Friday, October 28, 2005

I predict another riot

Why scrapping faith schools funding could help social cohesion.

I always slag him off, but this time Tony Blair did well to firmly condemn the hideous remarks of the Iranian President. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a godsend to the American neo-cons. By saying stuff like "Israel should be wiped off the map" the creep is simply giving ammunition to his reciprocals the other side of the world.

On to another note (but not far off), the Birmingham riots of the last few days are a sad reminder of how increasingly segregated society is getting. 7/7 made matters worse, and if you were left in any doubt just take a look at some of the leaflets that are circulating around Birmingham these days (i.e. the appalling "islamic jihad against the blacks").

Racial relations are deteriorating. You'd think a responsible government would then try and promote schools where from day one all kids get together irrespective of religion or race. Wrong. In its new White Paper on education, the government introduces the expansion of faith schools.

But multi-culturalism interpreted as a licence to ghettoise simply encourages further divisions along religious and ethnic patterns, exactly the opposite of what is needed. Instead of backing what is effectively more religious segregation by law, the government should promote interaction amongst kids from all backgrounds. Faith schools should be abolished.

Drink but don't smoke

Now work this one out. While it introduces 24-hour drinking, the government is embarking upon an anti-smoking crusade that gets England in line with recent bans in Ireland and Scotland.

On one side, a prescriptive prohibition: smoking is bad for your health and for the public in general so "don't do it!", the law slams. On the other hand, if people are drinking more and more (with health as well as public order issues on the table) the solution is one that will let the leary ones booze around the clock.

One wonders what exactly is wrong with having both smoking and non-smoking area in pubs. Wouldn't that be the most balanced solution, one that takes into account both sides of the argument? In the meantime you're left with the most puzzling comparison between such heavy-handed approach and the new idiotic drinking laws...

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Hangover from power- A review of David Blunkett, A Very Social Secretary

This is a country where the Prime Minister gets re-elected in spite of lying to go to war, while a member of his Cabinet loses his job because of an affair.

Those in a position of power like to suggest that we live in a democracy where there’s freedom to voice opinions. It is part of the unwritten rules of human interaction. And yet you think for a minute and the word “bollocks” spring to mind.

Most of the British population remain against the Iraq war in some form or other. Nevertheless, neither the press nor the balance of power at Westminster are reflective of the country’s views, given that two parties out of three (and three-quarters of MPs) voted pro-war. The same applies to tuition fees or privatisations. A study found that 60% of the UK population would favour renationalising British Rail (which, incidentally, given the hideous subsidies that private rail operators have been enjoying, would save the tax payer £80 million ). Yet, aside from a handful of maverick MPs, to expect a parliamentary majority to favour anything like it is wishful thinking.

There is an immense list of issues where British citizens aren't represented. Even when the high-ranks of the BBC are in attrition with this control freak of a Prime Minister they end up losing their job (i.e. Greg Dyke over the Andrew Gilligan scandal). The result is a media class that prefers focusing on trivialities.

It is in this frame of mind that many may have approached the film David Blunkett, A Very Social Secretary, one of the jewels in the crown of More4 manic promotional campaign. At last a chance – you’d think- to watch one of the most arrogant and powerful politicians being lambasted on TV. At the very least you’d expect Blunkett’s lawyers to be up in arms, given how focused the comedy is on his life’s most cringeworthy aspects.

The former Home Secretary’s very own personality, love-life and social skills are thorn to pieces in front of a potentially huge audience. Ridicule is there aplenty, along with the depiction of the hypocrisy and brutality of Downing Street’s media machine. And yes, as you watch A Very Social Secretary you almost feel a hint of guilt for holding the view that you live in a country where democracy and transparency are viewed with contempt.

And yet…And yet…you may want to reconsider. How much Blunkett is just a pawn within no.10’s obsession for manipulation is evident as the film goes on: there he is, the blind, common man, used and championed for his bit-of-rough qualities when he’s needed yet ruthlessly ditched as soon as his sexual antics threaten to corrupt Tony Blair’s self-righteous bliss. There's no doubt left about who's the easy target and who's the one that really matters.

So perhaps when critics suggest that if David Blunkett is to be attacked it should be so for policy reasons -and not about how amusing the idea of a blind person having sex is- they’re a little ingenuous. In a country where the Prime Minister gets re-elected in spite of waging war based on a pack of lies while a member of his Cabinet loses his job because of an affair, I’m afraid A Very Social Secretary is as far as the slate will be allowed to stretch. Let’s cherish the rare opportunity...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Desperate for an "X-Factor"

Someone has decided on your behalf that the artistic and individual development of bands and singers is so not 21st century.

I had the misfortune to watch bits of ITV's X-Factor in the last couple of weeks and it’s even more depressing than I thought. Not even my lowest expectations were prepared to find it so misrepresentative of the type of people who are actually interested in “doing” music in this country.

Aside from the fact that the contestants are not allowed to introduce their own material, the overly hammed up production of the auditions makes you rummage around for a bucket nearby. Songwriting skills? Different genres? Erm...What are they... The producers will probably patronise you by saying that the public will find it too complex, nevermind the fact that nowadays under the guise of “rock” music you can push extremely accessible and commercial products (think Gwen Stefani, Pink, The Killers and many others).

No-one’s suggesting a context that involves experimental 23 minutes progressive rock or pipes from the Andes. But the fact remains that the X-Factor' s minimum common denominator is as trite as follows:

- If you’re a white male you’ll be a Ronan Keating/Gareth Gates/Rick Astley replica, rugged boyband look, gel in your hair, TopMan casual clothes and the most inoffensive disposition;
- If you’re a black male you’ll be a bland Lemar/Craig David type with the usual mock-soulful vibrato singing style. Also obviously attired with a nod to TopMan casual section;
- If you’re a white female you’ll adopt a bit of a Britney Spears stage persona.
- If you’re a black female you’ll instead sing, look and act like a Jamelia.

It truly is as tame as it sounds.

Simon Cowell, and the money-making circus behind X-Factor and his sister programmes wouldn’t care less about investing in new talents. Not one dime. A hit-single on the trail of their incessantly promoted TV-circus is what they’re after and sure they’ll get it in no time at all. The zillions spent on marketing the X-Factor must reap a quick profit. Someone has decided on your behalf that the artistic and individual development of bands and singers is so not 21st century.

The author Anthony Sampson once wrote that “television [has been] trivialised by a new profession of ‘celebs’ who were famous for being famous rather than for real achievements”. There you are.

The rise and rise of David Cameron

Some commentators argue that the pendulum is swinging again as, for the first time in years, the Conservative Party is managing to attract some serious media attention.

But scratch beneath the surface and you find that the swing is merely apparent. The media and the financial powers of the UK have decided that the likeable David Cameron would do.

He’s as bland as the pre-97 Tony Blair and, personally, he has no specific policy whatsoever. His modernising credentials for the Tories are purely presentational and who can blame him, given that with today’s bullying media you’d rather be a David Blunkett (at least you’re guaranteed a film) than to look and sound like Ian Duncan Smith. Aside from the sickening spins and lies coming from Alistair Cambell, Tony Blair’s pact with Rupert Murdoch, allowing him to extend his commercial grip in return for his political support (i.e. The Sun), is a prime example.

Sure, Cameron looks certainly less intimidating than the hardliners David Davis or Liam Fox, but what policies will go through under his government? Much the same as what happened under Blair: expect earpiece-instructions from the City, more inconsequential privatisations, a skip and a hop at the Americans' order and even further stifling of social mobility. A study from the Higher Education Funding Council found that in the 21st century you’re more likely to remain within your parents’ income brackets than you were in 1970. Has Cameron got any specific agenda to revert the trend?

The only lesson the *real* establishment of this country has learnt since the conflicting days of Margaret Thatcher is the importance of dressing up a right-wing agenda. Hence the need for a humane, persuasive, evangelical prime minister. Simply look at Cameron’s speech: “We should be attractive, compassionate, relevant and modern”.

Wow…would you disagree with that? Which politician would want to be unattractive, ruthless, irrelevant and old-fashioned? And more: “We should be well-balanced and improve the quality of life not just for the few, but for the many”. Oh dear me…Blair may be feeling as if he was taking a look in the mirror. Given the premises, his lapdogs may be getting in panic mode soon.

All you can expect is more attempts to smear Cameron’s alleged party-animal-past. The only detail that would probably make him more interesting.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Pink is the thread

A review of Broken Flowers

2003’s Lost in Translation captivated critics and reviewers alike with its paced soul-searching while many others -can you blame them- found it dull and directionless. Even though Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers is almost as sluggish, at least to great degree it shuns the emotional snobbery of Lost in Translation. The comparison between the two films is nonetheless inevitable, not least for Bill Murray starring again as a similarly detached, phlegmatic and introverted middle-aged character.

Don Johnston (Murray) is a wealthy, solitary man. Right when his own sentimental choices seem to confine him to perpetual bachelorism, he receives a shock in the form of an anonymous pink letter: for the past 15 years he’s been the oblivious father of a child. With help from his eccentric neighbour Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a detective-story fan, all Don can do is to draw up a clumsy list of ex-girlfriends and follow the pink thread.

Besides a cameo from a rejuvenated Sharon Stone, the search is bound to open more than a can of worms, including ex-girlfriends who make a resolute point of confining the old casanova back to a buried past. The way each character is disclosed a little at a time is possibly one of the best charms of this gentle film, as it is left to the audience to find what may have once been the unlikely bond between Murray and each of his exes. How love can be so passionate and then implode in a forgotten dust of distant grudges is one of life's bitterest ironies.

But it’s the final scrambles that are soaked with meaning. You can almost feel Don's pain and loneliness when the past displays all its elusiveness. The obvious truth is spelt out in all its poignancy: time is merciless, the past has gone and given that no-one’s ever gonna grasp the future, all that’s left is the void of the present.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Taller than a seven-inch stiletto

A review of Kinky Boots

Nevermind the soppy feel-good factor, you can’t help but leave the cinema with both thumbs up after watching this latest addition to the same UK breed that spawned Brassed Off, The Full Monty and a few others. Although the suspicion that the troubled prodigal son will come up with something heroic is there from the start, the Northampton-based storyline makes up for pleasant entertainment.

Kinky Boots is about an unlikely hero, Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton), who unexpectedly inherits a family shoe-factory with a proud tradition but about to go bust nonetheless.

The background is grimly realistic, given that for the last twenty years UK manufacturing has been facing intense clobbering from cheaper imports. Amongst a fanfare of drama and cross-sex antics, the only way to salvage fifteen jobs and a man's dreams turns out to be the search for a niche market. And what a niche market it is: Charlie stumbles upon drag queen Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and here’s where the story takes off. With a backdrop soaked with homophobic prejudice and provincial mentality (“this is not London”, Charlie often chastises his new cross-dressing ally- oh Midlands, so much to answer for…), Lola comes forth as the last glimpse of hope: a self-appointed footwear designer on a painfully emotional mission to show what makes indeed a real man.

Sexy heels for transvestites - and a modern fairy tale that takes you from Northampton to Milan’s fashion shows via Soho dingy cabaret clubs - become the key to avoid redundancy and emotional disaster. Add an evil, unsympathetic and self-centred girlfriend to the recipe and Kinky Boots makes for a potential hit at the box office. Edgerton and Ejiofor are superb in their respective roles that sees them both juggling with family pressure and society conventions.

It is refreshing to see for once our UK screens not portraying the safe yet clown-esque parody of gayness that too often makes up for cheap entertainment (think the abysmal Queer Eye for The Straight Guy). Kinky Boots has some grit in it, showing that there’s more to it than a seven-inch stiletto and at times it even manages to convey the cruelty and aggravation that homosexuals still have to put up with in this country. Only last week, Clapham Common’s shocking homophobic murder of Jody Dobrowski was a bleak reminder of a real world that is still behind in spite of entertainment chimps a-la “Nadia from Big Brother”.

Full marks to Kinky Boots.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Watch That Man, Australia

Stop John Howard and the sinister WorkChoices

Few would normally think of Australia in political terms. It’s the country of cricket (for those who can stomach it), beautiful nature, kangaroos and walkabouts, Kylie’s songs and Neighbours plots, Natalie Imbruglia’s looks and INXS, and the list goes on.

This time a boomerang hits downunder as a far more sinister name grabs the headlines: John Howard. It is with preoccupation that we watch their ultra neo-conservative Prime Minister conjuring up a fast-track return to the 19th century days of no worker protection, illegal unionisation and the creepy mantra of “take the job or take the sack”. Will it happen here next? Maybe with the neo-cons in the US paving the way for the Tories of the future?

Note the manipulative spin of John Howard’s “WorkChoices” legislation. He’s spending $100m (yes, you read correctly, a hundred million) of taxpayers’ money to back a massive advertising campaign saying that it will be good and it will be fair. But if Australians believe him at the next elections in 2007 then they’ll only have themselves to blame.

Because in actual facts Australian workers will have bugger all to choose as their employers will engage on a downward race to reduce welfare measures and slim down statutory agreements. Only 5 stipulations will be protected by Government law: annual leave, personal leave, unpaid parental leave, maximum ordinary hours and minimum wage. The rest will be a matter between you and your employer.

Dinner breaks, consecutive hours, pension schemes, redundancy packages, workplace accidents, paid parental leave, public holidays, unfair dismissal, and so forth are all at risk of being wiped out. Workers will have little to no say at all as they negotiate their contracts alone with their boss. Young people in search of first employment will be left to their own device in bargaining with all-powerful companies who will tell them that competition is fierce. And no, don’t think that you may look to your Trade Union for contractual bargaining or support because you’ll be disappointed.

In fact, the Howard government doesn’t stop there: Australian unions are going to be made redundant. Under “WorkChoices” legislation, employers will find it much easier to take court actions against those who strike so if you’re already struggling to pay your bills it’s unlikely you’d take the risk of paying enormous court damages to your employers for a walkout. Any court evidence of commercial damage would bankrupt ordinary workers. Also, unions’ access to the workplace will also be severely restricted and de-registering encouraged.

Yet what does Prime Minister John Howard come up with? “Go to another employer who will pay you better”. Oh yeah, sure. If a company tells you that if you want to work for them then there’ll be no breaks, no paid parental leave, no rules on dismissal, no cap on consecutive hours and no protection of any sort then Howard makes it plain: pack your stuff and look for work elsewhere.

Does this man seriously think that companies will voluntarily surtax themselves to provide benevolent awards to their employees while their competitors don't? What happens if that becomes the norm? What will take place is that bad contracts will become routine, people desperate for work will gradually settle for anything and the exploitation will start all over again, just like it was in the 19th century.

Of course Howard cites the usual plethora of world competitiveness, Australia having to avoid the unemployment route and “unleashing a new burst of productivity growth to secure our future prosperity”. Yet this is by far the most extraordinary attack to workers’ rights in history, taken to a level that not even those business-bashing paladins of unionism, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had ever dreamt of.

If Australia is going to compete with China, India and low-wage economies then you can be sure that return to Dickensian times will be a disastrous strategy.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

At last! Life beyond Big Brothers!

Lost and the dream of a Casual Employee Academy on TV

The success of television series Lost is consolation for those who had resigned themselves to an entertainment industry increasingly confined to weak storylines, effortless plots, one-fold characters, and more and more dumbness. And that is happening in America, home of the recent success of top-of-the-bland Desperate Housewives and Sex & the City, easy, straightforward fodder to a public that is always presumed undemanding and with an extremely unsophisticated mind.

is showing instead that we’re not all brain-dead: it is possible to produce extremely commercial television together with some intensity and an astonishing level of character development. That also brings some fresh air to the UK audience. In this country, even the sociologist of Big Brother 1 was deemed too clever and sophisticated and was duly done away with lest the product end up being too boring!

So in a world dominated by Big Brothers, X-Factor, Celebrity Island and the lot branded as “reality-TV” (How about a Temping Idol or Casual Employee Academy…get the audience to decide who gets a permanent contract, so much for “reality-TV”!) you’d wonder how the premise of strangers stuck on a desert island could possibly sustain a weekly series. And yet creators J.J.Abrams and Damon Lindelof came up with an intriguingly textured concept that is proving a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.

For the first time in a generation of TV series (Twin Peaks now a distant memory), all characters appear as if they actually hailed from this world instead of having that monotonously superficial out-of-this-world gloss typical of US-generated TV entertainment. This time there’s so much room for subjectivity, so many layers and emotional components that you get right into it from the word go. In Lost it doesn’t matter if Jack & co. originate from Wall Street or Beverly Hills: each single character can barely shake off their deep flaws and insecurities, whether it’s their cryptic past they’re concealing, their inscrutable psyche or childhood fuck-ups.

And the success of Lost is to be attributed to a straightforward factor: we all find ourselves stranded with emotional baggage throwbacks and memories you’re trying to leave behind. You try and find yourself again, it’d be more like crashing into a desert island.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Louder Than Bombs

You arrange a night out for three and one is invariably gonna be left out of the chat. Music has to be played and it has to be played very loud, the imperative seems.

An ordinary Saturday night with friends. A nice conversation, plentiful of silliness and a few drinks. In most UK cities this seemingly simple course of events can bang against insormountable complications. Notably the wall of decibels that most pubs and public places offer on an evening out. No, it isn't my mum writing, or some old bachelor living in a hut in the Orkney Islands. I myself play in a band, regularly blow our PA speakers at rehearsals, and totally endorse club culture (with legitimate preferences, of course). But it's not gigs or nightclubs we're talking about. Clubs are loud, sometimes extremely so by definition but that's why they were there in the first place so if it's a chat you're looking for, then it's you who's picked the wrong setting.

I'm talking about anywhere else in England. The dominant assumption is that friends have absolutely jack to discuss and chat about therefore ultra-loud music is needed to fill the void. I can list tons of places visited in the recent past...bowling alleys where families or mates expect a "fun evening out" as they try and figure out the score by screaming at the other's ears in an attempt to elude the wall of r'n'b blasted out of loudspeakers. Or the time where we picked a pretty-looking-but-not-so-Italian restaurant on a date only to be greeted by an office party complete with DJs and karaoke thwarting any plans for a cosy evening, inflicting their insane decibles to the rest of helplessly silent diners.

Or most shops, whether high street or not, whether it's clothes, shoes or showergel you're after. You start wondering which marketing research ever suggested that a bombardment of run-of-the-mill garage music is the customer's choice of ear-torture as they push their trolley around the thumping aisles.

And then there's the pubs. That really infuriates me. Mimicked and copied in every country, you'd think of English pubs as an intimate venue for people and friends to socialise in front of a few drinks. And yes, background music is by all means welcome. No-one's saying that public places should have the atmosphere of a graveyard. But a comparative look on any bar in Ireland, Scotland or continental Europe would remind you of the contemporary plight of the English pub. The picture is all too familiar: super-mega-loud music, overenthusiastic DJs daydreaming of a slot at an Ibiza nightclub as they inflict their frustrated club-DJ ambitions on a non-existent dancefloor; decibels aplenty and the serious impossibility of a conversation that involves more than strictly two people. You arrange a night out for three and one is invariably gonna be left out of the chat. Music has to be played and it has to be played very loud, the imperative seems.

A couple of years back I seriously damaged my vocal chords because of a work night out. The tormentors were at a late night bar called "Reflex", a naff 80s themed "pub" where half the volume would have been enough to bring about permanent damage to the punters' eardrums and throats. I wish I could express in writing how loud the place was. Music was seriously blasting out, way more than any club I'd been to in my life. So any attempt to human interaction was effectively nipped in the bud, not least because of the fumes of alcohol (which was at least our informed choice), as it would result in incomprehension. Even the most innocent "WHAT-IS-THE-TIME?" would be invariably met by a puzzled face and lip-reading suggesting some kind of "S-O-R-R-Y?" as the frustrated response.
For over 9 months i had serious troubles singing with a voice that was nothing short of hoarse and husky, as the doctors repeated i had strained my vocal chords.

Some people ascribe the loud music frenzy to the imperative of selling more alcohol. The idea is that the less people talk, the more they drink and the more they spend on drinks. The cynic in me is inclined to believe that this is another reflection of the English society dumbing down as one would suggest that the public gets what the public wants. And yet it isn't easy to desert en-masse those appalling megaloud drinking dens. Quiet pubs exist, but in the era of hypercool, DJ-rama and permayoung you have to do some serious groundwork to find them. I'm in search of allies.