Monday, December 18, 2006

The Last Post

























I'm on holiday until

1st January 2007

Happy Christmas

and

New Year

This is going to be my last post for two weeks. I’ve decided to have a holiday along with everyone else – and I’ve run out of things to say. There are people who know me well who will doubt that this is physically possible. I just don’t want to be mean with the marmite so I’ll be putting up my ‘out of office auto reply’ and getting into some serious DVD watching and novel finishing. I’ve also got a number of books to read including The Adoption by Dave Hill.

Everything else is over for the year so I might as well be too. No Politics Show or Newsnight Review. And no more X-Factor. Leona Lewis, our 21 year old fellow Hackneyite won it in the most suspense-free forgone conclusion ever to devour cathode. Leona’s uninspiring reading of a Kelly Clarkson (??) song A Moment Like This has achieved a record for the fastest number of music downloads ever – something in the region of 50,000 in half an hour. I wasn’t one of them although I did vote for her, twice. The thought of Astro Boy’s cheeky little chappie grin springing from every possible medium like a demented jack-in-a-box was just too vile to contemplate.

One thing I’m curious about though, whenever there’s one of these voting thingies they always say you can vote via the red button on your remote control. I have five remote controls and I have pressed the red button on all of them, sometimes simultaneously, but nothing’s ever happened. Perhaps I’ve inadvertently saved a gorilla or David Gest. Actually, I’ve just realised that amounts to the same thing. I have thought about developing a basic competency re the home entertainment centre but it seems that just as I learn some of the functions of one silver box, it needs replacing with one that does something entirely different.

It’s been a very mixed year for the fortunes of Hackney. We were voted the worst place to live in the whole of Britain a few months back but we’ve also produced the X-Factor winner so we can’t be all that bad. What I can’t figure out is how someone with such obvious ability could get through a whole childhood in a borough that always seems to have about a thousand ‘initiatives’ going to discover and nurture talented young people without getting noticed. With a social worker mother and a father in youth work, you’d think Leona and destiny might have collided spectacularly at some point but this just didn’t happen.

Five or so years ago, £23m was spent on turning our main library into The Ocean Music Venue, a ‘world class’ facility with three performance spaces and rehearsal and recording studios for local young people to use. So determined were a handful of ambitious council officers to get this project off the ground, they very nearly succeeded in starving our beloved Hackney Empire into ruin by refusing funding for it. It didn’t work. The Empire was superbly refurbished and The Ocean sank into financial crisis and closed within three years without once discovering Leona Lewis or, indeed anyone at all.

Perhaps we all need a television show to help us find out where we fit into the grand plan. I am resigned to not ever locating that place. It isn’t actually a very efficient way for the world to function. It was hardly worth evolution bothering to give us all different skills and abilities if nobody’s going to find a way to utilise them. I’m sure I would have been good at something but I may never know now. Recruitment consultants are all about twelve years old and don’t seem to have the vaguest notion of what a job might entail. They tell you that you have lots of transferable skills which magically match any vacancy they happen to have on their books. It never matters because employers always pick the person whose face they find most pleasing. They don’t so much care if you can do the job or not, they just don’t want to have to rearrange all the furniture.

Hackney’s biggest claim to notoriety is still a few years off. The Olympic site is just a mere javelin throw away from me. Over the next few years the memory of money wasted on trifles like The Ocean Music Venue will disappear under the shadow of this magnificent vanity if the present levels of incompetence and maladministration are maintained. I will be long gone hopefully, to a place where although I probably won’t belong any more than I’ve belonged in Hackney, will be warm.

Today a nice man came to look at my flat. He said he liked it. I hope he’ll buy it. The sun was shining and the ducks and coots and geese were frolicking in the water below. Even they are confused by the mild weather as they seem to be fully engaged in the erstwhile spring activity of courting and sparking. You can’t even count on the seasons to behave themselves now. The flat looks rather nice when it’s clean, almost nice enough to never want to leave it, but not quite…

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Nanny McPhee State

Emma Thompson to become my first best friend. This may seem like an odd sentiment to come out of the blue like this, especially as she did make that awful film where Arnold Schwarzenegger gets pregnant, but I have a very good reason. I was sitting watching the commentary track on the Nanny McPhee DVD. I know that seems a very weird thing to be doing but you must understand that I am seasonally disorientated for reasons previously ad nauseatingly explained and I would normally be watching family DVDs with my ten year old niece at this time.

I cling to these routines for fear of sinking completely into the quicksand of despair. I need violent colours and babies being eaten and flung from catapults into boiling soup stock to keep me real. Having watched the film, I immediately wanted to see another of the dozen family films that had just arrived from Play.com but couldn’t be bothered getting up so I whizzed through the bonus menu and discovered the dialogue track with Emma and one of the producers.

There is something incredibly heartening about listening to people who know what they’re doing discussing what they've done. So many years working in local government and taking far too seriously the pronouncements of central government have gradually disacquainted me with even the possibility of situations and explanations having any degree of synergy. But there it was. Emma Thompson was hoovering one day, as you do, and came across an old favourite book entitled The Collected Tales of Nurse Matilda by Christianna Brand. Like any other person for whom hoovering is simply a trigger for a creative explosion, she kicked the off switch and sat down on her lint-specked sofa to read.

Nearly ten years later, the marvellous film Nanny McPhee resulted. There are lessons to be learned from this, not least of all that it takes rather a long time for a very good idea to set off alarm bells, even if you are a really big star who used to be married to Kenneth Branagh. One reason for this could be the time differential between London and Hollywood, or perhaps Emma’s good friend Arnie, now Governor Schwarzenegger, has had alarm clocks banned under his environmental agenda as an unacceptable noise polluter.

The film did eventually get made at just the right moment in time because it is impossible to imagine that a more divine and perfect cast and crew could ever have existed at any other time in history or that Emma herself could ever have been more hideous or beautiful throughout her long career which will obviously go on forever. But this is not why I want her to be my first best friend. My real best friend that I have had most of my life never reads this blog. This is the subject of a separate and private action and need not certain anyone else. I certainly hope I have made myself understood on this. Sorry, where was I? This early nightfall thing isn’t half distracting.

Right. Emma. My best friend. Reasons for. Here we go. During this discourse on the general marvellousness of life, Emma disclosed that she had ‘made up’ the concept of a ‘government nanny’ as one in the eye to the government of the day. Nanny McPhee arrives in the Brown household (tee hee but just a coincidence), claiming to have been sent by 'the government'. Remember this is circa 1997 when New Labour was actually still very new and she was already kicking against it. How great would it have been to be in the know then? It took a ludicrous five years for the scales to fall from my eyes. I was so thrilled to be rid of the Tories. The cheesiness of Cool Britannia notwithstanding, it was such a relief to consign Major style Victorian values to the recycle bin. Little did we know that they would return re-branded as ‘our shared values’.

I know, the point is a long time coming, even for me. Emma explained that in that early Cool Britannia phase, she received a letter from Government asking if she would become a role model. This is what she says on the DVD,

‘I said what do you mean? You don’t tell people who their role models are. You don’t say “Now you’re a role model”. That’s ridiculous’.

On the strength of that statement alone you’d want Emma as your bestest but later in the commentary she reveals such astounding insight that you wonder if you shouldn’t be urging her to enter politics. She’s talking about the people that she knows in Government who exude the rigidity of Aunty Adelaide, (one can only guess but they need to look like Angela Lansbury in a fake nose – no actually that covers most of the front bench). What Emma says about her experience of meeting people in government is illuminating,

‘It’s like they’ve never worked through any of their issues.’

That’s a wrap Em. Would you please be my first best friend now? As your friend I would advise you never to go into politics. Think of Arnie. Think of Ronnie…


Picture from the film Nanny McPhee

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Porpoise in Life

I sometimes lose heart when I hear various government ministers prattling on about young people reaching their potential and then failing to provide them with books so they can learn to read. It is very gratifying to discover from today’s Times that there is a place in the world for everyone, regardless of their physical attributes, provided someone chucks a little lateral thinking at a problem.



‘The world’s tallest man has saved the lives of two dolphins by delving into their stomachs to remove chunks of plastic that they had accidentally swallowed at their aquarium in north-eastern China', reports The Times. 'Bao Xishun, 54, a shy herdsman from Inner Mongolia, was called to the rescue after staff at the Royal Jidi Ocean World in the north-eastern Liaoning province had failed to remove the shreds of plastic using surgical instruments. Mr Bao, who at 7ft 9in is the world’s tallest man according to the 2005 Guinness World Records, stretched his bare arm into the mouth of each sick dolphin.’

It is not known how the pieces of plastic came to be in the stomachs of the dolphins but they can now munch away with impunity knowing that Mr Bao will be there to perform a quick plastiotomy. It is an interesting interpretation of ‘junk food’ but that’s dolphins for you. Such wags. Everyone is a winner in this extraordinary co-operation. By all accounts, poor Mr Bao’s potential was woefully under-utilised until he came to the notice of the Guinness people. Now, in addition to his unique calling as a dolphin stomach pump, he has acquired an active social life and a girlfriend and is well on the way to reaching the pinnacle of the Maslow pyramid.

Keeping dolphins in enclosures is cruel and unnecessary as they are really very happy to accept invitations to tea from humans in the right circumstances. I have been to Tangalooma (pictured), a tranquil point on Moreton Island off the coast of Queensland where a pod of up to twenty wild bottlenose dolphins comes into knee deep water every evening at sundown to feast on fish hand fed to them by tourists. My uncle who was stationed on Moreton during the second world war told me the tradition began then when soldiers saw dolphins hanging around and started tossing them fish scraps.

An adult male bottlenose is around ten feet long and weighs about 400 lbs yet they can swim up to you in a foot of water and pluck a herring about 6 inches long very gently from your hand. And if you speak to them by name they will make that he-he-he-he sound and smile at you. It is very charming indeed and quite makes you forget for a few minutes that you live in a world with Philip Green and Richard Branson in it.

These particular skills have proved to have a sound business application and our small pod of dolphins has created a very viable social enterprise which they sustain by apprenticing their young to it at an early age. An entire tourist industry has been built up on this unique partnership between diverse mammals. The clever dolphins have realised that the more tourists there are, the more fish there will be as every tourist gets to give them one fish. They have built up their business by being reliable and trustworthy without any sacrifice on their part. They are completely wild, living in the open sea and they know all they have to do to maintain their carefree lifestyle is to show up for work on time and with the right attitude.

If only we could be more systematic about matching people to suitable vocations. I think of how versatile the game of rugby is in offering a place to men and women of all shapes and sizes. You have the quick, slender ones who sprint up the sides and turn cartwheels when they get to the end and the brick-shaped ones who plough up the middle and flop over the lines. There are one or two with curved feet who kick the ball between two posts from all sorts of odd angles and ones with no ears and no necks who pack down in scrums and one especially tall one whose job it is to catch the ball in a line out.

I think about how irksome a task it is to work out what you are going to do with your life with virtually no help from anyone. If you manage to do that then you enter a kind of lottery to find either an institution or employer who is willing to take you and then hope they know what you need to learn and are both capable and agreeable enough to pass it on to you. No wonder more than half the people in employment in Britain hate their jobs but don’t know what else to do.

With all our sophisticated communications networks, it hardly seems right that whether you succeed or fail in life is still largely dependent on your remembering to buy a newspaper on a particular day or worse, be watching Richard & Judy at exactly the right moment. Dolphins don’t have technology, (although they apparently have very good sonar which has the same function but doesn’t break down all the time), yet they have no problem at all achieving self-fulfilment judging by their carefree dispositions and healthy work/life balance. They can even find the right humans to sort out their eating disorders. My mind is made up. In the next life, I’m coming back as a dolphin.


Tangalooma picture from www.off2tahiti.com

Friday, December 15, 2006

A Winter's Tale




















So this is what it’s like in Britain in December. Regular readers will be aware that one is normally surfing at one’s summer residence (Mum’s house) and spiritual home of Noosa Heads at this time of year but one has, shall we say a burst pipe in the cash flow system and the plumber (lottery win/book deal) failed to materialise this morning. Although I did get a delivery from Play.com so it is not entirely bleak. I now know why it is called the silly season.
I have been afflicted with what Jean Paul Sartre called ‘the gloom of things’ for some weeks now. Sartre was not generally known for his cheeriness. In fact if his glass was half full, he considered that a result, particularly if it was pastis. I have also noticed this downturn in the zeitgeist extends beyond the panty pad. People who regularly spend winter in London also seem to be experiencing it. They really should know better, or at the very least, should have had the decency to warn me.
It is very dark a lot of the time. I had heard this but who could possibly believe night could have completed its descent by 3pm? There are reports today that this is the warmest December ever on record. How can cold ever be described as warm, or even mild? It is dim, dank and miserable. End of. I now understand why Christmas is so important in the northern hemisphere and the reason for all that illumination. Lights in trees are the only thing standing between you and suicidal despair. Even minced pies and mulled wine are starting to make a sort of vague sense.
I never understood the wind chill factor, that phenomenon that ‘makes it feel colder than it actually is.’ How is that possible? It is as cold as it actually is surely. If the wind chill factor were a genuine thing, then it would work in reverse but you never hear anyone say of the Sirocco for example, it will feel hotter than it actually is now do you? Another meteorological incidence that has no converse is humidity which only seems to be a factor in hotness. The amount of humidity is a contributory factor in the unbearableness of heat but not of cold. Yet, clearly, damp is a form of humidity which makes the occurrence of coldness feel that much worst. It’s a mystery.
Another puzzle that refuses to be solved despite unprecedented efforts across two nations over nearly ten years is the conundrum of Princess Diana’s demise. A report released today concludes that she was killed in a car accident. You don’t say. There seems little scope now for incorporation into a Spooks storyline for the next series but that is unlikely to dampen the enthusiasm for conspiracy theorists proposing that the Duke of Edinburgh, MIs 5 and 6, the CIA and various secret services that no one knew about because they were that secret murdered the princess.
Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed persists in his belief that Diana was killed because she was about to marry his son Dodi, who was a Muslim. It is rather a shame that this event didn’t come to pass as having a Muslim in the royal family might have contributed significantly to what the Government likes to call ‘community cohesion’. Mr Al-Fayed may even have retrieved his royal appointment for Harrods. Quite a bit of family counselling would probably have been involved. Or, more likely, they would have been the chav family from hell. One can only imagine the nightmare scenario if the Child Support Agency had had to get involved. Prince Phillip would’ve needed a restraining order for his tongue lest he fell foul of hate crime legislation and it’s a dead cert that Diana would have become first best friends with the Beckhams.
But it didn’t happen that way and it cost £3.6 million to find out what we have all known all along. A massive simulator had to be built to prove that you can’t stage a car accident on a completely unplanned journey in a car you didn’t even know was going to be used. Officers had to traverse the world over a three year period re-interviewing hundreds of people about something that happened up to nine years ago. Not that the officers minded that probably. I don’t suppose the head of the inquiry former Met Commissioner Lord Stevens minded getting a fat post-retirement consultancy fee either. All because no one has the guts to stand up to one sad, mad old man who unfortunately lost his son in an accident.
Since I’ve developed such a taste for maths I thought I’d do some to see if I could find some alternative uses for the £3.6m that might have pleased Diana and this is what I came up with.
1) 4.5m school dinners.
2) Medication for 1m children with HIV/AIDS in Africa for a year.
3) 500 annual childcare places.
4) Annual salary for 150 youth workers.
5) One youth centre or hostel for the homeless.
The day hasn’t been totally without joy. Tony ‘Blah Blah’ Blair has been interviewed by police over the ‘loans for honours’ business. He is the first prime minister this has ever happened to. Blah Blah is now ‘known to police’. I certainly hope they’ve placed him on an Acceptable Behaviour Contract. Pleasing as it all is, I would rather be surfing. I have just one more question. Why is it the season to be jolly exactly?

View from my bedroom window on a shuddery winter dawn by me

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Naval Gazing

I know what it’s like to be skint, more now than at any time in the last ten years. I recently made quite possibly the worst decision of my life – to concentrate on writing to the exclusion of everything else in the tiny hope that it will reward me with a future. My savings are due to run out in about March so it would be handy if I reached the top of someone’s slush pile by then and that coincided with a rare ‘what-the-hell-I’m-in-a-generous-mood’ moment on their part. I have realised that it is my only hope because I cannot do anything else. My fallback position is politics, the place people go when they can’t do anything at all.

Previously I have revealed how I spend my precious spare moments doing the Government’s maths. I understand no one in Government has time to fiddle with percentages and the like but it might be useful if ministers occasionally reached for a calculator before signing off policies that affect the amount of money each of us poor folk has to spend.

Here we are, two weeks before Christmas and a giant boo-boo on the part of Navy administrators has resulted in Royal Marines serving on the front line in Afghanistan having up to £3,000 deducted from their wages, according to today’s Telegraph. What with the Farepack scandal and Grinch councils refusing to decorate trees and staging nativity plays with casts of Barbie dolls enjoying beach parties, one might speculate that there is a conspiracy afoot to wreck Christmas forever.

Some weeks ago, the Government announced generous bonuses for our armed forces serving long tours of duty in interventions that unexpectedly turned into prolonged conflicts. This seemed like a decent consolation for guns that don’t fire properly and jeeps that break down in the middle of an ambush. For a government that’s not very good at maths, they don’t half make things difficult for themselves by inventing complex and protracted systems for getting money to people. As always, getting a fix on what has actually happened is no easy matter but reading between the lines, it seems that someone at the Ministry of Defence jumped the gun and sent individual soldiers letters with actual figures on them.

In any other context promising people money may be considered a type of contract along the we agree to pay you lines. If you are the Government however, you can always pretend it didn’t happen. Whilst wishing to support his troops and manage the huge fallout that has caused a nosedive in morale, Vice Admiral Adrian Johns, the Second Sea Lord (no.. he really is called that), stopped short of an admission of error on the Navy's part in a letter to senior officers. This from The Telegraph who obtained a copy of that letter,

'Due to the complexity of new pay regulations and a "misinterpretation" of the rules, some personnel had been under an "erroneous expectation" they would receive extra daily allowances of between £1.04 and £16.74 a day depending on length of service.

The issue had been discussed with the Defence Secretary Des Browne and military chiefs but it was decided the Marines would not be given the promised money as a one-off payment.

This was "not what they may have been expecting" and commanders were instructed to tell their men "in as sensitive a manner as possible".'

You see what happens when you’re under this enormous pressure serving your country is that you fantasise that you have been promised more money for risking your life. These fantasies can be very real and very specific and you can visualise someone writing you a letter which tells you that you will receive between £1.04 and £16.74 per day extra. Wartime psychosis is very tricky to cure. But because it values so highly the job our armed forces are doing, the Government has thoughtfully sent out teams of experts to counsel the 1,000 commandos whose children will not be getting a Wii for Christmas. Just a wild guess but I’m thinking that’s probably costing more than the £200,000 (approx) committed in error.

I was confused enough to tune in to Prime Minister’s Questions today to see if I could get some clarity on this. Sure enough David ‘Dung Cam’ Cameron asked the question and Tony ‘Blah Blah’ Blair offered an ‘explanation’. He warned us it would be complicated and assured us that he had spent most of the morning ‘trying to get [my] head around it’. Dung Cam proposed he might star in a remake of Yes Minister – possibly his most useful contribution to parliament yet. Blah Blah informed us that the ‘issue’ was enormously complex as it involved switching money between The Accumulated Turbulence Allowance, The Longer Separation Allowance and The Operational Allowance.

You can see why being Prime Minister is sometimes a very difficult job and can only sympathise with how hilarious it must be to have to repeat phrases like ‘Accumulated Turbulence Allowance’ in front of a room full of stuffy old duffers, hence his giggling through most of it. He did however manage to deliver this lovely cadence with a completely straight face which is highly commendable,

‘Some will receive less than they thought they were going to get but will, in fact, get more.’

Just to show how genuinely under the cosh our Prime Minister is, he later concluded another matter with this gem,

‘I think we should learn from these lessons, but at a later time.’

I’ve decided that no matter how bad things get, I will not go into politics. I don’t really want to have to start timetabling my errors of judgment. Still, handing the maths over to someone else would be a bonus…


Picture of Popeye from www.membres.lycos.fr

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Workhouse Ethic



















The Tory Social Policy Review Group’s 300 page report Breakdown Britain has been doing the rounds this week. Sadly, this will not give much needed advice about what to do if your car breaks down on the motorway. I can offer this from my own experience - you should move as quickly as possible over to the hard shoulder and scream very loudly. No one will hear you but you will feel considerably better.

No. I’m afraid Breakdown Britain is the last in a long production line of reports that attempt to provide a ‘road map’ for us to steer our way through the murky waters of social injustice and arrive finally in the promised land of equality. On present navigational form, we are more likely to fetch up in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Over the course of a year, the group’s Chairman Ian Duncan ‘Donut’ Smith lifted up a corner of the great tarpaulin concealing our ‘growing underclass’ to gather his revelations. On his great road trip around broken down Britain inspecting graffiti and broken windows, Donut should perhaps have followed the advice of the Welsh farmer who told him,

‘If I was you, I wouldn’t start from here.’

Donut has since been warming the nation’s spot-lit swivel chairs in a valiant attempt to promote this compendium of startling statistics which reaches the ultimate conclusion that family breakdown is responsible for poverty. Er.. no.. Donut. Lack of money is responsible for poverty. Every royal child of the current generation, except one, is the product of a broken home. None of them are poor. It’s true that they are all unemployed though so it does follow that there is a link between family breakdown and unemployment. If Zara Phillips’ acceptance speech for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award ceremony is anything to go by, they also mostly have an active vocabulary of around forty words, half of which are ‘amazing’. Trust fund chavs they may be but, apart from those on the civil list obviously, none are a drain on our economy.

The crux of Donut’s argument is that married parents are far less likely to split than those co-habiting, therefore the Government should be doing more to encourage people to get married. That comes from the same school of logic that says because unemployed people are more likely to suffer from depression, they should get themselves a job. Fortunately there are a few pundits that aren’t buying. Yesterday Dave Hill reported on a BBC Today Programme discussion where Ian Kearns of the IPPR spotted the obvious converse,

He agreed that the evidence shows that children from intact, two-parent families do better, but pointed out that it does not follow from this that the state supporting marriage is the answer to reducing family breakdown.

‘The key point here is the cause and effect relationship, and all of the evidence points to the quality of adult relationships of parents with each other and with the child as being the key to the outcome, rather than the institution of marriage itself. It may be, for example, that more of those with with stronger relationships and commitment to each other choose to get married and not that being married increases commitment to the relationship.’

Today in The Times, David Aaronovitch was on the ball too.

‘Is it not rather the case that those couples with greater commitment tend to get married, than that the act of getting married somewhat mystically creates the commitment?’

I don’t know which came first, chicken or egg, but shouldn’t somebody be doing something to find out? Do we not have any sociologists in this country any more? Is this indicative of the Conservatives’ new approach? Are we to replace ‘suck it and see’ with ‘dunc it in tea’?

Meanwhile, Tony ‘Blah Blah’ Blair today struck out on yet another mystery tour to work out what to do about the aging population. Blah Blah has reluctantly accepted that aging is kind of inevitable if people insist on staying alive – a consequence of following Government directives to be born in the first place. What has been slower to dawn is the realisation that if we eat five fruit and veg a day as instructed, we simply transfer our burden from the NHS to the DWP.

Blah Blah came up with another of his blinding visions to solve the problem – we need 80 per cent of the population in work. Brilliant, you’d think. Everyone happily beavering their way up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and getting an NVQ in self-actualisation, what could be more heartening? Well, you know how the Government hates maths and I always end up doing their homework for them? Presently, 19 per cent of the population are under 16 and 16 per cent are over 65. That means a total of 35 per cent of the population are either under or over working age. I know. Picky, picky, picky.

The bad news is that we will have to open up all those old coal mines and get building some chimneys if we expect to create suitable work for the under tens. Pity about all those eco-parks and museums but needs must. I will be very happy indeed to pull a shift selling matches if it will help make Britain great again, just tell me which workhouse I need to report to…


Cartoon from www.carton-competition.org

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Con
























A conference opens today in Iran to question whether the Holocaust really happened. Entitled ‘Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision’, the aim of this conference is to ‘create an opportunity for thinkers who cannot express their views freely in Europe about the Holocaust’, according to Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. The conference comes hot on the heels of Iran’s competition for cartoons about the Holocaust back in October – so there! This is all getting incredibly childish and tiresome.

I am very much reminded of the post-apocalyptic world presented by George Miller in the Mad Max films starring ‘Pel’ Mel Gibson, (who declined his invitation to the conference as it is his week to clean the sofa. Er… sorry … that should read to be clean and sober). He doesn’t do anti-Semitism in public any more as it’s proven to be career threatening). In Mad Max III a community of children try to keep their memories of civilization alive through oral repetition of what little they can recall of ‘the learning’ while gladiatorial contests ensure survival of the fittest in the dystopia beyond their desert enclave.

I know it’s only a movie. Happily I have retained the ability to distinguish myth from reality. But we should remember that it is possible for entire cultures to be destroyed, along with everything they have been able to learn and achieve through submission to brute force. Hopefully, we have learned something from the Middle Ages – that it is much easier for those coming after us to understand what has happened and perhaps even steer a course away from repeating the mistakes we have made by writing everything down. Every single, separate civilization on earth has developed a method for passing its accumulated knowledge on to future generations. Whether it is written, spoken, sung, painted or danced, we all seem to think it’s that important.

It’s one thing to speculate on what happened in the Middle Ages, where nothing was written down and historians have to pick through bits of broken pottery to try and work out how the Iceni or Celts lived, but quite another to question an event whose existence can still be verified by millions of living eye-witnesses. The Holocaust is the most documented event in history and hopefully will remain so for the foreseeable future. The Nazis were meticulous record keepers. They wrote down the names of every single person they gassed. Hundreds of hours of film footage and millions of still photographs were made of every aspect of the Third Reich. The Nazis were proud to advertise their ambition to exterminate the Jews.

So why this silly conference? I could hold a conference to posit that Pitcairn Island or Nicole Kidman don’t exist. I have never been to Pitcairn Island and I don’t know anyone who has. There are photos and maps but these could be of any Pacific island. They all look pretty much the same, surely. You’ve seen one grass hut, you’ve seen them all. In fact, I put it to you that the entire mutiny on The Bounty episode was a complete fabrication designed to salvage the reputation of Captain Bligh who accidentally lost the ship and its entire crew in a card game with Blackbeard the Pirate. I’ve just remembered I know someone who taught Nicole Kidman at school and he’s fairly trustworthy. Nicole is quite dim but definitely does exist so scratch her from the argument.

There is a big difference between what people choose to believe and events that are verifiable several million times over. I am perfectly happy for people to believe that their deity of choice handed down a set of rules and regulations governing how we should live to a random mortal and said, ‘pass it around please’. In fact, I am under a legal obligation to do so. That’s fine by me. Whatever floats their ark. The good thing about religions is that they impose on believers an obligation to do the right thing. I don’t personally need directions on how not to behave like an arsehole but some people like to have a template. Fine.

To believe in a religion, you need to suspend logic. The more we know about the world, the harder it is to see the Sistine Chapel ceiling as a documentary. I have no argument with people who want to live that way but they must understand that there are people who believe different, even conflicting things and there will never, ever be an agreement on a ‘right’ belief because such a thing does not exist.

Once you make the decision to give verifiable and unverifiable information the same value, any connection is possible - hence this conference. The Holocaust deniers believe that Jews fabricated the whole genocide in order to justify creating the State of Israel. They further believe that by sanctioning ‘discussion’ of the Holocaust, the west is practising hypocrisy by censoring the ‘free speech’ it claims to cherish.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad announced on the weekend,‘For 60 years talking about the Holocaust was a crime in the West, but now there is a serious debate about the Holocaust in the media and also in political and popular meetings.’ For sure it’s a crime to deny the Holocaust because it came very close to plunging us all into slavery. We should never be allowed to forget how easy it is for unopposed racism to turn humans into animals that tear each other to pieces for pleasure.

Like many people, I think that the creation of the State of Israel was a mistake but I didn’t need to disbelieve known facts to arrive there. If these ‘scholars’ and ‘researchers’ really want to make a meaningful contribution to peace in the Middle East, they could think about starting from a position of truth. The Nazis killed six million Jews. Also, the State of Israel does exist – I have actually been there so I’m happy to verify that one.


Picture from www.socialdesignzine.aiap.it

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Ex Factory





















Rodgers & Hammerstein must be turning in their respective graves (assuming that it's humanly possible and not just a metaphor and they weren’t cremated – I will get this digression thing under control at some point but it’s not at the top of my personal development priority list at this particular moment in time). I was where? Ho ho ho yes. R&H, given their collective cultural erudition and finesse when it comes to the musical theatre, would certainly be thinking that us Brits (I know I’m actually Australian but I’m acting under Government instructions and practising meditating on ‘what it means to be British’. In fact so robust is my commitment that I am even going to try to own our propensity to be thick – see bracketed point above), are, ehem, well thick.

R&H would no doubt be alarmed to find that authorship of their last collaboration ‘The Sound of Music’ has been transferred in the nation's knowledge bank to Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose Spitting Image puppet was last seen on TV scouring the country in search of a young woman with a half decent singing voice and Julie Andrews’ mullety auburn hair. They would be doubly dismayed to discover that Astro Boy incarnate – one Raymond Quinn of X-Factor was under the impression that ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, from another of their fine entertainments ‘Carousel’ is about his home town of Liverpool. The song is sung as a comfort to resolutely American heroine Julie Jordan following the death of her lover, the carnival roustabout Billy Bigelow. It is not known whether or not Billy ever visited Venice on Mersey, but this doesn’t seem all that likely.

In the long queue for the toilets at the aptly named Wicked (a present from my very lovely cousin Matthew – a ticket I mean, not the whole show – that would be far too generous but obviously not unwelcome. Thank you Matthew by the way), someone received a text message and blurted out the fact that Ben had been eliminated to massive groans all round. It seems I was not the only one whose post-theatre plans included curling up with a Sauvignon Blanc and a bowl of pistachios for the repeat on ITV2. Having spent the evening listening to the best of what the London stage has to offer in terms of vocal power, I was in the mood to be a harsh critic.

Although informed that there would be no theme to this semi-final, a worrying trend developed early on when Leona and Ben both sang songs from Kevin Costner films. I had a moment of anxiety when it occurred to me that Astro Boy might have a stab at ‘You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice’, the song Costner himself recorded for The Postman. Stab is what Astro Boy did a lot of. It’s rather quaint how the studio audience applaud every stretched note or raised eyebrow, as if they’re watching Torvill & Dean execute a particularly tricky triple salchow. They seemed very keen to celebrate his frequent over-sung sour notes, perhaps in an attempt to camouflage them. I have no idea how Astro Boy made it to the final but I suspect Ms Baroque may have been several of the million people who called in to cast a vote in his favour.

Leona walks like an Egyptian, or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, depending on the angle. She is obviously a contender for the diva’s chair so dramatically vacated by Whitney Houston but did we really need a protracted television show to tell us that? Simon Cowell would be well advised to keep a large ocean between her and Snoop Dog at all times in the future. Ben should be all right. We’ve had several months to digest the notion that Joe Cocker really did need a successor and we’re braced for a Christmas reissue of ‘A Little Help From My Friends’.

Soon it will all be over for another year and the contestants can start planning their slow descent into oblivion. It doesn’t matter how talented they are and how much they’ve ‘nailed’ their numbers and made those ‘tracks their own’ or given all of their ‘one hundred and ten per cents’, all of the time. Once you’ve been on a television show, the only place to go is other television shows. Expect plucky cockney Robert to emerge from under a slime waterfall clutching yellow stars on ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’. Marvel as Leona gets her own chat show with Kevin Costner as co-presenter and hold your breath for the remake of Astro Boy staring you know who. Thrill to behold Eton Road taking over The Salon and cheer as Kerry gets a Saturday morning cooking show and Nikkita inherits Jade Goody’s abandoned nail bar. It may not be the future they had in mind when they began their incredible ‘journey’ but hey, at this stage, any dream will do…



www.markstivers.com

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bainimarama Republic
















Poor old Fiji. It’s had four coups in 20 years. You’d think the military would be experts in conducting government takeovers by now but they still haven’t managed to get the hang of it. Cmdr Frank Bainimarama assumed power five days ago and the whole thing smacks of just not being thought through. He’s now having to advertise for members of the public to come forward to fill ministerial posts. That’s the trouble with all this military upheaval, it tends to put career public servants off. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it Frank, old bean.

The following statement appears in the Fiji Times today under the headline, ‘Applications in for Fiji 'interim posts'. I reproduce it with all its quaint, original errors.

‘Applications are sought from qualified members of the public for the positions of cabinet ministers in the interim Government.

Also applicants must be of outstanding character and without any criminal record and each must not have been declared bankrupt.

Applicants must have a minimum of 10 years working experience and or high level of tertiary education. Applicants must indicate the area of interest in which he or she would like to serve in.

All applicants will be vetted for authenticity and must be accompanied by detailed curriculum vitae with full contact details no later than 1600 hours on Tuesday, December 12, 2006,’

The notice appeared next to ads for real estate and holiday cruises, neither of which will be contributing much to GDP on current form. The strict recruitment criteria would sadly preclude some of our underutilised resting politicians. I’m sure Jonathan Aitkin and ‘Lord’ Archer would have been happy to help out this struggling nation, so ‘beloved’ as it is claimed, by all involved.

Bainimarama may have taken over the government of Fiji but its website still seems to be under the control of the ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase who hinted on 5th December that the Commander may be concealing a tinsy-weeny personal agenda,

‘This morning, I had intended to convene a special meeting of our country’s Multi-party Cabinet. This was to specifically consider the new demands of the Military Commander, as conveyed through the President and the Vice President.

These new demands included the extension of the Commander’s contract of appointment to the year 2012, even though his current five year contract has another two years to run.

I suppose it’s one way to secure tenure. His Excellency the President, Ratu Josefa Iloilovatu Uluivuda, has taken a rather more sanguine view of current events, and has put down fifty pence each way. This is an excerpt from his statement on the Fiji Government website.

‘Under these difficult circumstances, His Excellency will remain in office to preserve some semblance of continuity while keeping the situation under review. In the meantime, the people of the Republic of the Fiji Islands are asked to remain calm, go about their daily activities as best they can and pray for our beloved country.’

As nobody else in the world much cares about what happens in Pacific island politics unless they have booked their nuptials there, it is difficult to get a handle on what is really going on. I did have a read through Prime Minister Qarase’s last Parliamentary speech delivered on 22nd November though. It outlines his budget for 2007 which proposes such reforms as doubling the welfare allowance for the nation’s poorest families and dramatically increasing spending on both education and health. There are also details of plans to tackle racial inequalities including assistance for minority communities to acquire ownership of church land they have worked for generations and an increase in VAT – the fair tax. It also contains a commitment to achieving 90% renewable energy by 2009 through development of bio-fuels technology. And … it’s literate.

But the fatal split between the military leader and the elected prime minister seems to have been over the proposed Promotion of Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill – an attempt to deal with the continuing fallout from the last coup in 2000. I don’t want to sound like an ignorant pedant but I’d be more inclined to side with an elected leader with an agenda for equality and unity rather than a seasoned bully with getting an extended employment contract signed at the top of his to do list. In any case, the fact that every major power has refused military assistance to shore up this new regime suggests that Bainimarama is too hot even for the Australians and Americans to entertain as a puppet.

Meanwhile, Fiji’s three sources of national wealth – sugar production, tourism and gold mining are all in the doldrums and unlikely to improve in the present climate. A currency devaluation seems inevitable, and, as if that wasn’t enough trouble for any Pacific paradise, Fiji has just lost its role of host to next year's world netball championships, due to be held in the capital Suva in July. Still, it has given me an idea. I'm thinking coup equals cancelled sporting event...


Angry fruit by www.badbanana.com

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Who Moved My Multicultural Britain (Again)


















Back in August I enthusiastically joined the widespread panic generated by Ruth ‘Head Girl’ Kelly in her new role as Community Secretary. My jaw dropped in dismay as I watched her launch a shiny new Commission for Integration and Cohesion by announcing,

‘We have moved from a period of uniform consensus on the value of multiculturalism to one where we can encourage that debate by questioning whether it is encouraging separateness.’

Moved? We didn’t even realise that our old friend multiculturalism was on the market. Still, if you’re going to have a year long commission into something, it obviously needs to start with a question or what would be the point? And, if you are going to be the head of a brand new government department, you need to get yourself noticed. Brightly coloured Oxfam jackets and resolutely unkempt hair just won’t distinguish you, as every other woman in cabinet is following the same style guidelines. You need to get in there and start stamping your mark out on sensitive ground. And it worked. Once we realised that our dear old multiculturalism was about to be wrenched from us and replaced with a duty to ‘integrate’, we legged it to the nearest community centre to add our individual squares to the first available ‘Respect with a capital R’ quilt.

Today, Blah Blah Blair made a small step towards realigning us with our natural inclination to be indifferent to each others’ beliefs and lifestyles. We are still allowed to celebrate our diversity. There was relief all round as he even encouraged us to do so. Just as well as I didn’t want to have to throw away the ‘living in harmony’ fridge magnet I made at our last neighbourhood fun day. However, there are some harsh provisos which, in a bold display of clarity, he conveyed to some young people at Downing Street this morning. Such a shame he finally masters the art of sentences just as he’s about to go. Heigh-ho - that’s politics. He explained,

‘The right to be in a multicultural society was always implicitly balanced by a duty to integrate, to be part of Britain, to be British and Asian, British and black, British and white.’

I must say I was not previously aware of my duty to be multicoloured but I will do my best to comply if it will contribute towards greater community cohesion. I have a tube of Loctite somewhere too and I’ll be happy to dig that out if it will help. Blah Blah demolished contention by crystallising the main issue,

‘Integration is not about culture or lifestyle but about shared values.’

These shared values are not, as you might suppose, a duty to eat chips with all meals, get bladdered on Friday night and drive your child to school even if the school is next door. Blah Blah left us in no doubt,

‘When it comes to our essential values - belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage - then that is where we come together, it is what we hold in common.’

It would not be a Blah Blah speech without the launching of a ‘raft’ of those lovely ‘practical measures’ of which he is so fond. In a speech prefaced on fairness and tolerance it wouldn’t be right to flag up a particular section of the community for failing to meet its integration targets. Blah Blah was, of course, the very soul of diplomacy. In outlining six ‘key elements’ of a new policy designed to ensure everyone achieves this heightened understanding of ‘what it means to be British’, Blah Blah simply pointed out some areas where remedial assistance may be offered to those still struggling to comply with what, after all, is just common sense. I didn't get it all down verbatim so you will have to rely on my interpretation which is as follows:-

1) There’ll be no more grants for ethnic communities to squander on getting us to sample their strange music and over-tasty food. Although it should be noted that Bangra music is quite cool and therefore inherently British and curry always was British as everyone is aware.

2) Unequal treatment of women will not be tolerated except where there is money involved (e.g. wages, pensions, services, family breakdown etc). Sexual harassment will obviously still be allowed (especially if alcohol is involved) but should be limited to those outside the immediate family.

3) There will be no recognition of any religious laws other than the Ten Commandments. Those unfamiliar with these should check Christmas TV schedules for a reading by Charlton Heston.

4) No religious fanatics will be allowed into Britain apart from Billy Graham and George W Bush.

5) Faith schools will be twinned with schools of a different faith to afford them the opportunity to discover how much they have in common and hold competitions for the best window boxes.

6) There will be a new requirement for all immigrants to demonstrate a decent command of English as a condition of full citizenship. Nurses and school teachers will obviously be exempt as drastic shortages mean we can’t be too picky.

People not adequately contributing to integration will know who they are. Blah Blah is not prepared to accept any excuses for radicalism and especially not that hoary old chestnut about aggressive foreign policy. Britain has always been aggressive towards other countries and it is an integral part of our rich cultural heritage. Citizens should also note that, ‘deprivation is a bad thing.’ Anyone found being deprived will be dealt with severely and will forfeit their Farepak hamper containing Spam, R Whites lemonade, pound shop mince pies and other Christmas essentials.

News just in – Spanish authorities are considering new rules for British citizens resettling in their country. Ex-pats may be asked to at least learn how to say 'please' and 'thank you' in Spanish, pay taxes on their bar takings and Gibraltar bank accounts and make more of an effort not to become involved in cocaine smuggling. The Foreign Office will be putting forward a swift and robust objection to this unacceptable threat to human rights and civil liberties – and rightly so…


Picture - Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments (by a higher power of your choice)

Friday, December 08, 2006

Kensal Rising

























I have no food in the house. This is monumentally bad planning on my part because there is some kind of typhoon happening outside. Earlier today, a tornado hit Kensal Rise. As far as we know no gingham-frocked teenagers with terriers in picnic baskets have been airlifted to Oz, although a planeload of backpackers did embark in the company of some friends of Dorothy aboard a Qantas flight earlier in the day.

Terrified Geeta Patel told the BBC shortly after the twister departed,

‘I don’t believe it – a tornado, at this time of day.’

Well, precisely. Everyone knows that tornadoes are only permitted in the late afternoon around teatime. It is, in fact, an offence for a dangerous weather phenomenon to appear before 4.30pm. This law was in acted in 1933 after a series of unauthorised whirlwinds disrupted play at Lords. The twisters severely altered the character of the pitch giving unfair advantage to the visitors. One deposited the English opening batsmen in London Zoo where they proceeded to demolish a team comprising a white rhinoceros and two angel fish, briefly salvaging national pride. The rhino, however, was unwilling to concede the Ashes and no one was in the mood to argue.

Britain doesn’t normally do extreme weather, preferring to specialise in perennially inclement. That, and the fact that there are no poisonous snakes or spiders, is its most attractive feature. Everything in Australia from the largest animal to creatures that are virtually invisible has designs on despatching you to the hereafter. Even creatures that you assumed were harmless turn out to be threatening. Last year I told my niece when we were hand feeding dolphins in knee deep water at Tangalooma that the spotted wobbegong shark circling our legs was not dangerous only to read later that they can ‘give you a nasty nip’. Fortunately wobbegongs are afraid of dolphins who take a dim view of being disturbed during their evening meal. I have twice come face to face with the hypnotically attractive but indisputably deadly blue ringed octopus and once thought almost nothing of swimming over the same species of stingray that killed Steve Irwin. The weather, it goes with out saying, is always out to claim a scalp or two.

I am not unduly concerned by storms. In fact have survived several tropical cyclones – which I don’t especially recommend but they have a certain near-death fascination if you are in the eye of one. I even slept through the great storm of 1987 only to wake and find my flatmate rendered incontinent with fear. It was a shame to have missed that. Then again he was afraid of house spiders. I have also slept through two earthquakes in Japan and remained able to conjugate Spanish verbs during a third along the Costa del Sol. I even managed to sit through The Day After Tomorrow – although that did require a different kind of grit.

As I understand it, there are moves afoot to ban all types of weather that fall into the climactically extreme end of the meteorological spectrum on health and safety grounds. Insurance companies are said to be in unanimous support of the move as a contra-flow in terms of cash is distressful to shareholders and can put the exponential trajectory of senior executives’ gargantuan salaries at unacceptable risk. The people who compile The Times Rich List are also said to be not best pleased when acts of God interfere with their placings which they have spent the best part of a year on. They would obviously prefer as little disruption to the status quo as possible.

Weather must be made to understand that certain checks and balances have to be put in place to make it more accountable to stakeholders. The British economy is dependent on tourism but there is nothing to be gained from diluting our natural appeal by over-inflating our menu of attractions. If people want tornadoes they will go to Kansas. The twister that hit Birmingham in the Midlands last year all but caused a diplomatic incident so I imagine Topeka will take a dim view of this morning’s events in NW6. We should just stick to what we’re good – drizzly rain.

All that concern about climate has made me hungry. Oh, I forgot, I have no food in the house and there is a hurricane in Hackney. I wonder if The Great Wall can deliver by boat…




comemmorative fridge magnet from www.kansasoz.com

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Elegantly Dressed Wednesday














Especially
for you today – a glimpse into the concentrated vegetable protein that comprises my mind. Fellow Hackney blogger Quink some time ago devised an excellent e-game called Elegantly Dressed Wednesday. It instantly attracted many participants. But not me. Although I have had moments in my life where I have even passed for semi-glamorous, I cannot currently conceive of a single element of true elegance nor recognise it in others. In the spirit of joining in, however belatedly and pathetically, I offer Wednesday Addams who is by default elegant simply because she is being played by Christina Ricci on this occasion. Her apparel is the alternative elegant as seen in the underworld or a Horrors video.
These days I spend most of the time in my pyjamas. I am nearing the end of two major projects and quite possibly my sanity so I cannot even imagine getting out the dressing up box. I own a string of real pearls but they have been ruined by a combination of my propensity to glaze my d├ęcolletage with Amarige and omission to remove them while surfing. I somehow got pearls confused with diamonds and erroneously imagined them to be composed of very tough material. It turns out that they are very like tooth enamel in that once it erodes, it’s gone for ever. This explains why people do not clean their teeth with perfume nor do they create styli out of pearls for their Dansettes.
Many EDW participants may be planning today to feature the LBD worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s that sold at auction this week for £467,200. There is no mention in the press reports of why the odd amount. Perhaps the purchaser found that vital extra 200 quid in her, or indeed his (hello Elton), parking meter compartment and offered it up to secure the dress lest it should be spirited away by someone whose absolute limit for a dress is £467,000. I can still remember what it’s like to have a frock speak to you. It happened to me once at Portobello Road market when I used to be in a retro swing band. A white tulle and lace backless ball gown in the 1950s debutante style once hummed a chorus of I Feel Pretty at me and I was smitten. The damage was £15.
Hepburn once said,
‘My look is attainable. Women can look like Audrey Hepburn by flipping out their hair, buying the large sunglasses and the little sleeveless dresses.’
She could have saved Victoria Beckham a lot of grief if she had added,
‘But It doesn’t really work if you are a thick, anorexic chav… er… dahling.’
Victoria has a knack for looking like she spent a million quid at Primark. It is doubtful if the contents of her walk-in wardrobe will end up fetching large amounts at charity auctions. Fans may want to check eBay if they are in the market for cut off jeans for their Barbie doll though.
The most elegant piece of clothing I have ever owned was a baby pink Christian Dior coat which I bought for £2 at a jumble sale in Dalston in 1982. Unfortunately, the moths got at it so it had to be thrown away. I did feel quite wonderful in it so that was sad because I’d still be wearing it today. Now it would be called ‘vintage’ and worth a lot of money on eBay if it was still in its pre-moth pristine condition. Interestingly, when I bought the coat it looked as if it had never been worn so it was quite a mystery how it turned up at a Dalston church jumble sale. I’ve got the odd Armani and YSL piece from Oxfam but, other than that, I’m fairly style-free these days.
Having just watched Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown’s pre-budget speech I have become almost sick with nostalgia for those carefree days when I thought nothing of casting off my pyjamas and heading out into the world, safe in the knowledge that I may still be able to afford to eat in old age. The more he tries to entice us to become involved in these decisions ‘that affect us all’, the more I think it would be like playing strip poker with a rapist. He’s so obviously OCD. Have you seen the way he pathologically ‘tidies’ the papers in front of him every two seconds? Actually, he’d be crap at poker because he has ‘I’m conning you’ tattooed across his forehead.
These days not even the pickings at jumble sales are likely to yield so much as a Marks and Spencer cardie with elbows intact never mind a Dior coat. There are just no surprises left any more. I’m done with consumerism anyway. In the words of Holly Golightly,
‘I don't want to own anything until I find a place where me and things go together. I'm not sure where that is but I know what it is like. It's like Tiffany's.’
Once you’ve tarnished the only set of pearls you’ll ever be able to afford and let moths devour the only Christian Dior coat you’ll ever dig out from under grandma’s bloomers at a church jumble, you know elegance is out of your reach for good. So pass me the black lipstick and point me in the direction of the Horrors. I’ll be fourth ghoul from the left…

Picture from www.movieforum.com

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Bride Stripped Bare




















Yesterday, Channel 4 News carried a story by Roz Upton about the growing number of British Muslim men abandoning wives they have brought to Britain in their countries of origin after they have produced children. The number isn’t huge. The Home Office logged 45 cases last year and 36 so far this year from Pakistan, the only country where they have a specialist team looking into the problem.

Charities assisting the women say that it is happening all over South Asia and represents a growing trend. Channel 4 claimed the practice is a cheap and quick divorce substitute. Often the women have been isolated and their husbands have not applied for full citizenship rights on their behalf and find they cannot return to Britain. The saddest thing seems that they are usually duped into travelling with the promise of a chance to see their family back home. Once there, they are stripped of their passports and valuables and dumped without any money.

I’m not going to get caught up in cultural condemnation here but no one else has picked up on the story. In some ways that’s not such a bad thing because it does mean that the media is capable of exercising some restraint when it comes to finding reasons to disapprove of Muslims but on other hand, maybe nobody really cares because it’s only women.

It doesn’t please me in the slightest that the public purse ends up wearing the cost of supporting these women to return to Britain and fight for the rights that should have been dealt with by the Family Court at the expense of the divorcing parties. It thrills me less that a whole specialist team has to be set up to deal with a problem that, in an era when we never cease to be striving towards equality, involves something as basic as a bond of trust between marrying partners. It’s one thing to marry with sincerity and then find you are incompatible but quite another to use a woman as a brood mare and then pop her off to the knackery once she’s foaled.

Activists are calling for the Government to ‘do something’ but there is no way of legislating against men behaving like bastards. Only the sanction of society as a whole can be effective there. Up until fairly recently, there was still a ‘breach of promise’ statute on the legal books which gave women the right to sue a man for a broken matrimonial promise. Although rarely used because of the potential damage to a woman’s reputation public exposure might cause, there was at least a recognition that society considered it wrong for a man to elicit sex from a women under a promise he had no intention of keeping.

It would be easy enough to condemn this as solely a cultural phenomenon. I think there are symptoms here of a wider social malaise. These women are considered instruments, a means to an end for something the man wants. He wants a family, a group of possessions called children. To him a ‘mother’ is not part of the family, she is a vessel. She will outlive her usefulness and then she can be replaced, like discolouring Tupperware. In western culture we have the same tendency to manipulate other humans – it is just more likely to happen across social classes than gender.

‘Sir’ Clive Thomson, chairman of the parent company that owned Farepack, the Christmas savings scheme for people on low incomes, could not even be bothered to mask his contempt for the people whose money his company stole. Not only do the poorest people in this country pay more for absolutely everything from gas and electricity to getting their clothes clean, they don’t even have the right to expect that their savings, on which they get no interest incidentally, are not squandered in cavalier boardroom speculative ventures. Just like the imported bride, the lowly worker is an instrument of soulless acquisition and reprehensibly anti-social greed.

I don’t want to see Government ministers falling over themselves to bring in tougher regulations for spouses from outside the EU. Everyone is entitled to look for a partner wherever they choose. British Asian women also seek spouses from their country of heritage. Although I am not personally keen on the concept of arranged marriages, I don’t regard it as my right to stand in judgement on them either – not even as a feminist. It’s not that long ago in our history that arranged marriages were the norm and a parent’s desire for their child to make a ‘good marriage’ meant aspiring to wealth and status. We are still very much a class-bound society no matter how much we like to pretend we aren’t. Only months ago one of my cousins was advised to ‘dress to your station’ for the forthcoming wedding of one of her work colleagues.

What I would like to see is a stand, by all of us, against the people who allow their own greed and selfishness to dismiss someone else’s right to justice, freedom or happiness in favour of their own desires. I would like to see a challenge to the insidious scheming that prays on our most precious human asset – the ability to trust and believe in each other. Life is pretty shitty without it. We have a tendency in this country to believe that criminality is something that only East End gangsters and disaffected youth are involved in but our revered aristocracy have murdered (Lord Lucan), embezzled (Dame Shirley Porter), done bird for perjury (Lord Archer) and for drug abuse and anti-social behaviour (Marquess of Blandford). One way or another, we have usually managed to excuse bastardry when it's practised by our pillars of society, and by doing so, we not only legitimise it but hold it up as aspirational.

If Government really wants to 'do something', ministers could at least try to look like they've got something else on their minds besides their elevation to the House of Lords. They could try remembering why their party is called Labour - a hint – not because it’s what Rupert Murdoch does with his day. And it could certainly try remembering just because you’re first in the queue for the buffet, it doesn’t mean you should eat all the prawns. If we stop condoning selfishness as a motivator, we might just have a crack at an equitable society where we have a half decent chance of being able to trust one another.



Bride Turning Into A Windmill by Arthur Boyd

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Arty Pants

























Be of Good Cheer. Today finds me in a much more positive frame of mind - thanks for asking. I have successfully fashioned all drafts of suicide notes into tree top angels and sprayed them with gold glitter spray. You can get this off your fingers with nail varnish remover, eventually. The reason for my improved mood is that I have been to see art. Mr T, who is very thoughtfully a member of the Tate Gallery, took me along to the members’ evening last night.

I spent a good part of yesterday dreaming about barrelling down the biggest of Carsten Holler’s four plastic slides but they had already closed the queue. I considered being cross but decided to view the queue and the people who were going to be in it for two hours as part of the art concept and subsequently enjoyed it. It was then that I remembered I wanted to see the David Smith exhibition. I should really enter my memory in the Turner Prize. I am certain it lacks precedent in its ability to have no other function beyond its self-actualisation.

Sculpture for me has the restorative power of a couple of Feminax and a bloody Mary followed by smoked salmon and scrambled egg on golden rye toast, followed by lazy sex and… never mind. David Smith was the Hemingway of sculpture and represented a manly integrity that was bound up in rugged landscape, heavy machinery and the honest graft of the industrial working man. He himself looks forged – I mean in the sense that he appears to be hewn from steel himself rather than faked obviously.

In 1962 Smith created 27 large sculptures in 30 days for the Spoleto art festival. Knowing that fact alone will probably keep me happy for at least a week. His pieces are all vividly conceptualised and beautifully executed and, in that sense, not challenging. They tell you quite loudly what they are and I find that quite striking. I like it when art greets me like an old friend, although I hasten to add I have no expectation whatever that it will.

I had the same feeling last year when I went to Havana and stayed in Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway had lived. His old room was just down the corridor from mine. It is preserved as a museum and contains some simple possessions – his typewriter, glasses, a baseball cap, army uniform, pictures of boats and some editions of his books. It is a powerful and evocative experience because Hemingway becomes very much alive again when you enter that room.

It is rare, I think, that you can feel the presence of a long dead artist by just being in the same room with their work. It doesn’t happen for me with Da Vinci or Turner or even Rembrandt or Velasquez but it does with Picasso, Kahlo and Smith. If I connect with art it is always physical – probably because I lack both the knowledge and the will to deconstruct its meaning much less pinpoint its intent. But that is not to say that I am arrogant enough to regard art criticism as invalid just because I don’t know anything about it. I know it needs to be there because, like the strings in a puppet show, it is as much responsible for the animation that the public sees as the artists themselves.

I sometimes think I’m being a little over-sensitive about the creep of anti-intellectualism that is wheedling its tawdry little way into culture. On Saturday, Channel 4 who really should know better conducted a fee-saving exercise to find a member of the public to present the Turner Prize on Monday. I normally admire Jon Snow because he’s not afraid to stand up for what he believes in, even to the point of being virtually a national pariah for refusing to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day. If more TV personalities displayed this kind of commitment, we might get a more reasoned debate about the morality of making wars. But when it comes to culture, Snowy lets the side down badly.

‘Most people think it’s crap don’t they?’ he probes provocatively. Memo to you from me Jon, probably not a brilliant idea to diss a prize your employer is sponsoring. Poor old beleaguered multiculturalism always gets the blame as public figures, noticing that the audience for fine art is still predominantly white and middle-class, set themselves up as apologists in the mistaken belief that art somehow owes it to society to be compulsory. Even I know that is about as far from artistic motivation as it’s possible to be.

I’ve said unkind things in the past about Germaine Greer but her retaliation in today’s Guardian on discovering that she had been given an award by the Plain English Campaign for linguistic pomposity seems to have totally focused her mind and she’s demolished these idiots with a scrupulously succinct beginner’s guide to aesthetic theory. The Plain English Campaign has similarly set itself up as official apologist for dumbed down culture and appointed itself as the protector of a population it perceives to be excluded from high culture. If we had a fair and equitable education system, we wouldn’t need these fey props. Still they can’t be all that bad if they can reacquaint Germaine Greer with her old self. Hope it lasts.

The visit to the Tate had an immediate impact on my imagination. I was wondering what to do about this year’s Christmas card. Last year I used a rather lovely picture of me drinking a daiquiri in El Floridita next to a giant bronze statue of Hemingway quaintly propping up the bar. In past years I’ve had a cartoon strip of Australian native animals performing classic plays – Hamlet, The Cherry Orchard, Summer of the Seventeen Doll, The Iliad. On the way home I got the idea of using a picture of our family holiday to Disneyland. It wasn’t very Christmassy so I have embellished it using the crude but reasonably effective paint box on Picture Manager. I have discovered you need a steady hand and probably a less clunky mouse than the one I’ve got to execute this operation to a reasonable standard but I find the results not displeasing. Seasonal Salutations to all.



seasonal art by Me!