Sunday, August 31, 2008

The week's news round-up

By Johnny Taronja

They all wanna come here!

How do they work these figures out? Remember all those scaremongering surveys from ten, fifteen years ago, telling us that England would be non-white by 2001 or entirely Polish-speaking by 2010? Well, we're at it again. As a treat to our newspapers and tabloids, Eurostat now claims the UK population is set to reach 77 million by 2060, overtaking Germany as the most populous EU state.

There's been a recent tail-off of Eastern European immigrants, but don't say it too loud. Look, instead at how they're all fretting. To the horror of its readers, the Mail on Sunday makes a link with birth control and Britain's highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe. And so it's up to The Observer to keep up the myth that they-all-wanna-come-here. "The time has come to say Britain is full". And me thinking that East Anglia looking like a swollen gut was only due to the Brits' penchant for a bit of lager...

but not on Ryanair...

And if they-all-wanna-come-here they may wish to replan their route. Because Ryanair's getting a bit too pricey...Alright, at Hagley Road to Ladywood we must have it in for O'Leary and his company but we wouldn't perform our duty if we didn't show you this piece in The Sunday Times, written by Richard Green: "Low-cost? Not with these extras.....". Not to mention the recent accusation made by Ryanair's own pilots. Now, that sounds proper bad. According to The Sunday Times, the pilots are being "pressurised flying with less fuel by imposing a cap on their safety reserves". Sorry, Al Gore. I think I'm gonna get the car next time.

An end to all wars?

Reviewing the recent crisis with Russia and the chances of slipping back into Cold War-mode, The Observer's analysis is spot-on. Remember the 1990s and the certainty that globalised Western-style capitalist democracies will signal an end to all wars? "It was assumed that economic prosperity and political freedom were indivisible. As societies become richer, the theory went, a middle class would emerge to demand representation from its rulers". That illusion "resulted in a failure to understand the challenge of nationalist capitalism".
Sarah Palin and those sex-desperate tabloid hacks

Talk about female empowerment. The News of The World was so happy to celebrate John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as Vice-President that all they could knock up was this misleading piece about fake/non-fake nude pictures of the "hottest governor". While you're left wondering why they didn't do that for Joe Biden...don't you wish some multi-millionaire philantropist paid for sex workers to relieve the entire Sun/News of The World newsroom? Boy-oh-boy they need it!

A WINNER? I don't think so

Internet advertising? The closest thing to 'the work of the devil'

Pop-ups, pop-unders, interstitials, general spam, fake-lottery notifications. Who knows, perhaps the summer months have turned me into a more attentive person. But am I alone in having noticed the renewed proliferation of INSTANT WINNER, NOT A JOKE YOU'VE JUST WON!..., and SERIOUS! PRIZE WAITING FOR YOU? They're absolutely everywhere, including some allegedly reliable and respected websites. I thought the end of pop-ups would herald a new era of more civilised net surfing. Or, more likely, the spammers never left in the first place and I never noticed.

Either way they reinforce my belief that marketing and advertising is the closest thing to 'the work of the devil' humans have mastered. Because this is marketing we're talking about. When you're ready to dress up, mislead and lie in order to coax gullible people into squeezing money out of their purse when they don't otherwise intend to, then what else is there but a cunning marketing operation?

Which leaves you wondering if there's still any click-happy plonker out there who genuinely believes he's an unsolicited internet winner. In these times of instant gratification, nothing's surprising anymore.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Britain's Best Social Observational Films

Still owing to Q magazine's quest for the unlikeliest list, here's the ultimate roll of honour of the best British movies that brought realism and social observation to the big screen.

Letter to Brezhnev (1984)
Directed by Chris Bernard. With Alexandra Pigg, Margi Clarke
Imagine how crap Liverpool was in the 1980s that Teresa (Margo) begs the authorities for a visa for entry into the Soviet Union. Her dream is to find the Russian sailor she met during his passing trip to Liverpool. Hence an unlikely letter to the other side of the iron curtain. But will Brezhnev help?

It's a Free World (2007)
Directed by Ken Loach. With Kierston Wareing.
Imagine a film-director successfully tackling head-on the bane of our time, labour casualisation, illegal immigration and the dramatic effects on the working class. Ken Loach did it and what a superb one he pulled off.

East is East (1999)
Directed by Damien O'Donnell. With Om Puri, Linda Bassett, Jimi Mistry.
Hilarious and dramatic in one go, this caused a right stir when it came out. Set in 1971's Salford, it's the story of fish-and-chip shop owner George Khan expecting his family to follow his strict Pakistani Muslim ways. But with his kids born and brought up in Britain, it turns out a bit more complicated than expected. Plenty of funny vignettes. Includes the classic line "wash your bastard curtains, you dirty cow".

A Taste of Honey (1961)
Directed by Tony Richardson. With Dora Bryan, Robert Stephens
Big screen adaptation of Shelagh Delaney's play, it's the epitome of 60's English kitchen-sink drama and an almost revolutionary one for its time. The story of Jo, a reclusive 17-year-old girl smothered by her domineering, alcoholic mother, her unexpected pregnancy and her friendship with Geoffrey, a shy and lonely homosexual. Half of The Smiths' early lyrics include a nod and a wink at this amazing drama.

My Beautiful Launderette (1985)
Directed by Stephen Frears. With Saeed Jaffrey, Daniel Day-Lewis.
Entrepreneurial ambition, class envy, mistresses, racism and homosexual politics are an explosive mix any time, any place. In 1980s' England? You're not kidding.

Raining Stones (1993)
Directed by Ken Loach. With Bruce Jones, Julie Brown, Gemma Phoenix. This is Loach at his finest. Set in Major-era depressed Lancashire, it bravely depicts the typical dynamics of the British underworld around a story of social deprivation, petty crime and debt. Gritty realism like the Americans can only dream of.

The Last Yellow (1999)
Directed by Julian Farino. With Mark Addy, Samantha Morton
Slated by critics, this inspired tale of nerdiness, loneliness and despair put Leicester on the map. It features a mulleted thirty-something compulsive liar and geeky loner Kenny. The pair decide to turn into hitmen to avenge a brutal attack. Cue a National Express trip to London and the result is disarmingly hilarious.

The Full Monty (1997)
Directed by Peter Cattaneo. With Robert Carlysle, Mark Addy
If you say you haven’t seen this one yet then you're telling a porky. The Full Monty epitomises that particular British blend of gloom, clumsiness and great comedy that has become the UK's cinematic trademark. Unemployed steelworkers decide to put on an amateur strip show to make ends meet. An amazing depiction of how entire communities got stamped out by Thatcher's policies.

The Mark of Cain (2006)
Directed by Mark Munden. With Gerard Kearns, Matthew McNulty.
The first British film about the Iraq war, it's a mostly-true story centred on the permanent effects of what two soldiers have seen and done as they return from their tour of duty. Showing how sleepwalking into the army entails more consequences than a game of Command and Conquer.

All or Nothing (2002)
Directed by Mike Leigh. With Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville.
Set in a grim London tower block, it's an extraordinarily ordinary story about family life, emotional ineptitude and everyday drama. A hollow relationship that drags along like a stubborn dog and is kept half-alive by small ordinary events will suddenly be tested by something unexpected and much more serious than daily tiffs.

This is England (2007)
Directed by Shane Meadows. With Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham. Propelling Meadows to the role of the chief storyteller of his generation, it's a faithful take on some of the English youth cultures of the early 80s. A tale of gritty realism set in the North of England in 1983, it shows how the beauty and fraternity of a light-hearted gang is spoilt by the return of an old friend, a psycho now completely in awe of the BNP's ugly far-right rhetoric.

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960)
Directed by Karel Reisz. With Albert Finney
Finney's debut as he plays nasty-piece-of-work Arthur in this impressive take on the changing attitudes of 1960's British working classes. Arctic Monkeys found it inspiring.

Nil By Mouth (1997)
Directed by Gary Oldman. With Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke
This highly acclaimed drama depicts a grimly accurate picture of domestic violence, abuse, alcoholism and denial. Including fantasic interpretations by both Winstone and Burke. With extra marks if you consider it was Oldman's directing debut. Keep those tissues handy.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Deport them! Deport the bloody lot of them!

"Not Local?" There are times you wonder if The League of Gentlemen was filmed in Hastings.
East Sussex native Emma Munn on the final testament to the town's soaring race hate crisis.

Thousands of language students come to Hastings and other coastal town across southern England every year, providing a boost to the economy and filling the streets with excited teenagers from all over the world. Mohammed Al Majed was one of them.

The wealthy 16 year old had come from Qatar to improve his English over the summer and was a week away from being reunited with his parents when, for no apparent reason other than being Arab, was set upon by a group of youths outside a seafront Kebab house.
He was beaten, kicked, had bottles thrown at him together with jeering insults of 'Bin Laden'. These bold citizens also took turns at stamping on his head until, racked by severe injuries, he died in the street.

Once a fashionable resort during the Victorian era frequented by poets, artists and writers, Hastings popularity has gone into sharp decline over the past 30 years. During the 40s and 50s it was a haven for Londoners wanting a cheap seaside break, but with the introduction of package holidays lost its quaint appeal, resulting in massive financial losses and unemployment.
Walking though this town (where I spent most of my teenage life) the initial reaction is one of uneasiness and slight sadness. The seafront is a mess of large, once grand and expensive townhouses now converted into squalid flats or boarded up, paint peeling and gardens overgrown. The promenade is full of hooded youths clutching cans of Skol and, as a final blow to the ambience of the seafront, the pier was closed two years ago and now stands rotting. The whole image is one of despair and neglect.

Foreign students here are treated with contempt. This year, between April and August alone, there were 100 reported assaults on language students. Not surprising when you consider that in this small town there are 37.1 violent crimes for every 1000 people against a national average of 16, and drug offences rose sharply by 30% in 2007. This is a town of just over 80,000 people. It doesn't take a genius to work out that Hastings has some problems.

The usual concurrence between locals regarding those-who-are-not-English is one of 'Get rid of them, there's too many and they're taking over' quickly followed by the typical '...Don't get me wrong though, I'm not racist or anyfink'. Coupled and finished off with the extreme, laughable ignorance of 'I'm sick of them, these people are a drain on the economy. They come here saying they are in danger then they don't leave. They take our jobs and money'.
Poetry in motion by a populace who can't even separate asylum seekers and immigrants from kids spending 5 weeks in their town and spending a fortune for the privilege of doing so. Work out for yourselves who is more of a drain on society.

Flicking through an EF brochure at work, I noticed that Hastings was one of three towns offered to students over the summer to study at. The other two, Oxford and Cambridge, were general descriptions of the town, brief history and other basic information. Hastings however was more like a competition for how many times you can fit the words safe and safety into one paragraph; 'A safe environment for students, a safe town center, comfort and safety in a great town to learn in, safe, safe, safe' as if the town was so desperate to portray itself as something it isn't. Hastings is a town so safe that students who go out drinking in the town leave the bars early to avoid the locals, and sometimes leave the town altogether for evenings out, preferring the liberal atmosphere of Brighton.

Rife unemployment, poor education, the small-town mentality of people who are bringing up their kids with the racial views of the worst League of Gentlemen standard (all non-whites and non-English don't work and take benefits that I could have) and bad diets of crap, misinformed newspapers and magazines are conducive to breeding new generations of ignorant and sometimes violent individuals without basic principles. Hastings in the lead up to the next decade will be the flagbearer of all these things.

The harsh fact is that if you are a foreign student wanting to improve your English abroad this year, the 'safest' thing you can do in the future is avoid Hastings at all costs.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Aaronovitch and his poor opinion column

The Olympics are many things but not an indicator of national prosperity. Otherwise Kenya and Cuba would have replaced Canada in the G8 a long time ago

Every government has its own guard dogs and The Times' David Aaronovitch is one of those doing the job for New Labour. One of the last living examples of Cold-war politicking, he's more factional than an Evertonian getting all worked up as he hears talks of Liverpool's success. He may no longer have anything in common with his own communist past, but he'd bend over backwards to stand by the word 'Labour', even when the only difference with the word 'Tory' is merely the word himself.

Recently Aaronovitch was at pains to deny quibbles such as the knife-crime surge, Labour's infighting or the dumbing down of society. Now, as he wallows in delight at Britain's superb Olympic performance, he's surpassed himself with a new pro-Labour argument. For Aaronovitch, a good Olympic result is "an indicator of national health". Britain under Labour is doing better than we think and all those medals are simply direct evidence. "If things are so bad - he writes- why are they so good?", adding that "if Gordon Brown is to get it in the neck for every ill, real and imagined, why should he not get some credit for this?"

Which begs the question: is it possible that such clever, celebrated columnists can display such a disarming level of one-dimensional thinking and self-denial? How much wool over your eyes have you got if you fail to detect what is, essentially, a dishonest argument? Not to mention that is based on absolute bollocks. One that, by comparison, would make Dr Pangloss pale into insignificance. Stand by New Labour, do a Titanic orchestra and deny that the ship is sinking, but just don't feed your readers bullshit.

Because otherwise, if we follow the Aaronovitch-pensiero, we'll have to conclude that Cuba (who outdid Britain in the medal tally charts for several consecutive Olympics until Sydney 2000) at the height of Castro's grip on power was a much healthier nation than the UK?
Or that Switzerland, Sweden and Canada are much poorer and inefficient than not only Russia, but also Jamaica, Kenya and Ethiopia?

But then I remember the height of the Cold War and the pro-Soviet regimes brandishing their outstanding Olympic achievements as an indicator of political, social and economic superiority. The USSR, East Germany, Bulgaria and Hungary were all falling apart but they were still routinely humiliating Britain, France and others Western nations at the Olympics.
It makes sense. It's Aaronovitch's own past coming back to haunt him and old habits die hard.

To fly or not to fly

Plane crashes and emergency landings. Air companies have enjoyed better moments than the last few weeks.

It's been a remarkably bad month so far for flying passengers. Just last week I told my parents not to worry about phone calls announcing a safe arrival as flying remains, statistically, much safer than driving a car. But then there were the two appalling crashes in Madrid and Kyrgyztan, the emergency landing of an Easyjet Stansted-Sardinia flight and, two days ago, the loss of pressure (and emergency landing) on a Ryanair plane from Bristol to Girona.

The latter has received extra news coverage because a number of passengers complained that their emergency oxygen masks had failed to work properly. According to Arctic explorer Pen Hanlow, who was on the plane with his family, his mask "wasn't filling up with oxygen and neither was my son's", adding that other passengers later complained of a similar plight.

Of course, Ryanair denied the allegations and claimed that "the oxygen masks were working and correct safety procedures were followed". But Ryanair will say nothing about the way it dealt with the entire situation. Passengers complained that they heard nothing during and after their ordeal and that getting hold of a company rep via their contacts is proving impossible. No surprises there. Typical Ryanair-style, as we wrote last month.

Yet, you'd expect a company that last year managed to pocket £363 million from "ancillary revenue" (i.e. payment fees, priority boarding, and other stealth charges) alone, to be a bit less arrogant in the way they handle customers.

Meanwhile, on the subject of safety procedures, am I the only one puzzled by the way instructions are hurriedly dished out before taking off? You get air hostesses robotically going through the motions in some incomprehensible proto-language in the midst of engine roaring. I don't really blame them, motivation and all, but as they're clearly reading it off a script, often in a language that isn't their own, mouth too close to the mic, you just get what sounds like 40 seconds of muffled breathless mumbling: "that... zzz...that... hafety... zzzgthth... tht...mssppp ...ppthatehththth...exit...pp...enjoy... tzhetht... atheflight with...(cue the name of a low fare company)". It sounds like everything but the word "priority".

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Best Horror Films

Inspired by Q's never ending lists, here's a compilation of the films that will most likely make you soil yourself. By Stan Moss & Claude Carpentieri

The Shining (1980)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. With Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd.
By far the scariest film in the history of mankind. Jack is given the unenviable task of looking after a massive, isolated hotel up the Rocky Mountains while it stays shut for the winter season. His only company is his wife Wendy and son Danny. Except that all that solitude slowly drives him insane. Add the bad vibes exuded by said hotel, a psychic son ("Redrum"), snowstorms and it's time to get yourself some nappies. Sod A Clockwork Orange, this is Kubrick at his peak.

REC (2007)
Directed by Jaume Balaguero. With Manuela Velasco, Maria Lanau.
A young TV reporter and a cameraman decide to follow a fire brigade crew along to a routine emergency call. Destination: a creepy old block of flats. Which they won't be allowed to exit.

Christine (1983)
Directed by John Carpenter. With Keith Gordon, John Stockwell.
Based on a Stephen King novel, and back in the days when his stories weren't about spotty monsters and OTT crap, it tells the story of uber-geek uber-bullied Arnie turning the table on his tormentors as he falls in love with a malevolent, red-and-white 1958 Plymouth Fury. A car that, in the words of George Thorogood and his soundtrack, is truly "bad to the bone".

The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by William Friedkin. With Linda Blair, Jason Miller.
My parents wouldn't let me watch it. Then one day my uncle decided it'd be a good idea while they weren't around. Heads rotating 360 degrees, mint sauce coming out of Regan's mouth and scary voices. You can dismiss it as a load of bollocks as much as you like but you're guaranteed to watch it all in one go.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Directed by Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez. With Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams.
1999's marketing masterpiece, this low-budget film was declared the most profitable in the history of cinema. Initially sold to the public as "real footage", found in the woods where four students mysteriously disappeared in 1994. All narrative of course. But the greatest thing is that you don't see any monsters, axe-wielding maniacs or supernatural forces. Think about it next time you head for Lickey Hills.

Creep (2004)
Directed by Chritopher Smith. With Franca Potente
A woman finds herself locked in overnight in the London Tube. If that wasn't scary enough she's being stalked by a minging killer living in the sewers below. And he's not pissed.

The Birds (1963)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. With Jessica Tandy, Rod Taylor.
Watch the legendary adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's classic and you'll get why Ken Livingstone declared war on pigeons...

El Orfanato- The Orphanage (2007)
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. With Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo
Laura returns to the orphanage where she stayed for a period as a child. Not short of a bob or two she purchases the massive house, with plans to turn it into a home for disabled children. In the meantime, the parents discover their kid's talking to an imaginary friend. Horror ensues.

Profondo Rosso - Deep Red (1975)
Directed by Dario Argento. With David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia
Italy's horror masterpiece, it tells the story of a music teacher investigating the violent death of a psychic medium. Back in the days when bathtub murders, creepy dolls and children's musicboxes still seemed scary and prog-rock soundtracks still deemed acceptable.

The Ring (2002)
Directed by Gore Verbinski. With Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson
In the American adaptation of the original Japanese story, a young journalist must investigate a mysterious videotape which seems to cause the death of anyone in a week of viewing it. The videotape bit is possibly the most nightmarish and disturbing thing ever seen. It makes The Exorcist come across as light-hearted as Borat.

Wolf Creek (2005)
Directed by Greg McLean. With John Jarratt, Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips
Two incredibly annoying British backpackers and an Ozzie guy end up in the Australian Outback. Their dead car battery won't help but a local bushman will.

Don't Look Now (1973)
Directed by Nick Roeg. With Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie
Another Daphne Du Maurier-inspired classic. Following the tragic death of their daughter, an architect and his wife decide to spend some time in a particularly spectral-looking Venice to recover. Bad call, as it turns out.

Halloween (1978)
Directed by John Carpenter. With Jamie Lee Curtis.
Its legendary status slightly tarnished by the incessant release of useless sequels, it remains a lynchpin of the genre. The Beatles more famous than Jesus Christ? No, but Michael Myers may be.

Cloverfield (2008)
Directed by Matt Reeves. With Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, TJ Miller.
Off the back of post 9-11 syndrome, a giant monster unsuspectingly attacks New York City rudely interrupting a going-away party. The best thing is that you don't really see the monster, which leaves the sense of foreboding more substantial.

Stick to the undies, Paxman

Time to feel sorry for the Oxbridge educated males? Paxo thinks so...

Self-appointed BBC's chief interrogator Jeremy Paxman strikes again. Back in January he thought he'd act as the country's spokesperson for those men whose bollocks are routinely failed by their M&S underpants. Now he's spouting bile over the balance of power in television.

If you're white, male and middle-class, according to Paxman, you have no chance of making it in the world of media and TV. And of course, we've all seen those scenes, haven't we? Those BBC recruitment stools soldiering on in roughest Hackney. Sir Trevor McDonald, Gutto Hari and Moira Stewart spending days scouting for talent in deepest Brixton and Brick Lane, London; Sparkhill, Birmingham and Rusholme, Manchester, striving, of course, to snap up black, female, working class media aspirants - eager to oust poor Oxbridge educated white middle-class BBC and ITV staff.

More likely, £800,000 a year is turning Cambridge-educated Paxman into a bit of a Jim Morrison-on-acid-like visionary.

The best riposte to grumpy old Paxo came, surprisingly, from the Telegraph. In the words of Glenda Cooper, those looking for answers may want to look at the "Sutton Trust’s report, which found that 86 per cent of leading newspaper and TV journalists were educated at those well known working-class havens, independent and grammar schools".

Monday, August 25, 2008

The week's news round-up

The International Olympic Committee? Off-cheese inside their heads

The 153 victims of the Madrid plane crash are posing questions related to the usual dilemma profit vs safety. In the days prior to the accident, the technicians' Union had warned Spanair that excessive cutbacks may reflect negatively on safety procedures. Prophetic. On another level, the entire world must have wondered what kind of cheese the International Olympic Comittee have inside their heads as they decided to turn down Spain's request for a minute's silence in honour of the victims.

Tony Parsons: "the Chinese don't look very oppressed, do they?"

Still on the Olympics. On Saturday, uber-opinionated Mirror columnist Tony Parsons missed an excellent opportunity to keep quiet. Parsons is one of those from the club of stopped clocks. Twice a day he may point the right time (and in fact, on the same page he strikes it right about Tories, class and immigration), but very often he talks utter shite for the sake of being controversial for effect.

Normally happy to dish dirt on anything he writes about (with the European Union, for instance, a typical pet-hate of his), Parsons has decided instead that the Chinese regime will do. Perhaps happy that Team GB clocked up a record 19 gold medals at the Bejing Olympics, Parsons got carried away and suddenly decided to dismiss those petty issues, you know, like human rights and the Chinese regime. "The Chinese", he wrote, "are not the brain-washed fanatics of Hitler's shindig. And they don't look very oppressed, do they? They look like they're having the time of their lives", pontificates Parsons. Trouble is, without the slightest hint of irony.

Therefore Parsons-land is one where if one of the most ruthless regimes in history are able to crack a dozens fireworks and get a decent turnout at a sporting event, that equates lack of oppression. You knock off good Olympics? Then it's Top Marks on human rights from Parsons. Let's just hope London 2012 crack it right and get good audiences or Parsons may start blabbering on about the English Third Reich. Perhaps The Mirror may want to send him reporting in Tibet for a year or two.

Dangerous dogs? Dangerous owners, more like

Much has been written about "dangerous dogs" and the latest court case concerning the death of toddler Archie-Lee Hirst mauled to death by his grannie's rottweiler in West Yorkshire. It emerged that the old scumbag had kept the dog secluded and unwalked for five months, a lethal recipe for an animal's distorted interaction and overreaction to unusual situations. The dog was later put down by the police.

However, the press can go on as much as they like about banning dangerous dogs and introducing breeding controls, but if the owners are lowlife morons even a docile Labrador will be able to cause havoc. How about a compulsory licence for everyone who wants to own a dog - perhaps one that could be refused on the grounds of unsuitability? Many, many dogs would be grateful for that and will enjoy a better quality of life.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Verve, Forth

The Wiganites are back. A review

Ten years after their acrymonious split, the return of The Verve as the musical highlight of 2007 was spoilt by two other massive reunions. First, The Police were quick to steal the limelight. But even that was nothing compared to the attention grabbed by Led Zeppelin with their first concert in twenty-five years. For someone as big-headed as Richard Ashcroft (you may remember his delusional claims that The Verve are "the greatest band in the world"), that must have been quite disheartening.
The Verve disbanded at their commercial peak in 1997. The title of their album Urban Hymns had turned into a prophecy. Their hits, Bitter Sweet Symphony, The Drugs Don't Work and Lucky Man had truly turned into the generation's dullest anthems. You wouldn't find a single pub juke-box without any of them playing on repeat.

Which explains the mixed feelings about their return. Did they leave it too late? Or should they have waited until the forthcoming 90's revival to maximise their commercial fortunes? In terms of sales, it looks like they did the right thing. Their comeback single (premiered live at Glastonbury) Love is Noise scored a UK Top Five hit. Including references to 19th century English poet and painter William Blake ("Do those feet in modern times/Walk on soles that are made in China?"), the single may signal a return to form. The most electronic track of the Verve's career, the sampled "woo-hoo" vocal and synths stake out new territory, but rarely have Ashcroft's vocals sounded as raw and angrily passionate.

Their signature anthemic ballad comes in the guise of Valium Skies, a guaranteed future concert staple which is reminiscent of 1997's Lucky Man. Cue football geezers singing along to it pint-in-hand. But if that's on the most inspired side of The Verve, everything else is a faithful representation of The Verve's lesser known stuff: dirge-rock (the tuneless I See Houses and Columbo, for instance).

Only one song is less than five minutes long on Forth- which begins with the seven-minute jam Sit and Wonder, a nod to their early experimental self-wanking days. Atop a big bass groove and foreboding atmospherics, Richard Ashcroft pleads, "Lord, give me the light". Quite a humble statement for his ego. You'd expect someone like Ashcroft to pen a line like "Lord, hold that light for me, won't you". The poor listener, in the meantime, is pleading the Lord to give them more patience because those songs really feel like they're going on forever.

But let's not get too harsh on them. With Numbness, in fact, they got the title spot-on, while Noise Epic gives the tangible feeling of unfinished business and the same is for the seemingly endless Appalachian Strings.

Though I've never been the biggest Verve fan (too blokeish for my liking), a side of me is quite pleased to have them around again. A bit like the thin comfort of running into a familiar face you haven't seen in ten years while getting bored shitless at a party full of strangers. Except that within five minutes of chatting you are reminded of why contact had been lost for a full decade.

[Forth is out on Parlophone on August, 25]

Saturday, August 23, 2008


The final installment of our 3-part story about inflated BT bills, premium-rate profits and customer nightmares

But hold on a minute. How can I accuse BT of making a mint? Didn’t I mention what their customer reps said about their share of premium-rate profit being given to charity? According to their official letter, "BT would like you to know that it does not wish to profit from this type of problem. BT takes only £1.85 per £100 worth of calls, the remaining revenue going to the service provider, and BT has pledged to donate its share of revenue to Childline".

Their peculiar way of looking at things is tantamount to someone helping burglars break into your home to grab hold of a couple hundred quid they find in your draw, then replying to your angry objections that they only wish to give their share to charity. Their case would sound like: "I had a hunch he was dodgy, but I have no hard evidence he broke in. He just came back with some cash. All I did was drive him down to your place while you weren’t in… And I know the geezer may be a bit of a crook but I have no proof the money he keeps coming back with is nicked so I'm just gonna keep netting my cut and then pass it on to charity".

Financial-crime and money laundering expert Jeffrey Robinson nailed it right on the head with a piece on the Sunday Times. "If Verwaayen and BT took legal advice that charitable donations somehow exonerate them, then they are living in a fools' paradise", he wrote, adding that "If BT passes money on to bad guys, when there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the money is the proceeds of crime, it is potentially guilty of a crime". Notably, "BT could be open to the charge of being involved in money-laundering if at any stage it knows or suspects customers are victims of a premium-rate scam". And BT knows, because their letter brings up "this kind of problem" and "diallers acting outside of the guidelines". Not only that, but "BT had been receiving complaints about dialler fraud for at least two years", continued Robinson, "If it had only received a few dozen, that may not have indicated something was a miss. Perhaps a few hundred might have tipped the balance. But what a conclusion, other than some kind of criminal activity, can a reasonable person make after more than 80,000 complaints?"

That aside, the very claim that BT are not profiting from Premium-rate fraudsters is open to doubt to say the least. Robinson explained that his fraudsters were premium-rate providers who leased their number from a UK network operator, Redstone Communications Ltd.
"With tens of thousands of people around the country suffering the same fate, BT was possibly handling millions of pounds worth of money that could be dirty. […] I looked at Redstone Communications. In 2002 the company nearly went broke and was forced to sell its national telecom network - to BT! Today, Redstone resells products on behalf of BT, which means BT has an interest in Redstone, making BT's claim that it only has a 1.85% stake in premium-rate calls rather less than the whole story". In fact, whereas it's true that technically BT only pockets 1.85% (still hundreds of thousands of pounds, possibly more) of your rogue bill, the network operator is entitled to around 30% of the same potentially dirty sum. But if the same network operator is a subsidiary of BT then I'll leave you to draw your own conclusion.

The press also reported that the network providers were leasing out their lines to people who would call themselves Mr Michael Jackson or Mickey Mouse, hardly a ringing endorsement of a premium rate provider's integrity. Given that BT & co. are supposed to provide a public service, they also have a duty of care to their customers, which they were eluding by not checking the credentials of many a '0909' numbers.

In January 2005, the BBC ran a story about a 78-year-old pensioner whose phone was cut off when he failed to settle his £800 BT bill "which he blamed on a rogue internet dialler on his computer". Anxious to safeguard its public image, BT issued a press release announcing that they'd write off Mr Church's debt. However, they maintained it'd be a one-off as "the ex-gratia payment in no way implied BT was at fault or liable for the charges".

Less lucky were Dennis and Brenda Stevens, an elderly couple from Norfolk scammed out of nearly £4,000 and struggling "to make ends meet". On BBC1 Look East, BT claimed it wasn’t fraud and cut them off. And so 2005 went on with similarly depressing stories piling up.
In the end I turned out to be one of the lucky ones. Successive phone calls to BT and yet another letter gave me a chance to inform them that in no way was I to pay hundreds of pounds for calls I didn’t request. I also told them I was ready to go the whole hog for that, court included. I don’t know whether it was sheer stupidity, Mr Jones-like delusion of grandeur, or simply a pathetic moment of inspiration (perhaps all three). But during one of those phone calls I advised them to make a note on my file that - as a journalist for The Independent- I'd make sure my case was to receive ample publicity. Complete make-believe bollocks of course. I was a disgruntled Museum visitor assistant and a job at The Independent couldn’t have been a more frustrating (and remote) dream to me.

Nevertheless, many websites reported on BT's susceptibility to their public image not to mention the claim that BT would cave in light of legal actions being threatened. All I can do is tell you what happened to me. One Saturday morning I answered the phone to a lady by the name of Juliet who introduced herself as a senior manager from BT's Customer Service team. It was a far cry from any previous correspondence I'd had with BT up until that moment. She apologised profusely and gave me her word that her call was the last I was to hear from them about the matter. She informed me she was taking on the responsibility to write off my £605.77 bill on the grounds that their Call Level Charge facility had let me down.

I was still grudging at BT and the heartaches it'd wrought. However I appreciated what she told me. She didn’t quite go as far as saying that BT were as guilty as the 0909 fraudsters, but she admitted they'd been nowhere near enough performing their public duty. I was relieved, yet fully aware that without that Call Level Charge issue to cling on to I would have ended up like the poor OAPs in Norfolk. Not to mention my PC -which isn’t pocket money- was now ready for the rubbish tip, having amassed more viruses and Trojan horses than a hospital's quarantine ward. That, of course, courtesy of the fraudsters.

Nationwide, the epidemic had just got out of proportion for anyone to still deem it profitable. In May 2005, BT proudly announced its "two initiatives to help beat rogue dialler scams", making free software downloadable "to stop computers using numbers not on a user's 'pre-approved' list". Paired to their anti-hijack software, BT introduced their new "early warning system which will alert BT customers if there is unusual activity on their phone bills". Few weeks into the announcement, "the company said more than 2,000 customers a day [were] downloading [the free software] it [was] offering. But thousands of customers [would] still have to pay huge phone bills, racked up after their computers were infected" Many believe that BT's belated initiatives, coupled with Icstis finally showing some grit, were behind the problem eventually fading out. Then again, in spite of extensive research, to this date it's difficult to establish the full cost of that national scam on UK customers, not to mention the amount of anguish and distress. For sure, the dial-up scandal left a permanent scar on the public's perception of what had once been a reliable British institution.

Barely two years after the dial-up scandal, BT were again in the eye of the storm, this time with their "stealth charges" - the rise in line-rental, late payment penalty increases and additional charges on non-direct debit payment.

At the end of 2006, BT announced a daily profit of £5.05 million after tax.


[If you require the full references and sources for the information provided in this piece, please contact us.]

Friday, August 22, 2008

My BT hell (PART TWO)

Anglo-Saxon free market? It doesn't come better than BT

As I finished work on Friday 6 August I walked back home confident the matter was going to be sorted out there and then. Didn’t Maggie tell us real power rests with the customer? I dialled BT helpline on 150, at 5:15 pm. Two hours and a swirl of useless phone calls later I was left fuming. The events unravelled as follows.

Customer assistant Paul puts me through customer rep Vinnie at 'Credit Management' department. After hanging on to the tune of 'our customer representatives are very busy', Vinnie pops up again only to tell me that he's going to call back "in a second". Almost two hours are spent picking my nose but no trace of Vinnie calling back. It's up to me to grab the phone again and put up with the charming phone queues. It's twenty-to-eight when Kerrie finally answers the phone and I explain that not only was I stood up by their Call Level Charge facility, but also by her colleagues who promised me they'd call back within 'minutes'. She transfers me to "Call level" department where David promises me they will indeed call me back the same evening. Another lie, it turns out.

In fact, forget the same evening, Saturday whizzes through without a single trace of BT's kind and irreplaceable "customer service". The phone doesn’t ring and their promises of a speedy call-back look increasingly hollow. I spend a few hours mulling over the previous day and the abstruse explanations given by those finely trained BT customer reps regarding my £605.77 bill and my call-level facility going AWOL right when I needed it. Paul talked about "the system sometimes picking up customers with good payment history. If it shows they've always paid on time then it removes the 'Call Level' cap". Yes. I know what you're thinking. I'm thinking that too. What a lame load of bollocks. You can say whatever about my customer history but not exactly that I am punctual in paying my bills.

Totally unaware of how Premium Rate scams work, Customer adviser no. 2, Vinnie, was quite adamant that I had made those Premium Rate calls. When I retorted that "it's not true and BT are making a mint out of this" his reply was that "no, the money we make through those Premium rate numbers goes to aid organisations". Nice to know BT does its bit for charity with other people's dosh. But we'll come back to it.

Customer assistant David came up with an unspecific "letter that was sent on 24 May" informing me of the withdrawal of the "Call Level Charge" service. It goes without saying that I never received it. In any case, I find it striking that such a crucial service I had subscribed to can be withdrawn arbitrarily, by post and with an ordinary letter that can easily get lost in the way. All this -above all - two months before the expiration of the "Call Level Charge" facility. More, as I take another painful glance at the itemised section of my monstrous bill, I discover that the £50 limit that the "Call Level Charge" service was supposed to cover had already been reached BEFORE 24 May, which is to say even before the letter was sent out! That would make the letter itself completely redundant in the matter. Reassured by yet more evidence that it's all due to BT's negligence I brace myself for more phone queues. Is there a "customer rep" that would simply talk to me? As the weekend draws to a close, it doesn’t look like it.

In the evening of Monday 8 August, I am finally contacted by a 'manager' who introduces himself as Mr Emtab. His version of the facts is the most extraordinary yet. He stammers that "the Call Level Charge service was withdrawn on 24 May on the basis that I had reached the beginning of my quarterly bill". In other words, his (or BT's) way of calculating a 12 months service simply neglects the fact that 12 months have not elapsed at all. In May, in fact, we were a mere 9 months into the contract! To my protestations, and my plea to the most basic maths, Emtab responds with his loop-like formula that "the beginning of the quarterly bill is the equivalent of running the course of 12 months".

Imagine you rent a place by signing a 12-month contract. 9 months into the tenancy there comes the landlord with his new tenant and he sends you packing on the grounds that you've entered the last quarter. Now, that isn’t the product of the village idiot's imagination, that's BT. Pap like that is the equivalent of being called a total retard. They may as well send you a piece of paper with BT logo on it calling you dim. Five customer assistants and five different explanations show a lot about BT's contempt for the public. But if Mr Emtab's absurd version is to be believed, then the other four customer reps have all been talking shite. And that's the worst aspect, the fact that BT would rather hold on to the most twisted, daft excuses and take you for a complete idiot than simply apologise and write off a messed-up bill.

I submit my complaint to regulator Icstis, but at no stage will I hear from them. Another instance that makes the customer feel a complete nobody. In fairness though they're probably mega-busy handling the "tsunami of complaints", 10,000 a week, from fellow "people who discovered these unwanted extras on their bills".

On 10 August 2004 I forward my official complaint to BT. Amongst three pages of bitterness, I include:
"All customer representatives and advisers from BT I spoke to, either last year or on my recent queries told me that the "Call Level Charge" service would cover the first 12 months of my contract. In which case, at BT you supply misleading and deceitful information. Leaving aside the inaccurate promises that 'a manager would ring you back', BT marketed and sold me the "Call Level Charge" service on the basis that it would cover 12 months. And not, 3 quarters and then be withdrawn at the beginning of the fourth quarter! They never said it would cover 9, 10, 11 or even 11 and ½ months. They expressly stated 12 months and did so on all occasions barring Mr Emtab, the last person I spoke to. As such, the explanation that the "Call Level Charge" was withdrawn in May because it was 'the beginning of the last quarter' is inconsistent, unacceptable to customers and, quite frankly, insulting. Of course I will pay the share of the bill that I fairly owe, but my request to BT is to withdraw the £460 charge (£392 plus VAT generated by the Premium Rate calls) out of the 2 August 2004 bill. Those calls were unsolicited, unasked for and fraudulent. But, above all, the "Call Level Charge" service I had agreed to with BT in order to safeguard my account totally failed to come into practice".

It took me hours to lay down my letter in a way that would illustrate my case as best I could. BT completely ignored its content. Five weeks later they answered with an impersonal form/letter that was obviously being sent all around the country to those customers incensed at their stratospheric phone bills. BT's was basically a disclaimer saying that "the numbers have been dialled from your computer equipment in use at your home on the date(s) in question" and that "BT cannot prevent customers' equipment from accepting downloads being offered to them via the Internet. BT has no way of knowing which sites are bona fide and which sites do not comply with the regulators' guidelines".

"If the user of the computer instigates calls, whether intentionally or otherwise, BT has no option other than to connect the call", "[BT] cannot make a judgement on whether the originator wishes to be connected". Nevermind thousands of disputed bills on file with BT and Icstis show systemic repeat calls and are irrefutable evidence of an ongoing scam. How can BT assume it's not dodgy? The letter concluded with a matter-of-fact request for "any outstanding monies" to be paid in the next six weeks. What about my detailed case about the "Call Level Charge" and the pap offered by five different staff members of their reputable organisation? No mention whatsoever.

Obviously, BT couldn’t care less.
The Trading Standard Institute (TSI) stepped in the ongoing dispute by releasing an estimate of the financial cost of premium rate fraud. While BT admitted "it was costing UK consumers around £8 million each year", TSI chief executive Rob Gainsford remarked that "it's like a sickness that is reaching epidemic proportions - and we are struggling to contain it". The Guardian reported a barrister's view calling into account the regulators and phone firms. "Critics have accused Icstis of failing fully to use its powers to cut off those premium rate internet lines", said Richard Colbey, adding that a "cursory and obvious check with computer security firms" would give out simple information about the nature of service abusers.

"It should be relatively simple for BT and its rivals automatically to notify customers when such number is dialled, or bar them except to anyone who specifically requests access. They elect not to do so and make profits from that failure. A contractual term allowing the levying of premium charges in these circumstances might be one in which the words of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations (UTCCR) is 'contrary to the requirements of good faith [in that] causes a significant imbalance in the parties' rights and obligations…to the detriment of the consumer'".

In the meantime the clinking sound of cash pouring in could be heard at BT's and friends' headquarters. As I discussed my problem with my friends, one of them, Max, timidly came forward owning up to having been prey of a similar scam. "My PC was getting increasingly slow. There was obviously something wrong with it, a bug or something. I also noticed 'pop-ups' were multiplying. It all became clear when my next phone bill came through carrying over £70 worth of unsolicited premium rate numbers". I wasn’t alone, then, and god knows how many others. "Wait before you pay Max!" we all turned. "You may get away with it, you have a case". But too late, "Nahh, guys, c'mon it's just £70 at the end of the day, and I don’t want any hassle". Max had most certainly a point. And if you think that's the view of the greatest majority, BT would brand them all dream customers and keep making a fortune.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

My BT hell (PART ONE)

A real story of appalling customer service, public utilities and spectacular profits for shareholders

One morning in August 2004 I woke up and proceeded downstairs for my habitual cup of tea. No matter the era of e-mail and instant communication, there still is an embedded feeling of contentment in checking your morning post. Except that my heart and guts jumped up in unison and then sank at the sight of my BT bill, a staggering £605.77.

Privatised in 1984 for £16.1 billion, British Telecom inherited a dominating position in the telecommunication business, only marginally troubled by minor competitors. "It soon provided spectacular profits for shareholders and bonanzas for its directors". Things took a turn for the worse due to a slew of reckless market moves and, at the turn of the century, BT debts amounted to £30 billion. Still their CEO managed to rake in a £2 million salary in 2002.

The position of dominance that BT enjoys is quite remarkable. In July 2003 I moved to a new flat expecting to be able to carry forward my subscription with the company I'd been with for years, Birmingham Cable (later Telewest). Without a single glitch I'd enjoyed the telephone service you'd expect, along with cable television and the internet. However, much to my surprise, Telewest told me they weren't going to be able to carry on as my providers because they owned none of the wires and connections in my new area. Monopoly of BT, it turned out. Little did I know at the time, but that fantastic quirk of fine Anglo-Saxon market economy/competition was about to give me a headache or two for the following twelve months.

Yet we didn’t start on the wrong foot. A few phone calls were enough to get my BT account effective within days. The lady on the phone was helpful enough to drag me through the plethora of options: evening plan, friendly plan, weekend plan and dead-of-the-night-plan. In the end I settled for 'BT Together Option 2'. I admit I'm not a meticulous shopper, but £17-50 a month base-rate seemed manageable to me. The crucial selling point was suggested by the customer assistant herself: a 'Call Level Charge' facility that -for the first 12 months of service - automatically disconnects your phone the moment your bill hits £50. "Nice and handy", I thought, "It'll help keep the budget under control". No surprises and no escalating bills. Soon afterwards, a letter from BT confirmed that my contract had become effective on 11 July 2003.

Much to my pleasure, the Call Level Charge facility showed its gnashers in October. Along with my quarterly bill, a letter duly reminded me that I had gone over the call level of £50. As customs, I rang BT to get my connection reinstated and all was fine. You can all but imagine my horror when the 2 August bill turned up on my doorstep as a foreteller of financial misery. It showed the itemised bill for May, June and July 2004, a period that should have been covered by the 'Call Level Charge' facility. That aside, the bill was burdened with a disproportionate amount of unsolicited '0909' numbers based in god knows which country, all premium-rate, at the flimsy cost of £1-50 a minute or more. Completely oblivious, I then started to find out more. I discovered that, since the turn of the century, tens of thousands of customers had been unwarily ripped off while quietly surfing online.

A piece on the BBC website shed some light: "These malicious bits of code sit there until you connect to your usual ISP and then silently disconnect you and phone a premium rate number instead. You still get internet connectivity, but it can cost £1-50 a minute. And you don’t realise what is going on until your next phone bill arrives". Fraudsters and rogue diallers started plaguing the internet since its onset, but the problem had crept to national scandal-levels by the time I was hit. Depressingly, I read that the defrauded customers wouldn’t stand a chance as BT would view it as your own problem and the calls were initiated from your number. But neither BT, nor the regulator had done a single thing to halt a problem that could be solved at the blink of an eye. Warnings were issued much too late and hardly a thing was done to regulate the 0909 lines. Yet in my case I wasn’t too worried. All I had to do was to ring up BT and show them that I should have been covered by their 'Call Level Charge'. No doubt it'd been all an oversight.

That’s when headaches began.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ageism in reverse

Italian TV commentators seem fascinated with the "youth" of Olympic contestants. It makes sense, in a country where most people are tied to their mothers' apron until their early 30s.

Silvio Berlusconi is the oldest prime minister in Europe. His contender at the last elections, Walter Veltroni, was 55 and was universally described as 'The rising star of Italian politics'. Bear in mind that Tony Blair retired when he was 53 and Spanish PM Zapatero is 48.

Watching the Olympic games over the past few weeks on Italian TV channel Rai2, I noticed how the commentators describe anyone between the ages of 20 and 30 as 'giovanissimo' (very young) and 'nuovissimo' (very new).

Having been lucky enough to have lived and worked in Italy and to have experienced everyday life there, I can safely say that this distorted view of ones age does not stop with sportsmen and politicians. It affects your job and the way people perceive you on a basic level.

One thing about Britain is the fact that, generally, the younger you are (within reason), the more opportunities you have, certainly career-wise. Also, although experience is admired in the UK, I have encountered countless employers who desire not experience or qualifications so much but personality and youth. The slightly irritating sentences 'bright young things', 'young talent' and 'exciting, fresh, college leavers with new ideas' are overused phrases in many an advert. However, in Italy, those mottos would read more like 'Slow, tired, ready-for-the-retirement home folk needed' or 'zimmer-reliant trainees wanted'.

My last employer in Milan gave me a pure example of 'The Italian Way'. In my early twenties I started working at his school but was refused a full-time contract purely on the basis of my age, despite having experience and the qualifications required to do my job properly. I was also deemed unsuitable to teach managers or anyone vaguely 'professional', basically because I was under the age of 30. I found this rather odd, but after talking to some colleagues, realised this was just the way things worked in Italy.

When I did teach a class of adults, and on the first day was asked how old I was and responded, I was met with the gaze of a group of people who had just seen a three headed snake start singing the Lambada. ''Really, you're so young! What are you doing here?" or, "You're so young to be a teacher, *chuckle chuckle* thats so strange!" with all the unintentionally patronising relish usually reserved for your nan on your 14th birthday. This also happened to my 29 and 30 year old co-teachers. The same slightly amused expression and O shaped mouths. I'm not saying being in your twenties means that you automatically have all the life experience of a 50 year old, or that you have a superior status to an older person, but one thing I find old-fashioned and mildly offensive is the fact that being young automatically means you are immature and incapable of doing anything.

All this may have something to do with the fact that most people in Italy still live at home with their parents enjoying home comforts and paying no rent, until the age of 30 or 31. Henceforth, the image of a person 8 years below that paying their own rent and bills and living independently, especially in a country thousands of miles away from their homeland, and not still stuck at uni (finding an Italian who graduates before the age of 25 is extremely rare), really must be like seeing Jesus Christ wearing a catsuit.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sigur Rós, Meo Suo i Eyrum Vio...

...Spilum Endalaust. A review

"With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly". That's the title of the band's latest and fifth studio album. And on it Sigur Rós play like they never did before. Gobbledigook, the opener, is a fanfare of choir and vibrant percussion, the type of music you may stumble upon at a pagan celebration, picturing virgins dancing around a bonfire, Wicker Man-style. The same with the album sleeve, pastoral and hippiefied, portraying four naked men, butt and all, running across a motorway.

Then there's the track called Inní mér syngur vitleysingur ("Within me a lunatic sings"), a bit less party-driven, but nevertheless quite merry: a woodwind background like you no longer hear anywhere, piano, drums and a crescendo of bells and strings. And it's not even portrayed like a cold and empty day, in the style of every other Sigur Rós album.

We're in pop territory here. Even though difficult to hum, their music is still accessible to everyone. However, the album ends where Sigur Rós started: ambient atmosphere, melancholy and a touch disturbing. We're not fully aware what the lyrics are about, also because available translations are patchy and often inaccurate: Jón Þór Birgisson, in fact, sings in Icelandic as well as Vonlenska ("hopelandic") the gibberish lingo he made up for himself. English is present for the first time in the final track All Right. The background is one that, to non-Icelandic common mortals like ourselves, is impossible to picture: a black night, a lake on the verge of overflowing and a firing sun that is sinking down the sea in the middle of a rainstorm.

Monday, August 18, 2008

When bashing the bishop makes a difference...

...and how randiness became John Edwards' own undoing

John Edwards was my favourite Democrat out of all the X-Factor contenders for the White House. His policies were brave. He talked the talk and walked the walk, and his social manifesto stood out from both Barack Obama's and Hillary Clinton's in so far as it was unashamedly centred around the lower classes. Which, in the States or anywhere, isn't exactly run of the mill. Things like taxing the super-rich, protecting benefits, introducing universal health care, shunning the influence of big corporations. With a programme like that, Edwards would never have stood a chance. However, at some point, it looked like the senator from South Carolina could have played a role in Obama's team. Well, not anymore.
It looks like his own randiness has wrecked his political chances. You've probably read all about it already: during his campaign, John Edwards was caught cheating on his terminally ill wife and there are also persistent rumours that he fathered a love-child. Now, who gives a fuck?

Fair enough an element of initial curiosity, but why do the press keep devoting so much more coverage to the scandal than they ever did to the candidate's actual policies? It's exactly this haze of triviality that fosters apathy. Of course no-one denies Edwards would have been better off if he'd let his demons out through a nice old Barclays rather than impregnating a campaign aide, but that doesn't make him any more immoral than President Bush or John McCain. The latter, lest we forget, the man who dumped his wife after she was crippled in an accident.

So, amidst all the predictable anti-Edwards cries of 'foul play', 'lying' and 'dumbass', there stands an article by Lionel Shriver out in today's Observer :"Give me a randy politician any time - as long as he cuts inflation".

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Shteve ish a bit ridiculoush

Poor old Steve Mclaren. Not only is he the least successful England manager of all time, he's also the least successful accent immitator, too.

The highlight of Hagley Road's summer is frankly one of the funniest videos we've seen in a long time.
Steve Mclaren, the late England boss and all round sad-act moved recently to Holland to manage European giants FC Twente (a massive career move for our Steve, basically the equivalent of moving from the Spanish National team to Scunthorpe United), and after just five weeks of living there, has managed to pick up a fabulous comedy Dutch accent.

The accent came into light during an interview on Dutch TV, whilst being asked about his feelings towards managing the new team and his feelings towards Arsenal and the Champions League. Not sounding unlike Goldmember from Austin Powers, Steve (or Shteve)'s accent has changed radically.

Have a lishten below and tell ush what you think.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Olympic ideal?

The Olympics has, then, lived down to all expectations. We have controversy over the opening ceremony, restrictions on press freedom and poor attendances, although the Chinese have attempted to cover the latter up by bussing in numbers of student volunteers. But, what did people expect?

Only someone with no knowledge of both the Olympic Games and the Chinese government would have predicted anything else. Essentially, the Olympics, for the host city or nation, is a prolonged exercise in showing off. A means of demonstrating your wonderfulness (or superiority) to vast numbers of people, beyond the reach of any tourist ad campaign. So, when China was given the games, it should have obvious that they would go all out to persuade the world of their superior organisational skills, their sporting brilliance and social advancement.

Moreover, it should have been obvious what that would imply the Chinese. Complaining about hiding insufficiently pretty children or media manipulation is rather naïve. What did people expect? That, overwhelmed by the beauty and harmony of the Olympics, the Chinese government would see the error of its ways, free its political prisoners, leave Tibet and embrace freedom, justice and the American Way? Or does it seem slightly more likely that being awarded the Olympics would appear more like a vindication of China’s approach? And that any concessions and promises wrung from the Chinese government would be carried out in a pretty tokenistic and grudging way, lasting only for the duration of the Games?

No one believes that the Olympics can “contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play”, to quote the IOC’s website. Friendship, solidarity and fair play? How about enmity, division and ultra-competitiveness bordering on cheating? For all this kind of nonsense, for most countries, the Olympics is about proving a point, through their position in the medal table. Whilst the media goes wobbly at the knees over the story of some hopeless hick, or admires the plucky resolve of an athlete who competes just for the thrill of taking part in the Olympics, the majority of the coverage is focused on well paid/well subsidised athletes, whose prowess was backed by their country in a deliberate attempt at self-aggrandisement. Hardly the Olympic ‘ideal’.

To make matters worse, the 2012 Olympics are being held in London. Given the track record of organising major events and construction projects in the UK, many are predicting an embarrassing mess. It’s difficult to imagine an opening ceremony anywhere near the level of previous recent Olympics.
However, the greatest problem lies in the fact that people in the UK are becoming less active and fatter, at a time when record amounts are being pumped into sport in an attempt to promote the achievements of a handful of elite athletes. So, instead of preparing for an Olympics that likely to be massively over budget and slightly embarrassing, watched by millions of overweight, unfit Britons while a handful of their compatriots show off the vast resources that have been invested in them, why not do the decent thing, and give the Olympics back to the IOC. Somebody else can have them.

And then, let's use the money we’ll save to invest in local sports provision, that encourages as many people as possible to get involved. How about high quality leisure centres and pools, well maintained parks and open spaces, properly staffed and equipped. Let's buy more playing fields for schools, to replace the ones sold-off, and provide decent equipment for them, and encourage schools to see sports more as a way to keep fit and even enjoy ourselves, than a way to boost the school's profile through the school team’s success.

Sure, we will be a long way down the medals table at the Olympics, but maybe we can agree that success at sport is a very poor way of judging a country’s achievements. And when we look at other ways of judging this, maybe we will be able to get off our settees and actually do something about it.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The week's news round-up

by Johnny Taronja

On Tuesday, in the columns of The Independent, Mary Dejevsky warned about interfering in the Russian-Georgian conflict, arguing that "it may seem unpalatable, but there may be times when idealism must cede to realism and big and small should be left to sort things out between themselves". A case of letting the Russian tanks roam free?

Dejevsky, however, has got a point when she highlights the complete hypocrisy of the "humanitarian intervention" doctrine: "There are practical flaws. Some countries will be judged too powerful or hostile for outside military intervention". Which means, no-one will dare lift a finger on the Russians while they were all high'n'mighty with others. When Western states timidly brandish the threat of kicking Russia out of the G8, Putin will reach out for his scissors, produce a resounding laugh and cut their oil supplies.
[picture by Steve Bell, The Guardian, 15 Aug 2008]

Wake up, Britain. On Wednesday, Jim McCullough, a dad of 44, was arrested and cautioned for slapping his 13-year-old daughter who was acting ASBOnoxiously. According to the BBC, his career as a community worker with kids is now lost. We moan about teenage yobs spiralling out of control and general civic sense being squandered by parents who don't give a monkeys but then a simple parental slap is stigmatised to the point of wrecking someone's career.

Still from The Independent, on Thursday Johann Hari penned a deeply thought-provoking piece about Islam, censorship and fear. "We need to stop being such cowards about Islam", he argues, adding that "[...]if a book about Christ was being dumped because fanatics in Mississippi might object, we would be enraged". But "The Jewel of Medina", a novel by Sherry Jones, was recently withdrawn and pulped. No-one wants another Salman Rushdie and that's exactly how the extremists get the upper hand. You can read Hari's piece here.

Kelvin MacKenzie in The Sun. It simply pisses me off that people like him or that moron Jeremy Clarkson can become self-appointed guardians of the nation's morality. Because I'm sure that's how MacKenzie fancies himself. Ranting against taxpayers' money from the South being fed to the North of England, he wrote: "I feel disinclined to put my hand in my pocket for people who might not like me but like my money". "Why should a hospital in Guildford be short of funds and facing shutdown when the locals have plenty of the stuff? It’s unfair, illogical and electorally dangerous". But so was the money wasted on the Millennium Dome in London. And following the same logic, why should a porter in Carlisle or a nurse in Birkenhead pay for the London Olympics?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Beyond revival?

The controversial right-wing report that brands Northern cities "beyond revival"

The nasty whiff of Thatcherite gobbing is making a worrying comeback. Yesterday's big news was the report from Policy Review, a pro-Tory think-tank, arguing that Northern cities are "beyond revival" and that people in the North should head South as soon as possible. The report didn't elaborate on why the North is beyond redemption, nor did it offer any suggestion other than fleeing the sinking ship.

Of course the Southern Counties' mental cost of living isn't a factor to be taken into consideration by anyone who works for a think-tank. Nor is the crap that people like The Sun's Kelvin MacKenzie came up with in the wake of the Policy Review report: "If it were up to me I’d get those Israeli builders to make a wall from The Wash to Bristol. They’d have it up in a jiffy". I'll sign up for it, but only if MacKenzie himself (along with The Sun's entire editorial room) is buried alive inside that wall.

Birmingham's own cock-up

Pictures of the wrong Birmingham on a council leaflet

The council's Blunder Award 2008 must go to Marketing Birmingham, the agency in charge of promoting the city. Now, imagine Newcastle City Council using pictures of their Oklahoma namesake on promotional leaflets. Or Manchester doing the same with pictures of the city in New Hampshire, US. That would be an interesting experiment. Some would even call it a hideous one.

Well, it's happened to Birmingham and, by all accounts, it was deliberate. Queried about 360,000 copies of a recycling leaflet posted around the city that used a skyline picture of Birmingham, Alabama, the council replied that it was no blunder. "We just wanted a generic skyline picture", was the response from a council spokesperson. At least no-one can accuse Birmingham City Council of lack of creativity.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Guillermo Habacuc Vargas, animal abuser

If you think the concept of "art" has stretched to encompass the most nonsensical rubbish a-la Damien Hirst, you may have to rethink your references. By comparison, Hirst is indeed the 21st century's own Leonardo Da Vinci.
Because now under the guise of art some people will go as far as including the most obnoxious, sadistic, cruel actions. The story of Guillermo "Habacuc" Vargas, a so-called 'visual artist' from Costa Rica is the ultimate case in point.

Last year the 32-year-old egomaniac took part in a show in Managua, Nicaragua, with a monstrosity called "Exposición N° 1". Days before, he had paid a few children to get hold of an emaciated stray dog. He then proceeded to tie the animal to a wall by a length of rope with Eres Lo Que Lees ("You Are What You Read") written on the wall in dog food. That was it, that was Vargas' exhibit. Except that the dog (by then named "Nativity") was to slowly starve to death, live, in the art gallery.

According to animal rights groups, security prevented anybody to approach the dog and even feed him. Initially, Guillermo Vargas issued a statement saying that the work was a tribute to a burglar, Nativity Canda, killed by two rottweilers in Nicaragua. But as the furore over animal cruelty grew, the self-appointed artist felt that he had to issue a radically different statement, arguing that "The purpose of the work was not to cause any type of infliction on the poor, innocent creature, but rather to illustrate a point. [...] Thousands of stray dogs starve and die of illness each year in the streets and no one pays them a second thought". In other words, Vargas wanted to bring out the "hypocrisy in all of us".

Which is not suprising. Part of human cruelty is the ability to argue the toss, turn it over and toss it again in order to justify the unjustifiable. Russia is bombing the shit out of a sovereign country and is dressing it up as "defending the interests of Russian nationals over there". Hitler did what he did by saying he was defending his own country from Jew domination. And the worst examples of animal cruelty are always concealed with all sorts of claptrap, from pest control, to tradition, through the god-given right to dress up like a moron and chase a fox or maul a bull.
Hence the counter-rumours and lies such as the Gallery hosting the event fiercely denying that the dog had died in there (claims at odds, anyway, with Vargas' own admission).
But the fact remains that Guillermo Vargas "Habacuc" shouldn't have hunted the dog, let alone tied it with one short cord to the walls of the gallery and kept it there without water and food, no matter what idiotic point about hypocrisy he may wish to make. How about someone whacking Vargas in the face and sticking a needle up his arse to highlight the nature of karma?

Guillermo Vargas Habacuc has been invited to participate in 2008 in the prestigious Central American Biennial of Honduras as the official representative of Costa Rica. If you think that shouldn't happen, please sign this petition here.

Stop Guillermo Habacuc Vargas

Wish you were here

The soaring number of Brits arrested abroad

Mid-August. For many, holiday time. Today Sky News reports Foreign Office figures about the soaring number of Britons arrested while on holiday abroad. Over 2,000 Brits were arrested in 2006-07, in Spain alone, mainly for getting pissed and acting like twats.

The emergence of low-fare flights allowed hordes of subhuman scum - those who wouldn’t otherwise dream of leaving their neighbourhood in order to 'stay local' - to suddenly be scattered across Europe, with certain Greek, Spanish and Portuguese resorts being the most popular destinations. The concept is quite simple: you just cut and paste your English town centre's street-vomiting and brawling across to the warm shores of Rhodes, Benidorm or the Algarve.

On several occasions we wrote of many Brits' subconscious post-colonial attitude. Indeed, to some of them, foreign soil is fair game and acts of bravado take an even more extreme dimension. Otherwise they wouldn’t be 'avin a laff, would they? The Polish city of Krakow became one of the first cities where the local authorities decided that they'd had enough of the Britons' pre-nuptial machismo and started to ban stag parties from bars and clubs across the city. "You see them groping girls, dancing nude, smashing up chairs and vomiting", were some of the complaints from local residents.

The same phenomenon had occurred in Dublin in the late 90s, when hordes of Brits ready to party round the clock started to flood the Irish capital on a weekly basis. The mess only abated when local authorities, tired to mop up the debris left by the fun-loving Brits decided to enforce a ban on single-sex parties in pubs and clubs in the city's district of Temple Bar. It was estimated that the thousands of British men were putting off other tourists, costing the local trade £57 million each year.

More often than not though, the bit of fun turns into horror. According to the Foreign Office, consulates are constantly bombarded by requests for help following stag or hen nights gone wrong. Half of the requests for assistance involve lost or stolen money, a third involved illness or injury and a quarter concerned arrests mainly for being drunk and disorderly. Overall consulate figures show that 3,900 Britons die abroad each year, 4,200 are taken into hospital and 6,000 are detained in foreign prison, at least in part the consequence of drunken and yobbish tourism.

In The Guardian, Andrew Anthony summed it up wryly:

"Nowadays, in the streets of capitals across mainland Europe, you can find young Britons emptying both their bladders and stomachs. They say that the youth of today lack beliefs, but these are men and women who are fully committed to the cause of alcoholic annihilation. They will simply not rest until they have relinquished all control of their motor skills".