Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Convention on Modern Liberty

28th Feb 2009, across Britan. In Birmingham the venue is Aston University, Main Building, G11 (ground floor – enter through main reception).

This event is free (donations appreciated). No tickets needed, just turn up on the day.
Click here to find out more.

Ryanair to charge for loos?

Have £1 ready or you'll have to piss yourself

Our old mates Ryanair are back on form. Right when you thought Michael O'Leary hadn't made the news in a while, there he is, turning what used to be an ongoing internet joke into reality.

When I wrote this article last summer about Ryanair's creative ways of turning billions into zillions, I found out about several one-liners circulating on the web about Ryanair charging you to, say, speak to a flight attendant, breathe, or use the toilet.

Rest assured, speaking to a 'cabin crew' member is still free of charge and so is the notion that you won't have to pay for inhaling and exhaling. But, drums rolling, yesterday Ryanair said they are seriously "considering charging passengers for using the toilet while flying", with CEO Michael O'Leary adding that they may install a "coin slot on the toilet door".

So there we are. Someone wants to make money off our bodily fluids. We won't let it happen. Rub your hands, Pampers and Huggies.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Blair: "there is no evidence of rendition flights"(2006)

One massive lie a month. And these people are still running the country.

It's amazing to see how the country has become desensitised to a lying government. It's happened so many times (and over so many different policy areas) that blatant porky pies from top Ministers are not even hitting the front page news anymore.

Look at this. It's the end of 2005 and the former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy is questioning Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Commons. "To what extent, therefore, have the Government co-operated in the transport of terrorist suspects to Afghanistan and elsewhere, apparently for torture purposes?", he asks. "I do not know what the right honourable gentleman is referring to" is the liar's answer, tucked under a tortuous set of hollow sounding phrases, textbook Blair-style.

The following year, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw went on with the denials: "there had been no cases of so-called extraordinary rendition involving the UK", while Tony Blair insisted that there was "no evidence" that the 200 CIA flights that passed through Britain involved the "extraordinary rendition" of terror suspects to countries where they could face torture.

Today, what everyone suspected finally turned into official news. The government's words were all a pile of bollocks. After David Miliband's half admission a year ago, Defence Secretary John Hutton has finally come clean with the following statement. "I regret that it is now clear that inaccurate information on this particular issue has been given to the House by my department".

If you still think Labour are worth your vote, then you deserve no better than this type of government.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Grief fest and the Daily Mail...

...or when columnists feel the need to tell you how David Cameron is doing in the wake of a personal tragedy.

Yesterday David Cameron was hit by a tragic event; his 6-year-old son Ivan died following complications related to his chronic illness. Only folks who have suffered a similar fate would probably able to know what if feel like to lose a child prematurely.

But in case you are finding it so difficult to think of how David Cameron may be feeling at the moment, help comes in the guise of the useful Daily Mail. Theirs is a top notch grief-fest where columnists, guest editors and chief pontificators are queueing up to offer their ability to perceive clearly or deeply the inner nature of things. Move away Danielle Steel, here come the new kids on the block.

Alison Pearson: 'I could see the tenderness and fierce pride in Cameron's eye' (note: one eye only, the other eye must have looked harsh and ashamed); Geoffrey Levy: 'How the short life of Ivan turned David Cameron from 'cocky toff' into passionate leader'; Harry Phibbs: 'Cameron's love for Ivan showed the true mettle of the man'.

How about the normally acid-as-bleach Quentin Letts? Surely he would refrain from this feast of sentimental slush? Well, how's this for an answer: 'It cannot have been easy. He did it with dignity': Gordon puts politics and personal tragedy aside to remember Ivan'. And finally, Britain's best daily couldn't miss out on the roll call of politicians offering their condolences.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

On social ineptitude

Is Facebook affecting our social interaction?

Robert de Vries in the Times wonders if the rapid rise of Facebook is having a noxious effect on children's brain. Instant gratification through a line on the screen, the notion of growing up with little one-to-one 'real life' interaction (with "the trouble of interpreting body language, facial expressions, or tone of voice" replaced by a 'wall post'), the shortening of attention span. Is it just scaremongering or have those claims got some validity?

The writer points out that TV has been the subject of similar criticism "practically since its invention". And yet, for all its ills, the TV never had such a permeating effect on one-to-one interaction. Forget a person in their twenties or thirties or more who discovered 'social networking' and added it as a diversion to their existence. You have to consider that the newest generation is at risk of knowing no different than Facebook-centred social exchanges. This is what some people on the BBC website said about it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

SpEak you're BrANES!

Pay cuts to save jobs? For some people that's been happening routinely anyway. Mark Reed on the unfair stick public sector employees get.

Recently, employees of my local council have been offered a 1% payrise.

Public consensus, that is, on the local BBC SpEak you're BrANES! is that they should count themselves lucky they EVEN have a job. Hell, they should even pay the council for the privilege of working there.

Which in a way they do. The current rate of inflation is 3%.
The current increase in train fares is 9%.

So what this 1% means is that, in effect, staff are having a pay cut.

I know some businesses are asking workers to take pay cuts or imposing pay freezes, but that's a recent development of the recession. A Public Sector Worker getting a pay rise of 1% is not unusual. The biggest annual pay rise I ever got in the Public Sector year-on-year and staying in the same role was 2.5% a year.

An entry level librarian earns less - much less than the average UK salary of £20,000. An entry level nurse at Grade 1 earns around £11,800 a year. A 1% pay rise to a entry level nurse would benefit them by £118 a year, or less than £10 a month. Before tax. After tax, about £7.50 a month. With train fares rising 9%, if you pay more than £70 a month to get to work, that's your pay rise wiped out in the blink of an eye. So your pay rise goes on nothing but getting to and from work.

Nobody seemed to mind highly paid city bankers ... until the recession. Nobody seemed to mind the fact that obscene bonuses and salaries for the few priced out millions of people from home ownership. Nobody seemed to mind capitalism when it worked, and nobody seemed to mind getting rich - but everyone despises the hangover when capitalism goes wrong. So many people are Fair Weather Friends to capitalism. You can't just have the goods and not pay the bill when it arrives.

Given that the Public Sector does not pay the competitive salaries of many businesses, by working in the public sector people are making a trade off : relatively (but not entirely) secure employment which does not pay especially well - unless you're at the absolute higher echelons, which is often challenging, underfunded, understaffed, swamped in bureaucracy, publically accountable, and - by the way -accountable to the Kangaroo Court of the tabloids whenever any scumbag parents beat their children to death, yet at the same time, being meddling, brainless bureaucrats that want nothing but to snoop through your garbage.

And of course, everything every Public Sector Worker does can be on the front page of a newspaper, because WE WORK FOR YOU, and of course, the editors of Tabloid Newspapers. Nobody really seems to care too much if a Private Sector corporation wastes an enormous amount of money, or if they do something that kills someone - but if someone in the Public Sector does it, the Editor of a red top is screaming for a public hanging from the front page. At my current job, I get a lot of Freedom Of Information Act requests from newspapers asking questions because they're looking for stories to publish about Political Correctness Gone Mad in their small world. Don't be surprised if there is something about Esperanto in the next twelve months in a newspaper.

And Public Sector workers are all pigs with snouts in the trough of final salary pensions : despite the fact that it's not final salary pensions that are the root of financial evil, but the fact that businesses are moving away from final salary pensions and forcing future generations into old age poverty that is a great financial inequity in this world.

Working in the Public Sector is not a job designed to make you popular or rich. It's thing many people do because they'd rather do something with their lives that makes a difference, that gives someone a better home, or an extra few years seeing their grandchildren grow up, makes the world a better place in a small way. I was once offered a job working on the air-to-ground targeting computers for missiles. The end recipient of such a missle would not appreciate it, or benefit from it, in say, the way that a ill patient could have their lives saved by a diagnosis or a treatment.

The Public Sector is hard, but it's the most satisfying and rewarding job I have done.

Public Sector staff have traditionally worked in tough environments. Few people got rich working in the public sector. Yes, public sector workers can get some minimal help with key housing - but realistically, the number of key housing properties available is a fraction of the number of key workers in the public sector. Working in the public sector means that you either have to rent a property, inherit one, or have bought one years ago. Public Sector Workers generally don't earn enough to get mortgages these days.

I've been working in it the past fifteen years, and I have earnt probably around a half to two thirds of what I could have made if I worked in the Private Sector. At the time I was working as a project manager for multi-million pound projects in October 2001, I was having to buy food on credit cards due to the meagre salary I was then earning.

Still, if all we ever wanted was to be rich, anyone can achieve that - but there is a price to pay.

Now, I know that times are tough, but they're tough for everyone - including the people who work in the Public Sector. The common perception from people who work in the Private Sector is that the Public Sector is made up of people who can't get jobs in the Private Sector. People in the Public Sector can't cut it out there in the so called 'real world', and some people seem to think that most civil servants are sitting around in ivory towers, doing no work whatsoever, twiddling their thumbs as they are 'unsackable', and are parasites leeching off the hard work of the rest of society.

If it were true, nobody would ever collect your bins. All the libraries would be closed. All the hospitals and doctors would charge your credit card before they diagnose your ills. There would be no fire engines. No police. No ambulances. No hospitals. No one would get unemployment benefit. There would be no social workers. No one to help the weak in society.

It's time the Public Sector workers - the people who maintain the fabric of our society, clean our toilets, empty our garbage, save lives, get attacked in ambulances, arrest and chase criminals, put out fires, try to house the desperate, teach the next generation, and try to make the world a better place were a little bit more appreciated financially. All we ask is an equal wage. Not a pay cut by stealth.

Monday, February 23, 2009


More on the wonderful world of UK tabloids.

Brian Reade in Thursday's Mirror: "Why Jade Goody is a national treasure". The opinionator notes that "There's been much rewriting of attitudes towards Jade Goody as she loses her fight with cancer". Goody "enriched our culture", and only "high brow snobs" would resent that.

Perhaps Reade was thinking of his own article of date February 1st, 2007, "FRAIL JADE? PIGS WILL FLY". Back then, riding a totally different national wave, the Mirror columnist compared Jade Goody to "a famished fly winging its way to a heap of steaming dung". And talking of her stay in The Priory, he put forth: "I just hope for her sake she gets out before February 18 when we enter the Chinese Year of The Pig. I'd hate to see her miss out on all those endorsement opportunities".

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Jade Goody's National Farce

Jade Goody's own Truman show continues with today's wedding.
Expect cameras on her death bed next.

I'd made a vow of silence over the whole 'Jade Goody is dying' national saga. 'People should choose to die the way they want', 'you're not in her shoes', 'she's got kids to support' and all that. But spotting Miranda Sawyer's piece in yesterday's Mirror proved too much for me. It was a hefty reminder of the way British contemporary culture has been reduced to look like a big class of 6-year-old kids who are told, in turn, to cheer, pull sad faces or show anger by their primary school teachers, as long as they're in tune with the national farce of the moment.

Today we're not talking about the World Cup, nor is it a royal wedding or funeral or, even a national witch-hunt like the recent Sun and Baby P saga. Nothing epitomises Britain's penchant for collective hysteria better than the televised demise (including a £1m wedding) of Big Brother-star and Queen of Populistic Entertainment Jade Goody.

Look at how the national mood is being set for the kids. When she appeared on the Big Brother 3 circus in 2002, Jade Goody was bad. "Baaaad, everybody!" But then she did well for herself and even started her own perfume range, so she became good. "Gooood, everyone!".

Then, two years ago Jade Goody said some not very polite things to Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother and she became bad again. Very baaaad, infact. She was even dubbed a "national embarrassment". The tabloids were saying that her career was "over". She was a racist, a bully, a scumbag, an ignorant chav. People who'd never met her, the same people who are quite happy to digest daily pieces slagging off immigrants and foreigners, decided (after good advice from tabloid headlines -whatever happened to thinking for yourself) that they could not tolerate racism. Not on the precious Big Brother anyway.

Two years later, and the words Jade and Goody cramming every paper and TV programme suggest Mother Theresa has descended upon us again. First in the queue, Gordon Brown: "I applaude her courage and determination", he said, in line with all the headlines, tributes, columns and assorted shoddy pieces that are setting new boundaries for the word crass.

Just look at this roll of honour and savour. "Jade Goody a working class hero", wrote Miranda Wow-Everything's-Smashing Sawyer, along with the turgid goo of "if we give so-called chavs respect and a chance to make a success of themselves, then, you know what, sometimes they do".
Carol Midgeley in the Times hailed Goody's "wisdom", adding that the reality TV star "is blossoming in stature". "In dying, Jade is truly dignified", was the almost biblical opinion of Liz Hunt in the Telegraph, while an editorial in the Guardian, solemnly stated that "[Goody] is now playing a role much larger than herself".

"She’s the only Big Brother contestant ever to achieve lasting fame for a reason – we care about her", drooled Polly Hudson in the Mirror. Still not quite as epic as Matthew Norman in the Independent and his funeral eulogy-sounding ooze: "She defeated incalculable odds to escape the shackles of her upbringing, by lavishing on her boys the maternal love she survived being denied herself. If that isn’t a glorious expression of the human spirit and a true definition of courage, I can’t begin to imagine what is".

You'll find that most opinion columnists start their Jade-Goody-is-divine piece by saying how out of order it is that people are against her decision to have each step of her terminal illness televised and shared for national entertainment. But a glance at the papers would suggest otherwise. There is practically no critical piece of what has been going on. Which, just in case you've spent the last month on a different planet consists of:

- Reality TV star Jade Goody was filmed on TV being told she's got cervical cancer and her chances of survival are slim;
- Her publicist Max Clifford is given the lucrative task of signing whichever deal imaginable to publicise the stages of her illness;
- The Mirror secures an exclusive to follow Jade Goody around and have first-hand access to her bulletins;
- Jade Goody decides to marry Jack Tweed, books a £1m wedding and sells the rights to the ceremony to OK! magazine for £700,000, with an extra few hundred thousands thrown in from Living TV to televise the event;
- Justice Secretary Jack Straw intervenes especially to have Tweed's curfew conditions relaxed (the guy's done time for GBH) so that he can be at the wedding, just in case this sinking Government gets also accused of spoiling the national event of the month.

Too much? What does such a massive movement of money say to the thousands of cancer patients who struggle financially to procure cancer drugs that the NHS won't provide for free? And whatever happened to dying in dignity? Shouldn't her young kids be given a bit of privacy and a chance to spend the last precious moments with her mother? How are they going to internalise this Max Clifford-sponsored circus when they're older? And is it alright for the BBC News and other websites to file the bulletins on her illness under the heading Entertainment? And would Jack Straw have acted differently had the case not been related to the celebrity of the moment? How can anyone profit from somebody else's terminal cancer?

If you've asked any of those questions, then you'd better shut up and quick. Jade Goody is doing all of this the way she is to secure a future for her kids. And that, in Britain, is enough to put the lid on whichever debate. Whatever it is you're doing, if it's "for the kids", then it ends any concern of dignity, privacy, morality or simple decorum. And nevermind Jade Goody was already estimated to be worth between £3 and £4m before her ordeal began. She's selling her death for the kids, so it's ok to milk the circus. Until, literally, the last drop of life.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Br!ts?

Mark Reed on the annual Backslap Awards

If its mid-February, and there's a traditional sales slump between now and the summer festivals, what better way to stimulate sales with the Brits?

Normally I'm extremely blah about the Brits, but even I know its full of shit this year. An annual attempt to backslap, alongside some shoehorned comedian-du-jour, some megabands plugging their new album, and a few edgy rude words from some public figures for the token controversy and there you are. Throw in Bono doing a "V" sign at the camera, and you've got a full house on Brits Bingo. Job done.

But the nominations? Boy, is the finger not on the pulse this year. Duffy won about 4000 awards (expecially if you include Bernard Butler ex-Suede, currently slumming it producing glacial, epic semi-Phil Spector backing tracks for her). It seems wrong for Annie Lennox not to win, being as she has been nominated for the past 15 years consecutively and won about 10 of those when Kate Bush was sleeping. What is odd though, is exactly how staid, dull and conservative these nominations are. Ian Brown's nominated, which is firstly about bloody time, but also, absolutely baffling as he hasn't released a record in 18 months and barely played live in the past year in the UK.

Best British Female is equally baffling, as it has been since inception. And what about the artistically reborn (albeit meagre selling) Brett Anderson? or Morrissey? Why wasn't he nominated Best British Male? After all, he's put out two records in the past year (if you count the 'Greatest Hits') and toured a fair bit as well. Elbow won best British group, but what about all the other great British groups that haven't even been nominated? I suppose we should be thankful Oasis didn't get it, being as they are 20 years past their prime, but where were The Cure, and what about Ben Folds in Best International Male? What about REM's Accelerate in Best International albums? Or Sigur Ros anywhere?

Do you even know who these non descript bank managers are? Personally I think they should restrict each act to only being nominated twice. Elbow have three, Duffy five, Coldplay four. That's more than enough.

What about who should have been nominated? What do you think?

Personally, I'm staggered by the categories they don't have.

Most pointless reissue? Stupidest career move? Best reunion?

Don't even get me started on the pointlessness of 'Best Single'. the fact is that the Brits probably don't even know what a 7" single is, let alone actually listened to any of the thousands of struggling bands putting out self-funded slices of genius. Oh no. The best single this year was Girls Abloodyloud. Most branches of HMV don't even stock singles anymore, most people don't make them, and the last time I bought a single was through the post. What mediocre selling artist is it that I bought? Morrissey, last seen headlining a show to 45,000 people in London, yet not popular enough for shops to stock his singles. For heavens sake, no wonder the industry is in such a terminal state.

Still, in order to appeal to 'The Kids', or something, Pet Shop Boys duetted with Lady Gaga,which is frankly, fucking shocking - shoehorning in some new talent which a year ago was unknown to try and stay relevant. There's much better talent being ignored wholeheartedly by The Brits, as in one hand it backslaps itself, and in the other most of the industry shits itself in terror as irrelevant because the luddites fight against the tide as intellectual King Canutes. They're out of touch with the vibrant art being produced all around them, busy applauding their outdated business models and their conservative, tedious tastes. Still, you can't hear great new music when you have your head in the sand.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Raise the dole

Is it fair that those who have paid National Insurance for decades receive the same as a 19-year-old who's never worked in his or her life?

I'm not a big fan of Labour MP Frank Field. If there ever was any grounds to kick people out of a political party for the damage they cause with their constant sniping, Mr Field would be a sure candidate. Some of the stuff he comes up with place him comfortably to the right of John Redwood.

However, for once I agree with something he wrote. Even though his article in today's Times is full of pap (he even writes that work is part of somebody's "DNA", a not so veiled reference to the idea that the unemployed may have idleness in their genes), he does raise an interesting point.

With the recent crisis, several people who are signing on for the first time are discovering that the oh-so-generous state handouts the Mail, the Express and the Sun routinely knock amount to a paltry £60-50 a week. Many are wondering what the 'plus' is for in the Job Centre Plus offices. Because, aside from the case that dole money in general should be neared to living standards, it is also unfair that those who have paid National Insurance for years -decades in some cases- receive the same as a 19-year-old who's never worked in his or her life.

Field proposes to grade the jobseeker's allowance "according to the number of years that a claimant has worked". "It could be doubled to £121 for those with, say, ten years' of NI contributions and increased to £181.50 for those with 15 years", he writes.

Pure Crap

A review of Tropic Thunder

It is possible to like Tropic Thunder. It is even possible to think that it's funny and hilarious. This will happen, however, if you are in (or below) Year 9 at school, of if your sides tend to split each time you hear the words ass, shit and motherfucker - which in Tropic Thunder are spelt out every three seconds like a Hollywood ode to Tourettes.

For the record, we're talking about a film that picked up a swirl of nominations and awards and one that features a star-studded cast with the likes of Ben Stiller (who also directed), Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, Nick Nolte, Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black and even Steve Coogan. Which is why, as you sit down to watch it, expectations are fairly high.

Instead, the plot can be described as ranging from non-existent to weak. Its pillars are: loads of explosions (wow), Robert Downey Jr with his face painted black (as he plays a 'black man'- which is somehow intended as entertaining) and, last but not least, a copious amount of jokes about disability (with a reference to an imaginary 'retard' called Simple Jack at every moment, which prompted the protests of disability advocacy groups in the US). Note that this reviewer is not saying it's particularly politically incorrect or bad taste. We just fail to grasp how that's supposed to be funny.

Perhaps anxious to appeal to the 'playstation generation', the film is clipped to the extreme, coming across as if it was filmed at 200 miles per hour and with the longest shot tallying at half a millisecond.

Much more we can't say, except that, in spite of all the headlines depicting it as "funniest movie of the year", Tropic Thunder is possibly Ben Stiller's most disappointing film. If you're hoping to laugh like you did with Meet the Parents, The Heartbreak Kid, Along Came Polly or There's Something About Mary then don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

It's all about the legacy...

The former PM and current Middle East peace broker nets a $1m prize from an Israeli University

So, Tony Blair won the Dan David Prize from Tel Aviv University, an award worth $1m for being "one of the most outstanding statesmen of our era" and for his "leadership of the world stage".

Just like during his time as PM, everything's about the image - as long as there's pomp you don't have to worry about the substance. We are all well aware how obsessed Tony was with his legacy. And this ambition was fulfilled when he was appointed as Special Envoy for the Middle East Peace Process. What a great way to continue his career after 10 years as PM. He can now leave a lasting mark on international politics by helping resolve the longest-lasting dispute in one of the most conflict-ridden regions of the word.

But hang on a minute... Would it be acceptable for a neutral, unbiased mediator in a peace process to accept a price of $1m from an Israeli University, no matter how independent it might or might not be? Even for reasons of protocol, wouldn't this be problematic?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Alfie the golden goose

The British tabloids' obsession with anything related to "children" borders on the pederastic.

Tons of unusual things happen everyday which go unreported or end up amongst the minor news section. However, you can be sure that if it's something involving a minor then the British tabloids' borderline-pederastic obsession with children means it will hit the headlines.

In the recent case of Alfie, even though a baby faced 13-year-old becoming a father is not representative of the country at large at all, the predatory tabloids spotted a golden goose and landed on it like vultures. It's yet more grist to the mill of the usual liberal bashers.

It turns out that while they're playing the game of who can shout 'outrage!' the loudest, the Sun and the People may have actually paid money to the family of Alfie Patten in exchange for an 'EXCLUSIVE'. Cue Britain's head publicist Max Clifford, the same guy who's raking in the millions for Jade Goody and her kids. The Press Complaints Commission has begun investigating the claims on the grounds that paying minors or their parents for material involving children is in breach of "Clause 6 (iv) of the Editors' Code of Practice".

And, in the meantime, Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail goes on a rampage with her predictable finger-pointing at the "liberal intelligentsia", "the madness of sex education" and "our tragically degraded times". Yawn.

What Melanie doesn't pick up on though is that this is country is being turned into a giant freak show to be milked for money. The guardians of morality shout it's going to the dogs but they give the alleged 'culprits' some cash to make it an exclusive so that they can make money off the back of it. Welcome to the Jeremy Kylification of Britain.

The half-truths about the Lindsey strikes

Every day thousands of foreign workers are squeezed for profit while no-one notices. But the one case that caused mass hysteria was based on a lie.

It is now official. The claims that caused the wave of mass xenophobia and the series of walkouts at Total's refinery in Lindsey last month were based on a campaign of complete mis-information. Tabloids and newspapers alike were keen to spread the rumours that "foreign workers" at the refinery "were undercutting locals".

It is true that thousands of foreign workers in Britain are indeed paid below the minimum wage, exploited and kicked about by gangmasters and ruthless profiteers. But the same press who couldn't normally give a monkeys' got all worked up with indignation over the wrong case.

Three examples. In the Mirror, Brian Reade wrote about his "mate Dave" priced out by foreign workers brought over to the refinery "to cut costs". Sue Carroll thought it was a given that "at Lincolnshire's Lindsey refinery, Italian and Portuguese labour continues to be hired on the cheap". In the Telegraph, Philip Johnston used that word again, "undercut", prophetising that "The sky is now darkening with chickens coming home to roost".

For a whole week, the opinionmeisters egged on each other, and the people would read and get exceptionally wound up. Except, British press-style, nobody bothered to check the facts. In the words of David Aaronovitch in the Times, it was a load of "fabricated fear and loathing".

Two days ago, the arbitration service Acas concluded its independent inquiry into the Lindsey controversy and found that the wages the "foreign workers" were paid did not undercut British workers. Now, don't expect the papers to have that on the front page.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

At last. Bank bonuses banned!...

...and Vince Cable on New Labour's ballet with Britain's financial aristocracy.

It's never too late. At last, after much dithering, the British government decided to follow the American example and banned bonuses in the banks where the state bought a stake. Small extra payments will only be paid out to junior workers.

Employment minister Tony McNulty was finally spelling out the words every Briton wanted to hear. "I would draw the line between senior managers, board members, executives, those responsible for the business model and strategy that got them into the mess, they shouldn't get a penny," he said.
This comes in the wake of the disastrous news about the need for more taxpayer-funded bail-outs "after massive and unexpected losses were disclosed by Britain’s new superbank".

In the meantime, today's excellent article by the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable sheds some light on the incestuous relationship between New Labour and the banking elites. It was festering until the other day. Very few took notice.

The bands that should have been bigger (1)

The House of Love
by Ceri Ames
Forget the usual phrases that get mentioned in House of Love reviews and reminiscences, things like 'shimmering guitars' or 'hypnotic', which make them sound like part of the shoegazing 'scene', the House of Love were great because they married brilliant pop songs with Guy Chadwick's (genuine) air of worldweariness, lost love and hunger, miles beyond the sixth-form affectations of most of their peers.

Defining track: Christine (The House of Love, 1988)

by Mark Reed
Now that Rotten has reactivated the Sex Pistols as an old mans pension fund, PiL, who were undoubtedly superior to the Pistols in every way apart from the fact they didn't split up after one album, have been unjustly overlooked.

In some ways, the fact that Rotten sports a PiL shirt at almost every Pistols gig is his succint commentary on the fact that his best work has been forgotten. Between 78 and 92 the ever changing lineup (for whom Lydon was the only constant) evolved from an arty four piece that was the complete antithesis of the Pistols straightforward angry rock template to a more 'conventional' but equally weird rock band that managed to weld Lydons unique vocal and lyrical abilities with ex-Magazine/Siouxsie guitarists John McGeogh's clipped guitars.

Defining track: Public Image (First Issue, 1978)

Super Furry Animals
by Emma
I am pretty biased towards Welsh bands (mainly because of the fact I'm a Manics fan) however one of the most underrated bands in recent years are so Welsh that the majority of their songs are sung in their beautiful native tongue. Who could get away with song titles as endearing and inane as 'Herman Loves Pauline' and 'Ice Hockey Hair', write a song about a ginger child being shot at because he was mistaken for a fox, black chickens, or name their album 'beard' ('mwng', in Welsh)?

For me, Super Furry Animals unique charm lies in their ability to be musically completely mental and psychedelic but also fantastically listenable and sweet. Completely unpretentious and like no other group then or now. Look at their lyrics; ("Marie Curie was Polish born but French Bred. Ha! French Bread!", "Have you heard about the bat? Eats your goat and then your cat") and their excellent Pete Fowler drawn album artwork.

I remember spending hours looking through their sleeves, and even basing my GCSE art project on their single cover for 'Mountain People', which was basically a load of snaggle-toothed purple bearded people. Musically, I adore their unfeasible but effective combination of indie, brass and space-age electronica. They even take a little band on the road with them dressed in Pete Fowler style monster suits. That in itself is enough to make you love them.

Defining Track: Northern Lites (Guerilla, 1999)

Monday, February 16, 2009

A tale of exploitation

The redundancies at the Mini car plant in Oxfordshire confirm that agency workers are the most vulnerable victims of the downturn.

If anyone still wondered why the 1.5m UK agency workers need urgent protection, take a look at what's happening at the BMW-owned Mini car factory in Oxford. The expression "second class employee" doesn't stretch far enough to describe it.

As it stands, these are people who still don't enjoy equal pay, holidays, leave for mothers and the right to not be dismissed for joining a union. Courtesy of New Labour's bowing down to the CBI, the government's watered down version of the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill means that agency workers can still:

- be fired at will without notice;
- have no general unfair dismissal right;
- no redundancy right;
- no right to a written statement of their contract;
- no right to request flexible working time;
- no parental or paternity leave.

To find out more about the Oxfordshire job losses, click

For more on the subject of agency work, click here to read T&G's dossier Simon's story: the truth about agency employment in the United Kingdom.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Happy Go-Lucky

A review of Mike Leigh's latest film

Happy Go-Lucky has been described as Mike Leigh's first 'feelgood film', a 'lighthearted comedy' and 'lightweight' but in the words of the director himself, the descriptions are "nonsense" and don't take into account the "weight underneath" the film.

Set in contemporary London, Happy Go-Lucky is centred around Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a primary school teacher in her thirties. She's a relentessy cheery, lighthearted, perma-giggling, over-optimistic singleton. On her journey, a series of events put her positive approach to test. In particular, her encounter with Scott (Eddie Marsan), an emotionally repressed, self-combusting driving instructor who gradually develops a dark obsession with the protagonist.

Sally Hawkins' performance is extraordinary. She's brilliant at pissing the viewer off, but also at making you wonder if Poppy's giggles are genuine, psychotic or a simple front for emotional choking. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that Poppy is not as annoyingly shallow as she looks. At school, when one of her pupils is seen bullying his classmates, she shows there's more to the naive extrovert she comes across as. Her interaction with the people around her leads to a series of misunderstandings as well as some powerful and profoundly human scenes.

Leigh is the master of character development. His films stand alone without the help of any artifice or gimmick and Happy Go-Lucky is no exception. In the same vein as Secrets & Lies and All Or Nothing, the subtlety of his characters and the several layers make for superb vignettes of anxiety, neuroses and the constant feeling of a looming nervous breakdown.

A thoroughly enjoyable film.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"The freedom to have your pay cut"...

...and why not the freedom to be raped, battered or have your car nicked? Tory MP Christopher Chope and his surreal anti-minimum wage rant remind us of his party's true colours.

The danger of twelve years of New Labour in power is that it's easy to forget the Tories' true nature. David Cameron has been very good at applying some Max Factor to the party's minging face. But it's in the interest of every single person in and out of work that the true substance of the Conservative party remains visible to all.

For evidence, look no further than Christopher Chope, Tory MP for Christchurch, Dorset. Incidentally, this is an MP who, according to the parliamentary record, voted very strongly against equal gay rights, very strongly in favour of the Iraq war, very strongly against laws to stop climate change and very strongly against the hunting ban.

When the minimum wage was brought in in 1999, Chope almost had a seizure. The idea that the weakest members of society could be paid a touch more really didn't agree with him. In the Commons, he barked that it would have "a massive impact on small enterprises", in line with his party's view that the minimum wage would quickly cause an economic collapse. Utter bollocks, as it turned out.

Which is why, in the face of overwhelming evidence, David Cameron was later forced to admit that the opponents of the minimum wage were wrong. The economic crisis did arrive, but it was certainly not caused by the notion that people should be paid peanuts instead of crumbs.
But that doesn't mean the old Tory instincts were kept at bay. Of course they would be daft to openly campaign to scrap the minimum wage as they wouldn't want to be seen as the party in favour of a pay cut to millions of workers in Britain. So, with the crisis as the perfect platform to attack workers' rights, they're now trying a sneakier, more bizarre approach.

On Wednesday, Mr Chope (photo) made one of the most ridiculous parliamentary speeches in history. He introduced a Ten-Minute Rule Bill pushing an opt-out clause saying that if you want to sod the minimum wage then you should be free to do so. The way Chope dressed it up was textbook and everybody should read it, if anything to be reminded of the Conservatives' true colours.
Chope sees it as a "basic human right" that people should be paid as little as possible if they so wish. Give him one year and he may table a motion for the freedom to be battered in the street: "Why should this nanny state criminalise a person's right to have the shit kicked out of them?", he may ask.

In his eyes, agreeing on a wage is a "private arrangement", "the decision of two consenting adults", as if a company and an individual had the same negotiating power. It doesn't cross his mind that bosses saying to a queue of desperados "2 quid an hour, take-it-or-leave-it" would kick start a race to the bottom which, in the words of Mike Ion in the Guardian, "would probably worsen the current tension between foreign workers and British workers". At that stage, which boss would be so daft not to take advantage of Chope's opt-out clause?

Echoing the ideology-soaked Thatcher years, Chope clings on to the old fetish, "the free market", where "people should be free to compete [...] without restriction", meaning of course that Britain was a much better place when waiters, cleaners, telephonists and all the profit fodder enjoyed the "freedom" to be paid as little as £1 an hour (or less).

Then the Tory MP goes on. He argues that, in line with the current mood, "in Ireland, Members of Parliament and senior civil servants have taken a 10 per cent pay cut" and that "[i]t is ironic that the only people without the freedom to take a pay cut are those on or just above the minimum wage". Read it back to yourself: The freedom to take a pay cut.

For this Tory, a 10% reduction applied to an MP or senior civil servants salary is on a par with a pay cut given to people on the bottom ladder of society. You bet all those minimum wage workers can't wait until Chope gets it his own way. You can already picture the cleaners staging mass demonstrations and walk outs in support of their "basic human right", holding banners such as "PAY US LESS, YOU CAPITALIST SWINE". "STOP SPOILING US WITH £5-52". And the slogan: "What do we want? A PAY CUT!" "When do we want it? NOW!".


The Government's gift to the 'ban the Koran' campaign.

Dutch MP Geert Wilders was totally unknown in Britain until yesterday. Today he's the talk of the town. The BBC, the Guardian, Jon Gaunt in the Sun, the Telegraph and the rest are all talking about him, courtesy of the government refusing him entry on the grounds that his presence poses a "sufficiently serious threat to the interests of our society".

And yet you can't say that Mr Wilders didn't try. He even modelled his hairdo after the typical British barrister wig - an ill-judged attempt to woo public sympathy. In the meantime, he can console himself with the fact that his campaign to ban the Koran may have just scored its biggest publicity stunt yet. Thousands are now downloading his film online.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Portrait of a follower

Is it possible for an individual to agree with everything they're told, 100%, for twelve years? Well, it is.

When we blame those in charge for what goes pear-shaped in the world, one of the categories we tend to overlook is the second ranks. Some people call them 'party apparatchiks', others simply 'arse lickers', in any case referring to the second lieutenants and petty officers that will always follow the leader because career ambitions piss all over principles.

Think about it. How long would any messiah in the world last without the ranks of precious water carriers obediently doing the job and reciting the script word by word? Can you imagine Tony Blair managing ten long years if the Alan Milburns and the Geoff Hoons, the Alan Johnsons and the Jack Straws had ever stood up to him -for example- by saying no to the Iraq war?

Could any playground bully ever manage to pull off any of his tricks without the clique of hangers-on cheering him on and repeating his every last word? "Gimme your sweets!"..."Yeah, sweets!"

The Right Honourable Hazel Blears MP, current Secretary of State for Community and Local Government is the perfect one to fit that profile. There was a fantastic depiction of Blears' adherence to party principles in John Harris' So Now Who Do We Vote For?, a book that came out just before the 2005 elections. What stood out from Harris' account was the way Blears' distinct lack of depth and analysis was outweighed by her blind devotion to the party line that would justify whichever action, from the Iraq war to foundation hospitals or the introduction of tuition fees.

Even better however, is the superb appraisal of the former Labour Party chair as penned by George Monbiot, our new favourite columnist, in Tuesday's Guardian. His is a devastating charge sheet that exposes her sheepish parliamentary record. If you were still harbouring any doubt as to why people are so put off by politics, just ask yourself: if you lived in the Salford constituency and were a thinking individual, what would the point be in casting a vote if a party automata like Hazel Blears is invariably going to get elected?

She survived every single party lie, broken promise, cheating of the card, u-turn or gratuituous crime against humanity without a single moment of hesitation. Without any natural disagreement. Not a single Robin Cook-moment, not an impetus of individual thinking like Clare Short, or even Charles Clarke. Ever. Similarly smooth is her career in the Labour Party. From candidate to MP to Parliamentary undersecretary, from Minister of State to Party Chairman to Senior Minister. Spotless.

Like Monbiot puts it, as he addresses Blears in the form of an open letter: "It seems to me that someone of your principles would fit comfortably into almost any government. All regimes require people like you, who seem to be prepared to obey orders without question. Unwavering obedience guarantees success in any administration."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Noel Edmonds loses it

Noel Edmonds's own Alan Partridge moment on Sky TV's Noel's HQ.

They say television makes history and those four minutes on Noel's HQ certainly will. When the genius Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge came out, many wondered which presenter or particular programme was behind Coogan, Marber and Iannucci's inspiration. Fifteen years later, we find out they were simply looking into the future and foresaw this hilarious, pathetic, cringeworthy piece of egomaniac TV (read more about it here). "This country really is in a shocking state. See you after the break".

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Unjust Rewards

The latest book by Polly Toynbee and David Walker, "exposing greed and inequality in Britain today".

Denial is a nasty bastard. It's almost caused more trouble and reaped more victims than plagues and famines. Denial is so toxic because it's invariably the easy route. It's the one cop-out that makes you go along with a world sewn up by the rich and the powerful without questioning a single thing. It's that reflex action that makes it possible for millions of heads to be buried under the sand as they get fooled by a swirl of "but at least", "cheers" and "we're all doing great".

And denial is what laid at the root of today's financial crash. For years we chose to turn a blind eye or two towards a culture of exorbitant excesses at the top. We had (and still enjoy) a political class that was at best naive and at worst conniving.

The masses were kept quiet in their delusion by tons of credit handed out like candyfloss at a fair, the cheap availability of bamboozling gadgets, and load of bullshit jobs thinly disguised by the growing culture of aspiration consisting of Big Brother, Pop Idol and Heat magazine. The masses were told that the gargantuan binge taking place at the top would inevitably trickle down to the rest of society. In the end though, what really trickled down were the most toxic bits, like an overflowing cesspit whose lids are no longer able to keep it out of sight. Cue businesses dropping like flies, bankruptcies skyrocketing and the number of those on the dole swelling up.

How many times do we hear "this is too complicated, I haven't got a clue about all that stuff happening at the top"?

Unjust Rewards
is the perfect antidote if you wish to at least find out why all this is happening. The first chapter is exactly about the notion of denial. Toynbee and Walker started with a research into the opinion of some of the wealthiest people in the country. They were asked to express what they know about the nation's average earnings. Their ignorance turned out to be staggering. The overwhelming majority of those 'high flyers' are truly convinced most of Britain are living on income levels very similar to their own. Their grasp of poverty and inequality is as sober as tales of children delivered to families by storks.

Like her or not, Polly Toynbee deserves huge credit for holding on to reality at a time when everybody in Britain was busy flying on the seat of their pants. At the peak of the years of delusion, especially between 2000 and 2007, whoever warned Britain about its staggering excesses and growing inequality was being dubbed a nutjob.

It's a shame, however that, in such an apolitical country, Unjust Rewards is unlikely to preach past the converted. And yet its language is extremely accessible, a rare feat to accomplish for leftist commentators - a category often guilty of indulging in prosaic or overtechnical style that remains confined to an ivory tower. Toynbee remains one of the best antidotes to the Littlejohns and Kavanaghs of today's Britain. She is able to speak the language of ordinary people and relate to their real everyday problems without leaving a single stone unturned.

The authors' argument takes the shape of an exploratory journey through the plight of those straggling behind, looking into the effect of eleven years of New Labour's watered down redistributive policies, digging into issues of aspiration and proving that our attitudes to pay and standards of living have been completely distorted.

Avoiding their fair share, one of the final chapters, is a brilliant polemic against non-doms and tax avoiders. "The wealthy have nothing to complain about in Labour's treatment of their tax affairs", writes Toynbee, adding that "the rest of the EU looks on London's new status as the playground of the rich not with admiration but with a measure of disgust and anger at the opening of a tax haven [...]".

What needs to be done, to round it all off, is a set of suggestions to get Britain out of the current deadlock, including "the creation of an anti-avoidance culture", a radical reform of the Honours system, the closure of tax havens, and a series of measures to reduce inequality. "Policians must learn to say boo to the golden goose", is one of the final statements.

Unjust Rewards
is a must for all those who wish to break the vicious circle of ignorance, denial and unfairness.

Monday, February 09, 2009

British bulldog or British pussycat?

Which is more outrageous: the banks continuing with their multi-million bonuses or the British people's lack of interest?

"Fury over £4bn bonuses at the bailed-out banks", writes the Daily Mail. Fury? Where's the fury? Can you see any?

A quick look around and it's quite apparent that, fair dues, the Express is alone in giving the scandal due coverage. Its front page goes "SCANDAL OF £1BN BANKERS' BONUSES", reporting Vince Cable's view that "This is unbelievably crass and irresponsible behaviour by people who have learned absolutely nothing and appear to have no standards of honesty whatsoever".

After digging the black hole that swallowed £37billion of our money (with plenty more on its way), and after the government bought up stakes to part-nationalise them, the banks are continuing to award themselves bonuses and act like nothing had happened.

According to the Times, "some of the worst-performing banks - notably the Royal Bank of Scotland, which last year delivered the biggest loss in British corporate history - are set to pay out close to £1 billion in bonuses". And every single day Alistair Darling warns. He announces reviews, he calls for inquiries. "The very fact that he has ordered a review suggests he has no clear idea what to do", writes Philip Johnston in the Telegraph. Last October, Gordon Brown said: "The government is bringing and end to rewards for failure". We're still waiting.

But aside from the Express, the issue doesn't appear to be given the relevance it deserves. Yes, there are columnists and financial analyses. But we're nowhere near Baby P-standards of public outrage. Which is why talks of British spirit and British bulldog are even more pathetic nowadays than they ever were. British pussycat more like.

In the US, Barack Obama stepped in quickly and decisely to cap executive pay and what he calls the "shameful" culture of bonuses. In France, where people showed their sheer anger last week with mass demonstrations, Nicolas Sarkozy announced that "there would be no 2009 bonuses at banks that have received state aid", while today French banks and the financial watchdog have agreed to cap bonuses and link them to performance in order to curb "overly-risky conduct".

In Britain the most radical act is, at best, an overpaid celebrity cretin poking fun at the Prime Minister for being "one-eyed" or, at worst, rage completely mis-directed at foreign temporary workers. That's where the famous 'British spirit of the blitz' is today.

If I was a banker I wouldn't worry in the slightest. I'd look around and see The Sun busy talking about Peaches Geldof's marriage "WRECKED BY VIRGIN" and the Mirror's revelations about Jade Goody's family feud. Then I'd conclude that the BAFTAs, or Tony Adams sacked by Portsmouth, are getting more coverage than our latest bonus-related news. And then I'd wear a big fat grin.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


The unbelieveable world of Silvio Berlusconi: a woman in an irreversible coma "could even have children".

It's no mystery that Italy boasts the most right-wing government in Europe. People often wonder whether its current Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is inspired by the pre-enlightement days of absolute monarchy or 20th century Latin American brand of populism. Until today, however, little was known about his necrophiliac tendencies.

Let's have a look at the background first. On Tuesday, the Italian courts gave the father of Eluana Englaro, a comatose woman who's been in a vegetative state since 1992, permission to disconnect her feeding tubes. Mr Englaro says that she once expressed a clear wish for extraordinary measures not be taken to keep her alive in such a condition and he called for "a dignified end to his daughter's life".

But here's where Berlusconi comes in. True to the maxim that Italian politicians can't even take a dump without the Vatican's consent, the billionaire Prime Minister pandered to the Pope's wishes and overturned the court's decision by decree, like an old-school monarch, an unprecedented case in the country's post-WWII history. According to the BBC, "the case puts Mr Berlusconi in direct conflict with the courts and President Giorgio Napolitano" who, in fact, said he would not sign the the decree on the grounds that it's "unconstitutional".

This is how Berlusconi explained it: "I will do everything I can to save her life. Eluana is alive, and she could have children". Then he went on, "hypothetically she could even bear a child while in a vegetative state”. Aside for his staggering hypocrisy (his wife had an abortion after 7 months for fears the child was going to be born with defects), it's intriguing to see how in his eyes, as well as those of the catholic Talibans, a woman is simply a pregancy machine, a two-legged reproductive apparatus, and sod those arsy issues of consent, will or simple common sense.

In Berlusconi's view, the issue of whether a woman may actually be entitled to decide is actually irrelevant. How would Eluana get pregnant? Would they hire a certified rapist? A stud? A necrophile? Could Berlusconi volunteer?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Blame the parents

The latest BBC row. Featuring Carol Thatcher, gollywogs and some staggeringly ignorant commentators.

Hands up if you can remember the last time an entire week went by without a BBC-related row, especially one that wouldn't involve the name Jonathan Ross and an £18m figure. The latest is centred around Carol Thatcher, axed from the 'One Show' over the use of the word "golliwog" to describe a black tennis player.

If there's one good thing about Maggie's gobby daughter though, it's that her choice of vocab is shedding some light on the fine mind of some of our commentators.

Look at Charles Moore in the Telegraph: "Carol Thatcher liked the jam and she liked the golliwog. When she said that the mixed-race Jo-Wilfried Tsonga resembled a golly, she was making a friendly joke". And the Daily Mail's Richard Littlejohn: "[the BBC] worship at the altar of 'diversity' and are in a constant state of zealous vigilance for any evidence of 'racism'. The younger members of the tribe simply don't know any different. They have been brainwashed to believe that 'racism' is the most heinous crime on earth".

In the same paper, Linday Johns slams: "How dare BBC liberals patronise us", while Jon Gaunt in the Sun reveals: "I have never found them offensive or racist" even though he concedes that "I am a fat, pasty white bloke and I accept that some black people do find them offensive" (maybe Gaunty too is pandering to political correctness?- ed).

Yet the award for most ridiculous point on the matter goes to Lord On-yer-bike Tebbit: “It is probably a bit of a way for the BBC to get back at Carol’s mother”, he said. To which, the best reposte comes from Ava Vidal in the Independent: "Ah yes, the perfect plot: employ someone's daughter for a while, paying her thousands, then just wait for her to make a sackable mistake. Yeah, this one's for the miners, Thach!"

Matthew Norman puts it like no-one else could:

"[Carol Thatcher's] bemused reaction to the ensuing melodramatics confirms that she no more comprehends the distasteful nature of the word than does her media claque. [...] To them, the racist spectrum has the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan at one end and those soundly against lynching at the other, with nothing in between. That vast quagmire of nuance in the middle remains invisible to them, which is why every now and then one of them strolls blithely into the quicksand."


Mark Reed on Brian Singer's new film.

Tom Cruise clearly divides film fans. Sometimes, he's easily the worst thing in the film, a goddamn nuts one-note Scientologist moonunit who tries to be the Everyman character but ends up being a psychological freak who speaks in what sounds like English (but isn't), tries to demonstrates emotions but instead demonstrates facsimiles of feeling, and never quite convinces me, because Tom Cruise is too famous to act, because I cannot forget whenever I see him that I am not watching Von Stauffenberg, but I'm watching Tom Cruise in an eyepatch and a grey hat.

Sometimes, his limited emotional palette - which never truly convinces me - suits certain films fine. The Mission Impossible and Top Gun films, and even Eyes Wide Shut Cruise was surprisingly good. Then again, Kubrick would raise anyone's game. Still, Nazi's are cool. They had uniforms designed by Hugo Boss, after all. All those peaked caps, iconography and muted colours. Cor. Maybe that's why the Nazi's have caught our attention for so long, that sense of natty oppressive fashion. That, and World War II was the first war to be captured on news film and subject to the world of the 'talkies'. In these current times, the sense of good vs evil is a lot more ambigious, in those, relatively simpler times, it was fairly obvious, there were The Commie-Nazis, and the Goodies.

From the off, the film portrays a world of shades of grey. Maybe I'm projecting our current political state in the film, but the idea of disgruntled soldiers in the desert questioning the morality and righteousness of the cause seems reminiscent of recent history: and if that is intentional, in one way, the film could be seen as justifying an assasination attempt upon leaders because the human cost is clearly seen whilst also showing the architecture of a mindset that moves people around as if they were chess pieces on a board. Fast forward, and Stauffenberg is rehabilitated into Berlin.

There's a tense, somewhat nailbiting first prologue which - if you know nothing about the film or the plot - actually means little until after the event. That, and the fact that the films main target, Sir Adolf of Hitler spends most of the film as a shadow, a cipher, a name, a painted image, and only appears in three or four scenes, and - most of the time - is barely visible, with only a handful of lines of dialogue. This works effectively. The temptation when you have Hitler in anything is to allow him to dominate the movie, and any on-screen Hitler who isn't Bruno Ganz is a letdown, and so Singer effectively underplays the role.

Nonetheless, the film is a brisk, effective two hours, made of effective casting (Eddie Izzard is somewhat surprisingly understated) and a realistic mise-en-scene using the remaining locations where possible. Like any similar film, half of the tension is in the planning, the judicious use of flash-fowards and possible worlds to forecast what may - or may not - happen, which aptly foreshadows tension... and keeps the snorers awake. If anything this film reminds me of a maudlin caper film from the Sixties; where all of the film is in the planning and the setting up of 'the job', whatever it is, be it bank heist, assasination, political coup, and the tension comes from not what will happen, but what goes wrong.

What is compelling about the film is the dilemmas it still presents us now. How close the plot came, what happened, how the whole thing hinged on one decision by one man in one office who couldn't decided which way to turn, about one hundred tiny changes to our everyday lives, where to stand, the temperature, rain, all these things, and how most of us are often unwitting participants in huge plots of which no one person knows everything, or even, most things. When the house of cards that is the plot starts to fall, we all see how fragile every plan we have is, how high the stakes are, and how lucky al of us are to have anything in our lives.

Valkyrie is an intense and compelling film that lays clear a fascinating fragment of history that is rarely touched upon, and acts, in a way, as a rather brilliant prequel to the masterful Downfall. Recommended.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Franz Ferdinand, Tonight

Mark Reed on the return of Kapranos & co after almost four years.

We experience music differently these days. Songs are first heard coming from speakers, tinny ones designed not to reproduce the full spectrum dominance of sound, but an approximatation, an imitation of sound, tiny white ear buds of computers.

After weeks of hearing Ulysses, the albums premiere single and starting track, from televisions and sandwich shop radios, it made a pleasant surprise to be struck with the warm and rich sound of the production. Unlike many people, Franz Ferdinand seem to value sonic clarity over volume dominance. And whilst Tonight is loud, it's only loud in the right places.

, like most of the rest of album, is dripping in melodies, choruses, effective and interesting rhythms (that never bore), and the opening triumvate (including Turn It On and No You Girls), may make you think that the band have evolved barely since 2004, the next one, Send Him Away shifts gears with a semi-reggae set of drum rolls, a high end bass, and angular guitar that sounds like a somewhat angry, stuttering White Man In Hammersmith Palais.

Add to this the delibrately dated – and one would therefire say classic, timeless keyboard sounds reminiscent of late era Abba in Twilight Omens, and you have something that sounds very much like Franz Ferdinand, Jim, but not as you know it. Three and a half years is a long time in pop music. In three and a half years, The Beatles went from Love Me Do to Marharashi's Chanting Family (or whatever it was called), and Radiohead went from Pablo Honey to OK Computer.

Franz haven't quite moved that far, but it's definitely a step beyond what they did before, an evolution, still memorable at the first listen (What She Came For is unforgettable), shifting tempos and styles betyween songs and inside songs in a way that is both fluid, natural, and surprising : Live Alone sounds like Blondie, Kraftwerk, Human League, whilst also sounding very 2009. The sound is classic, timely yet timeless, lyrically it is minimal, vague, and economical: about nothing, something, and anything at the same time. In some ways, the words allow you to project onto the songs whatever you want them to mean: but also quite clear. That's the beauty of language, and Franz are literate and have the benefit of historical awareness, from their name down.

Lucid Dreams
is probably the album stand out, as it progresses as a strong, weighty track, before moving to the left with an instrumental jam reminiscent of Electronic's latter-period that is like a modern day version of the type of acid/techno/house buildups and breakdowns, albeit played on 'traditional instruments'. With this as the final full on band song, the closing two songs - Dream Again and Katherine Kiss Me, are understated, gentle explorations that hint at the type of future that Franz Ferdinand could have, plucking out heartfelt moments with power.

The Special Edition contains 40 minutes of remixes: unlike the usual modern remix, which is someone elses song with a clumsy fragment of the original shoe-horned in, these are worthy reinventions you will be returning to many times. That said, Tonight is no radical reinvention nor a tired retread of the past, but the next step on an interesting journey. For now, and maybe forever, Franz Ferdinand will never seemingly produce an album that rips away the artifice of civilisation, and repression, to expose the raw heart and hurt of emotion.. but they are getting there and the point of the journey is not to arrive, after all.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The "Italians" on the wildcat strikes

"If the Brits kick us out, we'll do the same to their workers here"

As I translated this article from the Italian daily la Repubblica, I discovered that about one hundred Brits are currently working on a regasifier on an oil rig in the Northern Adriatic. This is the stuff the Daily Mail & chums conveniently don't tell you about.

"PORTO VIRO (Rovigo) - 'It's a pity. È un peccato, I love working with the Italians, I love Italy. I just hope this Stuff about the Grimsby refinery is just a one-off'. Brian has just got back from the oil rig in the Adriatic where one hundred Brits, along with two hundred Italian and foreign colleagues, are working cheek by jowl on a regasifier that will provide 10% of our country with methane. He doesn't want to talk, as he walks out from the Porto Viro base, guarded like barracks, where another one hundred employees work, mostly from Exxon Mobil, British, American, Norwegian, Italian.

It looks like the idea of beggar-thy-neighbour rhetoric may suddenly jeopardise this beacon of harmony and international cooperation on high seas, where no tension has ever flared between the Brits and the locals. Here on Christmas day, the English cook turkey for their Italian colleagues. At sea they have a game of ping pong, they eat together, watch the football on Sky. Their cabins are identical, on a 50mt high oil rig, large like two football pitches, two thirds under water, 15 miles from the coast. They take a break on the lodging barge after a 12-hour shift.

But the news of those walkouts against the "Italians" arrive like a bad omen. The ghost of a sour story that may turn up here as well. Which is why many of them clock out with their heads down, without uttering a word, sidestepping the questions. "I haven't read the papers, I haven't a clue", says another British worker as he walks away, looking down. "I'm not qualified to speak", mumbles yet another as he vanishes into the thick cloak of fog around the base. They seem to have a hunch that the mood is changing amongst the locals.

"In Italy it's a mess- protests 200 meters away Melchiorre Vidali, bricklayer, working on the naval dockyards- I don't mind the English or the French, but if they reject us, then we'll have to do the same". Luigi Tessarin, owner of the Taglio di Po hotel that hosts half a dozen technicians from the UK is concerned. "The English want to grab hold of their cake- he utters- but if that's the way they want to play, then we'll send them home too".

A warning that sounds like self-defense. There aren't any demonstrations or protests in this sea-soaked land where the Romea motorway is all that mends together a landscape made of warehouses, ghosts of derelict factories and small villages. Yet the strikes against the Italians are kickstarting a sense of malaise. "Here it's all fine" - objects Orazio Milani - a customer at the bar Mauro, hosting twenty Poles who every morning at 6 set off for the platform and at night drink "a beer, a shot and hit the sack at 10, with never a problem". In England "they're bang wrong, they want to go backwards" slams Marziano Berto, the barman. "They're only ignorant", confirms the customer as he sips his coffee.

The workers at the base also sense the atmosphere; the company invited them to avoid controversy, especially after the Northern League threatened the foreigners that it's "payback time". Security measures at the base are as strict as they'd never been. Alcohol is banned and there are regular tests. "We're working on a great project", explains Adriano Gambetta, from Genoa, a long-term captain who's been managing operations from ashore for a year. At the end of the spring here they'll start producing methane from liquid gas coming from Qatar. Three ships a week will be emptied, and they'll heat a tenth of all homes in Italy. Eight billion cubic meters of gas produced by Adriatic Lng (45% Exxon Mobil, 45% Qatar Gas, 10% Edison).

It's a pilot scheme that involves technicians from worldwide. Once the construction work's done, there'll be only 66 Italians left to run the day-to-day operations. "All I'm interested in is to get the job done", an English technician explains: "I don't want trouble, don't ask me what my name is". The anti-Italian walkouts? "Ridiculous", retorts an Exxon employees from ashore. "I don't get them, this way we're going backwards", adds Bjorne, a Norwegian who finds Italy "a fantastic country". For Bill, from Houston, USA, who for $10,000 a month plus travelling expenses brought his wife along, the only complaint is for the "bad weather". "[The strikes] are sterile protests, I don't think we'll witness similar things in Italy", bets Gambetta the manager. Less optimistic is a Parisian engineer, who's just got back from the oil rig: "What if this was the first sign of a protectionist revival worldwide? That would be no good".