at all since January 2001. I met him and his girlfriend for lunch, we spoke a couple of times on the phone in the week after, then nothing. What did I do?

Most puzzling at all is the friend I have lost touch with in the last few weeks, since I got married again. She was invited to the wedding and sadly couldn't make it. Now she is not only avoiding me, she's doing it in a really obvious way. And it is hard to ask someone what you have done wrong when they are not talking to you.

To end on a positive note, over the last 12 months I have actually reversed the trend, in that I think I have made more friends than I have lost. Some of these are people I knew slightly and with whom my relationship has grown closer than I ever could have imagined it would. Some of them are people I have met through my wife, who has a fantastic circle of friends (and arguably a very dodgy taste in husbands). And there are even one or two entirely new mates in there, too. I hope to keep bucking the trend for a lot longer, but if anyone I mentioned in paragraphs 2 to 6 want to get in touch, I'd love to hear from you.

When Lawyers Strike

I loved this article from the Times today. Apart from the obvious humour, consider the sheer cheek of a journalist writing this:

The lawyers sat in a line in the courtyard of the Lahore High Court, sweating slightly in their black suits and gowns and eyeing their colleagues’ mid-morning tea and biscuits with envy.

“Hunger strikers,” explained Azam Nazir Tarar, a leading member of the Bar Association in this southern Pakistani city, with something of a flourish.

Across the courtyard, dozens more lawyers were poring over newspapers, handing around leaflets and chatting earnestly in clipped, English tones about the recent dismissal of the Chief Justice of Pakistan.

It was, by Pakistani standards, the most genteel of political protests: the “hunger strikers” were taking it in turns to fast for one day, from 9am to 4pm — in effect, missing their lunch.

In fairness, the actual article is quite serious and can be read here

Welcome to the Ministry of Justice

One of the best things about being a minister in any government is that, if you find yourself with a problem, as a general rule you are in a position to fix it, or at least to make the problem go away.

Here in the UK, we have a lovely man named Dr John Reid as our Home Secretary - equivalent to something like the Minister for Internal Affairs. Of course, I mean lovely in the sense of 'person you wouldn't spit on if he were on fire, in fact you would add more petrol'. I'm not sure that he is actually more evil or mendacious than any other politician, but he's more obvious about it. Which is nice, because it saves you expending valuable seconds of your life wondering if he can be trusted (before you remember he's an MP and slap yourself for being stupid). In short, he's one of life's instantly hateable people.

A few weeks ago, it seemed that Dr Reid was at last going to get his comeuppance. His department deals with all sorts of boring roles, like making sure prisoners stay locked up. You wouldn't think that this would be all that difficult. In fact, Dr Reid had to admit that, not only did prisoners regularly escape, but his department had no accurate figures for how many had escaped. Think about this for a moment. Either this means that not only do they not know how many prisoners have escaped, they have no idea how many they were supposed to have in the first place, or it means that Dr Reid is too stupid to subtract the number they actually have from the number they are supposed to have and get the right answer. Either way, we seemed to have put our criminal justice system into the hands of a cretin.

Then it got even better. Not content with operating an open door policy for prisoners ("Yeah, drop in any time you are passing, guys"), Dr Reid then decided that, actually, the prisons were too full anyway. Ignoring the fact that, if he just carried on as normal then the jails would eventually empty themselves anyway, he asked judges to stop sending convicted criminals to jail. For the first time in my life I was glad we hadn't caught Bin Laden, because Dr Reid-iculous would have had him doing community service, probably with disadvantaged Muslims in Leeds.

Predictably, all of this made people wonder if Dr Reid was competent to dress himself, let alone run a major government department. The announcement this week that the Home Office was going to be split in two was therefore an astonishing admission by him that, basically, the complex task of locking people in a cell and making sure they stayed there was beyond him to organise.

To give credit where it is due, John Reid clearly isn't as stupid as you might now think he is (although he undoubtedly more stupid than he thinks he is), because he has hived off all of the things he was being criticised for. Which leaves him free to concentrate on the remaining objectives of the Home Office. This is the point at which I panic, because those things are immigration, terrorism and security. Frankly, Osama might as well check into the Headingley Holiday Inn now.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

The Death of the Blog

Newspapers these past couple of weeks have been full of stories about how the blog is dying, people are moving away from them in favour of the joys of YouTube, MySpace and Facebook. In which case, why am I bothering to start a new one?

I guess there are two reasons. The first is that the blog isn't really dying. Yes, plenty of people start them and never continue with them. Heck, I've got a blog I started two years ago and then forgot all about. I had other things going wrong at the time and the blog came low down the list of priorities. Then I started the other three blogs and that one completely slipped my mind. But not everyone will be like that. The majority of the blogs cited as 'dead' were never that interesting to start with. Did anyone really want to read the thoughts of Lindsay Lohan anyway? Eventually, they even bored their creators. And it is not coincidence that people have moved to the sites above. In the same way that people nowadays prefer television to reading, writing a blog is just too much like hard work compared to watching or making a video. Basically, if your blog is dying, you probably didn't love the written word that much anyway.

The second reason? Well, about 9 months ago I started a blog called 116 Days and Counting. The intention was to track the progress of my impending wedding, from engagement to divorce. I ha this great idea that, instead of having to keep answering people who asked how things were going, I could just point them in the direction of the blog. What actually happened was that I spent more time defending the blog than I did writing the thing. I somehow managed to produce reading for people who hated what I was writing. Which hopefully is the closest I will ever get to being Jeffrey Archer.

This, on the other hand, is a blog with no purpose, other than to provide somewhere for me to deposit all of the random things that go through my brain. If anyone reads it, that's a bonus. If they like it, double bonus. The important thing is that this blog is going to live.