What A Mess

Inverness

 

In 1997 Inverness was lovely.

 

People who had never visited it used to regard it with the same idle, exotic quasi-curiosity that they would Tipperary say, or Timbuktu, or a minor moon of Neptune. To be fair people who had visited Inverness basically regarded it the same way going on only to add that a moon of Neptune is slightly easier and marginally cheaper to get to. That suited us though. If we had had a town slogan at the time it would have been “Inverness! It’s probably not your sort of thing.”

 

1997 is the year I moved here. I came from Aberdeen, itself a pretty amazing city, and I was struck instantly and thereafter repeatedly at how civilised Inverness was. A town of between thirty and forty thousand people at the time (now sixty-two thousand) it was built around a charming historical old centre with some slightly less charming cuboid clapboard sleep-places on the upslopes of the outskirts. But this was only the start of the story, because Inverness was and is the capital of the Highlands and thus serves an area approximately the size of one and a half Belgiums or eight trillion football pitches. (Actual figures may differ.) The cultural breadth and depth was staggering.

 

When I bought my flat here the estate agent warned me confidentially that I might want to think twice because it was in a bit of a rough area. That was eighteen years ago. I am still in that flat and I can tell you that the crime rate is lower here than it is in Hobbiton.

 

It was my job that brought me to Inverness. I worked at the time for a national bookselling chain that I feel I should be coy about naming. Imagine a cross, if you can, between Roger Waters and the Rolling Stones. Yeah? Are you with me? Good. So anyway, what we used to do in the Rolling Rogers bookshop was good old, down-home, country-style retail.

 

Young people won’t believe this but the way it was last century was that you had a big building full of stuff that you had bought for a price. People came to your building, often from one and a half Belgiums away, and bought the stuff from you at a higher price. You made money. The producers of the stuff made money. the consumers of the stuff got their stuff.

 

Even at the time though, this was starting to look like a silly way of doing things. In bookselling, and in everything else-selling there were fundamentally too many people in between the content providers and the consumers. There were, in this specific example, editors, publishers, printers, distributors, lorry drivers and greedy, greedy bookshop staff all taking their cut along the way, and all slowing things down.

 

It was a system that couldn’t have lasted much longer than it did, particularly not once the internet started stubbornly refusing to be uninvented, but we will get on to that in a minute.

 

An additional problem arose from the scrapping of the Net Book Agreement in 1994. The NBA was basically resale price maintenance for books introduced in 1900. It meant that the price that was printed on a book was the price you paid wherever you bought it. This kind of mechanism seems quite egalitarian to those of us who value writing and reading. Indeed the Restrictive Practices Court agreed in 1962 when it ruled that the NBA benefited the book trade by allowing publishers to subsidise important but less commercial authors from the profits of their bestsellers. This kind of price-fixing is an anathema to the marketeers though. It churns the stomachs of the people who call books product units and who confuse cheapness with value.

 

As the NBA disappeared, swept away by the 1990s political attitudes to free trade, there was a momentary flush of optimism through the bookselling community, perhaps born of desperation. Hurrah, we cheered hollowly. Booksellers now have to compete in the marketplace. This can only be good news for customers who will henceforth be able to buy their books cheaper. Yay, supply and demand! Yay, the market!

 

Of course what happened is that supermarkets cottoned on to using books as loss leaders and we ended up with the ridiculous situation where nobody selling any Harry Potter books made any money out of it apart from J.K. Rowling. Bookshops had to sell them at cost otherwise they wouldn’t sell any at all. And they had to maintain market share because otherwise they would lose their customers for good together with even the slightest prospect of future profit. This state of affairs reached peak absurdity during the release of the last few Harry Potter books. As Tesco stores were selling the books at below cost price it made more sense for bookshops to buy their stock from Tesco than from the publisher, and then sell them on to their own customers.

 

Tens of millions of pounds through the tills. Net profit, about ten pence. And they had to pay for everything out of that 10p: their booksellers, their electricity bills, their dinner of value beans on toast made from value bread, probably bought from Tesco sickeningly enough.

 

Harry Potter

 

So bookselling was a dead trade walking even as I moved to Inverness. There were glory days though. A brief golden period when we thought that the deep range of a specialist bookseller was of more interest to a book buyer than a shallow, cheap supermarket shelf. That didn’t work though. Book buyers became accustomed to the no-profit deep-discount loss leaders in Tesco and couldn’t understand why we weren’t offering the same deal on small press poetry anthologies and niche fiction. In the blink of an eye literature became abysmally devalued.

 

So much for the irresistible force of the supermarkets then, but what of the other irresistible force? The internet.

 

Briefly in the book trade there existed the heroic but misguided notion that an informed bookseller standing behind a till would somehow be able to recommend you things better than an Amazon algorithm could. Honestly, we actually believed that for a while. And there was also the sweet conceit that a recherché form of boutique bookselling might live on as an aesthetically preferable alternative to shopping online at home in your pants. But people are people, and time is scarce, and your pants are great pants, and the internet is easy, so sadly my shop died.

 

That’s what happens when two irresistible forces meet a moveable, killable object.

 

It would have happened anyway, but it happened slightly quicker than it needed to in Inverness, and here is my understanding of how that happened.

 

The unchallenged assumption of everyone involved in town centre management in the early 2000s that I talked to was that Inverness was unsinkable, and who’s ever seen an iceberg anyway? Not me. I don’t think they even exist.

 

So whilst money was sloshing around and an ideal opportunity existed to beautify central Inverness, support local business, and consolidate its tourist attractions what actually happened was that the council left the town centre to fend for itself and chased big business instead. A huge out of town retail park was built. A twenty-four hour Tesco opened. There was a massive Borders. A Comet. A major popcorn-seller with a clutch of associated cinema screens. The people rejoiced. At least those with cars did. And lovers of bleak concrete expanses. They were pretty pleased too I imagine.

 

People would come in to my bookshop in the city centre to tell me how much better than us the out of town Borders was. You could buy coffee there. And newspapers. And stationery. And even books if you wanted. What the gloaters didn’t know, and what I didn’t know at the time, was that Borders were being given hugely favourable terms on their rent and rates.

 

We weren’t, but I’m not here to boo-hoo about that.

 

Inverness had a deserved reputation at that time for being riotously expensive. I remember our head office being surprised that it cost more to advertise in the Inverness Courier than it did to put the same advert in the whole of the rest of the world’s Guardian. We certainly saw that high cost reflected in our monthly outgoings. The rent and rates were dizzyingly high, the profits on the books were dismally low, and the profitability of the shop eventually dwindled to nothing at all.

 

Luckily booksellers are brave and mighty, and also very attractive and sexually well endowed, so we just took it on the chin. C’est la vie, we said, educatedly. Six swings and half a dozen roundabouts, innit? All’s fair in love and war. We could not compete with the big boys so we went to the wall. That’s the law of the jungle, albeit some sort of weird jungle that has walls and swings and roundabouts in it, and where everyone speaks French.

 

Fast forward a bit though and it transpired that Borders’ business model was not particularly robust either. That whole chain disappeared, as did Comet. Even Tesco appear slightly more strapped for cash now than they used to. The retail park currently looks grimmer than ever, and it’s always looked quite grim. It is not a place that you go to for fun, and I am left to wonder what would Inverness town centre be like now if, fifteen years ago, the investment had been made there rather than a mile up the A96.

 

Because Inverness city centre is a shocking mess as it stands. It’s like that chaotic, dystopian version of Hill Valley from one of the futures in Back To The Future Part II. There is an enclave of bright light and warmth in the Eastgate Shopping Centre like Elysium in that film Elysium, but it only serves to highlight how squalid the rest of town is.

 

There is so much deep beauty in Inverness that it makes me weep metaphorical, non-real tears at how grimy and stinking and decayed we have let it become. I used to be proud to show my home to visitors, but now I dread to think what people think the first time they step off the bus or the train.

 

There is an air of a place that has just let itself go. The municipal equivalent of a man alone in a bedsit living amid the detritus of fast food packages and empty bottles and cans.

 

In 2015 Inverness is not, in any analysis, lovely.

 

Failte gu Inbhir Nis! Welcome to Inverness!

Failte gu Inbhir Nis! Welcome to Inverness!

 

But I only brought frankincense and myrrh

But I only brought frankincense and myrrh

 

Gold! Always believe in your soul

Gold! Always believe in your soul

 

Crack Generator

Crack Generator

Ladbrokes & Paddy Power with a William Hill just over the road. Not enough choice? Worry not. There are two more branches of Brokelads just round the corner

Ladbrokes & Paddy Power with a William Hill just over the road. Not enough choice? Worry not. There are two more branches of Brokelads just round the corner

Thins and Oddbins. Don't bother looking for them. They're not there any more

Thins and Oddbins. Don’t bother looking for them. They’re not there any more

 

 

 

Most of the problems are not unique to Inverness of course and I do not mean to lay all of the blame at the feet of short-sighted city centre management over a decade ago, much though I think they could have helped. In fact there is every sign now that the council are keen to renovate in the city centre where they can.

 

If I am going to point my blame-thrower, and I feel certain that I am, then it would be squarely in the direction of capitalism. The whole inadequate, wormy orthodoxy of capitalism. Seriously, how much longer are we going to have to pretend that the free market is the answer to everything, and that unregulated competition somehow contributes to the gaiety of nations?

 

I write this on the day that Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Energy Minister of this purulent government, is smearing his sneery face all over the news telling us that we are howling lunatics for not changing our energy suppliers on a monthly basis. I have paraphrased him to a degree. In doing this he is echoing the disdain of the man I had round a few weeks ago from Scottish Gas to service my gas central heating who was frankly incredulous that I bought my gas from his gas-selling organisation. His point, and Ed Davey’s, is that I could save two hundred pounds a year by paying attention to my gas supplier. Now two hundred pounds is real money. You would have to be the howling lunatic that Ed Davey didn’t quite say to turn down two hundred quid.

 

My point, not a good one perhaps and certainly not one I made to my gas man for reasons of personal meekness, goes roughly along the lines of I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!

 

My minuscule adventures in trying to change supplier for anything have resulted in a change in my personal outgoings that was basically undetectable. And it came at the cost of several hours of my time talking to pirates, wide boys and nincompoops when I could have been eating chilli, listening to Bob Mould albums and telling my partner how beautiful she is, which is very beautiful indeed seeing as you ask.

 

I am not the sort of person to whom two hundred pounds means nothing, but if the promise is of an imaginary two hundred pounds, and it comes at the cost of hours of my time then you know what you can take. And you’d better make it a flying one.

 

This multiplicity of suppliers is not a choice of wildly differing alternatives that has been given to me to benefit my life, however much it is dressed up to look like that. This is a bunch of middlemen crow-barring their way in between me the gas user and at the other end the gas supplier, all fighting for pennies and treating me like a slot machine.

 

I honestly liked it better when services existed to serve us rather than the other way around. I don’t want a choice of half a dozen rubbish things that are exactly the same. I want one trustworthy supplier, state regulated, that I can rely on to provide me with what I pay for and that will treat me with fairness and respect. And I know this boat has sailed, but God I pine for the days when you got your electricity from the Electricity Board and your gas from the Gas Board, and when your phone rang it was a friend or relation rather than a gobby barnacle on society’s undercarriage trying to cajole you into claiming compensation for some fictional accident or vividly-hallucinated PPI entitlement.

 

Now it’s all bonkers. Your electric comes from the gas people, your phone comes from the telly people and you have to download gas from the internet. No wonder everything feels so unstable all the time. We, the people who should have the power in these transactions, are concussed into submission by businesses whose model teeters on the brink of being art terrorism.

 

As an illustration of how wonky and skewed our economic system has become have a look at the basic retail paradigm now, as seen on the streets of Inverness and everywhere else really. It is the complete inverse of retail the way it used to be when you swapped your money for the retailer’s things. The only thing on sale in most of the shops on the High Street now is money, lovely yummy money for people who do not have any. Partly this is in the form of bookies who will sell you money for other money (at significantly disadvantageous rates it should be noted), but mostly it is in the shape of pawn-brokers or whatever we call these enterprises these days who will sell you money for things.

 

That’s shops now. You take the things that, like a latter day Womble, you have found. You know, the things that the everyday folk have just left lying around the insides of their houses behind locked doors in the middle of the night, and you use these things to buy money in shops.

 

That’s mad.

 

It’s nice for the people who are selling the money. they get to add a huge mark up often selling a few pence for as much as a pound, so the money tends to accrete where the money already is. But is that really sustainable? Is that a long-term model? This is not a new idea, that the rich get richer at the expense of the poor, but I have never been so aware of it. It is naked and unabashed. There is a last days of the Roman Empire shamelessness about it in fact. Grab your fiddle and your asbestos socks, and let’s see what happens next.

 

In an important graph that I made up whilst sitting in my economic think tank I have calculated that at some point next year there will be no money left. It will have achieved singularity and will all belong to one solitary, laughing person in the Cayman Islands.

 

I would like to make the following modest proposal: that we declare that person to be the WINNER OF CAPITALISM and that we allow her or him to retire gracefully, undefeated. Maybe give them a nice trophy or something from the Inverness Trophy Centre. And at that point we share all the money out equally and we start all over again, but this time with a system that is less ball-bombingly bad.

 

Trophy Centre

 

 

***

 

 

A not necessarily very interesting postscript: Ian Rankin signed a book for me not long after I moved to Inverness. In the inscription he quoted from a 1979 song by punk band The Prats: “Inverness, what a mess.”

 

Here is a link to it.

 

Inverness - What a Mess

 

 

Attack eyebrows

Eyebrows

August 26 was Women’s Equality Day.

Cor, typical women, eh fellas? Hogging all the equality. When do we get to be equal? Never, I expect.

It is a commemoration in the USA of the day in 1920 that the vote was granted to women under the terms of the Nineteenth Amendment. Good times. 1920 seems quite late to me, but we were only a couple of years ahead of that and our Representation of the People Act 1918 was in retrospect insanely restrictive. Women could vote yes, but only if they were over thirty. And a member, or married to a member of the Local Government Register. Or if they were a graduate voting in a University constituency. It stopped short of “must also be in the possession of a penis and really, really like James Bond films”, but only just. And because James Bond films hadn’t been invented yet.

Whilst America was getting on with Women’s Equality Day, over here in the country currently known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland August 26 was less noble. It was the day that the Better Together campaign, who are promoting the No vote in the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum, released their advert “The woman who made up her mind”.

(Watch it here if you’re hardy.)

There was an axiom in the advertising industry in the 1980s that if you, for whatever reason, were unable to make a brilliant commercial then your next best option was to make a spine-chillingly, anatomy-wiltingly bad one. The Shake n’Vac Principle, it was known as.

Is that what Better Together are aiming for here? An infamy so grotesque that at least, after the exact details of it have faded, the name of the perpetrators will linger in the brain, maybe resulting in a few accidental votes.

The advert has been comprehensively satirised online and I don’t propose to go over all that. The hashtag #PatronisingBTLady on Twitter will take you where you need to go. The serious bottom line for Better Together is how they have failed to win over people like me.

I am their demographic. They should have been aiming at me.

Born in England, and still sounding very English, I have lived and worked in Scotland since 1992. My family and my roots still lie south of the border, but I love Scotland. I adore the way I have been allowed to become Scottish by assimilation. The people, the landscape, the culture, the political progressiveness and tendency towards equality are what have kept me in Scotland long after my original reason for moving up here disappeared.

This is my home now. I enjoy the benefits and I contribute. I feel very included.

But two years ago I was basically a No voter. I was pro-Union. My scepticism about the SNP (national socialism, hmmm, something about that phrase) had evaporated in the light of their excellent performance in the Scottish Parliament, but I still didn’t support independence. I couldn’t see the point of it.

So what has changed?

Principally I started talking to people and I started reading things from both sides of the debate and what became starkly clear almost instantly was that there is no reason – not one single reason – not to be independent.

I have listened patiently to the No arguments and I have heard nothing that isn’t fear-mongering, negative, coercive and borderline abusive bullying. It frequently contradicts itself. I am particularly amused by their argument that Scotland is somehow both a parasitic entity and a highly-valued part of the union.

Gradually I started to become aware that the BBC, theoretically an impartial broadcaster, was showing a slant in its reporting as its own vested interests started to press down. The day before the new Doctor Who episode aired last weekend. for instance, the BBC carried a not-news story that people in Scotland would “probably” still be able to watch Doctor Who if it became an independent country.

Probably? This was at the exact same time that the show’s producers were conducting a world tour introducing Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman to Mexico, Brazil and Australia. Scotland is still going to be part of the world. Under what circumstances would we not be able to see Doctor Who? If there isn’t a post-independence renegotiation of publicly funded broadcasting then surely Scotland will still be free to buy in content like any other foreign market. So why was the BBC introducing a note of doubt at that point if not to destabilise and antagonise the floating voter? The thing is I don’t like being pushed around, and I suspect I am not alone.

In my experience the tone of the debate at a personal level and one-to-one on the internet has been considerate and calm. People who will be affected by the decision, whichever way it goes on September 18, understand that this is an emotional issue and that whether it’s Yes or No that finally prevails there will be a hell of a lot of repair work to do in the immediate aftermath.

The old media have been less measured unfortunately, and now that the reality of the situation looms I am beginning to see a lot of reaction from England that goes along the lines of: Well I don’t really fancy losing Scotland, I hope they vote No.

Two points here:

1) In what sense do you currently have Scotland? Don’t you think that a people’s decision (if it happens) to become self-determining should trump your vague desire to own something you don’t really seem to know too much about?

2) WE WILL STILL BE HERE! You will still be able to drive to all the people, places and things you think you like so much about us. The difference is we will be making our own decisions about how we spend our pocket money, and who we have over to stay.

When I worked in Leeds in the 1980s I travelled up to Scotland for the weekend every couple of weeks and was constantly aghast, and slightly embarrassed, at the number of times quite well-educated colleagues would ask me whether or not I needed a passport, and did I have to change my money? It’s 200 miles I would tell them. Go up and have a look. I don’t think any of them did.

But even in ignorance of the realities of Scottish life a misplaced sense of proprietorship persists. And the absurdity of it is rarely acknowledged. When David Bowie used the platform of the Brit Awards to urge Scotland to stay, the way you would talk to a scampishly disobedient pup, he was applauded. Look, said Better Together. We’ve got David Bowie and you’ve only got some bloke out of Hue & Cry.

The fact that David Bowie is an Englishman living in New York and that the bloke out of Hue & Cry was born in Scotland, lives in Scotland and has spent his life working in Scotland and therefore actually knows what he was talking about somehow slipped the media’s attention.

This is not everyone in England of course. Far from it. I have been moved by how many people have regarded Scotland with envious eyes, and have been able nonetheless to say, Go on Scotland. Fucking go for it. We would.

And that brings me to my final point.

Who wouldn’t want to be independent?

Whatever you think of Westminster, and I personally think it is at best stultified, but is more generally a cataclysmic collection of treacherous, self-interested, black-hearted, simpering Fauntleroys and cackling Harkonnens, whatever you think of it you cannot believe that is good. Nor even that it is the least bad way of doing things.

In their excellent book The Spirit Level (2009) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett use masses of quantitative data to show over and over again that everybody benefits from a more equal society. Inequalities bring obvious disadvantages to those at the sticky end, but they make society worse for those at the affluent end too, counter-intuitively.

In the same way, the current union does nobody any favours. Scottish independence is not a threat to anyone in Scotland, quite the contrary. But also it doesn’t threaten anyone in what would remain of the UK. Without a Scottish political drag England and Wales get to express themselves much more democratically. The change, challenging though it would inevitably be, would be good for all of us.

I understand inertia. I understand resistance to change. Change is uncomfortable and scary, but that is where growth lies. Personally, socially and globally. It would be arrogant to say that the world is watching Scotland, but there are certainly parts of it that are taking an interest, and it is only when looking at the referendum from that perspective that I got my big shock.

There is nobody out there who, if placed in a similar position, would say “No thanks. I can’t be bothered.” If Scotland votes No I think there will be a lot of people internationally who will regard the country as weaker and less vigorous than they ever thought. But that isn’t important.

If Scotland votes No there will also be the difficult job of explaining to subsequent generations toiling under whatever non-devolved reforms the freshly empowered shower at Westminster bring in precisely why they did not seize the one opportunity they had to throw off the shackles. But that’s not important either.

The important thing is that the referendum offers an opportunity to be self-supporting. To be our own people rather than beholden to the shambolic blackguards who currently get to tell us what’s what.

Forget everyone else. If you have a vote look at yourself. How much responsibility are you willing to take for yourself? Some or none?

A little bit of politics

 

 

I have never been a Conservative Prime Minister but I have been, for a brief period in 1967-68, a two year-old and this has given me some insight into the nature of a Tory PM.

Life is hard for two year olds. Really, really hard.

As you may remember, for that first hundred weeks all of your investigations have gone to prove one thing: that you are cosmically important. You are the centre of literally everything that happens. Your confidence in this matter cannot be shaken. However, just as you are developing the language skills to explain your philosophy and to start to advance your next proposition, that some more things – all of the things, really – should be brought to you for your entertainment, people stop taking an interest and drift away.

They are lost like individual bits of poetic imagery in a Blade Runner script.

This infuriating state of affairs is temporary for most of us. We grow to accept a more realistic idea of our place in the universe. We make an imaginative leap and start to consider that maybe the insides of other peoples’ heads are bit like the inside of our own. We learn about empathy. We realise that life is finite, and that en route from the cervix to the catafalque maybe it would be quite nice to experience what other people have to offer, and to share with them what we have in return.

We rejoice in the similarities. We savour the differences. We observe our responsibilities and we are mindful of the dangers. We read, “Love thy neighbour as thyself” or, more mangledly “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”

What happens is we grow up.

Some of us buy tea towels with The Desiderata written on them.

It is the personal equivalent of the Copernican revolution, that glorious scientific paradigm shift that gave us the philosophical humility to ditch the infantile favoured-child shtick in favour of a more mature view of the universe.

I don’t know whether or not Margaret Thatcher went through this process. If she did then it is hard to see any evidence of it. Her policies had no human compassion in them at all, no indication whatsoever that she understood or cared that other people have interior lives with their own complexity and fragility.

One of the things that most impresses me about the United Kingdom is the way that after the Second World War there was an engulfing wave of common sense. The country worked hard, and built things, and set up a system where, without succumbing to totalitarianism, people put into the state what they could afford and took out what they needed.

By the time Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 some of this idealism had been squandered. Decades of prosperity had left the country with a hangover of mild complacency and inertia. It is not the case, however, that the country was a dead man walking. There was still a salvageable manufacturing base and there was still a responsible citizenry who wanted to work for their wages.

Some of the propaganda I have read since Thatcher’s death is astonishing. If you don’t remember the seventies first hand please check anything you read in the newspapers at the moment with a creditable source. The stuff that you think couldn’t possibly be true isn’t, in fact, true.

What Thatcher did is, I think, contemptible. She took the perfectly reasonable notions of personal responsibility and accountability and warped them into a cult of self-will. A charnel house of carnivorous abandon. A society in which the loudest-voiced, sharpest-elbowed, and philosophically least-inquisitive got everything, whilst the meek, the ill and the unfortunate could, frankly, fuck off.

I find this disappointing in a human. We are better than that. I find it disappointing in a woman. An opportunity to redress gender imbalance got pissed up a wall there.  And I find it disappointing in a scientist who should really have understood how society has evolved. How individual selfishness is tempered by a degree of adapted flexible social altruism, which is what prevents the species’ disintegration.

The idea of propulsive self-will, her big thing, is problematic in itself. Our lives, our consciousnesses, our society, all that stuff we claim responsibility for isn’t really of our personal doing at all. Some of us are tall and symmetrical but don’t understand sentence structure. Some of us look like Doctor Who monsters but can put together a decent cryptic crossword given enough coffee and Wagon Wheels. Some of us can put up shelves, and some of us can fart the theme tune to Van Der Valk.

That’s all stuff that came pre-installed. It’s not really something we can be congratulated for. We feel like we have the ability to work hard and develop our factory settings into something even more elaborate, but is even that any of our doing? Isn’t it more of a legacy of our early influences?

My point is, everyone’s got stuff they can and can’t do, whence-so-ever it springs. My feeling is we move forward more easily if we’ve got each other’s backs covered than if we haven’t.

Thatcher saw things differently. In her worldview you started with yourself and then moved outward, protecting those that are the most immediately like you and throwing the rest to the wolves.

Her advice to us to “rejoice” in the Falklands victory, a conflict many of us at the time found ambiguous at best, had at its core a fundamental belief that Britain was objectively correct, and that Argentina’s case was nonexistent. This was reflected in the USA at the same time with Reagan persistently traducing Russia as an “evil empire”, an absurdly reductive moral reading of a somewhat more complex political reality.

That inability to establish a rapport with other human beings possessed of a different ideology; that indignant, temper-tantrum way of insisting that you are right and they are wrong; that total failure to understand that other people have a right to be different from you. These are the things I found despicable about Thatcher.

Her foreign policies and her domestic policies boiled down to the same thing: an absolute insistence that she was correct in her opinions about self-reliance, and that any nay-sayers were to be ground to dust, and the dust pissed upon by chortling acolytes.

Right and wrong. Us and them. Hatred and intolerance. It was as though the 1974 Tomorrow People story “The Blue And The Green” had taught us nothing.

The country turned, under Thatcher’s aegis, from the equivalent of a roomful of gauche twenty year-olds all doing their best into a roomful of self-centred two year-olds. A shrieking, grabby, unsustainable mess. The result today is that we have a country in the developed world in which some people are having to choose between eating and heating their homes, whilst other people are getting their moats cleaned at the tax payers’ expense or investing in floating duck islands. Despite the fact, as I have written on many previous occasions, that DUCKS CAN ALREADY FLOAT.

It’s not even as if her policies had any validity to them. The trains, the phones, the postal service and the supply of energy were all taken out of public ownership. The argument was that the services would become leaner and fitter in the competitive world of the private sector. That did not happen. We now have a shambles of a system where in each of these cases the actual provision of a service is the last thing on the minds of the staff as they try to squeeze money out of you to fund their bonuses.

Of the arts (particularly the BBC), or sport, or anything that contributed to the aesthetic quality of life in our country she could not have been more contemptuous. All she was concerned about in that sour, dusty, Gradgrindish way was that people should accumulate personal wealth. The idea that money was a means to an end rather than an end itself would have been alien to her.

Anger is not really my business. It trips me up. It brings me down. Before I know it my brow is furrowed, my finger is wagging my dudgeon is high, my self-righteousness is off the scale and I have morphed exactly into the thing I purport to be against. So I was glad when initially Thatcher’s death on Monday left me unmoved. Obviously there were no tears. There was no grief. Neither though was there the swooping giddiness or relief I might have expected. No rage. No gloating. Nothing.

I thoroughly enjoyed the unfiltered emotional honesty of Twitter through the two days that followed, and I felt cosy and smug at how easily I was able to let it all unfold without feeling the need to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in.

Different today though. The dishonest, civilised trappings of rectitude and decorum have been dismantled today and I have discovered an angry glowing core behind them that I didn’t suspect and I don’t really know how to deal with.

MPs travelling to pay their grovelling respects will be able to claim up to £3750 expenses from the public purse. The ceremonial funeral itself will now cost somewhere between 8 and 10 million pounds. That’s all real money to someone trying to scrape by on DLA. And all in celebration of someone who did more to kick the decency, humanity and gentleness out of this country than anyone else in history.

I am angry about this.

My supposed code of love and tolerance is ragged and unconvincing today.

Thirty-four years. Still hate Thatcher.

Why The Archers is a bit like Prometheus, not Star Wars

I have of late, but whereof I know not, lost my enthusiasm for The Archers. I have been listening since the late seventies and the programme has had its narrative lacunae, inelegances and downright mystifying failures of footing since then, but this is new in extent and gloomifying in the extreme.

It started with the bringing to the fore of the crassly characterised kids: Memphis belle Fallon, twitchy gun fetishist and porn star gamekeeper Will, nasal hotelier Roy, Facebook virus on legs Kirsty, Clanger-voiced sausage-monger Tom and the CBBC army that issues ceaselessly from the loins of Ruth. (I’ve made this all sound more exciting than it actually is.)

Particularly though I am grumpy with what has happened to the mixed-race daughter of the single-parent vicar: one-woman diversity checklist Amy Franks. Formerly a pleasant, uncomplicated student of midwifery she has suddenly turned into a seething hybrid of Goneril and Alex Forrest from off of Fatal Attraction.

The reason, or inciting incident as I’m sure the writers would have it, behind Amy’s change is that her boyfriend Carl turned out to be a married man and her stepmother Usha withheld this information from her. Amy’s gorgonesque spite is almost entirely directed against Usha.

So there’s a reason behind the character change, but reason isn’t good enough. It’s just not the way people behave. It is the way soap opera characters behave, and that is incompatible with the way The Archers works.

A recent criticism of Prometheus was that the characters act inconsistently. Why does Janek not assert his captaincy? Why does Millburn return to the ship in fear rather than investigate the xenomorphs like he’s there to do? How do Millburn and Fifield get lost on their way back to Prometheus?

Fifield! Look at him, with his silly space haircut.

I’ll tell you why. Because people do stupid, inconsistent things. That’s why. And the getting lost thing? I got lost walking round a loch once, missed a turn and ended up spending the night in a bothy, and that was without the stress of being on a hostile planet far away from home. These aren’t failures of characterisation. They are traits of humanity.

What is happening with Amy in The Archers is different from this. It’s a total change of personality and you rarely get that in reality unless some kind of brain incident has taken place à la Phineas Gage.

You also rarely used to get it in The Archers which, for all its gently lolloping eccentricity, has thrived thus far on slow, consistent, evolutionary change. It is however the currency of TV soap operas and this I fear is where we are heading.

Soaps are great, probably. The Archers apart, I don’t really partake of them, but some of the people I love do so I accept that the fault is mine, that there is something there but that I don’t get it. The screeching hysteria married to situational stagnation is not for me. The sense of constantly being in the middle act of a three-act play without ever reaching the resolution of the third act is frustrating, I find. And the hyperbolic, lurid excesses of plotting would be great in a giallo movie, but week after interminable week in a pub or a bra factory? That’s just exhausting. The spikiness of the graph, the remorselessness of it, the dizzying emotional swoops up and down, and all the time, appal and alienate me. And now it looks as though the meek undulations and borderline ambient noise of The Archers are changing in that direction.

Obviously I am getting old, and this is the wheezing, hectoring sound of a man shambling towards the grave, but I don’t like this absence of nuance that proliferates now.

No longer is it enough to have done a thing and enjoyed it. No longer is it sufficient to have seen or heard or felt something. The reality of a thing these days, the validation of it, comes when some nitwit with a camera and a microphone stands in front of you and says, “How did that make you feel?”

“How delighted were you?”

“How terrible do you think this is?”

“How wet is this rain making you?”

Dastardly constructions that sound like open questions, but which aren’t.

Last week there was much twittering and reporting about, and I paraphrase here for rhetorical effect, the imperial might of the Argyll and Bute Council which, combined with Sauron’s hordes of Mordor and the Dalek army was about to crush the life from a nine year old blogger, and possibly to grind her bones to make their bread.

Lochgilphead schoolgirl Martha Payne has been writing a blog about her school meals under the pseudonym Veg.

http://neverseconds.blogspot.co.uk/

The story was that the jackbooted bullies in the council had banned her from taking photos of her meals. Reprisals were swift. The council were traduced in all broadcast media. Celebrities got involved. Tweets got re-tweeted. I even heard some people were fulminating.

The reality was this: For some weeks Martha had been blogging about her meals in an open, appealing way. Sometimes she was critical, mostly she was complimentary. The school encouraged this. The council implicitly approved by keeping their noses out of it.

The controversy only arose when Scottish newspaper The Daily Record became aware of the blog and decided to smear some of its sulphurous crap over the whole thing.

For money through increased circulation, you understand.

“Time To Fire The Dinner Ladies” was the headline they went with.

The council’s response was to stop Martha taking pictures inside the school, worried that their employees (the dinner ladies) were being threatened in the national press.

Now this might be slightly heavy handed on the part of the council, but isn’t it understandable? They have been subsequently criticised for their inept PR, but why should a council be spending money on top class PR to explain stuff to journos? The money they spend is Council Tax payers’ money, and would rather better be directed towards, oh I dunno, schools say.

It bugs me how quickly people got coerced into a state of high dudgeon by a manipulative press.

There was no conflict between Argyll and Bute Council and Martha Payne until the Record crowded round them shouting, “Fight, fight, fight.” And the world got on board with that because being in a lynch mob is quite exciting yeah, but a lynch mob on a band wagon? Man, that’s living the dream.

I regret this about us now, that we go unanalytically where we are led by villains. That we thrive on exaggeration and confrontation. That the quiet, compassionate, wonky, human way of being is subordinate to simplistic, shrieking, dualistic soap operatics.

Also, I think that if The Archers is determined to pursue the popular agenda it should do it by devoting fifteen minutes a day to showing Borchester Land building a Death Star full of cows under the guidance of Grand Moff Crawford, while Adam Skywalker foments rebellion. Occasional comedy interludes in Kenton’s Cantina if necessary.

Shouting about the noise

“When I heard Davy Jones had died I was like, whoa.” So spoke a bloke on BBC Radio 5 this morning.

That’s some beautiful communication happening there. A man using a mobile phone wherever he is to contact a national radio station to assert that he feels whoa. It is real, spontaneous and instantly nationally accessible.

As a process of information exchange it fails slightly in that I, the person being communicated to, don’t really understand what he, the person doing the communicating, means. But that is very much my problem. His need to bellow whilst everyone listens is being met, and if I want no further part in this then there is a button on the front of my radio that can help me.

I didn’t know Davy Jones and I never met him. However I did quite enjoy The Monkees on TV when I was a kid, and I own a rhythmically suspect but nonetheless enjoyable Cassandra Wilson cover version of Last Train To Clarksville. Who do I tell? More pertinently, why would I tell anyone? Davy Jones’ death, sad as it is for those who loved him, isn’t anything to do with me however much the clamouring media with their need to fill 24 hours each day reckon it is.

Here are Mitchell & Webb putting it better than I can. Sadly I don’t know who wrote the sketch.

On the day of Davy Jones’ death I had attended the funeral of a friend called Gordon Urquhart, a man I’d only met twice in real life but with whom I’d had a delightful, ebullient Facebook friendship. Gordon died shockingly young but he did a lot in his life and touched many people.

The humanist service was held in Eden Court here in Inverness and, in between personal reminiscences of Gordy we got music. Kraftwerk, Sandy Denny, Gordy himself on video doing a cover version of Brian Eno’s Here Come The Warm Jets on what looked like a ukulele. Towards the end of the ceremony the congregation was invited to join in a sing-along version of Yellow Submarine. We were also treated to a recording of That’s Life by Gordon’s band The Pheasants. There were some gentle deprecating remarks about the group’s musical achievements but to my punk-sensitive ears they sounded like the missing link between XTC and The Only Ones, and the song summed up beautifully the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of this short developmental phase between our being born and our dying.

Sitting with all those people in that place I just felt engulfed by emotion. Jubilant to have known Gordon. Desolate that there was no more Gordon to know. Gladder than glad to be there with people that felt the same. In my way I felt whoa. And here I am telling you about it. Or more to the point telling you about me when, in fact, the afternoon wasn’t about me at all.

If you want consistency try another blog. I understand there are thousands of hundreds of tens of them out there. (Also legend has it that somewhere on the internet there is a picture of a lady with her vest off but I’ve never been able to find it.)

And that’s the crux of the matter isn’t it? The sheer fucking amount of noise there is in the world.

Before speaking ask yourself: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? Does it improve upon the silence?

Hmm. Nope. Can’t remember who said it. I like to think they said it over and over and in a very loud voice though.

Are we reaching the point where there are more writers than there are readers to read them? More performers than there are people in the audience?

More and more I have become convinced that I am contributing to more problems than I am helping with solutions. Twice recently on Facebook I have posted what I thought were fairly innocuous comments about genuinely held beliefs and have had flaming responses back that lack civility and, to be barbarously frank, logic.

A suggestion I made that a democratically elected, self-determining council should be allowed to say prayers if it wants to (stupid though I think this is) was met with an implicit accusation that I support the teaching of creationism in schools.

I really don’t.

When I mentioned, in the aftermath of Marie Colvin’s death, that IN MY OPINION journalists tend to over-report themselves and each other I was flamed by people who suggested that, amongst other things, I want my news full of Whitney Houston and Katie Price.

Again I really don’t.

It is convenient to have all these people doing my thinking and holding opinions on my behalf but, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, they don’t actually represent what I am thinking and feeling.

I can write what I like, but I have no control over how it is read or how people will respond to it. I like it when people agree with me about stuff. I deep-down love it when people disagree and we can have a courteous ding-dong about what our differences are, agree to disagree and celebrate the diversity of life.

What I don’t particularly like though is the snarling and hostility that seems to be the basic currency of most online debate, and God knows I get sucked into it quickly enough myself.

Why, I increasingly ask myself, am I even bothering to express my opinions. So what if people agree? So what if they disagree? Why am I putting myself at the middle of things? Has Copernicus taught me nothing?

So I have turned off Facebook for a little while. I miss the constant background hum of my friends’ activity and the knowledge that they are all still out there sucking in air. But in the week since I pressed the button I have regained a lot of peace of mind. My appreciation of the difference between the two piles of stuff marked “My Business” and “Not My Business” has focused sharply and guess, if you like, which of those two piles is the larger one.

Also I have started re-establishing communication in the four-dimensional flesh-o-sphere. A spontaneous chat I had with a former FB pal in a car park was among the most nakedly honest and compassionate conversations I’ve had in months. We didn’t record it. It’s not available to download as a podcast. It still happened and it was a lot more rewarding than its FB equivalent would have been.

I don’t know when I will turn Facebook back on. I don’t know when I’ll blog again. I don’t know precisely at what times I will be shouting at passers-by on street corners. My intention is to carry on tweeting (@feexby) sporadically which is nice if you really need to know my ad hoc reckons about vital issues of the day like why the dog’s performance in The Artist came in for such adulation when the dog in Wrong Turn 3: Left For Dead was completely overlooked two years previously. Or why Christopher Plummer should have got his Oscar in 1978 for his astonishing turn in Starcrash.

In the physical world I haven’t changed my address since 1998 and I am still the only John Feetenby in the Inverness phone book.

My email address is on this page somewhere.

See you around.

Loveyoubye!

By Feexby Posted in Diary

In between days

Tuesday 8th March this year was Pancake Day. It was also International Women’s Day. Friday March 18th will be Red Nose Day.

And how do we fill the chasm between the two? Regretting the absence of pancakes and women, or looking forward to the opportunity for humour and raising money for charity.

Ah ha! You see the problem straightaway don’t you? There is very little point writing this blog, and absolutely no point at all reading it, but I’m going to plough dully onwards anyway. That’s the way I roll.

Trudge, rather.

If you want to skip it, fair enough. See you next time when there might be some film and Doctor Who stuff.

There used to be some purpose to Pancake Day. The following day, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent, which in the Christian tradition is the forty day period of fast and abstinence leading up to Easter (the festival of rebirth or resurrection). So on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday it was traditional to have a bit of a hooley and clear the cupboards of the more sinful foods.

The English term Shrove Tuesday comes from the past tense of the verb to shrive, which means to go through the process of confession, penance and absolution. I prefer the French term Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday which really needs no further explanation. Mardi Gras, incidentally, is accompanied by a carnival, which word comes via the Italian “carne levare” meaning meat put away. (Stop giggling at the back.)

So there you are: the Mardi Gras carnival. You thought you were dancing in a mankini, drunkenly snogging a ladyboy in Rio. You were actually observing a Christian festival. You make me sick.

That was fine in days of yore, when people actually used phrases like “days of yore”, but it makes little sense today. Although this remains a country which defines itself as Christian and has a head of state who is also the head of the Church of England, it is to all intents and purposes a secular society.

A great many sincere and generous people devote themselves to Christianity in one or other of its forms (and a great many sexually deviant game-players do too, but that’s for another day). But there are far more people who, whilst happy enough to pass through the church door for Weddings, Christenings and the filming of Songs of Praise, would not bother their Mini Egg-McFlurry enhanced arses with the rest of the Christian calendar.

Lent as a time of fast and abstinence? Don’t make me laugh hollowly, and then sob.

In some important research that I have just conducted in my head but which it stands to reason must also be true in the real world it was revealed that for every Cadburys Creme Egg eaten on and after Easter Sunday, one hundred eggs were eaten during Lent. A sombre, and not true, statistic.

We don’t (largely) observe Lent, so why the big deal about Pancake Day? Why do people confine their flat snack intake to just one day a year? And why do they go crazy for them on that day? It’s not so much a waffly treat. It’s more of a sinister experiment in population control that has got way out of hand. I’m with the crazy, spliff-smoking, Human-Centipede-inventing Dutch on this one. If you want a pancake, have a pancake. If you don’t, don’t. Leave the calendar out of it, and try not to be bullied in to stuff.

An International Woman

And International Women’s Day on the same date? That’s just weird. What were you thinking of, International Women?

If, like me, you know some women, or have been affected by women in the past, then you’ll realise that they are a year round phenomenon. And quite right too, with their special films like Blonde Magnolias and The Notebook on the Beach, and their endless winsome talk of hats and bras and doilies. Why confine that to one day a year? Let it burst the banks and fill the rest of the year too so that we’re not drawing artificial lines and making needless distinctions.

“Women and other minorities” was a phrase I genuinely heard being used in 1987, at which point the British population was 52% female. That’s an issue that needed addressing at the time. I think that there are still embarrassing disparities in issues of sexual equality, but I’m not sure that one day a year is going to be particularly good at un-embedding the bad attitudes that are still embedded.

Another International Woman

So the Day of Pancakes and International Women is in the past, but, and this is really where the heart of my discomfort lies, we have this still to look forward to: Friday sees the return of Red Nose Day, a day of charitable fund-raising for Comic Relief.

That’s a good thing, surely. Every two years celebrities draw cash on their cachet and it goes to people in the world who need it. People dress up in funny costumes, and do funny things and raise money through sponsorship. It’s win-win. What kind of mean-minded, stink-saturated fart-bubble would pop out a foetid complaint about that?

Well not me, that’s for sure. Except. Phhhffft…

You know…

Hhhhhhhhhhhh,

Well, it’s sort of bugged me for a while, and I’ve just kept cramming it down because it’s good people doing good things, but this year it is more conspicuously grating than usual. And counselling’s like forty quid an hour or something, whereas this is free, so here we go. If I don’t vent it I’ll get stress boils the size of rhino bollocks popping out on my neck.

When I used to drink I would go to the pub after work with familiar people. We had a pub we liked. We had seats we liked. When we went through the doors the staff said hi, and started pouring our drinks before we even got to the bar. Except for once a year, just before Christmas, when you couldn’t get into the place because of the once a year drinkers.

When I went to see Black Swan this year, the showing was spoilt for me by the tittering knob-wittedness of the audience. It was immediately after the Oscars and the place was filled with people who’d read about Natalie Portman in Heat magazine and whose kids quite liked Angelina Ballerina so they’d gone to see the ballet film.

I have still to see 127 Hours. I heard someone at the ticket desk in Eden Court asking for “that film where the boy cuts his own arm off” and that was enough for me.

What’s my point? A dilettante invasion spoils stuff.

Drinkers will drink when they want to. Film lovers will go and see movies they want to. Fans of pancakes and International Women will indulge their tastes at whim.

And so, I think, it should be with humour and charitable donations.

I spent some time a few years ago in the murk-free and blameless world of Internet dating. It was interesting as far as it went and I met some great women and some interesting psychopaths. The biggest challenge though was not the meeting of a stranger. It was the compilation of an honest, but interesting profile for myself. What I steered clear of was the whole GSOH/VGSOH minefield. I toyed with the idea of putting VBSOH for a while but thought better of it.

See, I don’t think it’s a thing you can claim for yourself. Having a sense of humour (G, VG or otherwise) is like “being a good driver”, “being excellent in bed” or “smelling almost like a normal person”. It’s an accolade that only other people can confer on you.

I would guess that funny people are funny all year, or as the mood takes them. I would hope (in this affluent society where a floating duck island is apparently a real thing) that people give donations to charity as suits their financial situation and conscience.

I would further guess that anyone who confines his or her humour and charity to the 24 hours of Friday March 18th is maybe not actually that funny or charitable.

So this is the subconscious squalor I’ve been suppressing for years. My reason for suppressing it was that I thought Comic Relief did no harm, but did do some good. But now I’m beginning to wonder if the very act of stapling charity to a particular day limits it.

My grudging acceptance used to be along these lines: OK someone has spent fifty quid on a Lippy The Lion suit and is pushing a chick pea up the Market Brae steps with their nose for a pound. At least that’s a pound going to charity which otherwise wouldn’t have been.

Now I just wish they’d shut up, leave the Lippy The Lion suit alone (or Hardy Har Har suit, the details aren’t important) and quietly go about giving a pound a week to Amnesty International or something.

The crowing seems inappropriate. The celebrity participation seems more than usually motivated by self-interest. The bipolar anarchic, cry baby, superficial, soupy, Coldplay-inflected, forced hilarity and sanctimony is making me weary.

Am I being too cynical here?

***

Before leaving behind, with luck forever, the super-specific subject of days when things happen I do just have to have a bit of a blurt about Census Day, which is 27th March 2011 here in the UK. There are slight differences between the English, Welsh and Scottish censuses, but their intentions and methodologies are essentially the same so I’m not going to draw distinctions.

Does it seem like a drag to you? Filling in all that information? It’s not really that arduous. Give it your best shot and, if you can, do your best to be non-flippant for the small amount of time it takes. The information gathered is used seriously to determine the allocation of finite resources.

And in a hundred years time it will be available for inspection by all the family history buff progeny you’ve spawned and you don’t want to look like a fuckwit in front of them for something that was funny for five minutes, if that, do you?

Because the last time we had a census 390,000 people in England and Wales, and 14,000 people in Scotland (a lower proportion) claimed to be Jedi.

Really? Sounds high to me. You know, for a fictional religion made up by a check-shirt wearing, no-neck geek.

I understand the need some people feel to stick it to the man, but I question whether or not this is the right forum.

Officially, any Jedi replies this time round will be counted as No Religion, but the option is there to count Jedi as a faith and this could have repercussions. If you have no religious faith, just put that eh, and do your funny joke for Comic Relief instead.

Here’s a good explanatory website.

http://census-campaign.org.uk/faq/jedi-knights/

I particularly like their conclusion: “If you actually identify, religiously, as a Jedi then that’s what you should put.”

I also like the Tweet from @Cassetteboy which said: You’re only a Jedi if you can make the census form levitate by waving at it with your magic space hands.

(Parenthetic music recommendation: If you like archive tapes cut up to make posh broadcasters sound like they’re swearing, set to music, then you will definitely like Mick’s Tape by Cassetteboy.)

A Jedi or something. I don’t know. I haven’t really looked into it.

Meat, Milk and the Fourth Wall

I prefer fiction to fact.

Actually, without wishing to expose my philosophical ignorance too completely, I’m not sure what is meant by fact. The quest for objective truth always seems to me like a pretty futile one.

As I was reminiscing to a pal a few days ago: I remember from my time in bookselling the glorious period when the (then) three remaining Beatles got together to write a definitive account of their history.

It turned out that whilst they could agree on very general things, the details were maddeningly elusive. They could remember the same meeting for instance, but they each recalled different people being there, or it taking place in a different country. They could piece a lot of it together from documentary evidence but there was a lot of stuff that just seemed to have no readily discernible objective truth.

I feel that this is the case for everything that is presented as fact. Really you’ve just got points of view occasionally corroborated by physical evidence which may be interpretable more than one way.

To use another example from my own life, my niece Poppy has a clear recollection of the shocking incident of Uncle Feexby throwing a Frisbee over the hedge into the next-door neighbours’ garden. She is very clear on the details. The only trouble is that this never actually happened.

I am the patsy in the case.

I will concede that I threw the Frisbee on to the top of the hedge, but I then retrieved it non-controversially with the use of a handy set of stepladders. Granddad subsequently chucked the damn thing over the hedge into the other neighbour’s garden, but you never hear about that. Oh no.

I am the victim of a concerted propaganda campaign. History does not belong to the victors so much as it belongs to the people with the loud and persistent voices.

It’s all very unjust.

Anyway fiction, lacking the distracting, self-important burden of having to be accurate can tell us a lot more about things a lot more easily I have always felt.

It’s a strange colluding relationship we have with fiction though, we consumers of it. There is a necessary suspension of disbelief which cheapens us slightly but we go along with it. It’s the price we pay for the journey. When it is taken for granted by the storyteller though, that can be a real slap in the face.

I am a massive fan of Die Hard (1988), the progenitor of the modern action movie. It has wonderful, terse dialogue, intelligent and unobtrusive foreshadowing, beguiling characters and a very elegant structure with a beautiful reverse half way through. It struck the template, and for about a decade afterwards every action movie was pitched as “Die Hard on a…” Train, mountain, bus. Canoe on one memorable occasion, thank you Curtis Hanson and The River Wild (1994).

What I can’t stand though is the feculent Die Hard 2 (1990). Apart from the appalling, crass direction of Renny Harlin (“First act: whammies. Second act: whammies. Third act: all whammies.”), what gets my very-hard-to-get goat is the fact that the central character acknowledges TO THE AUDIENCE the sheer preposterousness of what’s happening to him. “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” he says, or words to that effect. I’m not even going to dignify it by checking the quote. If you’ve seen the film then you know the bit I mean. If you haven’t then, well done you!

Bloody hell Harlin, the less polite of us squawked at that point. We are working hard to get through this. Don’t make this more difficult for us than it has to be.

It is called breaking the fourth wall, this bit when characters acknowledge the presence of an audience and, by extension, accept their own fictional status. We have, apparently, Diderot to thank for the idea that the proscenium arch on stage (or the screen at a cinema or on a television) represents a wall through which we can see the characters, but through which they can’t see us. Diderot also coined the phrase “l’esprit d’escalier” (the spirit of the staircase), meaning the witty thing that you think of to say, but it’s too late as you’ve already left the room.

I like his style.

Anyway, breaking the fourth wall, or having the characters recognise the audience or in some other way trespass on the viewers’ territory: you have to use it pretty carefully if you’re going to use it at all. You’ve really got to have a point.

It works brilliantly in comedy. For example the frame-fucking antics in Hellzapoppin’ (1941) or the awe-inspiring Daffy Duck cartoon Duck Amuck (1953) where Daffy tries waging an unwise war with his animator. Even in the 70s and 80s in the Airplane/Police Squad (Naked Gun) movies and Mel Brooks’ final sequence in Blazing Saddles where the action wanders off the Western set and through the film studio it is never less than an amusing device.

However it is a difficult one to pull off in serious (by which I mean non-comical) drama. The only effective example I can bring to mind is the genuinely unsettling sequence in Ringu (1998) where Sadako, the damp antagonist of that creepy film, is shown coming through a TV screen, shockingly breaching the impermeable barrier between viewer and viewed. Any other good examples? Please let me know.

Daffy Duck shows, as usual, how it's done

This is all in my mind (or what, laughably, passes for it just now) because The Archers had one of its fumbles of contemporaneousness today.

The Archers, for you few benighted souls out there who are unfamiliar with it, is a 15-minute daily soap opera on Radio 4. (Actually it is only usually 13 minutes long, and it doesn’t air on Saturday. How pedantic are we being today?)

It started life as a spiffing way for the government, specifically the Ministry of Agriculture, to provide pertinent information to farmers and people with smallholdings in the austerity years after the war when productivity was of immense national importance.

This role has diminished over time, in fact has become inverted as the programme now, whilst never denying its principal dramaturgical purpose to entertain, acts as a way of keeping city-dwelling consumers, such as me, abreast of the realities of life in agriculture (or agri-business) in the 21st Century. There’s a dedicated Agricultural Story Editor and everything.

All sorts of stuff has been covered, and always with more sensitivity and attendance to reality than any TV equivalents would have managed. TB outbreaks and the possible culpability of badgers; protests against GM crops; rural isolation, depression and suicide; alcoholism, gambling and drug addiction. It’s all there, and it’s all been done well, and it’s all the more convincing for its quiet consistency, and the fact that the hysterical drama is massively, massively outweighed by the convincingly quotidian.

Hell of a jaunty theme tune too. Barwick Green by Arthur Wood. Check it out. It’s frequently touted as a possible replacement for our racist dirge of a national anthem. Count me in.

The problem today (August 4th) has been that whilst it is generally easy to accept that Ambridge is a real place, and that the characters are real people, every once in a while an “actual” news event catches the programme out at short notice.

Often in cases like this there is a hastily inserted micro-scene where two random characters (whichever actors were available on the day) bump into each other in church or on the village green and say “Ooo, isn’t it terrible about Princess Di being in a car crash?” Or, “Ooo, isn’t it shocking about that terrorist outrage on the World Trade Centre?” Then we cut back to the rest of the village drinking, fretting, carousing and putting on pantomimes as usual.

Today though, when the UK news has been full of a farming story, not one of the villagers mentioned it.

What has happened in the real world is that some stuff has found its way into the food chain that shouldn’t have. Meat from two bulls which were the offspring of a cloned cow has, through some embarrassing but understandable confusions of jurisdiction, made it into peoples’ fridges. There have been allegations that milk from cloned cows has done so too, but these are vigorously denied by everyone who knows anything at all about it.

There are legal restrictions on the selling of meat sourced from cloned animals in the UK.

The nation is ablaze!

“Tsk tsk,” it said.

Personally I would have thought that any unapproved meat of this ilk would be a hell of a lot more yummy than the macerated organs and pulverised “spare bits” of animal that constitute most burgers, but then I am a fairly relaxed consumer of food. As long as it’s tasty on the way in and reasonably painless on the way out and is produced with joy and without misery and cruelty then I’m up for it.

The only distress I feel about the cloned cattle story is that the whole issue has gone unremarked in Ambridge. My sense of betrayal is immense.

Moral Fudge – nyum nyum nyum

There is no room for Gary Glitter in my frontline library.

Yeah, I know, judge not that ye be not judged and all that, but Christ the man is a horror show isn’t he? A proselytising pervert. An unapologetic monster. A despoiler of flesh and manipulator of minds who cannot even conjure up the slightest spark of recognition that his relentless selfish pursuit of his own gratification might be wrong in some absolute sense.

I always preferred The Sweet in the glam rock canon anyway, and the festive playlist will probably survive without Another Rock’n’Roll Christmas.

Gary Glitter then, let him be expunged from the record. I have spoken and exercised swingeing, virtuous justice. I have swinged.

Easy peasy, now let’s move on to Roman Polanski and watch my moral absolutism disintegrate.

The undisputed facts of the Polanski story are these:

  1. In 1977 Roman Polanski had sex with a thirteen-year-old girl in Los Angeles. He was arrested and charged with rape. He pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor.
  2. He fled to London and then Paris to avoid sentencing.
  3. After having lived in exile in Europe since then Polanski was finally arrested by the Swiss police in September 2009 as he travelled to the Zurich Film Festival. This was at the behest of the US authorities.
  4. America instituted extradition proceedings. There was a huffy uproar from a section of the film-making community. The Swiss ultimately rejected the extradition request and pronounced Polanski a free man.
  5. Charlotte Lewis, who worked as a child actress on Polanski’s film Pirates, appeared at length on a BBC discussion programme today (27/07/10) claiming that in 1986, aged sixteen, she was coerced into sex against her will too. Her motivation in talking about it now, she says, is to add to the weight of evidence that will see Polanski extradited to the States to serve his time.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00t7f66#supporting-content

“Polanski,” shouts the world with some justification, “You are a menace and a pervert!”

There are some mitigating factors, maybe. Polanski lived his early life in the Krakow ghetto. His mother died in Auschwitz. In 1969 his heavily pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson and his “family”. I don’t imagine you would emerge from all of that unscarred, but does that make any difference?

Rather magnificently Samantha Geimer, the girl whom Polanski raped in 1977, subsequently publicly forgave him, and even wrote a piece in the LA Times arguing that he should be allowed back into the country to accept his Oscar for The Pianist.

She’s my hero in all of this.

Anyway my attitude to sex, stated numbingly often, is that y’all should just get on with whatever you want to do as long as it’s consensual. Some of it sounds exciting, what you all get up to, some of it sounds a bit worrying, but, hey, it’s none of my business. If you’re all cool with it, then so am I. The only point where other people are justified in sticking their noses in (unless you have invited them to, er, stick their noses in) is when consent is absent, and this is explicitly the case when one of the parties is not of full age and capacity.

Polanski committed an immoral and illegal act and his subsequent behaviour hasn’t really been that different from Gary Glitter’s. It’s a doddle for me not to engage with Glitter’s work because I don’t like it. It’s different with Polanski though.

A lot of his films I just can’t enjoy. You can keep Frantic, Bitter Moon, The Fearless Vampire Killers and so on, but I really, really like Rosemary’s Baby.

There were hyperbolic calls on the radio, as Charlotte Lewis was being interviewed, for the whole of Polanski’s career to be boycotted and parallels with the Gary Glitter case were specifically drawn.

And yet I’m keeping Rosemary’s Baby on my shelves. Also I have, and love, DVDs of The Thick Of It starring Chris Langham who later served time in prison for downloading child pornography onto his computer.

What does that make me?

That’s me on the sofa.

Up to my armpits with work at the moment and using the downtime such as there is to clear more backlogged DVDs. They haven’t all been wise choices.

The Gift (2000) is from the most mature period of Sam Raimi’s career sandwiched as it is between For The Love Of The Game (1999), which I have never seen, and the crowd-friendly Spider-Man series. The Gift is a paranormal murder thriller with a kick-ass cast (Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, J.K. Simmons, Hilary Swank) and is written, I was surprised to discover, by Billy Bob Thornton. I guess he got friendly with Raimi when they were filming A Simple Plan. Its edge is a bit dull though and there is a pervading sense of compromise, certainly when the enterprise is compared to Raimi’s thrilling early career which thoroughly explored the bit on the Venn diagram that subsets Splatter Horror and Slapstick Comedy. It’s still worth watching though. As was demonstrated with David Lynch’s Dune and Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back In Action you can’t completely hamstring a maverick visionary just by giving him a big budget and a requirement to capture a big audience. There will still be visionary stuff in there. It’s no Drag Me To Hell however.

Some troubling movies from the East: Sick Nurses, Tokyo Gore Police and Love Exposure.

Sick Nurses (a 2007 Thai film whose directors I am unfamiliar with) is the least coherent of the three. Seven nurses who have been selling body parts on the black market kill one of their number when she threatens to expose them. On the seventh day after her murder she returns to wreak supernatural vengeance. It’s a hotchpotch, really, of successful bits from other films. Ring and Dark Water do honestly have a lot to answer for. It’s over quite quickly, but not quickly enough, and I speak as one who generally has an appetite for kinky hospital horror.

Tokyo Gore Police (2008) is, I think, the first film directed by Japanese effects artist Yoshihiro Nishimura and it wears its provenance quite proudly favouring mutated flesh and gouted gore over delicacy of script. “Engineers”, monstrous mutated humans, are hunted by self-harming, blade-wielding Ruka, who is avenging the death of her father. It’s a vigorous movie, I’ll give it that, but I may be getting a wee bit old for this sort of stuff and I was knackered at the end of it. Also there’s a weird sort of prudishness at work. There’s an endless fascination on display with the different ways flesh can be contorted, stretched and ripped, which sits oddly with the general shyness about sex. You will learn more about the psychology of revulsion from any of David Cronenberg’s, ostensibly more sober, body horror movies of the seventies and eighties. With a title like Tokyo Gore Police though, you can’t complain about false advertising in any respect.

More confusing, if anything, is Love Exposure (2008), Sion Sono’s four-hour hymn to Japan’s polymorphous perverse community. After Yu’s mother dies his father becomes a Catholic priest. The only way Yu (a pretty innocent chap) can recapture his father’s attention is by committing sins which he can then take to confession. The only sin he seems to be any good at is taking photos up women’s skirts, a practice he develops into a kind of martial arts/voyeurism hybrid. His attitude changes though when he falls in love with Yoko, a girl whom he has rescued from a gang attack. The only problem is that he was in drag at the time, and Yoko has fallen in love with the girl she thinks he is. And… Well it goes on and on. It took me a long time to warm to this, but some time around the three-hour mark I began to think, well at least they’re serious about this film. It kind of numbed me into grudging admiration eventually. I don’t think I’ll be re-watching it many times before they’re throwing soil on my box lid though.

After this prolonged exposure to unorthodox attitudes to love, sex and death it was nice to plonk myself slap bang back in the middle of Western tradition.

It is many years since I last saw In The Heat Of The Night (1967), but I remember as a sixteen year old being impressed by how a film could transcend what were obviously pretty tight constrictions and become a timeless piece so easily. Twenty-nine years later it looks even better. Sidney Poitier is beautiful and controlled. Rod Steiger is lazy and reptilian. And yet neither of them are that straightforward and it is a joy to watch these two actors develop their characters together. Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs turns out to be not as cool and controlled as we at first think. Neither is Steiger’s Chief Gillespie as complacent and venal as he first appears. The soundtrack is simply awesome too. I genuinely think that they don’t make em like this anymore.

Greg McLean’s 2006 movie Rogue is deceptive. Looking like just another creature feature, giant crocodile picks off a group of stranded survivors one by one, this is in fact a film of rare accomplishment.

McLean brings the same considered pacing to bear as he did in 2005’s tremendous Wolf Creek. He’s a filmmaker of the old school and understands that a bit of wit and compassion in setting the characters up goes a long way in making the subsequent threat more threatening. He uses the great Weta sfx crocodile sparingly, but gets a real sense of jeopardy going. Smashing performances from Michael Vartan, Sam “Ubiquitous” Worthington, and the divine Radha Mitchell. I loved it.

Radha Mitchell gets ready for crocodile combat earlier today.

One copy of Rogue, and make it snappy…

***

I could have spent Friday evening re-watching Dog Day Afternoon, but what with the real events piling up on the news channels there wasn’t much need.

For readers not in the UK we had had a disaffected, steroid abusing, gun carrying ex-convict on the loose for a week. Raoul Moat had been released from prison on (I think) Thursday July 1st. He had then shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend and killed her new partner. This escalated into a vendetta against the police generally and he publicly stated that he would proceed to murder policemen until he was caught or killed.

It’s not, on the surface, the most jolly of stories, but as he continued to evade capture, public interest increased and Moat began to take on the mantle of outlaw hero in some quarters. The tweeters on Twitter got a lot of mileage out of it with their funny jokes and observations.

On Friday night Moat was finally cornered by police in Rothbury, where the media were already encamped in large numbers, and a live standoff ensued. It culminated with Moat’s death in the early hours, audible, but off camera.

For once I don’t really have much of an issue with the way the media reported things. The police kept saying that the media were affecting the outcome of the situation and asking them to back off. The media did no such thing of course. Tricky, but I can understand why. It was a hell of a story and they were already there. Generally anyway the reporters seemed to be behaving responsibly. There was a bit of over-excitement as things started developing quickly, but the BBC, which I was watching, kept pretty sober judgement through the night.

Their man on the scene was Jon Sopel and, apart from a regrettable incident where he basically hijacked a bystander’s mobile phone call to broadcast their private business to an agog nation, he comported himself very well. You could see him occasionally getting over-exercised and having to rein himself back in with a not altogether convincing sombre expression, but who wouldn’t be the same in the circumstances? I gather the Sky coverage was a touch more hyperbolic. Didn’t see it. Can’t comment.

What bugged me most was the reaction of the public. This was a standoff between an armed man in a state of extreme duress and a phalanx of armed policemen, yet all the public I saw were either weeping openly and dramatically overreacting to a thing that wasn’t happening to them, or they were pissed up and having a laugh, waving their beer glasses at the camera.

It’s a self-selecting crowd I suppose. There were probably loads of Rothbury residents sitting quietly in their homes, hoping or praying for events to come to a peaceful solution, but obviously I couldn’t see them. All I could see were the shining, anticipatory faces of a crowd in the mood for incident.

It saddens me, this monkey-mind part of humanity. I know we are better than this and that, as individuals and as a species we do extraordinary things everyday.

But we also bay for blood. We laugh when bad things happen to people we don’t know. We exult in the pain of the out-group. And, once you start drawing lines, who isn’t part of the out-group?

The only bit of the evening that I did understand was when Gazza turned up. (Paul Gascoigne is a hard-drinking, ex-professional football player/pitiable man-child, for those who require context.)

Gascoigne, who had known Raoul Moat from Moat’s time as a doorman in clubs in the North-east, turned up seeming quite refreshed himself and carrying food, beer and a fishing rod according to reports.

The media were flummoxed, but this was my one bit of big identification of the evening. It was certainly how drink worked for me. It made me feel extravagantly important in situations where I was, at the most, tangential. It also gave me overwhelming confidence in my own ability to sort anything out for the best, and screw the rest of you mooks.

In my drinking days, had a vague acquaintance of mine got involved locally in an armed standoff you can bet your arse I’d have been there. I wouldn’t have taken a fishing rod as part of my peaceful overtures though. I’d probably have made do with a copy of Dog Day Afternoon on DVD.

***

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Your undying enmity is important to us.

I don’t go to war these days.

Mostly I don’t have the attention span. I quickly forget what the conflict was, or I have a nice sleep and wake up free of whatever the resentment was in the first place.

Sometimes though, particularly if I’m not getting good sleep, something will rile me and I get all “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”. I’m always sorry afterwards. I get the brief kick of self-righteous anger and then the hangover of weary disappointment, and the big trek back to the life of inner peace and contented befuddlement that I prefer.

BT’ll do it.

In 2004 I took as much custom away from BT as I could. I moved my calls and my internet service to AOL and was left just paying BT rental for the phone line that comes into my home.

They did not take particularly well to being dumped and I was inundated for years with correspondence. Would I take them back? It wouldn’t be like before. They could change. Pleeeeeease. But I was hard-hearted, and my answer always remained “Nope.”

Then a few months ago, to simplify the line rental billing process, I gave my direct debit details to BT. Big mistake, because what they then started doing – without telling me they were doing it – was to start charging me for calls again. Just taking the money out of my bank.

They couldn’t have been more brazen if they’d been lighting cigars with my twenty pound notes and whistling “We’re In The Money” while they were doing it.

I noticed it on my bill this morning and thought to myself, “Crumbs. That’s not right. Better do something about that.”

What I have learned to do in early middle-age, is not to get on the first bus. The first bus is never the best bus. So I had a bit of a sit down and I thought about what I was going to do.

I said what you might call a prayer. Now the concept of praying is still a bit strange to me. I was brought up in a faith, but most of the praying I was encouraged to do as a kid was like some big mad Jim’ll Fix It list. “Dear God. Please fix it for me to have blessings on my family and friends and a space hopper and a chopper bike…”

I don’t believe in God, certainly not the weird, paranoid, partisan God of the theists. I mean that would be a peculiar entity to worship, eh? Don’t eat meat on a Friday. He hates that. And better sing him a few songs too or he’s going to be really pissed off. He likes being told how good he is, particularly in the medium of guitar-based folk music.

I’m not even much of a believer in the slightly more hands-off, woo-woo, power of the Universe God of the deists, although I have some understanding of where people are coming from when they make claims on His, Her or Its behalf.

What I do believe in though is the world outside my skull. I have faith that the things around me exist in a meaningful enough way for me to pay attention to them, and that’s what I’m doing in the process I loosely call prayer.

It’s a deep mental breath. It’s counting to ten. It’s making sure that my mind is fair and my intentions are good. It’s a mini, daily Copernican revolution where I try to come to terms with the fact that I am not the literal centre of the Universe, however much I feel like I am. It’s all I’ve got really.

So I did that, and I rang BT to find out what the story was and I found myself cast into some sort of hell.

Why are they so rude? Why are they so sarcastic? Where do they get the confidence from to flatly assert the opposite of something I know is true? And what is it about the first couple of bars of the overture from The Marriage of Figaro that they find so fascinating they have to play it on a loop for all eternity?

After a couple of goes of explaining what the situation had been, how it had changed, and asking why, I just suddenly lost the will to carry on. I thanked the BT person for their time, mentioned that I found their customer service extremely shoddy and even found a moment to emphasise that I didn’t appreciate their open hostility.

Then I hung up, annoyed at myself for reacting.

Still reeling slightly at what BT considers to be “customer service” I rang AOL. They grasped what had happened straightaway and said not to worry, they’d fix it. They even gave me a few months absolutely free and took my monthly tariff down by five quid.

I don’t know where the fault lies. The evidence seems to point towards BT but it might be AOL who dropped the ball. Doesn’t really matter. AOL fixed it. BT made my day unpleasant. Draw your own conclusions.

My final excess tetchiness expressed itself by way of a tweet in which I included the hash tag #BTfail. A few hours later I got an email telling me that BT are now following me on Twitter. Uh-oh.

I feel like I’ve provoked the Mafia or something. If I’m found at the bottom of Muirtown Basin, bound with fibre optic cable and with the Phone Directory stuffed in my mouth you know what has happened.

***

A better end to the day in the company of lads at a showing of Neil Marshall’s ebullient movie Centurion at Eden Court.

It’s Romans versus Picts as Belloq out of Raiders of the Lost Ark orders McNulty out of The Wire to take his legion (The Ninth) into the far North to quell the Picts. McNulty is betrayed by Camille out of Quantum of Solace, and his men are all killed apart from Mickey and the Next Doctor out of Doctor Who, that bloke from Inglourious Basterds and a couple of other characters to complete the diversity checklist. In fact the only way the surviving group of men could be more diversity-aware would be if one of them was a comedy robot sidekick.

None of them is.

It’s all a bit brilliant really, certainly a step back towards narrative sensibilism after Marshall’s previous movie, the sci-fi action cliché mash-up Doomsday.

Centurion has a huge amount in common with Marshall’s earlier movies Dog Soldiers, the jovial squaddies versus werewolves horror film, and The Descent (chicks versus troglodytes). Once the surviving group is defined and characterised it is subject to attritional destruction just trying to get home.

Marshall is gleefully obvious in his movie references and I enjoyed the Butch Cassidy, Assault On Precinct 13 and Star Wars nods on display here, but I missed the most obvious one.

It was only at the very end of the closing credits where Marshall thanked Walter Hill and Xenophon that the penny dropped. This is Marshall’s take on The Warriors.

I recommend it. It scurries along. The story-telling is fine. The landscape is magnificent. Most importantly, Marshall has found a way of fleshing out the story of the lost Legion of the Ninth that brings credit to both the Picts and the Romans. I had feared that there would be ignobility shown on at least one side, but not this time.

Olga Kurylenko sports an authentic Pictish pink bra earlier today.