Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The National Front Disco

In the event of Morrissey being invited to address the Oxford Union, the scenes outside the building would be most intriguing. Would it be merely a collection of avid fans fussing about the place, or would it be more akin to the protests that greeted fascist BNP leader Nick Griffin and supposed historian David Irving when they were invited earlier this week? His most recent comments to the NME would make the latter a possibility.

For some reason, opinion on the merits or otherwise of offering a platform to fascists at the Oxford Union appear to have been restricted to only two distinct viewpoints: (a) that it's disgraceful to 'legitimise' their views, and the protests are justified, or (b) that it's all part of free speech in a functional democracy and the protests aren't justified. There hasn't been enough mention of the fact that both views are correct. It would be a disgrace if, for instance, Nick Griffin walked away from the debate with more legitimacy than when he walked in, but that would say more about the debating skills of Oxford Union members than the premise of inviting him in itself. Depriving him the platform would only be counterproductive - the best way to deal with fascists is to allow them into the open for their fear and hate-ridden, irrational views to publicly unravel themselves. But equally, the loud protests outside were also essential. Letting them speak, but at the same time rallying against them in a visible way, is positive all round. It's all about registering opposition but not feeding their cause. It's better than forcing them into a neo-Nazi undercurrent where the hate and lies the BNP's appeal is based upon will go uncorrected.

In reality, the scenes earlier in the week were vaguely reminiscent of an operational democracy, which is quite a rare concept in this day and age. Regardless, apart from some satisfaction for Nick Griffin himself, the benefits of addressing the Oxford Union for the BNP are limited, mainly because not a lot of people pay attention to what happens there. I'll be more alarmed when I wake up, switch on the telly and find him sprawled on the red GMTV settee, sipping from a cup of coffee while being lightly carressed by Fiona Phillips ("I do understand Nick, really I do... You're so brave"). Actually, sticking to ITV's morning schedule, I'd like to see Nick Griffin on Jeremy Kyle. Kyle would destroy him, if only through fear of being out-fascisised (not a word) by someone.

As for Morrissey, I find it peculiar that many of his most avid fans are desperate to unconditionally leap to his defence when he comes out with comments like he has. I'm quite wary of claiming to be avid about anything - it takes a lot of effort - but if I'm avid about any number of things then Morrissey and his music would be one of them. The crucial difference, though, is that I'm not blinkered enough to cry foul when a magazine suggests he might be, you know, slightly xenephobic for saying there aren't enough English people in England anymore. Any talk of 'identity' along nationalistic lines baffles me, to be honest. Although the NME is a shitpiece publication these days and I don't doubt for a minute that their intentions are anything other than sinister in the way they've used the interview, Morrissey's words speak for themselves. Silly boy.

N.B. The National Front Disco is a brilliant song.

Monday, November 26, 2007

'Mama, I saw a star last night'

It was Patrick Wolf appearing live (as opposed to appearing unalive, © Morrissey) at the Lowry in Salford Quays and it was completely unlike any of the previous five times I'd seen him. Filled with really different and often improvised versions of all his songs, the set couldn't have been more different to those during the 'The Magic Position' tours. I had become slightly alarmed at his ever-increasing band, the reliance on his laptop and gradual ditching of instruments in favour of parading about like some kind of karaoke pop star. He almost became Har Mar Superstar at one point and it was unsettling.

Now he's back playing completely alone and switching between all manner of instruments. Between songs he quietly wandered around the stage and switched to either his violin, ukulele, piano or guitar (shock horror) as if he'd unexpectedly discovered them lying there and decided to pick them up. It was Patrick Wolf in his purest form. Splendid and tremendous. I'll be seeing him again on Friday when he travels to the salubrious surrounds of Middlesbrough's Institute of Modern Art (mima). Patrick Wolf playing in Middlesbrough town centre isn't something I was expecting. It's a clash of civilisations that should prove seminal.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Gareth Manager's Darkplace

I am concerned for the future of Middlesbrough FC manager Gareth Southgate, 37, married. A perfect captain and Boro legend as a player, he was later catapulted into a job he hadn't gone looking for, but accepted after others had turned it down and his chairman turned to him. Thrown in at the proverbial deep end of football without proverbial armbands or even any proverbial trained lifeguards on standby, he has made a decent fist of it but now, as Boro teeter on the relegation zone on the back of a woeful run of form, everything is in decline. I'm back home for the night after travelling over to see us trounced 3-0 at home by Aston Villa - yet another wholly soul-destroying football experience in a ground barely two-thirds full.

Chin up

Many supporters have turned on club legend Southgate, 37, married, firm socialist, and it breaks my heart. Regardless of how low Boro sink under his guidance, he should be immune from the kind of abuse that normally comes with footballing underachievement. As a true gent, a man of great intelligence who knows his way around a V-neck jumper and, crucially, the only man ever to lead Boro to cup victory in 131 years of the club's history, he deserves unswerving respect. Yet today at the game, when the Aston Villa fans were goading their ex-player at 0-3 with a rendition of 'Southgate, what's the score? Southgate, Southgate, what's the score?', many of the Boro supporters around me joined in. These people are cretins, and it is impossible for me to relate to them (no matter how long and hard I scour my family tree). I sincerely hate them, and think they should all be shot in the spine.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Support your local coppers

I was reading Monday's copy of The Guardian today (it's good to be the last to know) and absorbed with some interest an article about our decreasing use of low-denomination coins, a.k.a. coppers, or as cockney pseudo hardknob Danny Dyer would probably refer to them in an artificially gravelly voice on a budget satellite channel production, 'the bacon'. Apparently people have become so carefree with pennies that £65m worth have gone missing (that's pennies alone. Not Penny's alone - that means something altogether different. And anyway, aren't we all alone when finally confronted with our inevitable death?) and 5.9m of them are down the backs of settees. Not mine though - I've checked and I could only find four. Maybe the other 5,899,996 are down yours. When all of the tuppences estimated to be missing are also included, it's another £25m, totalling a cumulative £90m in lost coppers. Frika.

The timing of this article is most interesting, given that I've recently started my own copper-retention system by emptying them from my pockets into a disused milk bottle. The long-term aim is, of course, to collect so many that it'll eventually be worth taking the coins to empty into those machines you find at places like ASDA. It weighs them all and then gives you a receipt which can be spent in the shop: an ingenious idea. I remember my Auntie giving me three handbags of coppers she'd collected over a 15 year period in her Chorley home and saying I could redeem them for personal use. Having taken them to ASDA and exchanged them for a receipt worth £58, I promptly secured a sizeable haul of beer, light pastry items and wet wipes. Extremely worthwhile.

All of these people striving for plastic dominance at our checkouts and all those responsible for proposing the silly Oyster Card-like system for low-value convenience products should hang their heads and respect the coppers. Obviously they have their downsides, such as making your hands smell and weighing your pockets down to an extent that persuades you you've developed a hernia (and I don't just mean a photo of one), but they're also oddly comforting. Have you ever sampled that climactic, perverse thrill of being asked for 42p for a Twix in a shop and managing to give the exact amount after counting up piles of pennies? It's usually followed with a wild smile from the till operator who, thanks to such copper deliveries, no longer has to be plagued with fear about asking their miserable, abrupt supervisor for new bags of change. It's a sensation almost unmatched in modern civilisation as we all grow increasingly detached from our common essence. Coin circulation is one of the last bastions of human interaction, however indirect it may be. The constant exchange of bacteria and dried skin we anonymously exchange keeps us all connected. If these bad plastic bastards have their way then even that will die out.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"That's the weather... for now"

I find the best thing about the emergence of 24-hour news channels is the proliferation and increased celebrity profile of our weather forecasters. I say 'our' because I truly believe they should be considered the property of the populace. In my utopia we would elect our forecasters, they would represent us and we'd then be able to hold them accountable at the ballot box. Almost like democracy today but with a bit more effort made to adhere to the most fundamental principles. My system would operate very smoothly because although forecasters may get it wrong from time to time, one thing can be assured - they never lie.

My favourite current forecaster is the BBC's Dan Corbett. Where some presenters seem almost fearful of making an impression, Dan just goes for it and imprints himself on the forecast so much the weather map had might as well consist of a massive version of his face. He first sprung to my attention in 2004 when my whole university household in Nottingham found itself entranced during his appearances. To this day, if we hear the line "and here's Dan Corbett with the weather" in Flat C, everything else stops. And with good reason.

"That's the weather... for now" (for now? What, you can do more?)

The Corbett weather experience is unrivalled in terms of its captivating powers - it's like a whistle-stop national tour of bizarre hand movements, phrases and meteorological analogies. All accompanied with a slightly camp form of received pronunciation. Brilliant. Clouds never just 'move in' or 'build up', in Corbett's world they "bubble up" (along with bubbling finger signals). And they always "squeeze out one or two spots of drizzle" with him. A couple of weeks ago there were "a few showers knocking on the doorsteps of Northern Ireland." He described one cold front moving in from the east as "this big rainy boomerang" and later, when using radar images to show stormy weather, admitted "it looks like we've gone mad with some crayons". You just don't get stuff like that from Peter Gibbs and Robert McElwee.

His clever use of physical movements to keep you engrossed all the way to the end is a mark of Dan's genius. He swoops about the map, often ducking, and simulates projected cloud movements with sharp whips of the hand. I love the way he makes you feel like you're involved too. "Just watch this..." he says, as if preparing you for the havoc about to be unloaded by a particularly vicious area of low pressure. I also love the way he interferes in your daily itinerary by proposing what you might do at a certain time. "Some spots of drizzle bubbling up in Cornwall tomorrow morning - perhaps if you're taking the kids out for the day you'll pack the umbrella and some light cagools just to be safe." Yes Dan, I might, but frankly I can't fathom why it's any of your business. "For those of you up early it could be a mucky drive to work." Mucky? Do we all reside in fields? Anyway, I'll get there eventually - just stop interfering and live your own bloody life. But no, I love it really, just knowing somebody cares.

Sadly, it would seem the powers that be at the BBC don't hold Dan in a similarly high esteem. He rarely features on terrestrial news bulletins and instead often languishes in mid-afternoon slots on News24. A batch of young, poster boy bores are preferred ahead of him for the most high-profile slots. I'm talking about Alex Deakin, Matt Taylor, Darren Bett and Thomasz Schaferknaker of course. It's all symptomatic of the mediocrity we're seeing across television these days. Clearly, the meterological hierarchy are intimidated by Corbett's immense charisma. He is the twinkling diamond in an otherwise pedestrian weather team.

As for the other channels' approaches to weather forecasts, I'm less qualified to comment. I avoid watching ITV News on a point of principle (i.e. wanting to know the news) and thus am only familiar with the so-called work of Siân Lloyd. Unlike the BBC lot, she's not even a meteorologist and purely a presenter. I notice the otherwise excellent Channel 4 News has left the forecast in the hands of the newsreaders, which is plain nuts. Meanwhile, the one positive thing Rupert Murdoch has ever done for the world is evident in the work of Francis Wilson on Sky News. Although extremely well-learned and highly respected, he seems completely disinterested in his work, despite devoting his entire life to it. Which I like.

My unhealthy interest in the identities of our weather forecasters has been ongoing ever since I wanted to be one myself. Between 1991 and 1993 I was convinced it was my destiny to work beneath Michael Fish at BBC Television Centre. I set about developing a sound base of meteorological knowledge in my spare time so as I could immediately impress Fish when finally invited for an interview. I got practice in by drawing my own exciting weather maps - where there'd be scorching hot sun in the midlands and snow blizzards in the north-east - and delivering the forecasts before family members. I even gave a talk on the different cloud types at primary school (from stratocirrus to cumulonimbus, I covered it all). By the way, this was after I wanted to be a priest and hosted fake masses (1989: proof of the scarring capabilities of a Catholic upbringing) and before I was obsessed with being an estate agent (1996: yet more proof of pure irrationality). Just so you can grasp the chronology of it all.

Priest/weatherman/estate agent... quite an odd trio isn't it? Clearly I was a total megalomaniac in my formative years. And that's the weather... FOR NOW!

Monday, November 12, 2007

The buildings behind vertex of Engels

I've broken into an uneasy sweat since arriving at that title, but we'll plough on regardless. On Saturday I partook in a guided Friedrich Engels walk through Manchester city centre with a horde of other left-leaning hedonists hellbent on communal strolling. The reason such an event can take place in Manchester is because he lived here for more than 20 years (in different spells) and he and Karl Marx even penned sections of The Communist Manifesto together in the city. We saw the bay window and everything (well, just the bay window actually). This is was what was quite funny about the walk in general - we heard all about Engels' life and times in Manchester, all about the slums and terrible working conditions he observed while building his perceptions of class, and thus the city's integral role in developing socialism, but in reality the vast majority of the landscapes he knew are long gone. It was very good though, even if we could've just had the talk in a portakabin with a nice mug of tea. I thought our entertaining Manc guide was pretty good too, despite seemingly being at pains to stress he doesn't care for socialism much. There's an article about him and the tour here .

This matinee entertainment/reason not to be in the pub was the discovery of radical historian Dan (a.k.a. Red Dan) who was down from Edinburgh for the weekend. His hosts Matt and Helen performed admirably in guiding us from good tavern to good tavern throughout the weekend, which is very useful when you're new to somewhere as I am. My Manc' public house knowledge has expanded immeasurably. We were also joined on Saturday by Dan's blog boss Grammar Gez (GrammarBlog) and Anna, 24, from Lincolnshire. Fine company all round. Those of us who stuck around for the late segment of Saturday's itinerary were lucky enough to catch noted Italian rockers The Refounders as their European tour pulled in to the back room of a pub populated by eleven people. The singer's main performance trick involved fizzing up a can of John Smiths Extra Smooth and cracking it open at his crotch, allowing a frothy mess to burst forth. Their incendiary encore of 'Great Balls Of Fire' was life-affirming. They'll go far.

Sunday afternoon meant the football (hiss), and for once it didn't manage to spoil another otherwise perfectly good weekend. It didn't exactly contribute anything either... but one step at a time, my child. Boro played out a dour 0-0 draw at Bolton Wanderers, a satisfactory enough result but a game capably described by today's Guardian as "rubbish in which the odd moments of skill and control winked like pearls on a cow pat before being buried by another steaming pile." Which sounds markedly similar to the rest of my Boro-supporting life, funnily enough, so I'll take it. Here's the blog's obligatory (oblogatory, even) Stadium Snapshot to prove "I was there". The rest of this post was just made up really.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Demonstrable Humour

Socialist comedians, when funny, are something to treasure, so it was with a spring in my step and my legs folded into an awkward arrangement due to a shortage of theatre leg room that I went to see noted-lefty Mark Thomas last night. He was extremely funny. The whole show was based around stories about the various games he's played with the downright daft Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (Socpa) since its introduction in 2005. Sopca has made it illegal to protest or demonstrate in a designated area surrounding the Houses of Parliament unless you apply for and are granted police permission. Thomas set about applying to hold as many ludicrous demonstrations as he could ('Ban Surrealism', 'Ban Static Mimes', 'Reduce Police Paperwork'), making a mockery of the law and generating masses of police paperwork in the process.

When laws are as ridiculous and grounded in pettiness (Sopca was introduced mainly to exclude a sole source of government embarrassment, peace campagined Brian Haw, afterall) as this one, the best thing to do is push them to the limit. In one day Thomas applied for and then held 21 demonstrations, gaining a place in the Guinness Book of Records. He's has held so many protests in the last 18 months that he's on first name terms with most of the staff at Charing Cross police station and has persuaded many of them that the law should be changed. Which it now apparently will be. Good work.

At the end he invited on stage Karen Reissmann, a psychiatric nurse in Manchester who was suspended and later sacked after criticising the funding, operation and growing privatisation of her Mental Health Trust. She's at the centre of a growing campaign to be reinstated and an indefinite strike by other psychiatric staff began today. It's an unbelievable cock-up on the part of the Trust to sack a long-serving member of staff for an expression of rational dissent. She spoke very well about her campaign and lamented that it's under a Labour government that we're seeing underfunding and increasing privatisation of the NHS, together with sustained attacks on trade unionism in general. How true.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Certainly something to cream over

Bourbon Cream USB drives! Never in all my life.

Mind you, it was about time. I can only imagine the immense temptation when using such a device to plug it into your own mouth rather than an available USB port on your desktop or laptop computer must be difficult to resist. I fully expect to see a steady flow of 'GIRL, 15, SWALLOWS GCSE COURSEWORK FILES WHOLE' headlines in the ensuing weeks. Followed by follow-up feature stories of ''IT MIGHT NOT BE ITS INTENDED USE BUT I DON'T REGRET A BIT OF IT' - BOURBON GIRL SPEAKS'.

But as usual all great, pioneering ideas must be soiled with over-indulgence and recklessness. Hence this evil specimen:

Speaking of which, I'd like to thank Welsh-but-English-really friend, former housemate, and sweet-and-sour-carrot-monger Jess Who Likes American Things Now for alerting me to the existence of these bizarre little creatures. Speaking of which, I'd like to thank Jess Who Likes American Things Now again. Guffaw.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Ferry Across The Mersey

I've seen a few bad tribute bands play on ferries, thanks to a series of nightmare Stena Sealink family holiday trips across the Irish Sea in my youth. But as of last night I can finally say I've seen a genuinely good band on a boat. I went to witness the excellent British Sea Power play aboard the Merchant Vessel Royal Daffodil as it sailed up and down Liverpool's River Mersey.

Boarding the MV Royal Daffodil

This novel offering was billed by the organisers as "three hours of maritime mayhem". So as someone who doesn't care much for water and generally supports law and order over wanton chaos, it sounded right up my, er, river naturally. Thankfully the event passed off without any form of aquatic anarchy rearing its ugly head and I managed to avoid falling overboard and having to thrash about in the water like some kind of demented psycho-merman, or anything else bad that could've happened. Luckily the gig didn't start until 10pm, which meant I could still fulfill my Boro season ticket duties (because I enjoy the pain) in the afternoon. It meant a frenzied dash back across t'Pennines for me and Tall Foz in the Padmobile so as to get to Manchester in time for a suitable train to Liverpool. Which we managed, just about.

Although playing on a boat is a nice idea and everything, in practice her (apparently it's a she) extremely low ceilings and arced floor made for less than ideal gig circumstances. I think about 97% of the crowd couldn't see the band. I could though, so that's alright.

BSP were dead good an' that, obviously. My ribcage got crushed, which is often a good sign. They played lots of favourites, but perhaps the most perfect moment was during 'Blackout', undoubtedly one of my favourite BSP nuggets. All the way through the song the boat was performing one of her slow turns and the banks of the Mersey and the city's skyline slid across view through the windows behind the band. It was one of those moments where you feel like you're in a film - which doesn't happen to me that often. The last time I was in one was when I got caught in driving rain on the A1(M) at Wetherby in 2003 with 'Motorcycle Emptiness' playing from the tape deck.

That film got panned by the critics ('A cinematic abomination' - Barry Norman. 'A goat with a handheld camcorder could do better' - MOJO), but this one was great and I think my thespian career may be about to take flight. In fact the only way I could imagine it being any better was if the Mersey's banks - which mean little to me, if anything atall aside from saying "oh look, that building was on the Brookside credits" - had been replaced by those of the Tees. To watch British Sea Power play 'Blackout' against the stirring industrial skyline, with the floodlit, iconic Transporter Bridge gliding into view, and a feint whiff of sulphuric acid... that's the dream.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

May I inherit your inherent selfishness?

Today would apparently have been the day of the general election had Gordon Brown gone through with his plans for a snap election (whereby, I presume, traditional democratic procedures are ditched in favour of a big game of cards... oops, cracked that one before). The media's immense disappointment at the decision was tangible. Faced with the prospect of having to find something else to fill their front pages with, and something else to cover as a diversion from the despicably hypocritical fanfare afforded to the Saudi King and his entourage by our government in the last couple of days, they quickly turned on Brown.

Old Etonian wonderchild David Cameron's Tories are marking the date with a poster campaign, which is an idea I appreciate, if not for the reasons they hope. Honeymoon period slowly dying out? Still detached from the electorate? Here, might as well try another poster campaign. It reminds me of the 'Speed 3' episode of Father Ted where the problem of Dougal's runaway milk float is proving difficult to solve and, after copious amounts of masses and brainstorming sessions, with no ideas left on the table, one of the priests says "is there ANYTHING to be said for another mass?"

Around the time of all the election speculation I became disturbingly tribal towards Labour. I'm so petrified by the British public's stupidity and apparent willingness to sleepwalk back into the arms of Tory government that I found myself defending Gordon Brown's every action. Saying things I didn't quite believe and supporting cynical party-political manouvres I'd normally lambast as being symptomatic of the death of mainstream politics in this country - all because the alternative is so much worse. When everyone was saying Labour would win an autumn election I thought 'go for it, needs must'. Then when Brown called it off amid suggestions it'd be a closely run thing, I concurred 'best not to take any risks'. The mock disgust at Brown's "playing politics with the public" from the opposition and sections of the media was laughable. Almost as much as his denial that the polls had influenced his U-turn. But what exactly did we expect him to say?

The most depressing aspect of all the election tomfoolery was the obsession with inheritance tax and its apparent vote-winning potential. The opinion polls swung to the Tories practically overnight after proposing they'd raise the tax threshold to £1m. There seems to be a blanket perception that inheritance tax is unfair, when in reality it's an extremely sensible and rational mechanism that at least hints at an intention to aid social mobility. It has a semblance of redistribution about it, however small (only 6% of British property value is currently paid in inheritance tax, afterall). The public's obsession with the tax and its trivial impact on the pockets of Middle England reinforces how much our mindsets are dictated by irrationality and selfishness. Admittedly, the taxation rates needed to be tweaked and scaled more sharply to affect super-rich property owners, but Brown's fawning response of copying the Tories was downright depressing. Never mind though - I'd still prefer his big rubbery, miserable face in Number 10 than Cameron and his slippery Oil Of Olay sheen.