Friday, January 21, 2005

Quinglish Watch: A grand week out

Following last month’s report on Simon Callow playing Charles Dickens in a forthcoming episode of Doctor Who, I feel duty bound to start a regular feature.

‘Quinglish Watch’ will provide a record of diverse items which are as quintessentially English as the expression ‘quintessentially English’. We begin with an absolute corker…

Today the most pathetic cruise of recent times finally threw in the beach towel, as passengers of the Aurora disembarked after an exotic round-the-world cruise turned into an extended tour around the Isle of Wight.

The Independent reports:

Abandoned, the £23m world cruise that never got beyond Devon
They had boarded with dreams of sailing through the Strait of Magellan, eating soft-shelled crab in Osaka and being entertained by fire-eaters in Aruba during a three-month round-the-world odyssey.

But the memory the 1,367 hardy souls on board the ill-fated cruise ship Aurora will take home will be of the free drinks chugging about in the drizzly English Channel watching the emergency cabaret by Jimmy Tarbuck and Paul Daniels.

After 10 days of limbo caused by a faulty 176-ton motor, the £200m liner was due back in Southampton last night after sea trials revealed more problems. And the owner, P&O Cruises, finally cancelled the 103-day Grand Voyage, ending the fiasco that will cost it nearly £23m.

The ship had pulled away from Southampton's Mayflower terminal on Wednesday night bound for the Portuguese island of Madeira, but got no further than the Devon coast before engineers found a week of repairs had failed to fix the propulsion system fault.

Now, it isn’t so much the glorious incompetence that qualifies this story for the ‘Quinglish Watch’, so much as the stoical, spirit-of-the-Blitz attitude of the passengers.

In other countries this fiasco would have resulted in mass law suits and on-board brawls, but these passengers, being English, had a whale of a time.

In the land where a ‘grand day out’ traditionally involves sipping lukewarm tea from a flask and nibbling thin ham sandwiches, a tartan blanket wrapped around your legs, as you sit shivering in your car watching drizzle fall softly on a grey, deserted seafront, this ‘cruise’ must have been an absolute joy.

There’s nothing the English love more than ‘making the best of things’ in challenging circumstances – and they don’t come much more challenging than being stuck on a boat trip you’ve paid £40k for, endlessly circling the IoW while Elaine Paige warbles away on stage and Jimmy Tarbuck tells another one about his mother-in-law.

A lady on BBC News this morning said that she "couldn’t complain at all about P&O. they’ve been wonderful and we’ll definitely be booking up for more P&O cruises. We organise tours – we’ve got 150 people on board and they’re all saying the same thing.”

And The Sun reports:

One passenger said: “We’ve spent 11 days on a liner with free food and drinks and been entertained royally. I have had a luxury holiday for diddly squat!”

But retired John Miller, who booked a £42,000 suite, said: “When P&O announced the cruise was cancelled the mood was very sad.

“The most awful thing about this is I shall now have to go back to Croydon.”

Still, I’m sure he’ll make the best of it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Remembering a fallen idol

Cricket, like baseball or boxing, is a sport that particularly lends itself to great writing, and has a terrific literary canon all of its own.

There are many reasons for this: the tactical and technical intricacies of the game, its long history, the empire-colony aspect which assumes significance whenever England play anybody, the great controversies from bodyline (violent quick bowling at the batsman’s body and head in an attempt to intimidate him – now accepted practice, but once as divisive as an Iraq invasion) to sledging (verbal insults designed to produce ‘mental disintegration’ of opponents, as Australia captain Steve Waugh memorably put it), the way the slow pace allows matches to ebb and flow, and unfold their drama gradually.

But I suspect the key reason is that cricket, like baseball, while nominally a team game, is really all about individuals: how they react to pressure, their physical and mental bravery, their often-vicious personal rivalries with particular opponents. In every Test match here are myriad contests within the contest, as bowlers, batsmen and captains try to impose their will upon each other.

It also helps that the game has seen some great, colourful, larger-than-life characters. But one of the most fascinating stories of recent times revolved around a man with a reputation for dourness, straight-down-the-line decency, and strong Christian convictions.

Tim de Lisle – former Wisden editor, writes in the Times today about the fifth anniversary of the cricket match that ultimately led to the downfall and disgrace of one of the sport’s great national heroes, South Africa captain Hansie Cronje:

IT WAS five years ago yesterday. The fifth Test between South Africa and England at Centurion was drifting towards the dullest of draws. South Africa, batting first, had been stuck on 155 for six through three solid days of rain. Never mind a dead rubber, it was a dead loss.

But then Hansie Cronje went to Nasser Hussain (
the England captain), suggested that they “make a game of it”, and offered a deal: two forfeitures and a target for England of 255 from 73 overs. Faced with a proposal unprecedented in 123 years of Test cricket (Hussein accepted)… England staggered to victory by two wickets with two balls to spare. When Cronje returned to the pavilion, Hussain shook his hand and said: “What you did today was good for the game.”

Hussain was far from alone….

(But) a note of dissent was struck by Sunil Gavaskar, the former India batsman. “If it had been Pakistan doing this,” Gavaskar asked, “would they have been accused of fixing the match? Integrity seems to be the copyright of certain developed countries. I am not prepared to buy that.”

Gavaskar can be an anodyne commentator, but you had to admire his willingness to speak up here and his sense of smell. The rest of us ignored the warning signs …We wanted to believe that a man whose one flaw as a captain seemed to be a certain dourness had grabbed the opportunity, with nothing to lose, to polish his image.

The ICC itself said nothing, which seemed feeble but turned out to be wise. Cronje himself said: “If they are unhappy, then I want to get out of the game.” A novelist would have struggled to pack more irony into one line.

Three months later, Cronje...(was) charged by police in Delhi with cheating, fraud and criminal conspiracy relating to match-fixing and betting. Cronje hotly denied it. “I am stunned. The allegations are completely without substance,” he said. But four days later, he made a tearful 3am phone call to his boss, Dr Ali Bacher, admitting that he had been “dishonest” and had taken money for “information and forecasting”, although not, he insisted, for throwing matches. He was dismissed and never played again.

He appeared before Judge King’s commission, only to give a glazed, unreal performance. He came cleanest about the Centurion Test, confessing to taking 53,000 rands (about £5,000) and a leather jacket for his wife, Bertha, from a bookmaker, Marlon Arondstam, in return for ensuring a definite result. But the commission was wound up with indecent haste by a Government unable to cope with the downfall of a national hero. When Cronje died in a plane crash in 2002, his secrets were buried with him. He is believed to have had 70 overseas bank accounts.

To understand the impact of Cronje’s disgrace, you’d have to understand the esteem in which he was held in his homeland. Imagine it turned out that Muhammed Ali had bribed Foreman to lose the Rumble in the Jungle, and you’re on the right lines.

This was a man that people thought they knew, but they didn’t. His straight bat, quiet demeanour and veneer of upright sportsmanship belied a Lear-like hubris.

De Lisle, benefiting from hindsight, concludes with this observation:

I met Cronje once, in the South Africa players’ viewing area at a warm-up game in Canberra. On a light-hearted occasion, he stood out from his team with his stern expression and heavy physical presence. I was writing a preview of South Africa’s 1998 tour of England and asked him if he had learnt a lot from the year he spent with Leicestershire. Yes, he said, but it had been a two-way process. No doubt it had, but he said it too quickly, too certainly.

He did have one crucial flaw and it wasn’t dourness. It was hubris, a mixture of greed, arrogance, control-freakery and breathtaking hypocrisy, given that he wore a bracelet inscribed WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do?” His fall was a tragedy that is affecting South Africa still.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The killer argument

As a generally pro-America Briton, it does trouble me that thirty-eight of the US’s fifty states allow the death penalty in some form.

Although many states haven’t enforced it for decades, some have: Texas has seen 337 executions since 1976, and over 450 inmates are currently on death row.

For me, the rational argument was won by the anti-capital punishment lobby some time ago, which is why very few western countries are yet to abolish it.

In a recent debate over this hoariest of old chestnuts with the prolific right-wing blogger Orrin Judd of the renowned BrothersJudd, I actually managed to get in the last word and, it would seem, silence him within three or four posts – which, as regular OJ sparring partners will know, is no regular event. Now there is probably some much more rational explanation for Orrin’s silence, but I don’t care, so I’m just going to go ahead and assume that I gained a rare victory.

The killer argument
As all former sixth-form debaters will know, there are many worthy arguments against the death penalty of varying degrees of validity – the outdated barbarity, the inequality of its application according to how good a lawyer you can afford, its ineffectiveness as a deterrent, etc.

There are even some significant arguments in its favour: a murderer has forfeited his right to life, the worst crimes must have the strongest punishments etc.

However, all of these pale into insignificance when we consider the best argument against capital punishment: that is, the fallibility of the justice system.

Miscarriages of justice don’t just happen on very rare occasions. They happen frequently, and sometimes they happen deliberately.

Timothy Evans, Stephen Downing, Randall Adams, the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and Krishna Maharaj are merely some of the most famous cases in Britain and America. Goodness knows how many innocents were wrongly thrown off this mortal coil in Britain prior to 1964, and how many still are in the US, China and the Middle East.

In the States, 7% of those whose capital convictions were overturned between 1973 and 1995 were found innocent on re-trial.

In fact, the numbers are irrelevant. Once you know that your justice system has put even one innocent person to death, you simply cannot justifiably take the risk again, if you want to have a shred of decency.

Why a killer argument?
I have described the fallibility of the justice system argument as a ‘killer’ because there is no response to it which is both valid and sane.

The counter-arguments with which I was presented on BrosJudd were as follows:

1) It doesn’t matter if we put some innocent people to death, because the overall good is greater, in that by the weight of probability we reduce the number of violent felons in our midst.

2) It doesn’t matter if we put some innocent people to death, because those accused of murder are usually violent people anyway.

Both of these arguments were advanced by ‘Bart’. Both fail the sanity test. A much stronger counter-argument is:

3) It is an argument not just against capital punishment, but against all punishment, so by following the logic we end up unable to convict anybody in case we get it wrong.

This passes the sanity test, but fails the validity test. It is specifically an argument against capital punishment, because capital punishment is irreversible. The Guildford Four got compensation and a chance to rebuild what was left of their lives. Not much, when you consider how unpleasant it must be to be locked up for years for something you didn’t do...

...but still a lot better than a posthumous pardon, which is what Timothy Evans got.

Even Sean Penn gets it right now and again
Naturally OJ and his ilk instinctively dislike anti-capital punishment campaigners because they associate them with bleeding-heart liberals and Susan Sarandon movies.

But sometimes even bleeding-heart liberals stumble across a single, overriding, unanswerable, killer argument, and you just have to accept it.

This is one such occasion. I’m convinced that one day even the most red-necked red states will grasp that.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Prohibition: the radical experiment that failed

BBC2 last night continued its excellent series ‘What if…’ with a debate on the pros and cons of legalising hard drugs in Britain.

I’ve always been open to some notion of ‘decriminalising’, for example, heroin. By which I specifically mean that heroin users should be treated as patients rather than criminals, as they are currently in Portugal.

This isn’t out of soft-hearted sympathy, and I accept that heroin use is extremely harmful because it is extremely addictive, but my argument was purely cold economics:

An average heroin habit costs the user about £50 a day. Nobody can afford that, so they have to commit crime. If you imprison a user for the crime but fail to address the habit (prison generally makes it worse), then it will cost the taxpayer £18 in criminal justice costs down the line for every £1 it would cost to medically treat an addict. A non-criminal, non-addict can also perform a normal day job and pay taxes himself.

The total economic and social cost of Class A drug use was estimated in 2000 to be between £10.1 to £17.4 billion.

In Switzerland, heroin ‘clinics’ to treat addicts resulted in a net economic benefit of 45 Swiss francs per patient per day, after taking into account the extra cost of running the clinics and the savings in the criminal justice bill.

My argument was also selfish: I've had my home broken into by a young man feeding his heroin habit. I'd rather he was getting treatment at my expense than mugging me or nicking my stereo.

However, recently I have been increasingly drawn to the more radical idea of complete legalisation of heroin, and thus, regulation of the market. Here’s why:

Assessing prohibition
The key to the problem is to stop thinking of prohibition as the norm, and of legalisation as some nutty ultra-liberal idea. Instead, think of heroin as you would any other addictive drug (like alcohol, tobacco) that exists in the world for those people that want to use it, but which has harmful consequences. Then you can rationally assess whether prohibition has been a successful approach to dealing with those harmful consequences.

Restrictions were imposed on doctors prescribing pure heroin in 1968, when there were a few hundred users nationally. Now there are a few hundred thousand…

Proliferation of users and availability
The number one benefit of prohibition must be that it keeps the numbers of users at a lower level than would be the case if heroin were legalised and available from licensed outlets. I’m sure that’s probably true. There must be many people who might use heroin, but don’t precisely because it is illegal. And, goodness knows we have enough problems on a Saturday night in this country with alcohol alone, without wishing a host of new young heroin-users on our streets

But prohibition has failed to stop the number of users rising exponentially, and it has failed to prevent heroin from being easily available to those people that want to buy it. Around four million people use illicit drugs each year in England and Wales (never mind Scotland), and the number of heroin users doubled every four years during the 1990s.

In England in 2003, 42% of 11-15 year olds had been offered one or more drugs. Unlike alcohol and tobacco, you can buy heroin in Britain 24 hours a day, every day including Christmas Day.

An anarchic market: the house that prohibition built
Here’s how the heroin market works:

Because heroin is illegal, the Government has no control over its supply channels, market or price.

Because there is no regulation of heroin supply channels, it is supplied by criminals. Many of these fund terrorist organisations. Afghanistan is the source of 70% of the world's heroin supplies and 90% of heroin used in the UK each year.

Because the profit margins are fantastically high, heroin dealing is attractive to criminal gangs, who have monopolised the market and control the price.

Because the profit margins can be made even more fantastically high by cutting heroin with all manner of rubbish, users inject themselves not with heroin but with a cocktail of crap, which often kills them. Pure heroin has few side-effects other than its appalling addictiveness. In 2002 the UK had the highest level of drug related deaths in Europe.

Because criminal gangs make fantastic profits, they become richer, more powerful and more armed.

Because heroin is fantastically addictive, once you have a customer, you’ve got him for as long as you want him. The sales technique is thus straightforward: find someone vulnerable, malleable or weak, make the introductory offer cheap or free (‘pushing’), and thereafter raise the price dramatically.

Because not many heroin addicts can afford the £50 a day price, they must find alternative forms of income. For men, this is usually crime. For women, this is often prostitution.

When is enough enough?
Here are the two most pertinent drug-related facts:

1) 50% of people in custody and awaiting trial in the UK admitted they were dependent on a drug. (Source: "Prescribing Heroin, What is the Evidence?", Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2003)

2) 280,000 problem drug users cause around half of all crime. (Source: Home Office white paper on organised crime - "One Step Ahead", March 2004)

The ideal solution would be to eliminate the very existence of heroin, and therefore to have zero users. That’s not going to happen, so we have to deal with the real world, and the fact that heroin and its users exists.

Prohibition as a way of dealing with it has created more users, rich gangsters, rich terrorists, 50% of the UK’s criminals, many of its prostitutes and a thousand or so deaths per year.

So the question is: exactly how bad do things have to get before you admit that the experiment has failed?

The chronicler of necrophobia

The sudden realisation of one’s own mortality usually occurs to people in their thirties or forties, so it’s called a ‘mid-life crisis’. It seemed to occur to Philip Larkin when he was about ten, which is rotten luck on his part.

Larkin is the ultimate chronicler of necrophobia (fear of death) in the history of literature. No other writer better captures that awful 3am realisation of the shortness of one’s life.

Aubade is one of the last of his poems, published in 1977, and without doubt his greatest, as it says in the minimum number of words everything he had been trying to say for his whole career.

I can’t decide whether I love it for its stark bravery, or hate it for its horrible pessimism. Either way, it provokes a strong reaction for me, which great literature should do.

Here it is in full. Read it if you dare – it won’t cheer you up.


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
-- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused -- nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says
No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear -- no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Those were the days, my friend

A guide to English hooligan culture, and how Rupert Murdoch killed it

One of the less edifying trends currently surfacing in British pop culture is a kind of warped nostalgia for the days of rampant football hooliganism.

In much the same way that America’s Italian hoodlums have become lionised in celluloid, time seems to have diminished the genuine feelings of fear and loathing the football ‘firms’ of the 1980s inspired, and replaced them with a romantic notion that these were merely loyal gangs of Merrie Men expressing their masculinity. And a key myth is that hooligans only ever hurt each other, leaving innocent bystanders alone.

To see what I mean, read John King’s Headhunters or The Football Factory (now a movie), or Martin King’s (no relation, I think) Hoolifan.

And even Liverpool fans, who were never among the worst hooligans, have this nostalgic terrace anthem occasionally aired on away-days:

Those were the days my friends
We took the Stretford End
We took the Shed
The North Bank Highbury
We took the Geordies too
We fought for Liverpool
We are the Kop of Liverpool FC *

All nonsense of course, but here's a rough guide to how hooligan culture worked:

Primitive tribes
In the late 1970 and throughout the 1980s, football crowds were almost exclusively white, working-class men.

Within those crowds were pockets of bored, disaffected youths who gradually got themselves in gangs ('firms') with the intention of engaging in tribal warfare with firms from other teams.

It was particularly a problem in London, where you have lots of top-flight football teams who regularly met in Division 1, and plenty of opportunities for fights in tube stations etc. The most notorious London firms were Chelsea’s ‘Headhunters’ and West Ham United’s ‘Inter City Firm’ (named after the BR train system on which they got around the country).

Hoolie rules
Firms took themselves seriously, with initiation rules and ‘bases’ in pubs (one of the frequent aims on hooligan battles was to ‘take another firm’s pub’.)

Although it’s a myth ex-hooligans like to propagate that they never hurt innocent by-standers, in actual fact it is true that the core gangs’ original idea was to only fight ‘volunteers’, ie, those who were in opposition firms. And far from going on random rampages, they were extremely organised - opposing firms contacting each other to arrange times and places to fight where the police wouldn’t be expecting it.

The problem was that around the fringes of the firms were hundreds of idiots who took every opportunity to run riot in neighbourhoods, kicking anyone that moved, smashing windows and scaring the bejesus out of all and sundry. These oiks are conveniently forgotten in the current climate of myth-making.

How Rupert Murdoch killed hooliganism
Anyway, that all stopped in the early 1990s, and it’s no longer a problem in Britain.
What killed it? Partly better police intelligence, but the main reason was a cultural shift.

The old days of the terraces – firm breeding grounds where you could stand where you liked and get yourself into little gangs to sing abusive songs, have gone. Big grounds are required to be all-seating. Football is now, in very sense, ‘multicultural’. Sky television bought the rights to football coverage in 1992, called Division 1 “The Premiership” and glammed it up like the NFL. There are more women, children, middle-classes and ethnic minorities going than ever before – a football match is basically much more like an American sporting occasion.

Chelsea FC – once home of the Headhunters – are now owned by a Russian billionaire, managed by a Portugese coach and have only two or three English players, and their fans are the richest and poshest in the country.

And the few remaining pockets of hooligan culture in England are now in the backwaters and the lower divisions, where the glamour and gentrification has yet to penetrate (Cardiff, Millwall and Stoke are the worst).

Meanwhile, the very worst football hooliganism in Europe now occurs in mono-cultural countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, and with the ‘Ultras’ in Italy.


*Translation of football song for US readers:

Those were the days my friends (A hit in the 60s for folk singer Mary Hopkin - the song is a parody sung to the same tune)
We took the Stretford End (we fought and defeated the inhabitants of the 'Stretford End' - the terrace that houses the standing home fans at Manchester United's ground, Old Trafford)
We took the Shed (The Shed was the notorious, now demolished, home fans terrace at Chelsea FC's ground Stamford Bridge)
The North Bank, Highbury (the terrace at Arsenal FC's ground in North London)
We took the Geordies too (Geordies are inhabitants of the North-Eastern city Newcastle, and thus, supporters of Newcastle United)
We fought for Liverpool
We are the Kop of Liverpool FC (Named after Boer War battlesite the Spion Kop, the Kop is the famous home end at Liverpool FC - reknowned for the breadth and creativity of its singing repertoire)

And this year I have already been watching…

Continuing the movie theme, we have started 2005 with a flurry of cinema-going, and have already witnessed three fine films:

The Aviator
I’ve never really liked Leonardo DiCaprio – he always seems to me to play the same whiny spoilt teenager – but he’s excellent in this as the obsessive-compulsive aviator/film-maker genius Howard Hughes. It’s also a return to form for Scorsese after Gangs of New York, which I found tedious and unconvincing.

This is not a perfect film – the opening scene giving a ‘Freudian’ explanation for Hughes’s fear of germs was unnecessary – but there’s a great deal to get your teeth into in this long but riveting movie. Hughes is visionary, a man utterly driven and determined, who never sees obstacles but only opportunities, and who always starts a new and even more impossible project the moment the last one is triumphantly completed. Sometimes in life you come across people with something of this visionary character, and while they are always impressive, charismatic and usually natural leaders, a lengthy acquaintance inevitably exposes accompanying flaws.

Hughes’s losing battle with his own mental illness forms the most compelling thread of The Aviator. Scorsese handles the obsessive-compulsive quirks cleverly: initially they are comic, and get laughs (the symmetrical arrangement of peas on his plate), then gradually they become unsettling (his traumas in the bathroom and phobia of germs, scrubbing his hands until they bleed; his compulsive repetition of phrases) and finally terrifying (hallucinations; overpowering dread of contaminated food and drink).

There are numerous great scenes. Hughes’s crash while test-piloting his XF-11 is particularly horrific. But perhaps the best scene is his visit to the family of his then-girlfriend Katherine Hepburn (nicely played by Cate Blanchett). The Hepburns are a bunch of awful champagne-socialist snobs, and Hughes suddenly sees Katherine in a new light as she effortlessly slips into their cliquey conversations.

It’s a sharp reminder that who you are can depend very much upon the company you’re in – and that you need to see someone in all their environments before you can truly claim to know them.

House of Flying Daggers
I’m not sure if there’s a name for this genre of Chinese films yet, where semi-superhuman martial arts experts leap impossibly around against stunning visual backdrops. Perhaps I should coin one: ‘kung-flew movies’?

This is even more visually stunning and jaw-dropping in its action sequences than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but lacks that movie’s emotional depth. The characters here are essentially spaghetti-western heroes and anti-heroes, and the romantic thread doesn’t really work. Well worth seeing though, especially on a big screen.

The Incredibles
Hollywood seems to save its best scripts, jokes and plots for CGI cartoons these days. This is another huge leap forward in terms of animation, and by far the most grown-up film of the genre.

The powers of this dysfunctional super-family forced to live as normal people are perfectly fitted to each character. The hyperactive boy is super-fast and uses it for mischief, and the awkward teenage girl makes herself invisible or builds protective forcefields. Mr Incredible’s brutal strength sees him expressing his frustration in destructive ways, while the frazzled mother uses her stretchy elastic limbs to literally hold the family together – breaking up fights while cooking the dinner and answering the phone etc.

The way the family comes together to use their powers for good is ingenious and curiously moving. I’d be surprised if there’s a more entertaining film out this year.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Last year I have been mostly watching...

Three great films from last year:

Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World
I can’t seem to get tired of watching this one. It’s a human story disguised as an action movie. The battle scenes, impressive as they are, almost get in the way of the good bits: the long nature shots on the Galapagos Islands, the string duets in the Captain’s quarters, the wide-angle shots of that beautiful ship on the vast ocean...

As a Portsmouth lad, it brings to life the romantic world of cannons, grog rations, ship’s biscuits and powder monkeys that formed the basis of virtually every school project with which we were tasked.

Lost in Translation
Surely the best film about the tedium of hotel life ever made. It perfectly captures the feeling of numb displacement and the unreal slowness of time you experience when staying in a ‘transitory’ place (such as a hotel, airport or train station) alone.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
A few years ago I would have thought it very unlikely that a film could star Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet and not be very irritating. But this is an exceptional movie, which manages to be very easy to follow despite its deeply complex structure - with time looping backwards and forwards, and memory and reality becoming mixed up in nearly every scene.

And three rubbish ones:

The Day After Tomorrow
Has great effects, but then which films haven’t these days? Unintentionally hilarious. Has a very cringeworthy bit where a British chap is watching Manchester Utd play and ‘cheering them on’ by shouting ‘kick it, kick it’ at the screen.

More unintentional hilarity. Best bit is when the camera pulls out to reveal the Greek fleet, which must consist of about a billion ships.

Fahrenheit 9/11
For these reasons.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Saturday night's all right

Theodore Dalrymple, a notoriously pessimistic commentator on Britain's social ills, has his say on British drinking culture, and the Government's proposals to introduce 24-hour licensing, in the Telegraph:

"That the British are now a nation of drunken brutes, justly despised throughout the world wherever they congregate in any numbers, is so obvious a fact that it should require no repetition. A brief visit to the centre of any British town or city on a Saturday night - or indeed, almost any night - will confirm it for those who are still in doubt. There they will see scenes of charmless vulgarity, in which thousands of scantily clad, lumpen sluts scream drunkenly, and men vomit proudly in the gutters.

The Government, whose solution to any social problem is to make it worse, now proposes that the British, having conclusively proved that they cannot (or rather, will not) control themselves, should be granted even more licence to make a public nuisance of themselves whenever they feel like it, which is often. They will henceforth be able to drink in pubs and bars at all times of the day and night, 24 hours a day, instead of just most of the day and night. If there were shares in debauchery, I'd buy them now.

Of course, the Government claims to believe that, by allowing drinking establishments to open 24 hours a day, it will reduce public drunkenness. If it really believes this, it is a terrible indictment of the British nation: that it can allow itself to be led by such a collection of hopeless fools. As to the suggestion that we might develop here the kind of civilised Mediterranean café culture if only drinking outlets were open long enough, you might as well preach the comforts of the igloo and the tastiness of whale blubber to the Masai of Kenya."

Dalrymple only really exaggerates when he says that we are a nation of drunken brutes.

We are a nation of drunks, true, and always have been, but the brutes are a minority group colloquially known, of course, as ‘townies’. These are generally single, unskilled or semi-skilled workers aged 18-30: the males dressed smartly in black trousers and short-sleeve shirts (never jackets – no matter how cold the weather), hair cropped and gelled; the females in micro-skirts and stilettos. They go about in gangs of ‘mates’.

A townie night invariably consists of a pub crawl in which as much cheap (well, as cheap as you can get it these days, which isn't very) lager is consumed as possible, then a nightclub in which more lager and alcopops are consumed, then a takeaway kebab on the street, then a vomit, and perhaps a bit of ‘aggro’ in the taxi queue.

The brutes are a minority, but a large enough one to make virtually any town centre in Britain appear thoroughly inhospitable to anyone else on any Friday or Saturday night. Therein lies the problem: the majority of people don’t feel safe venturing out to a town-centre restaurant, theatre or cinema when the streets are full of drunken, shouting, puking townies staggering between pubs; and the police are tied up dealing with the continual fist-fights and vandalism.

The theory behind the proposals to introduce 24-hour drinking is that townie culture is caused by the strict licensing laws in Britain. Whereas on the continent people can sit at a waiter-served table sipping a few glasses of wine for hours, Britain’s 11pm pub watershed has produced a culture of 'necking it', where pints are downed as quickly as possible, and done so while standing up.

The 'rounds' culture also doesn’t help: rather than splitting a bill, townie social etiquette demands that everyone in a group must buy an individual drink for all of its members – and no matter how large the group, everyone must 'get a round in'.

So the theory is that if you make drinking laws like the continent’s, you’ll make the British drink like the continentals. The other advantage would be that you’d eliminate the two flashpoint times: 11.05pm – when the pubs are emptying, and 2am, when the clubs are doing the same – resulting in masses of drunken people all pouring into the street at the same time and literally fighting over the available taxis and takeaway queues.

That’s the theory, but I can’t help but share some of Dalrymple’s pessimism. After all, the same townies regularly disgrace the nation on their infamous 18-30 holidays to Spain and the Balearic islands – where they can enjoy all the freedoms of liberal continental licensing laws.

Changing the licensing laws might actually help, but will only make a difference if there are simultaneous attempt to change the culture. It's difficult to think of practical measures to achieve this, but you could try:

1. banning Happy Hours and cheap cocktail offers at weekends
2. refusing planning permission for any more giant city-centre ‘super-pubs’.
3. staggering weekend pub closing times to eliminate the 11.05 brawl
4. forcing city-centre bars to have significant seating areas
5. limiting the number of drinks you can buy at one visit to the bar on weekend nights
6. banning all drinks except warm, gut-rotting real ale, soup-consistency stout and vintage port.

Making people feel a sense of social responsibility and accountablity for their actions is even more desirable - but even harder to manage. It tends to happen naturally when townies grow up, which is why their average age is about 22.

They just won't let it lie

The Guardian today reports on/sneers at (delete as appropriate) the visit to Phuket by Jeb Bush (Dubya’s younger brother), and Colin Powell, who form the diplomatic element of the US contribution which includes $350m cash, plus 12,600 military personnel, 20 US naval vessels and 80 military aircraft:

"The US secretary of state, Colin Powell, came close to damaging his reputation as the Bush administration's leading diplomat when he walked into the room, strolled to the US desk, shook the hands of the people working there and then walked straight back out again. It was only when he was downstairs that an aide suggested he "might like" to meet the volunteers from some of the other countries, too. Reminded that he is part of an international relief mission, Mr Powell promptly turned on his heels once again and marched back up the stairs to belatedly press some non-American flesh.

Jeb Bush, who was chosen as a US representative in part because his own state of Florida was hit by four powerful hurricanes last year, conceded that the destruction caused by the tsunami was far worse. "We had nothing compared to that," he said. "When you have 150,000 people who died over 11 countries, that goes way beyond what anybody's experienced in our own country."

But he and Mr Powell will have to wait until they get to Indonesia to see the damage first hand. In Thailand, they did not visit any of the worst-hit areas. "We did not want to get in the way of relief work," he said. "

Astonishingly, the Guardian forgets to remind us that they’re only after the Thai oil.

I suppose we’ll just have to wait for Michael Moore’s next movie to find the real motives behind this highly suspicious American visit.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

pickwick pic Posted by Hello

Saturday, January 01, 2005

MS Trust - ludicrously easy way to help a good cause (from Ben Dixon)

Ben has created a fundraising appeal for the MS Trust. It's incredibly easy to use and a very good cause.

Just visit this site:

You can use any credit or debit card, and all donations are secure and sent electronically to MS Trust. If you are a UK taxpayer, Justgiving will add an automatic 28% bonus to your donation at no cost to you.