28 December 2010

Luckily, he saw the funny side

I don't like Ricky (Jim Royle) Tomlinson. Never really known why, but at last I've a kind of reason. For Christmas a well-meaning relative has given me Tomlinson's book Football My Arse! a collection of football-related anecdotes that declares itself "The Funniest Football Book You'll Ever Read". Hmm.
Footballers' wives are notoriously protective of their husbands when watching them play, and there are many instances of them getting involved in slanging matches with spectators having a go at their man. Judith Hurst was infamous for standing up for her World Cup hero Geoff, and it was rumoured she had whacked a loud-mouthed critic with her handbag. I wonder if she hit him three times for a hat-trick?
A lot of the stories are like this, pointless and dull. Even the once-good, once-fresh stories ("Oh jaysus and begorrah, Mr Best, where did it all go wrong?") lie like corpses on the page. Scattered Jim Royle-isms can't hide the fact this is a cut'n'paste job of cynical opportunism (originally published @ £10 for the Christmas 2005 market).

In his introduction, Tomlinson indignantly has a go at the way football's run:
Fans need to make the point that they are being ripped off.
Quite so. Fortunately, my relative - and I am grateful, honestly! - bought the book from a charity shop. I imagine the shelves were full of copies of it. Actually, the banality of some of the anti-anecdotes is quite addictive. Here's another one to be getting on with:
Former Newcastle manager and club captain Joe Harvey was a fanatical gardener. One night he came home to find a burglar in his house. Joe chased the intruder out of the back door, and as he pursued him across the garden shouted, 'Whatever you do, don't tread on my roses.'
When he gave a player a trial after a strong recommendation from the club scout, Harvey wrote dismissively on his report card: 'Can't trap a medicine ball.'

22 December 2010

Did the earth move as much for you as for me?

Another example of things you thought you knew not always being true. According to the Guardian today a minor earthquake in Cumbria measured 3.5 on the Richter scale. Except it probably didn't.

The Telegraph got it right. In one of those annoying things scientists do, they've begun classifying earthquakes according to the Moment magnitude scale, which is better because it measures the actual movement of land (I think). Apparently this has been the preferred scale since the 80s.

The Daily Mail (no link - you know you want to thank me), the Sun (ditto), even the Independent also got it wrong.  How come I (and the Guardian and Independent) have never heard of it?

There are two big mistakes in the MMS. First, it was calibrated so that it pretty nearly matches the Richter scale. So the Cumbria quake probably would measure about 3.5 on the Richter scale, if anyone measured it that way. You can understand why they'd calibrate it that way, but it does allow for a certain confusion. Media can continue to refer to the Richter scale, without getting the figure seriously wrong. They get the official statement from Her Majesty's Earthquake Inspectorate (Offshake) read the figure of 3.5 and see something about magnitude, so assume it's the number of Richters.

The bigger mistake is that it hasn't got a memorable name. Even Sirlordsugar's hapless nitwits could come up with something better than "moment magnitude scale". It was devised by scientists called Hanks and Kanamori. Scientists estimate that up to 95% of all earthquakes happen in Japan, so why not just call it the Kanamori scale? Sorry, Prof Hanks, but we don't want confusion with light hollywood comedies to blur the picture.

16 December 2010

100 per cent at best. Sometimes. That's all. You hear me?

I'm sure I'm not the first person to say that The Apprentice has crossed the line into self-parody, but I can precisely identify the moment when it collapsed under the weight of its own post-ironic knowingness.

Last night Margaret Mountford was brought back for the interviews. Maybe because she's no longer in business she now doesn't have time for meaningless biz-speak. So, when one of the candidates claimed to be a major cog, she pointed out that it doesn't mean anything. The programme would be so much shorter if there were someone around all the time, pinging like a microwave every time someone says something meaningless.
"I'll never give less than 110% (ping!)"

"I'm passionate (ping!) about driving this business (ping!) forward (ping! ping!)."

"Perhaps she looks a little ... corporate (ping!)" (It's odd how "corporate" has become a Bad Thing this year. When you consider that the candidates still all dress like the most unimaginative office drones you've ever seen throwing up at Liverpool St on a Friday night...)
"I've got a field full of ponies (PING PING PING!)"
 Perhaps it would have taken Sirlordalan less than 10 weeks to discover that Stuart Baggs was indeed "full of shit".

Anyway, good for Margaret but here's where it all went wrong. In the interview with Jamie, he mentoined his exam grades and she predictably raised that left eyebrow. Fair enough, but even archer than the brow was the music that accompanied it, a syncopated staccato string passage that climaxed with a fast plink of percussion at that point. (You can see this around 20'30" on iplayer). It's the musical equivalent of an elbow in the ribs, some tedious git going "look, look, there goes the eyebrow", the money shot that invites us all to agree Margaret's left eyebrow is the funniest, most watercooler-moment worthy feature of our Wednesday night. Finally, the editing and the music have closed out the prospect that we can form our own opinions. We will think what they want us to.

Ugh. Fortunately watercoolers have no part in my life (hence this blog) but this, my first post on The Apprentice, may well be the last.

13 December 2010

Making his debut in this blog ... it's the Dalai Lama!

Once again I'm bottom-feeding off the scraps of twitter, but it's a cold foggy day, so why not? Here's what the Dalai Lama has said, which more than a hundred people have re-tweeted:

I don't think human affection and compassion are just religious concerns; they're indispensable factors in our day-to-day lives.
Who on earth does think that human affection and compassion are just religious concerns? This comment is too trite to make Thought for the Day.

Charlton 0 Walsall 1

Some things are best forgotten. After intensive therapy, I now believe that I spent Sunday afternoon in my nice warm living room watching a particularly bitchy Come Dine With Me marathon.

09 December 2010

Stephen Neary, political correctness and petitions

The story
Stephen (or Steven) Neary is a 20 year old autistic young man. Last year he went into respite care for a few days while his father was unwell. His behaviour while in respite led the Council (Hillingdon) to keep him in for assessment. The care workers had logged several "assaults" - which Stephen's father says were harmless attempts to gain attention. Stephen is still detained under a procedure called DOLS (Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards). This is intended to protect someone who may be a danger to himself (not to other people). Because it's not covered by the Mental Health Act (because autism is not a mental illness) there is no right of appeal to a tribunal. The Council is currently proposing to send Stephen to an assessment centre in Wales.

Political correctness
The term 'politically correct' has never meant much, apart from being a general label of dislike. In the blog article on this, "Anna Raccoon" says:
Now the Positive Behaviour Unit is a mighty politically correct place. Tap someone on the shoulder to attract their attention, and they don’t think ‘that is how Stephen has always attracted my attention since he was a child’ – they say – ‘he touched me, that is an assault’ and promptly record it in their daily log…..
And I think it's at that point that the term has finally lost all meaning. There may be all sorts of reasons to criticise the Unit's actions, but if we recall that 'politically correct' was originally about actively protecting and promoting the rights of minorities and the powerless, the behaviour of the Unit as described here is as far as you can get from that.

Nevertheless, I've signed the petition calling on Hillingdon to let Stephen return to his father, and posted a link on Facebook suggesting my friends there do so too. But I have reservations.

First, I know that councils don't keep people in any form of residential care for fun. It is incredibly expensive for one thing, and by and large council staff aren't ogres. Councils generally can't and don't give their reasons for this sort of decision because they have a duty to keep the client's confidence.

Second, who am I to give an opinion? All I know about this case I've read from a partisan blog. It feels wrong, certainly, but I'm in no sense qualified to say that Stephen would be better off at home.

Maybe I'm still too contaminated by my old job, but here's my more considered view.

There is apparently no tribunal that can review DOLS decisions. That seems wrong and the system should be amended. In the meantime, councils ought to establish their own independent review system, probably containing representatives of health services and voluntary agencies, who can consider each case in full and in private. If there were a petition to ask for that, I'd sign it, but for now, I have to sign the petition that assumes I and anyone who's read about Stephen knows enough about him to say what's right.

So, readers, whether you sign the petition or not is up to you. But please don't say this is "pc gone mad". It really isn't.

08 December 2010

As bad as it looks

Some minor furore on Twitter yesterday about this tweet from @UKHomeOffice:
Contribute your views to our consultation into how we can best reduce the number of students who come to the UK. 
There was a link to the Home Office website, where this consultation is taking place. 

There's no doubt that the twitter message is openly xenophobic, not to say racist. It is clearly based on the presumption that foreign students are a bad thing. Numerous twitter replies have pointed out that overseas students make a positive contribution to the UK economy, and that their fees can subsidise those of other students. On a less tangible level they push up the standards in universities, and ought to be a major part in spreading a good image of this country around the world.

The Government, I'm sure, would say that it's not how it looks. Its proposal is targeted at non-degree students, because such students have a record of overstaying their visas. So the easiest way to stop them overstaying is to stop them getting here in the first place (rather than, say, enforcing visas better - but that would require an efficient and effective Home Office, and we haven't had one of those for decades.)

Whatever. The twitter message and the only slightly different message on the Home Office website sends out a nasty message about this country. At the very best it's careless, but as so often carelessness reveals the true intentions, the underlying prejudice. So if you're tempted to say it's not as bad as it looks, I'd say how it looks is how it is. Someone at the Home Office is happy to spread the message that forriners is bad.

07 December 2010

Ur Bubles

Surprisingly, these people appear to have tiresome crooner Michael Buble and his family coming to dinner. I don't think they'll go a second time if a ready meal is all they get.

And on the subject of spelling here's a flyer that came through my door recently. I'm currently reading Dostoevsky's Бесы, translated by Pevear and Volohkonsky as Demons. When Constance Garnett translated it, she called it The Possessed. Critics have always questioned that decision, but it could have been worse.

24 November 2010

The war on motorists

As Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Littlejohn would no doubt tell you, speed cameras are part of the war on motorists, a cynical money-making scheme completely unrelated to road safety. So any reports saying the opposite must come from some tree-hugging, sandal-wearing cyclists, yes?

I'm not sure what the RAC Foundation does, but it's just published a report saying in effect that speed cameras save around 800 lives a year, and don't raise a lot of revenue for central or local government. But what do they know? And why should we take the word of an emeritus professor of transport studies?

Fellow loonies the AA have said much the same thing.

With supposed friends ganging up like this, who's going to support the beleaguered motorists? The Daily Mail, of course. I've done the research so you don't have to. It has quite rightly completely ignored these two reports, once again refusing to cloud the pure waters of prejudice with the bile of information.

23 November 2010

Charl'n 1 Brizzle Rovers 1

I hate it when I do consecutive posts about Charlton. Although I'm grateful for the fact that my Charlton posts attract other addicks to the other posts, this isn't a football blog. It's just that I don't do many other interesting things to blog about. If I had an Old Vic season ticket, this blog would be full of play reviews. Actually, that'd probably alienate more people, especially if the reviews were about Brecht. But during the non-summer months Charlton is a regular feature in my life and so it turns up here with dull regularity.

An odd game tonight. Bristol Rovers were really poor, lacking skill, enterprise or industry. So why did they manage to take the lead? We could blame their brilliant goalkeeper, but goalkeepers' raison d'etre is to be brilliant. Rob Elliot's done the same job for Charlton often enough. The referee? Useless, naturally, but I'd have to say he was even-handed in his uselessness. The usual suspect is Charlton's defence, and they're about as innocent as  O J Simpson.

But also tiredness, I think. In the second half Charlton looked lacklustre. They just weren't trying. Some of the ennui that we saw against Barnet was there, but couldn't be blamed on the flat atmosphere. Rovers' goal (and maybe Akpo Sodje's arrival as a substitute) reinvigorated the team. A messy goal gave a result that was fair.

In the third division, and in two cup competitions, there are a lot of games. Even as a fan, I feel tired after three games in ten days. I hope the team has the day off tomorrow. That's what I'll be doing.

20 November 2010

Charlton 3 Yeovil 2

This, on the other hand, was a thoroughly enjoyable match, in spite of almost everything. Main problem was that Charlton weren't very good, while Yeovil were much better than anyone expected. Another appalling refereeing display could have ruined the match, with numerous dodgy decisions and a generally obstructive approach to any football, but in the end it probably turned the game in Charlton's favour.

Yeovil chose to attack the south end in the first half, and it soon was clear that they intended to press for an early goal. They were lively and fast, and didn't deserve to be behind after 10 minutes, when Johnnie Jackson scored. They weren't behind for long, scoring a horribly easy goal through a stationary Charlton defence. Therry Racon restored the lead with a well-taken shot before half time.

In the second half they again exerted more pressure. One of the ref's dodgy decisions gave Yeovil a free kick just outside the penalty area. It shouldn't have caused any trouble but Gary Doherty managed to score an own-goal.

Yeovil then were clearly in the ascendant until Christian Dailly was sent off. A hotly contested decision. Apparently the ref thought he had raised his elbow. I didn't see it, but it was on the far side of the pitch.

Reduced to 10, Charlton actually started playing with new enthusiasm, and on one of the attacks, Paul Huntington pulled down Akpo Sodje who was clear on goal. It was a clear red card and penalty, which Johnnie Jackson converted, making him the top-scorer. Although Yeovil never gave up, they had by now lost most of their early threat and Charlton saw the game out for a win that was all the more enjoyable for being so unexpected.

18 November 2010

The curse of a literal mind (2)

Our dear mayor, doing something sensible for once and not giving even more subsidy to riverbus services, has apparently said
There is a limit to the amount of taxpayers money that you can pour into the River Thames.
Only if you use coins, though.  Notes and cheques would surely wash away eventually.

16 November 2010

Charlton 1 Unlucky Barnet 0

Really didn't enjoy this game. With the North Stand closed and a less than 5000 crowd, there was a terrible atmosphere, and the small but noisy bunch of Barnet supporters won the battle of song.

And their team should have won the match. But for some wonderful saves from Rob Elliot, they would have.  A super goal from Kyel Reid turned out to be enough, but the second half was painful. This wasn't the same team that triumphed at Peterborough, and that's my comfort: they didn't fit together well, that's all, and Saturday's team against Yeovil will be the team that was the team.

Meanwhile tonight, the headline on BBC Football is "Scotland overpower Faroe Islands". Is that really the extent of Scotland's ambitions these days?

13 November 2010

The curse of a literal mind

It's probably a very mild form of autism, but I have a very literal mind. This picture, from an Aldi mail-out, causes me almost physical pain. I suppose this is what people with perfect pitch feel when they hear a note played slightly flat, or what everyone feels when they watch the Xfactor.

So when the Guardian says today that "Lionel Blue started life as a bitter, angry, Marxist atheist" I can't help thinking he was a very precocious baby.

And in another story, about a Hindu dairy farm, a photo caption says the farm's cows "retire from milk-making at 15 to concentrate on fertiliser production." I think I know what that means.

09 November 2010

Early morning evangelism

Every morning from 5 on Premier Christian Radio you can, if you're insomniac like I sometimes am, hear two hours of four of America's finest evangelical protestant preachers. You can learn some amazing things. Just this morning one of the preachers made the clear point that "there is no evidence that humans evolve into angels". He was arguing against "angelmania" - a growing body of belief in USA that angels are everywhere, acting on our behalf. It was good to know that there are some beliefs that are too crazy for him to believe. Of course, he means something special by "evidence" - he means there is no biblical authority for this view. All these guys generally believe that the bible is the word of God, to be understood literally.

Or do they? Another of the preachers, Pastor Chuck, fielded a listener's enquiry. In Ecclesiastes it says the earth will endure forever, whereas somewhere in the New Testament it's clearly stated that God will create a new earth and heaven. Which one is true? Pastor Chuck audibly wriggled, and said that Ecclesiastes must be understood figuratively. Uh-oh. I foresee he might have trouble renewing his fundamentalist library ticket.

One unexpected effect of my early morning listening has been to conclude that Catholicism is prettier than Protestantism. Protestantism relies on two basic tenets: sola scriptura and sola fide. The first means that only scripture gives God's word (so any later prophets are false), and the second means that only faith can bring salvation. The first tenet runs into trouble when you find contradictions like Pastor Chuck's example. I don't deny that one of the statements might be meant to be understood figuratively, but who decides?

But it's the second tenet that's more problematic, and makes protestantism seem ugly. Catholicism, by contrast, stresses the value of good works, and so addresses people's relations with each other. These dawn-chorus preachers only address people's relations with God. So it's wrong to be gay, not because you're corrupting someone else but because you're betraying God's intention for you. Salvation depends just on your faith. Everyone is a sinner, no-one deserves grace, but a sincere faith wipes away the sin. Belief, for these protestants, is quite plainly a means to be saved, which actually comes to sound quite selfish. It's never suggested that belief should change your behaviour towards other people. There is no mention, ever, of charity, for example.

I can't see the point of a religion that doesn't attempt to make people act better towards each other. For all its faults, Catholicism seems much more concerned with this than the kind of Protestantism I hear these early mornings.

30 October 2010

Charlton 1 Sheffield Wednesday 0

A very encouraging performance. Or it would be encouraging if it was a normal team. A team that has some degree of consistency, which builds on its successes. So far this season, Charlton aren't that team. But I certainly feel a lot better than I did this time two weeks ago.

What's working now? Some players seem to be getting steadily better. Prime example is Paul Benson. In his first few games he looked like one of the many forwards who've failed at Charlton. Maybe he wasn't quite fit, or maybe it was lack of confidence, but he's a different player now.

In midfield today we saw Semedo and Racon playing more creatively than they have for a while. In recent games they've tended to merge into the back line, which actually weakens the defence by making it too square, while also making it more likely that the team will use the long ball to try to get the ball forwards.  Racon had the best game I've seen him play for ages - really getting involved and often finding the right pass to turn on an attack.

Wednesday were pretty mediocre, really, and any chances they had tended to come from some sloppy defending. Their keeper was Charlton oldboy, Nicky Weaver, who never really won the hearts of the fans. He looks slimmer these days, and was responsible for three or four brilliant saves.

The third division is stupidly tight, and this win put Charlton into a play-off place. Considering how badly they've played at times this season, that's almost incredible.

28 October 2010

Bad shopfronts

Now that I'm out and about a bit, I might try going with the theme of Bad Shopfronts, and to give you an idea of what I mean by that, here's my picture, taken from a bus, of a shop in Camberwell.

I've no idea if it's a good shop or not, and I do like the way they've got a ramp at the entrance, but that signage is just hilarious. Obviously, only primary schools should be allowed to use comic sans anyway, but the construction of the sign says "Amateurish" rather than "Basic". Then the carefully colour-matched "HEALTH FOOD" in chubby letters that suggest a Victorian concept where healthy=fat.

I'm sure there's loads of examples out there, and as usual, I'll be happy to feature any examples my dear readers like to send in.

27 October 2010

Return of the shopping list

I'm sorry I've not featured any shopping lists for a while. Two main reasons: they do seem to be much rarer than they used to be; and my printer/scanner has packed up. I could photograph the lists in situ on the trolleys but that would be even more bizarre behaviour than furtively slipping them into a pocket.

Thankfully, Clive has sent me the list you see here. He comments: "Seemed daft printing out a list and then just buying a few items including hard tomatoes." But let's apply those failing powers of investigation. This list was printed on the back of a letter to someone at the Darby & Joan club so my guess is that this is a kind of checklist for people - volunteeers - who do shopping for Darby or Joan.

The letter includes banking details for a local choir, which I have sold to a friend of mine in West Africa. (He's the nephew of the former minister of defence.)

19 October 2010

Snappy title still being focus-grouped

You'd be surprised how many people have asked me How's the cycling going? Nevertheless, here's an update.

Just so you know the background, I used to be a really committed cyclist. I've cycled from Land's End to John O'Groats, I'll have you know, and from Dieppe to Paris. But for some reason I stopped cycling about 15 or 20 years ago. As time went on, I began to think I'd never have the legs or the nerve to cycle, especially in London, again.

But I honestly think the streets are kinder for cyclists now. There's more traffic, certainly, and there aren't any quiet backstreets any more. What on earth do people find to do that keeps them driving along dozy residential avenues at all times of day? But there are more cycle lanes around, and even if they aren't always directly useful, they are an emblem that gives cyclists confidence and gives drivers a reminder. There's much more use of shared space with pedestrians, and a feeling that cyclists aren't actually a threat.

The best thing that's happened, speaking locally, is the Waterlink Way. It's a network of paths, tracks and cycle routes that lies alongside the Ravensbourne system. Just 100m from my house I can be on a path that can take me to Beckenham or Deptford in relatively car-free safety. The Ravensbourne system is one of the few London rivers to run on the surface, and it's been extensively remodelled in recent years to give it a more natural appearance.

North of Lewisham Station, redevelopment has been designed so that there are segregated cycle routes. This means that the route from Lewisham to Deptford, passing through Brookmill Park, is one of the nicest parts.

Yet it's not all perfect. My local Tesco's, for example, is the perfect cycling distance away, and if I wanted to pop out and get something in the evening, it would be ideal. But its cycle racks are tucked away in a dark corner, unsupervised. I'm not going to use those. On the other hand, if you're cycling you're more likely to use small local shops, where you can leave the bike outside for the few minutes you're inside. That's a good thing.

Every shopping parade in Lewisham seems to have good cycle racks outside. Petts Wood, though, where I was this morning, is rubbish for this.

Physically, it's still a challenge. Relatively gentle hills can defeat me, and these old muscles of mine are taking a long time to get the strength back. But it will happen.

And winter's coming. So far, autumn's been gentle, and I've been able to cycle a bit almost every day. In the wind and the rain of November, it might not be so great. 

16 October 2010

Charlton 0 Brighton 3

The fourth goal doesn't count because I, like many others, had left by then. Three-nil's bad enough, isn't it?

Trying to be positive, Brighton were excellent. They played a neat, patient passing game, with some exquisite crosses. Gus Poyet has clearly got them well-drilled and organised, and they thoroughly deserve to be top of the table. They are a template of what a third division team can be, with presumably even less resources than Charlton. They haven't even got a proper ground at the moment.

It's hard to be positive about Charlton. They weren't as bad in the first half as they were in the second. That's about it. Oh, here's another thing: because they had clearly lost by 4:40 I was able to get a much earlier train home than usual (so I'm currently watching someone else bumbling around and falling over a lot. Norman Wisdom, but I've never found him funny either).

You'd hope Charlton would look at Brighton and learn something. You'd hope so, but not with much conviction. They don't seem capable of learning anything this season, from either wins (where the lesson is, keep doing that) or defeats (which ought to suggest you need to do something different).

(Stanley Unwin has now turned up in the Norman Wisdom film, talking his brand of gibberish. It's like one of Alan Pardew's post-match press conferences. Sounds like language but doesn't quite mean anything.)

Inevitably, there will be calls to sack the manager. I suspect that's financially impossible, so we'll just have to get used to a season of underperformance, and the financial disaster that another season in this division will be. All we have is a choice of flavour of financial disaster. Told you it was hard to be positive.

08 October 2010


Something I never thought I'd say: BBC3 has some of the best programmes on television. Something I thought I'd never do: last night I watched BBC3 for two solid hours without wanting to exterminate all young people and all tv executives who think they have the attention span of a goldfish who's watched too much Friends.

The first programme was Are You Fitter Than A Pensioner? It's pretty formulaic and describing it makes it sound like the usual patronising tosh. Four young unfit Brits are taken to America where they spend a week in the company of elderly fitness freaks. At the end of the week, they must face the Americans in some sporting competition, and they come back having learned a lot about themselves.

But it works really well. The first shocking thing is how unfit some of the young people are. Last night one of the women, whose real age is 20, was assessed of having a "fitness age" of 75. (Actually the concept of "fitness age" is a bit debatable, but let's pass on that for now - these kids are seriously unfit.) The second shocking thing is how nice they turn out to be. Most frequently they start the show as sullen lumps of resentment, but under the carpet love-bombing of the Americans (who obviously treat them as the grandchildren they'd like to see more often) they blossom into confident, determined individuals. By the end of the week they maybe haven't learned that much about themselves, except how unfit they are in years, but they have learned to take some responsibility for themselves. They also seem to gain knowledge of and respect for older people. Altogether, thoroughly heart-warming.

After that, a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a strong contender for the title of the worst place in the world. Stacey Dooley, the presenter, apparently featured in an earlier BBC3 programme investigating third world clothes production, and the encounter with children in sweatshops turned her into a campaigner for children's rights. In DRC there's a UN-assisted programme to demobilise child soldiers - children who've been kidnapped by militias, and brainwashed and dehumanised into cheap killing machines. I wouldn't go to DRC in any circumstances, but I'm a chicken, and Stacey Dooley, though the fear is obvious at times in her very expressive face, isn't. She went to a camp where the rescued boys are given rehabilitation. Part of this is drawing pictures of what they've seen and done, and acting it out, using tree-branches rather than rifles. She mentioned the difficulty of being among this group of boys, who have all killed, and probably have all raped. There was the obligatory happy story, where we saw one boy taken back to his overjoyed family, but it couldn't dispel the overall impression that DRC is hell on earth.

But again, there's a heartwarming basis to the whole thing. Before she became involved in children's rights, Stacey Dooley was obsessed by fashion. We oldies might have considered her trivial and shallow. Somehow, though, she has found this enormous courage and compassion and put it to good use. She comes across as quite naive, looking younger than her 23 years, but that's her strength: her honest, unspun reaction to the horrors she sees and hears is powerful.

BBC3 is considered a youth channel, and I'm far too old to be watching it, but I don't recall any "grown-up" channel covering this issue. Next week, Stacey is going to Cambodia, to investigate child prostitution. Obviously, I'm a little bit in love with her. But watch it, and I defy you not to love her too.

(Incidentally, the law in DRC - hell on earth, remember - prevents anyone under 18 from becoming a soldier, in militia or the regular army. Frustrated 16-year-old Congolese boys needn't worry though. Come to Britain, where it's just fine to be a soldier at that age.)

28 September 2010

Charlton 1 Pseudoclub Fakeplastics 0

I've been to Milton Keynes. It's not as bad as you think. But the best thing about MK is that it's really easy to get from there to London. A fast train service to Euston and you can rejoin civilisation. There's a decent motorway, and probably cheap coaches. So you'd expect a few more than 150 away fans to make the trip. MK Dons really are the anti-Charlton, a club with no history, no loyalty and apparently no fans. I'm really glad we beat them.

It was a rubbish match, to be honest, rescued by the first Charlton goal for Paul Benson, made by a superb cross from Kyel Reid. The team still locked shell-shocked after Saturday's debacle, but after the goal seemed more settled.

Meanwhile, in the programme, young player Yado Mambo was asked about his car. He said "I've seen a car I like, a Volvo C30, which I'd like to get some day." You can get one for about £16,000. The days of Baby Bentleys are long gone.

26 September 2010

Charlton 2 Dagenham & Redbridge 2

I don't want to go into the question of whether it was a penalty (it wasn't), but it turned the game around and it shouldn't have. D'n'R were absolutely hopeless in the first half, the worst team I've seen in ages. Charlton were playing some lovely football, although it might be symptomatic that the goal came from Llera at a set-piece.

But then that penalty - which was, to be fair, brilliantly taken - and you had to wonder what Parkinson would make of that at half time. The clear message he needed to give was that the team just needed to continue playing the way they were and goals would come. Or he could have used the obvious sense of injustice to stoke up the team. Don't know what he said, but in the second half the team looked defeatist from the start. The movement and interplay was gone. DnR began to play, when they weren't wasting time, and always looked the more likely team to score, especially with Llera having a really bad day in defence. Charlton managed to get a goal with their only real chance right at the end, then dozed off to let DnR get the equaliser that their pathetically small band of travelling fans treated like the greatest victory since General Wolfe at Quebec*.

It raises questions about Parkinson's management. How could he not prevent that total collapse in confidence? The first half showed that the players are good enough; on the whole he's assembled a good squad with negligible resources. But the failure to get them to give a consistent performance is more and more worrying.

*I visited Quebec House in Westerham this summer. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham lasted about as long as a football match, and changed North America for ever. Next time an American says "If it wasn't for us, you'd be speaking German", say "If it wasn't for us, you'd be speaking French. With an atrocious accent."

25 September 2010

All those years of education

I've got a lot of time for the Church of England. It's often attacked for wishywashyness, but isn't that preferable to hateful certainty? But, oh dear, here's what the Archbishop of Canterbury has apparently just said:
I think if I were to say my job was not to be true to myself that might suggest that my job required me to be dishonest and if that were the case then I'd be really worried. I'm not elected on a manifesto to further this agenda or that. I have to be someone who holds the reins for the whole debate. To put it very simply, there's no problem about a gay person who's a bishop. It's about the fact that there are traditionally, historically, standards that the clergy are expected to observe. So there's always a question about the personal life of the clergy.
Obviously, obviously, he's a good man trapped.

21 September 2010

Spot the difference

I don't claim to be particularly clever, but my prediction about the Kill the Pope bomb plot came true. And papers like the Express have clearly admitted they got it wrong. Another possible attack on the Pope has been uncovered as the BBC reports.

But while last time around, we almost immediately knew that the alleged plotters were Algerian, and Muslim (and let's face it, that was all we needed to know), this time there's no word on what Ms Lunney's nationality or religion might be. So far, the Mail and Express don't seem to be covering this story at all. Obviously, they're waiting to get the facts straight before they splash it on the front page. Obviously.

(Today's heavy sarcasm is brought to you by the colour red.)

18 September 2010

A prediction

Flipping through the channels last night, trying to avoid popovision, I saw both the BBC's and the ITV's reporters talking about the arrest of six street cleaners on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack against the Pope. Both of them quite carefully explored the possibility that the six might be innocent* but that the Police had to take the suspicion seriously and investigate fully.

This is somehow different from what usually happens, when the reporters talk about a sense that a major attack has been averted, a huge conspiracy revealed. It's clear what happens then: an unattributable police source leaks or briefs the reporters, so although no-one actually says these people are guilty, police and press are happy to let that impression be given.

Something of this is visible in The Sun today, which quotes a "security source" as saying "Information was given on Thursday night of alleged conversations in which the assassination of the Pope were discussed in detail." That's weak, compared to what we've seen before. (And ungrammatical - but when you combine a security source and a Sun reporter, that's the least you expect.)

I can't help thinking the "sources" are preparing the media for the news that nothing was found. Maybe some of the men will be prosecuted for immigration offences, but, I predict, that'll be it. We'll never find out what the information was, or whether the response was proportionate. Those sources will hint at what might have been, and the media will happily repeat it. What a lovely democracy we live in.

*Of course, they are innocent, you know, legally.

17 September 2010

Fighting the deficit with the aid of astrology

Astonishingly, government has ignored my earlier proposal to raise revenue through personalised NINOs and postcodes. Nevertheless, here's a new idea: get sponsorship for the signs of the Zodiac, and sell the right for companies to rename them.

Imagine how much major companies would pay to get their product names in every paper every day for a single (but huge) annual payment. The obvious buyer would be Ford - they've already got cars called Taurus and Scorpio - and they could rename each of the other signs with the names of one of their other models. For example, Capricorn could be renamed Cortina Mk II (your lucky colour is Andalusian Tan, you are sluggish in the mornings and reluctant to be turned away from your chosen path). And no-one would have to face the tired jokes that inevitably now follow the words "I'm a Virgo". To be able to say "I'm a 6-wheeled Box Transit" instead would be much easier. I feel this is a chance to bring the ancient science of astrology into the 20th century. Admittedly, it's not clear if this country owns the rights to the Zodiac, but that's a legal quibble others can settle.

If the legal difficulties prove impossible, let's just auction off the names of the months. I can see Kelloggs being interested here. February is obviously Rice Krispies month, while September, the harvest month, has to be All Bran. What do you think? Would you like your birthsign to be renamed, and if so, to what?

12 September 2010

Charlton 1 Notts County 0

This was a pretty terrible game, but maybe payback for all those games when Charlton have wasted chances and given away a late goal. Because that's exactly what County did. They had two of the worst misses you'll ever see, and a penalty saved. And the really good thing is that Lee Hughes was to blame. I hadn't picked up his back story before. He was convicted of causing death by dangerous driving and served three years in prison. While I suppose you must allow that people, even ex-convict, murdering footballers, must be allowed to work again after they've completed their sentence, you don't have to like them. And his actions in leaving the scene of the accident seem all too familiar of footballers' arrogance.

More reason to dislike him: right in front of me, early in the second half, he got a slight touch to the face from Racon, I think, and went down (a few seconds later) as if he'd been hit by Mike Tyson. It was a clear attempt to get Racon sent off. In the event, he didn't even get a yellow card. Either he had been hit, in which case Racon should have been off, or Hughes was faking it, in which case he should have been booked. But another in the stream of useless third division refs did neither.

An 85th minute goal from Anyinsah, in his first match for Charlton, and in Charlton's first real chance of the afternoon, nicked the points. County will feel robbed, but as we know all too well, when you get chances you have to take them (acknowledgment due to Motty's Big Book of Football Clichés).

08 September 2010

Two wheels good ...

A couple of weeks ago, I took my first ride on one of the hire bikes in London. (They're often called "Boris Bikes" but can't we anticipate the next mayoral election and call them "Oona Cycles" instead?) It was just a short ride, from Waterloo to Pimlico, on a heavy bike, but in that half hour I rediscovered the joy of cycling. Which is simply this: every so often, you get to freewheel down a hill with the wind blowing through your scalp. And there's that sense of freedom, much more than you get in a car: the ability to venture down any sidestreet and discover something you've never seen before.

It was obvious I was going to get a bike of my own before too long, and today was that day. Just around the corner from me, there's a long-established bike shop astonishingly still thriving, it seems, as a family business, with a website you could consider as charming or amateurish according to your taste.

But you just know it's the kind of place you can go to and say Tell me what kind of bike should I buy? and they'll sort it out.

I knew I wanted a folding bike. Actually, that had been a hard decision. Folding bikes are always compromises. But when I last had a bike, it got to be quite a nuisance, dragging it though the house to the backyard. And obviously the key advantage of a foldie is that you can easily take it on a train or put it in the car. When I last had a bike, I didn't seem to mind cycling through miles of suburb to reach country lanes. I don't think I want to do that now. I also wanted a rack: this bike has to get me to shops and back, cutting out unnecessary car trips.

I had looked at the charming/amateurish website and seen that Dahon seemed a decent brand. This morning, I got a letter confirming that my mortgage endowment, which will mature next month, will give me a tasty cashback, so I felt rich and went to the shop.

The brilliant assistant listened to my requirements, and then said that a Ridgeback Envoy was essentially a Dahon machine assembled by Ridgeback, and was £40 cheaper. And although I guess Dahon is a cooler name than Ridgeback (which I associate with dodgy mountain bikes and hybrids) I couldn't see any reason to go for the more expensive option.

Final good omen: while I was in the shop my neighbour Steve, with whom I forged a bond when he was painting my kitchen and I discovered he's an addick, came in; turns out he's working there three days a week. 

I had expected to have to order a bike, but they had it in stock. I had expected to have to wait a day for it to be assembled and checked out, but they did it while I waited. Within an hour, I left the shop £500 lighter but with a bike, lights, helmet and lock - all I need to get started.

I was shaking with excitement when I got home! (I had wheeled the bike back, so trembly was I.) I had to calm myself down by eating (well, it was lunchtime). At 3pm I went for my first ride on a bike of my own for maybe, at least, 15 years.

Catford is a flat area, which is fortunate. The few small hills I climbed were a real challenge to my unaccustomed muscles. So I did little more than cycle down to the local Sainsbury's and back. Yes, it was fun, but harder than I'd expected. I'd never have got so sweaty 15 or was it more years ago. But I know it'll get easier.

It's a mad time of year to buy a bike. Just after I got in, the sky darkened and it poured down for an hour. But it's a good time of life to buy a bike. I don't need to cycle at all, so I can choose my times. In half an hour on a train I can be in the North Downs, or better still beyond them, in the cyclist-friendlier Weald.

Everything's great, then? Not quite. In my time in the bike shop I fell in love again with bicycle parts. This is a strange perversion, but it hits lots of people. Once you've got a bike, there's always modifications you can make, something you can change. Slippier tyres, a sexier saddle. I can see myself being drawn into that, and by next spring, if I haven't bought a lighter, whippier bike, I'll be quite surprised.

But yeah, right now, everything's great.

21 August 2010

Charlton 1 Oldham 1

I suppose everybody has things they'd change about football, to make it a better experience. One thing I'd change is I'd let free kicks for offside be direct. Offside kicks are always going to be in your own half of the pitch so if you're able to score from one you definitely deserve it. It would just stop refs having to run around with their hand in the air for a bit. I believe in being nice to referees, you see. Even the clowns in the third division.

Here's another thing I'd change. When highlights are shown on television, you should be given some idea of how much time has elapsed, how much is remaining. You really can't understand what's going on otherwise. If a team is resolutely defensive and wasting all the time they can, is it because there's only five minutes for them to hang on, or is because they're Oldham? (I know that's not fair - Oldham today were much more adventurous than last year's team, and it wouldn't have been surprising if they'd won.) But this struck me today because on the way to the match my phone decided it was exhausted. I don't have a watch, and the big screen's no longer working. So I didn't always know how much time was passing. Today's game, then, if not classic, was at least timeless.

The game wasn't great, but it wasn't bad. In the second half it became very open. Charlton were less organised than usual in defence, with Semedo and Dailly both suspended, but Miguel Llera put in a good performance. I'd have been happier if Solly had been playing.

One thing I wouldn't change, I think, is how offsides are decided. These days, it's almost entirely the lino's decision. He not only decides if the player is in an offside position, but also whether he's interfering with play. So this means he won't raise his flag until the offside player has done something that might take advantage of the position. So many of the crowd around me don't understand this, and have a go at the lino for being "slow". I think they still expect the lino to flag the offside position and the ref to decide if the player's actively involved. And that doesn't happen anymore.

The new season has brought a few new faces to the seats around me. The very old guy who used to sit next to me has gone somewhere else, and there's now a fairly young family group there. In front of me there's an amusingly angry man (who doesn't understand how offside decisions are made, for example). I hope I'll continue to find him amusing as the season progresses.

Having no phone meant I couldn't follow or make any tweets. Two years ago, that sentence wouldn't have made much sense. Now, twitter is a central part of my #cafc life. And I missed it more than the scoreboard!

15 August 2010

Danton's Death

It took only six minutes for me to know I wouldn't like this play. And four of those minutes came at the end.

The first two minutes set the tone. A bare stage, suddenly inhabited by a gang of French revolutionaries, who happily brought their own furniture with them, who then began debating the course the revolution should take. In Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom, there's a bit where the action stops, and all the characters discuss the merits of collective farming vs private ownership. It led some wags to coin the phrase Homage to Catatonia. The first two minutes was like that and I knew I wouldn't enjoy it. Danton made some political points, and his mates started cheering and waving their fists like extras in a bad play. Oh. That's not a good sign, is it?

What's wrong with this play? It's so wordy, for a start. It's of its time, I suppose, but you can't put on a production of a play like this without acknowledging the wordiness of the text. Some brecthianism would have been a relief. For example, we need to feel the strangeness of the didacticism, to have that isolated from the (possibly moving) personal romance. I understand Howard Brenton signficantly cut the length of the play in preparing his "version". I hate to think what he cut out. Either it was even more of the political and moral discussion (god help us), or maybe it was some action that would have embodied the debates. In what was left, there was very little dramatisation of the debate. We rely on what the characters tell us, not what they do.

There's a personal story too. This is about the contrast between the sensuous, venal Danton, and the buttoned-up, severe Robespierre. This is embodied a little in the characterisations, but again we mainly know about their respective characters because they and others tell us about them. Elliott Levey's portrayal of Robespierre has gained some praise for its psychological insight, but actually I found it tricksy, based in the legs, not the head.

And the last four minutes. Danton, not to spoil this any more than a basic knowledge of history or a basic reading of the name of the play would reveal, dies. He's guillotined. The illusion of the guillotine is very impressive. How did they do that? How? But if your abiding memory of a play is a special effect, what does that tell you? What?

 What do the critics say? According to the National Theatre's website, they've been effusive.

Once again, I turn to Charles Spencer, in the Telegraph. He gave it four stars, and his review is worth reading for the background it gives to the play's writing. But here's the final paragraph of his review:
Young and radical though he was, Buchner had clearly realised that the road to hell is often paved with idealistic intentions.
I'm spotting a theme here. Spencer likes to end his reviews with a vacuous cliché.

Michael Billington suggests that Brenton's version has cut out a lot of the human. He summarises the production as "perfectly respectable" (three stars), but he's not really enthusiastic. The comments on his review gradually get worse.

In the Independent, Paul Taylor gives 4 stars, and calls it "absorbing", while Kate Bassett, in the Independent on Sunday, rightly describes it as "unengaging".

So, it's true, most critics liked it. What's wrong with them? These are people who see loads of plays, and know what it's like to be engaged and moved by an unfolding drama. This was nothing like that. The performance lasted just under two hours, with no interval. If there had been an interval, I'd have left during it, and I never do that.

It's the only really bad production I've seen at the National - even debatable ones like Women Beware Women had more basic life and interest in them than this - so I suppose everyone's allowed to get it wrong now and again. I do feel let down by the critics, though,

09 August 2010

Back in Andover

Another list from Andrew, who comments:

It appears to be into groups - by store area? -- but why have the apricots escaped?
The curious entry is 'Phone library'. Curious because it appears on a shopping list and also because the Andover library is 30 meters from Waitrose so why could the shopper not pop in. If the library was closed then why note down having to phone the library (the book needs renewing) but then leave the list behind? Another library perhaps - but why mention it on the shopping list.
Local knowledge can sometimes only add to the mystery.

Incidentally, I've found another blog that collects and displays shopping lists. I think it must be run by Gillian McKeith, the well-known non-doctor, since it speculates in a quite vulgar way on the effects of the shopping on the buyer's eliminatory output. I left a message of welcome, but she hasn't replied, so I'm not linking to the pinched-face charlatan.

08 August 2010

Charlton 1 Bournemouth 0

First game of the season brought a satisfactory win on a warm but quite rainy afternoon against a limited-looking Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic*.

There have been so many squad changes over the summer, it was hard to recognise the team, and the squad, as shown in the programme, is now the smallest I've ever seen at Charlton. The handbook part of the programme enables you to calculate that the total cost of the squad, at the time of printing, was £35,000, plus Therry Racon, whose price I would give if I could find the euro on this keyboard. The rest is free transfers plus an impressive line-up of youth products.

You could go, oh woe! what's become of us?, but in many ways I prefer this. Some of the big expensive names we've had in recent years have been big expensive chancers, with egos and, in one case**, a backside, to match. (I should also say that some signings have been made since the programme was printed.)

And although it was a scrappy game, I did at least think the players all seemed to know each other and get on. This would be important in defence, particularly in the second half after Semedo had got a straight red. I didn't see what happened, and haven't yet seen it on telly, but the ref did enough to convince me he was probably wrong. He usually was.

One of the youth products, Chris Solly, was probably man of the match. One thing that stood out was his ability to outjump taller players - reminiscent of Chris Perry, I thought. On the first half performance, I'd have thought Kyel Reid would be the star, but with more concentration on defence in the second half, he wasn't so prominent. His contribution to the goal, though, suggested that if he gets really settled he'll be tearing third division defences apart***.

The crowd was a very healthy 16,000 ish, although that no doubt included some holidaying season ticket holders, and the feeling remained positive throughout. Maybe expectations are lower this season. Maybe, let's hope so, there'll be more patience. I ended the day feeling good about the coming season.

* You shouldn't be allowed to call your team AFC anything unless you're in the Premier League. Or Spanish.
** Discretion forbids me from naming the fat-arsed fool. I'm sure you know who I mean.
*** Yes, I know I said this about Lloyd Sam last year.

06 August 2010

Welcome to Thebes (2)

I went to see Welcome to Thebes for the second time last night. I enjoyed it even more, but in an interestingly different way. All through the first half I found I had tears in my eyes as I fought back the knowledge of what was going to happen in the second half. And of course there were things I saw that I had not quite seen the first time around like, ironically, and as if to prove I'm an idiot, the importance of blindness as a motif.

Before this visit I'd read a few reviews. They generally aren't very good (ie well argued and written) even when they're very good (ie favourable).

The worst I saw was Charles Spencer in the TelegraphHere's the worst paragraph:

There are some wearying “comic” touches, in which an armed militia threaten the audience with automatic weapons to persuade us to turn off our mobile phones, and a manifest determination to give most of the male characters a good kick in the groin, the hallmark of so many feminist writers. Ignoring the evidence of say, Medea and Winnie Mandela, Buffini gives the impression that she believes both ancient Greece and modern Africa would be heaven on earth if only the pesky chaps hadn’t ruined it all.

The simplistic level of that understanding says more about his insecurities than the play, which isn't at all straightforward in its sexual politics. Or its political politics either.

No, actually, this is the worst paragraph, the last one:

One leaves the theatre reflecting that ancient myths still have much to tell us about our own troubled times. 

To which the only reply is "Yes - and?"

Michael Billington, in the Guardian, regrets that "much as I love the scope and ambition of Buffini's play, there runs through it an unresolved contradiction between free will and fate." This thought pervades his review. It's reminiscent of Graham Taylor's football punditry: he has one idea and everything else will demonstrate the relevance, the keystone importance, of this idea. There's a lot more going on than this, and besides, what's wrong with unresolved contradictions?

OK, both men had space limits, but both fail to convey the real complexity of the play.

But the question I'm asking myself is, should a play reveal itself completely in one viewing? It's a more difficult question than I thought, and I'll probably come back to it in the literature blog, which is looking a bit neglected lately. Of course my answer is likely to be that you shouldn't need  to see a play more than once, but you should want to.

04 August 2010

Suzannah Dunn

Can one careless word put you off a book? Looks like it.

One of the books I got at the Blackheath Book Fair was Suzannah Dunn's latest, The Confession of Katherine Howard. And today I started reading it.

I met Suzannah Dunn at the launch of Louise Doughty's first novel; they had been students together on the creative writing course at UEA. She was pretty, modest, quite shy, but chatty, and - inevitably, for she is a creative writer - I fell a bit in love with her. I've never met her since, which is fortunate because I suppose I'd have to say what I thought about her books, and the honest response would be that I pretty much hated them, although I kept on buying them. She writes beautifully, but all the early books seemed overloaded by an unresolved hostility towards mothers. Of course, I've no idea if that stemmed from anything in her life, or if it was just a theme she found too-fascinating, but every book seemed to revert to an examination of the way a mother restricted and dominated a daughter.

Also, in a more technical sense, although the writing, the sentences, were finely crafted, there was a short-breathedness about the writing on a bigger scale - too many double line-breaks, which annoyingly broke the flow of the narrative.

So, I was hoping that those two tendencies might have disappeared by now. Suzannah is writing historical fiction these days, and the change of subject may have changed the techniques. But, on the second page of the new book we get this:

Life was never so much for the young as on the day that was soon to dawn and we in the queen's retinue were so much younger than everyone else at the palace, which the king and his company had acknowledged, leaving us to our dancing.
By around eleven o'clock we were reeling. Only a handful of us remained with the queen, having retreated to at her invitation to her gorgeous private chamber, where we reclined on cushions around her vast, gold-canopied chair.

Can you see my problem? It's not that first line, with its awkward run of monosyllables. I can take that as a kind of emblem of naivety in the narrator. It's that word "reeling", and the ambiguity of it: does it mean that they were still dancing (reels) or staggering tiredly? The context shows it means the latter, so it looks as if this might be a joke (at 8 we were dancing; by 11 we were reeling) but I don't think it is. I think it's just careless, and a competent editor should have sorted it out.

I'm probably being too picky, I know, and I should overlook this and read on, but I'm proper discouraged.

27 July 2010

Welcome to Thebes

The National Theatre exists for plays like this. A new play with a large cast, with no starring parts a celeb could slip into, doesn't have a chance of being produced anywhere else. And that's before you even think about the subject matter: a "developing" country has been devastated by civil wars, and the dominant world power has come to offer support in rebuilding, but on its own terms. It's virtually impossible to see the dominant world power as anything other than America, and the developing country actually isn't Iraq - comparisons with Sierra Leone or Liberia are more accurate. But in the play the countries are called Thebes and Athens, and the names and myths are those of Greek mythology - to take just two examples, the new leader of Thebes is called Eurydice, and one of the loose-cannon soldiers is called Megaera. This brings with it various staples of Greek drama: hubris, hamartia, peripetia, etc. It's not coach-party stuff, and there were plenty of empty seats.

But this makes it unbelievably rich in levels of meaning, especially when you add the personal conflicts between various characters, and a thread of reflection on sexual roles. And there are racial issues at play too. The Thebans are mostly black, the Athenians mostly white (although their president "first citizen", Theseus, is black).

It's probably too much for one play to handle, but it's bloody close to succeeding. It has good jokes, which might surprise you. The one that got the biggest laugh was the most obvious, though: Oedipus (father and brother of two of characters) is described as a real motherfucker.

Actually, there was so much in it, I don't think I'm equipped to talk about it much more. I think I'll see it again.

Until then, let's just note that the cast was the blackest I've seen in an NT production. It wasn't colour-blind casting by any means, but subtle in the way it played on expectations. Presumably as a result the audience was noticeably blacker than usual, and I felt there was some sense among the black audience of delight at seeing so many black faces on the stage. Biggest applause went to Madeline Appiah, as Megaera, for a brilliantly fierce performance, but performances all round were excellent.

25 July 2010

Don't even ask me to try to spell prawn cocktail

The best of a set of four from Clive.

24 July 2010


Two questionable assumptions, and one certainty:

1. When people write out shopping lists, the aim is to be helpful to themselves.

2. Paper-rationing ended sometime in the 1950s.

3. I don't want these people to invite me to dinner.

21 July 2010

Where's mad Mel when you need her?

This story reported in the Guardian touches a few hot topics, doesn't it?
Sabbar Kashur, 30, was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Monday after the court ruled that he was guilty of rape by deception. According to the complaint filed by the woman with the Jerusalem district court, the two met in downtown Jerusalem in September 2008 where Kashur, an Arab from East Jerusalem, introduced himself as a Jewish bachelor seeking a serious relationship. The two then had consensual sex in a nearby building before Kashur left.
When she later found out that he was not Jewish but an Arab, she filed a criminal complaint for rape and indecent assault.
Normally, of course, I'd say that a woman's character and history aren't relevant when you're looking at a rape allegation. But she doesn't seem very nice, does she? Let's ignore the possibility that she's simply a racist bigot, whose racism is endorsed by a racist judicary, and look at whether Kashur deceived her by promising to be looking for a serious relationship. It looks as if they had sex on their first meeting, and that's fine, but it's not necessarily the basis for a serious relationship. Imagine if she had accused him of rape by deception because "he said he loved me". Can't see that prosecution succeeding, can you? Or if he had been married, and lied about it. Or if he'd claimed to be richer than he is? These are things that happen all the time, and deplorable as they may be, don't amount to rape. Women know that men will tell lies in exchange for sex.

It seems as if Kashur's crime was to lie about his race. If the woman had known he was an Arab, she'd have found it impossible to have a serious relationship with him, or even to have casual sex with him. As I say, she doesn't sound very nice.

But I won't know what I really think about this case until I've seen Melanie Phillips' opinion. She's my infallible compass in the moral maze. Whatever she says, the opposite must be true.

10 July 2010

Moob ybab

You know how, when there's a major power cut affecting a big city, people always expect a mini baby-boom nine months later, after couples take advantage of the extra darkness to do the-thing-that-must-be-done-in-the-dark.

For about six weeks now, the nights in southeast England have been hot and sticky. Sleeping has been difficult. Sleeping-with hardly bears thinking about. One sweaty body in a bed is quite enough, thanks.

Does this mean there'll be a reverse baby boom nine months from now? Or are people so addicted to their filthy animal passions they'll do it whatever the discomfort?

08 July 2010

Confusing times

Once again, the coalition government has shamed Labour on a civil liberties issue. This time, the Supreme Court has found that the Borders Agency can't send gay asylum seekers back to a hostile country, with just a copy of George Michael's Guide to Acting Straight. It seems like an inevitable finding, if we accept that it is a basic human right to be openly gay. I think we pretty much accept that, don't we?

Even Theresa May, whose record on gay rights caused concern about her appointment as Home Secretary, has welcomed the finding  in a completely positive way.

I haven't dared to see what the Daily Mail makes of this. The Express has predictably splashed a scare of millions of gay darkies coming over here, drinking our brightly coloured cocktails, and the appalling folks at Migration Watch have said this is proof that the UK should set its own policies on asylum. By which they can only mean that capital punishment for sexual orientation is not as bad as capital punishment for political reasons.

Human rights codes have to be international, because national governments can't be trusted. They can pass laws that make all kinds of discrimination lawful, and only an international body, like the Council of Europe, can intervene.

Does the ruling mean there will be more successful asylum applications? Probably, but not to the extent the Express seems to believe. But that's a consequence of doing the right thing - acknowledging that persecution on grounds of sexuality is not really any different from persecution for any other reason.

And in the meantime, we need to pursue respect for human rights in those countries where homosexuality is a criminal offence or where homophobic crimes are tacitly allowed by the authorities. I think today Britain is in a better position to do that.

03 July 2010

Now I just feel stupid

The alumnus magazine of my university arrived this week. It has a crossword, which you'd expect to be hard, but here's the introduction:
Final grid entries corresponding to the asterisked clues can be paired to form anagrams of a series of names, with one missing. To achieve this solvers must change one unchecked letter in each pair of the corresponding answers, forming new words. Corrected single letter misprints in the definitions of 15 clues in order, followed by the unjumbled 3 down spell out the thematic position.
Still with us? There's more.
Half of the clued answers are to be entered in reverse and all thematic names consist of two words (one hyphenated). The missing name can be formed from the final letters in the shaded squares and this must be written below the grid. Chambers (2008)  is recommended, but only gives 10 down in conjunction with its direction. 
Closing date is September. I might have understood the instructions by then.

Meanwhile, there's been proof I'm still a swot at heart. I use the swimming pool of my old school, which means I regularly go past the sports hall. Recently it's often been set up for exams, just as it used to be when I was doing O and A levels, with rows of desks carefully spaced out to deter cheating and allow invigilation. And do you know, I find it less intimidating like that

30 June 2010

Wilts in the heat

Oh, readers, the lengths I go to for this blog. There are two versions of this story. Choose which one you believe.

I had heard there was a new branch of Waitrose opening in Melksham. I had never heard of Melksham in my life. Despite because of having the kitchen fitter in, I decided it was worth the risk of trusting him it would be better to get out of his way and leaving him to get on with it. Melksham is in Wiltshire, the far end, near Trowbridge. I knew didn't know that. After I had booked into the King's Arms which is where I always stay when I go to Melksham I was when I got tired of driving, and which happened to have a room free at reasonable cost, I read in a copy of a free local newspaper that a new branch of Waitrose had opened, and what's more that there was a £5 coupon, I made sure I knew where the new Waitrose was before I had a meal of Bangladeshi specialities at the Refa Tandoori Balti House (which clearly has a culinary identity crisis) and a modest orange juice and lemonade load of beer in the bar.

Next morning there was a huge number of shopping lists to choose from; my journey was not wasted. The store being so new, there were no shopping lists (although someone had decorated the store opening hours sign with a cock'n'balls) and here's the best of them one I picked up in Beckenham tonight. 

It's plain, but I like it. Very down to earth, but that decorated line across the bottom of the list betrays an artistic yearning, dontcha think? Very much like Melksham itself.

One final uncoloured statement: Melksham has a railway station. Four trains a day (two in each direction) stop there. Southeastern are envious; they can only dream of these levels of service.

26 June 2010

Blackheath Bookfair

I went to the Amnesty International bookfair in Blackheath today, here. Click on streetview if you dare. I know Blackheath's posh, but this is just ridiculous and beautiful. If only I'd been born into immense wealth!

The atmosphere was surprisingly unbookish, more like a jumble sale. I believe elbows were frequently employed. I got there at 9:30 but it was too late. Lucy Mangan had already decimated the shelves, and was walking around with two huge bags of books (it was thanks to a tweet from her that I remembered to go).

But I got some books that I might read some day.

José Saramago The Notebook
La Bruyere Les Caracteres
Roger Pearson Mallarmé
Marina Warner Indigo
Tony Tanner Prefaces to Shakespeare
Suzannah Dunn The Confession of Katherine Howard

All in good condition, and all for £21!

25 June 2010

Not every day's a party

Two fairly dull shopping lists today. On the left, the latest from Andrew in Andover. On the right, the unusual discovery of a list in Beckenham. I think it's fair to say the Beckenham one is the work of a woman, and quite an attractive woman at that, with a filofax. The person on the left appears to be buying "meals". Some people are easily pleased.

24 June 2010

Remember him?

While other ex-Charlton players have been lighting up our screens at the World Cup (Dennis Rommedahl, Jermaine - spit - Defoe) a vaguely familiar name turned up on the Come Dine With Me wags special. Simon Walton, of Crewe Alexandra. Remember him?

If the name was vaguely familiar, the face certainly wasn't. And here's why. In July 2006 Charlton bought him, an 18 year old, for £500,000 from Leeds, and instantly sent him out on loan to get him match experience and develop his talent. A year later he was sold to QPR for £200,000, never having played a competitive game for Charlton. Meanwhile, Charlton had changed manager twice, from Dowie via Les Reed to Alan Pardew. And had dropped out of the Premier League.

It may not have been the worst bit of business Charlton ever did, but it looks like a microcosm of those desperate times. The turnover of players was bewildering, with the only constant factor being a failure to live up to any expectations.

As for Simon Walton, his career's hardly lived up to the promise. He must have a decent agent, because Plymouth Argyle paid a club record £750,000 for him, but again he was sent out on loan to Blackpool, and then Crewe.

And you could see his career as a microcosm of what's wrong with English football. Despite being at best deeply average, he's being paid enough to keep a page 3 stunner (Nicola Tappenden) in the style to which she'd like to become accustomed. It's been suggested that the players in the England team have an inflated sense of their entitlement, and maybe his career shows how that happens.

21 June 2010

Khao niao

Another list from Andover Waitrose, thanks to Andrew. A bit of a Thai aspect to this, I think. (Incidentally, in the recent wags Come Dine with Me, one of the wags talked about "thigh food". Footballers do generally have lovely legs, so maybe she wasn't being stoopid.)

Andrew asks what sticky rice is - suggesting, perhaps, the name's a tautology. Khao niao is a variety of rice that's intended to stick together in cooking, so you can form balls of it and dip them in the coconut milk-based sauce. Often served as khao niao braon cao.

So, to analyse this list: most of it is written by the mail-order bride; her otherwise unmarriageable lump of a husband has insisted on T.bags.

Andrew also points out that I haven't blogged about the world cup. I'll just repeat a tweet I read earlier today:
This might not be seen as patriotic in some quarters, but I enjoy football matches that involve completed passes.

I'm writing this during half-time of the Portugal/North Korea game. I think it's time we stopped using the phrase "axis of evil". It's wholly inadequate to describe how loathsome Cristiano Ronaldo is.

And to make sure no-one goes home unoffended, here's a guide for the ladies to the offside rule.

18 June 2010

Situation vacant

José Saramago has died at the age of 87. In an earlier post I said he was possibly my favourite living novelist. Now he's dead I can't think of anyone to replace him, so I suppose he definitely was. I won't go into the reasons why I love his books all over again, but I am reminded of a comment I heard this morning. When atheists die, they don't get the chance to say "I told you so". But imagine there is a God. Saramago arrives in heaven and within twenty minutes he'll have convinced God of the impossibility of His existence, with catastrophic consequences for creation. Since that hasn't happened (and it's been a few hours now) I think the old commie has had the last laugh. Thanks, José, for the wisdom and humanity.

16 June 2010

Miles and miles and miles of skin

As part of my "get out of the house more" programme, I'm trying to visit one museum or gallery a week, and so this morning I've been to the Wellcome Collection to see the temporary display on Skin. It's really interesting to see the crossover between medical science and art. For me this was best illustrated by this piece:
It's "Examination" by Heather Barnett, and, sadly, seeing it onscreen doesn't do justice to the warmth and tenderness of the images. But, what's perhaps disturbing is that these photographs were staged reconstructions of illustrations from medical textbooks. It's possibly fatuous to say that context determines meaning, but this demonstrates it so clearly by removing context. All that's left is the detail of the physical contact, opening up a range of interpretations. There are better versions of these on the artist's website:

There's also a couple of pinturas de castas. I'd never heard of these before. Literally meaning paintings of castes, they were produced under the Spanish empire to classify and name the children that might result from a mixed race relationship.
Here's one (not from the display) that shows that the child of a Spanish man and a mulatta woman would be a morisco. That urge to label seems to combine outright colonialism with a (pseudo-)scientific thirst for knowledge. There's more about this on wikipedia. I'd say it seems typical of imperial Spain's obsession with limpieza de sangre, but that would be tempting fate.

Anyway, the exhibition is well worth a visit, and it's free.

15 June 2010

Fiesta in Andover

Andrew has kindly sent me this list from Waitrose in Andover.

I think these people must have a lot of bomba rice in their cupboard, and so, to celebrate the birthday of their twins (Jake and Jenny, 15), they're planning a huge paella.

With ciabatta. How unauthentic.

Incidentally, Andrew has a suggestion for a tv spin-off from these posts. TV chefs get a random list and have to devise a dish based on the ingredients.

It's close to Ready Steady Cook, but if my niece's sister-in-law is reading, Channel 5 is desperate these days.

10 June 2010

My mother's superstitions

A chance remark from my brother in law has reminded me of the bizarre range of superstitions my mum had. Right until the end of her life she could surprise us, by quoting an appropriate reaction to a given situation. Here are some that I remember:

"If you wish to live and thrive, let a spider run alive" - to this day, I can't kill a spider, and will go to enormous lengths to rescue them from the bath.

If you pour out a pot of tea that someone else has made, you'll have ginger twins. (Thinking about it, this must only apply in domestic situations.)

If you give someone a present of a purse or wallet, you should put some money it. This will mean it will never be empty.

Be careful when you're stirring food on the cooker: stir with a knife, stir up strife; stir with a handle, stir up scandal.

Never cross knives.

If the palm of your right hand is itchy, you're going to come into some money; the left hand, you're going to have to pay some out.

If you get a kind of crema on your tea, you may be coming into some money: the amount depends not on the size of the foam, but on how long it lasts.

If your ear's burning, someone's talking about you.

It's unlucky to put new shoes on a table. But I think everyone knows that.

I'm sure I've forgotten loads. Dear readers, few as you are, what superstitions did your parents have? And what's wrong with ginger twins?

07 June 2010

There's life out there! Oh, hang on a minute ...

Astonishing news in the Telegraph this morning. On Titan, a moon of Saturn, experts "have discovered that life forms have been breathing in the planet’s atmosphere and also feeding on its surface’s fuel".

That's amazing! They've really discovered life forms outside Earth! This is the biggest event in history ever! So who better to report this than Andrew Hough, who, according to the Telegraph, is "a general news reporter, who covers everything from courts and investigations to 'quirky' internet stories."

Well, at least the Telegraph links to the NASA coverage of this story, which amounts to "nah, not really".

06 June 2010

Women Beware Women

Theatre is my summer substitute for football. It gives me that same feeling of sharing experience and emotions, and the same uncertainty of outcome.

Last night was my first play of the summer: Women Beware Women at the Olivier. It's a Jacobean revenge tragedy, which means that, as the song goes, everyone ends in mincemeat. (A bit like any Millwall game.) But before that, it was quite funny. Which makes me think that it owes a lot to Blackadder. (I'm grateful to @lifeformnamedsi for planting this idea in my mind.)

Hang on a minute, you say, but surely it's the other way round. How can this play, from the 17th century, be influenced by a television comedy from the 20th century. Maybe you should phone the helpline the BBC kindly offered for people affected by the issues in this week's Doctor Who. ("Hello? Yes, I hope you can. You see, I seem to have my sense of before and after, causality and consequences, confused. And I can't sell any of my paintings. Say that again? Depression? Mental illness? No. How dare you!" Click.)

But without Blackadder I don't think the production could have been the way it was. Blackadder gave us a framework for understanding historical figures, which this production exploits. To take an example. An idiot boy, called "The Ward", is offered a young woman in marriage. As part of his examination of her suitability, he wants to know if her "underparts" are wild and hairy. Cue lots of business involving him and his servant trying to engineer a situation where they can see up her skirt. Another time he dances with his bride to be and performs a grotesque parody of sexiness.

So the first half of the play was very much in this mould. The text was spoken so that full weight was given to the obscene puns, and there was genuine laughter in the packed, sweaty theatre. In the second half, though, you have to understand the intrigue, the plots that determine who is going to kill whom and why, and that doesn't benefit from the Blackaddering. In the final scene, the director seems to have given up trying to make events clear. The Olivier revolving stage became a carousel of mayhem (and maybe we can see here influences from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. I know I can, but I can see them everywhere.) For five or ten wordless minutes there was a whirligig of stabbing, raping and poisoning. And at the end, a stage littered with bodies, and a sense of not knowing what just happened.

Not knowing what just happened isn't necessarily a bad thing of course. And you could make a case for it being of a piece with the play: events spiral out of hand in a society ungoverned by any morality. But actually that's a pretty poor resolution. It's as unsatisfactory as the superficial resolution of the play itself. The Duke's brother, a Cardinal, appears and gives the moral that without religious authority and fear of God, this is what becomes of society.

We can't take the Cardinal as the voice of truth, for historical and dramatic reasons. Historically, the role and value of a Cardinal in 1620s England would be at best ambiguous. Dramatically, he's a lightweight, and his simplistic characterisation (portrayed in his simplistic reasoning, in which human passions just don't figure) disqualifies him.

Women beware women ... A very striking feature of the play is the prominence of female characters. Three of them have an extraordinary amount of lines, and they are actively instrumental in moving on the action of the play. They either begin corrupt or become so very quickly. On the face of it, the title suggests this is a cautionary tale, but again that seems an inadequate summary.

The production's had good reviews, as far as I can see, largely because of the humour, which I shouldn't disparage. But I don't think it holds together. I think this isn't the production that will make sense of the play to a current audience, despite the help of Blackadder, David Brent and Hitchcock.