Monday, December 20, 2010

A la Recherche...

It has long vexed me that if you chip away at the hard, flinty exterior of my heart you are are only likely to encounter a hard, flinty interior. I know this because this is what people tell me.

People don't change and so perhaps I should accept this is the way that I am - because that's the way people see me - I don't think I'm as impenetrable as that but you are the person that people see you as, not how you see yourself.

So at this time of year - or whatever time of year you find appropriate - I urge you to embrace those that you love because people fade away without you noticing. It's a slow process which is why you don't see it happening. Sometimes it's only when you look back that you notice they're gone and what was unsaid will now forever remain that way.

Nuff said - have a wonderful Christmas. Remember those who have touched you and try to reciprocate in some small way. It will be noticed. I embrace you all and wish you all that wish for.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ashes to Ashes

English is a wonderful language. If a word has not been invented in English to express something and a perfectly good foreign equivalent already exists, then we just pilfer that word and assimilate it into the language. So far Finnish has only contributed one word to the English language but I'm sure they will come up with more. It's "sauna" by the way.

Two of my favourite imported words are hubris and schadenfreude.

Hubris - this is generally described as the comeuppance experienced following a display of misguided confidence. The "unsinkable" Titanic is a good example of hubris (although not for the poor souls who died upon it).

Schadenfreude is a cruel (but often satisfying emotion) and is the ability to take pleasure in the misfortune of others. I don't think it's intended as a vindictively cruel word - you would not, I think, experience schadenfreude seeing someone endure unnecessary pain however you might experience it upon seeing a particularly irritating colleague caught outside in the office car park in a torrential rainstorm whilst you are watching from a position of warmth and comfort. You might even be in a position to help them....but choose not to.

On the eve of an Ashes series against Australia these words may well soon be seeing plenty of use.

There is a worrying excess of confidence regarding the prospects of the English. We've not won The Ashes in Australia in 23 years. This is no walk in the park. You do not beat the Australians in their own back yard. They are a great team and could easily duff us up.

This is a pre-emptive post to announce that despite the confidence of the English team, the English press and various TV pundits, I am not expecting anything but the toughest of scraps from the Australians. I would expect nothing less and I am confident they will deliver.

Here's to a great series.

For those who don't know what I'm talking about - it's cricket.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Winter's Bone

Before 2010 is over, go and see this film and I promise you it will be the best you see this year.

A proper film. It has a real plot, and so doesn't need millions of dollars worth of special effects to disguise the lack of one. It has real actors who are completely, and in many cases, terrifyingly plausible - not the usual bunch of cute twentysomethings that pass for a movie cast these days. Just see it.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Unbearable Shitness of Everything

I have been very quiet lately. Apart from passing comment on my favourite blogs (you know who you are and your good humour has kept me sane - thank you) or a couple of one-line blogposts I've done very little to show my presence on here or anywhere. I've never been a particularly regular or frequent poster on this blog but I've tried to keep it going as I always think I might have something useful to say just around the corner.

The reason? My ability to concentrate on anything for more than about one minute has been completely destroyed. I've been a lifelong smoker and a month ago I stopped. I'd been building up to it in the preceding month and finally stopped for good on 13th September. I stopped about six years ago for about three months and somehow managed to start again. It was time to try again. I've had a few brief relapses in the last month but to all intents and purposes, and relative to the amount I smoked before, I've stopped.

Has anyone out there ever tried to give up smoking? It's fucking horrible. You spend every waking moment with a gnawing empty feeling in every part of your body. Add to this a constant headache (occasionally throbbing), relentless hunger, irritation, mood swings, disturbed sleep patterns, inability to concentrate and host of other crap.

Do you know what it's like to think, every two to three minutes of your waking day, of something you'd like to do, and then have to tell yourself that you cannot do it. I reckon I think about having a cigarette, and then denying myself that cigarette, several hundred times a day.

I've never been a heavy smoker but I've always been a regular smoker. I've been lucky I suppose. Smoking has never appeared to have any effect on my health. Yes I know, the consequences of smoking creep up on you slowly without you noticing but god it was good.

I enjoyed smoking. It allowed me to slow down, to pause for thought, and moments of quiet reflection are not, on the whole, a bad thing. Just because I enjoyed a smoke at the same time was just my way of getting through the day. I often think the world would be a better place if people had a compulsory 10 minute break from whatever thay are doing every few hours.

I absolutely understand people who dislike smoking. I completely accept a smoking ban in pubs, restaurants offices etc. I find it perfectly understandable that my smoking might be distateful to other people. Smoking doesn't make sense and I know it, but it's a personal choice and I choose (chose?) to do it.

What are the plus points of not smoking? They are precious few and hard to find. I get no pleasure from people complimenting me on how well I have done in the last month as quitting has not made me feel any better in ANY WAY AT ALL. I don't really respond to the "Well done" type of motivation any more than people telling me I shouldn't smoke motivated me to want to stop in the first place. I find all that a little irritating which is rather ungrateful of me but that's how my mind works on some things. I like to reach decisions on my own terms and not because of what other people expect of me.

Healthwise, for the most part I feel exactly the same except for one thing - I have gained 10kg in the last six weeks and I now look like Jabba The Hut. That's actually quite an achievement I suppose but not something I want to repeat over the next six weeks. I get no satisfaction from having stopped because I know having a cigarette would make me feel so good RIGHT NOW. Yes, RIGHT NOW.

I am getting nothing done at work. Either I have a compassionate employer who notices I'm somewhat off the pace recently and is giving me the benefit of the doubt...or I never did anything of use there and my whole career so far has been a sham. Which is worse? I really don't know.

So that's why I've been quiet. I'll try and get back into this but when you can't keep your mind on the same thing for more than a minute it's bloody difficult.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

In Touch With My Feminine Side...

A recent post at Really Quite Useful led me to urlai.com which is a website which will analyse your blog and tell you the age and gender it believes the blogger to be and a general analysis of the blog...

"kingofscurf.blogspot.com is probably written by a female somewhere between 26-35 years old. The writing style is personal and happy most of the time."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

French Films

I'd heard a few informal recommendations for a film. It's a French film and I'm a sucker for French films. I don't know who said it but it's a great quote "Hollywood makes movies, but only the French make films." I like to flatter myself I can speak a bit of French and it's fun to watch great films and also to congratulate myself occasionally when I can match the subtitles to the dialogue.

What these informal recommendations failed to point out to me was the one major thing in a film that would be likely to stop me watching it. The entire film is sung. Every. Single. Word.

So I settled down to watch it last night and pretty quickly realised I was in musical territory. But the singing didn't stop although it's not a musical in the normal sense of the word. But they just kept on singing. Every. Single. Word. I stuck with it.

And you know what? I loved it. I've never watched such a vibrantly coloured film. Every single shot seems to be immaculately constructed to stimulate the eye. Even the mundane is made to look gorgeous. It's minimal yet so rich. The dialogue is sparse but leaves you wanting so much more and imagining so much more. The plot is simple and perhaps even implausible but that doesn't matter.

Everyone is beautiful, particularly the women who are all exquisite beyond description. Catherine Deneuve is always beautiful but I'd never even heard of Ellen Farner and she seems to have disappeared without trace. How can somebody not have a Wikipedia page?

And it's got a stunning Michel Legrand (Windmills of Your Mind) soundtrack that just works on every level with the film.

The film? It's called The Umbrellas of Cherbourg / Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. The clip below is the closing scene. How can a simple petrol station be beautiful? I'll just say the two people in the second half of the clip (2 mins. to end) are, even by saying very little of any substance, perhaps regretting a greater relationship that circumstances dictated they were never to have. Watch it full screen. It's a feast for the eyes.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

What Woman Could Resist...?




Mmmmm take my hand
Come with me baby to Love Land
Let me show you how sweet it could be
Sharing love with me

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Living in London

I had to return a rental car to Central London at 10am on Sunday morning. I don't often find myself in Central London on a Sunday morning at this time of day and it seemed foolish just to go home so I thought I'd make the most of it and go for a bit of a walk.

You may think it's unusual that I live in London and say that I don't often find myself in this position but this is the reality for most Londoners. They tend to go into the centre for work and maybe go out once or twice in the evening after work but tend to avoid the place at weekends, and especially in the Summer.

The main reason for this is London is full of tourists at the weekend so the actual residents tend to stay at home or are content to go somewhere closer to home to find their fun. It's not that we dislike tourists but there is the distinct feeling that, when thrown into this collective polyglot maelstrom you rapidly become part of it and end up feeling, rather uncomfortably, like a visitor in your own house which has been strangely taken over by foreigners.

It's funny that most Londoners, when they have vistors from abroad or from out of town, are at a loss with what to do with them. Vistors arrive, goggle-eyed and anxious to see the sights but their hosts can think of nothing more uninvigorating than visiting tourist attractions in their own city.

It's a constant source of amazement to Londoners why anyone would want to visit Madame Tussauds or the Tower of London. Sure we'll take you on The London Eye and take you to our favourite pub and maybe even a visit to the theatre but likely as not, we'll send you out of the house in the morning with a tube map and a prepaid Oyster Card and tell you to go off and find your own entertainment and be home in time for tea.

This, I admit, is a poor state of affairs. We live in one of the world's greatest cities yet feel like strangers there at the weekend.

What did I end up doing on Sunday morning? Well, I walked along Oxford Street - the shops were closed at that time on a Sunday morning. I wandered down a few side streets I was unfamiliar with - London is big and there are plenty of these. I then went down Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus, then into Leicester Square which was already crowded and then down towards Trafalgar Square where I dived into the National Portrait Gallery which I have never visited in all the time I've lived here.

The National Portrait Gallery is crammed with about 500 years worth of mostly paintings and a few photographs of variously, royalty, aristocracy, military heroes and assorted other great and good characters who have made contributions to the nation. Explorers, scientists, writers etc. You get the idea. Whilst the various realisations were interesting enough and I learnt a great deal reading the condensed history of each picture I have to report that this nation is founded on a spectacularly unattractive gene pool. The men looked invariably portly, humourless and brutish and the few women portrayed were variously bug-eyed, doe-eyed or cross-eyed. I actually find cross-eyed women incredibly attractive but I'm prepared to admit I may be unique in this particular peccadillo.

I spent a good two hours in there and despite the slightly negative sounding above paragraph I rather enjoyed it. I actually behaved like a tourist, enjoyed the paintings (not so much the 20th century stuff) and believe I blended in quite nicely with all the other visitors, none of whom were from London. I then went walking again - Trafalgar Square, The Strand, Covent Garden, Charing Cross Road before hopping on a bus to go home as I was getting hungry.

I wonder if this feeling of mild alienation in your own city is common to urban dwellers all over the world or is it unique to London. I'd be interested to know. Whatever happens, next time I have visitors I promise to make more of an effort.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Holidays

I'm braw scunnered wi' London so I'm awa' tae Scotland fir th' next ten days.

Fare thee well. Back soon.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Fantastic Service

I'm impressed.

My wonderful dentist (I must blog one day about her wonderfulness sometime) recently referred me to a hospital specialist to investigate a tiny lesion in my mouth that would not go away. The hospital consultant duly inspected it, pronounced it a minor and treatable condition and said she would send me a letter in a few days time with a fuller diagnosis pending a few tests they had to run. The comprehensive and well written diagnosis duly arrived a few days later explaining I needed a prescription which I would have to collect from my GP (family doctor).

I dropped off the letter at the GP's surgery a few days ago and duly collected the prescription this afternoon and took it to my local pharmacy which is actually a major chain store with a branch in every town in the country. They told me they did not have the medicine in stock but they'd order it and I could collect it a few days later.

The pharmacy just 'phoned me (I didn't even know they had my number) to say the product I needed was no longer available. My mind raced ahead at this point and I thought to myself I'd probably have to go back to the pharmacy, collect the unfilled prescription, then take it back to the doctor, I'd probably have to make an appointment, the doctor would then have to sort out another prescription and then I'd have to go back to the pharmacy to have the new prescription filled. Tiresome but you kind of expect this sort of thing.

Not so. The nice lady pharmacist said she had already 'phoned my doctor and they had agreed an alternative treatment. The pharmacist would personally go to my doctor tomorrow, collect the new prescription on my behalf and I would just need to go back to the pharmacy any time after midday tomorrow to collect the treatment.

Isn't this a fantastic level of service and all for the state-regulated cost of my prescription of £7.20 (about $10 US)?

It has restored my faith in our much-maligned state-run health system and also given me a nice feeling about the good people at Boots as well.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

South Africa 2010

Well, we're one week away from the mildly interesting but on the whole, mostly risible spectacle that is the football World Cup. There will be some good, possibly wonderful football - I really hope so. There will certainly also be a lot of average or poor football as well. I'm mostly indifferent to the game but can appreciate the skill and pleasure it can bring. However off the pitch - and very often on - the situation is becoming faintly ridiculous and often rather unpleasant.

Teams rarely lose gracefully. Very few coaches will state in the post-match interview that they were beaten by a better opposition. They will usually complain that the referee made a bad decision or that an opposing player cheated to score a crucial goal. Being a bad loser is rarely considered unsporting. It is expected.

It's a cliche that football can bring out the best in people. A little bit of patriotism is good but this can easily descend into jingoism, xenophobia and simmering, ill-informed resentment.

England have a few teams we traditionally consider our greatest rivals. The French are traditionally disliked, often for no other reason I can fathom other than they are French. We consider we saved them in two World Wars (singlehandedly you might believe if you read some of the rhetoric written in the popular press) and some people seem to expect them to therefore simply roll over and let us win. Some will claim a lack of fighting spirit is an inherently flawed trait of the French national character. This is in direct contradiction to the fact that France is the number one holiday destination for the English and for the three years and eleven months out of every four years that do not involve a World Cup we secretly admire the French for their nonchalance, indifference to authority and spectacularly good food and wine.

We consider Germany our greatest rival. Germans are invariably portrayed as unemotional automatons who play the game with ruthless efficiency. We consider that having beaten them in two World Wars (singlehandedly again) that it is our right to beat them at football. Interestingly, Germany are indifferent to matches against the English and usually somewhat surprised by the degree of emotion the English invest in a fixture against them. Their true rivals are the Dutch.

Argentina are particularly disliked. A war with Argentina (are you noticing a theme here?) in 1982 in which we drove a mostly poorly-equipped and demoralised conscript army out of The Falkland Islands means we now consider the Argentinian people and players mere pawns, manipulated by an inherently corrupt state. They are not and we are the fools for ever imagining this to be true. We played Argentina in 1986 and as a nation, we still resent a goal scored by one of their players in which he illegally manhandled the ball into our goal. This goal is replayed on television whenever Argentina is mentioned even if the subject is not football as if we want to imply that foul play is endemic in the Argentinian psyche. If one of our players had done the same thing to Argentina he would have been feted as a national hero. We lost again to Argentina in 1998. David Beckham was personally blamed for the defeat when he was sent off for retaliating against a foul on him. It was a harsh sending off resulting in some particularly nasty behaviour directed at the referee, the Argentinians and also Beckham whose effigy was hanged in public. To his credit, Beckham came back the following season and went on to become a hero for club and country and for that he should be admired. He could easily have just walked away but he was determined to prove he was a stronger man than many would wish to portray him.

Invaribly, because the press whip up an emotional and sometimes worryingly jingoistic fury, whenever we meet any of the above teams we lose against them. Anger and barely concealed hatred get the better of everybody and whilst passion and emotion are important in football, an excess of these usually produces poor football and the wrong result. We lose significant matches because of the ridiculous national pride we invest in them and rarely win them because we believe we can play better football.

By far the most ridiculous and contrived spectacle you will see in this World Cup is the sight of grown men weeping at the outcome of a fixture. If a team is defeated having reached a significant stage (usually any match beyond half way through the competition) their players will be expected to weep openly on the pitch after the final whistle blows. The supporters expect this or they will consider the players did not care enough about the outcome. The players oblige because fundamentally they are performers, it is expected of them, and they know a few crocodile tears now will enhance their reputation on their return.

The cameras will also scour the terraces for evidences of weeping supporters. Ever since the death of Diana, melodramatic and over-emotional displays of collective grief have become commonplace. Since genuinely distressing events are thankfully rare, major football matches are now used as a barometer of the national mood. Invariably politicians get involved as well.

This time the English team has an Italian coach. He seems a mostly unflappable, enormously sensible and pragmatic individual. His monosyllabic post-match pronouncements are beautifully concise, mostly due to his poor English vocabularly. This is refreshing in a game that is ridiculoulsy over-analysed. I hope, despite his limited lexicon, that he motivates the team to believe they're playing a game of football and not out there to prove anything other than that. This has been the downfall of previous English born coaches who believed football to be a metaphor for national pride and not just about simple, good, honest sporting endeavour.

I hope England do well in the World Cup. I hope we win. But it's only 22 men running around on a field playing a game. Nothing more, nothing less. It's about time a few people realised that.

Cricket is far more important.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Body Perspectives

"Ever wondered why a man can look at an advert featuring a six-pack and laugh, while a woman might look at a photograph of female perfection and fall to pieces?" A mildly interesting opening line to an intriguing article about the different perspective men and women have on body images.

The basic premise is that women are constantly bombarded with pictures and magazine articles telling them how they can have the perfect body. This makes them vulnerable and insecure because they know they will probably never attain that body. It's not enough that their partner may love them them just way they are. In fact, being told "I love you just the way you are" whilst intended as a compliment from the man could easily be taken as an insult by the woman.

A man is in a more fortunate position knowing that although he may never look like Brad Pitt, his body is merely a machine. If he gets fat and out of shape then that can be fixed by exercise and that's as good as it'll get. He'll still not look like Brad Pitt but he's looking as good as he'll ever look. There's no pressure to achieve the unattainable.

It's a sad state of affairs and although I was aware of the above contradiction I'd never really thought about. Perhaps we haven't really moved on that much in the last thirty years. Society still places unreasonable expectations on women - probably even more now than ever, and men still get the easy ride.

It's rather more depressing to read some of the misogynistic views in the Comments section suggesting that women who are susceptible to this are shallow or stupid or lazy.

Read the whole article here but I don't suggest you bother with the 200+ comments - the ones I read didn't really add much value.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Election Retrospective Blogpost Part Three (The Last One)

"No overall majority" is the correct definition of the outcome I believe. A hung parliament had been discussed in the run up to election day and now we had one. Despite it being on the cards, the political commentators and pundits seemed ill-prepared for this and there were numerous people expressing varying opinions about what would happen next.

"Constitutional Experts" were consulted. This is kind of ironic because we don't actually have a constitution. We have a series of agreements, rules and statutes that are referred to at times like this and are often officially described as the "unwritten" constitution.

Some said the Conservatives had won the most seats and were the defacto winners and Cameron had to be the next prime minister. Others said another election would be required as a minority government cannot function effectively. Others said Gordon Brown had to walk the plank immediately as his position was untenable.

The actuality that was finally agreed was that Gordon Brown had to remain as prime minister and Labour remain as the goverment as nobody else was in a position to take the job and somebody had to stay and do it until a solution was found. This irked many people who were hoping to see Gordon Brown unceremoniously frogmarched out of 10 Downing Street as soon as possible despite it being correct that he should for the moment stay. They vociferously shouted that he was hanging on by his fingernails and was in denial by refusing to accept that winning less seats than another party actually constituted a defeat.

Cameron and the Conservatives, as the party with most seats would have the first shot at forming a government. This could take one of two forms. They either had to create a formal coalition with one or more other parties that would give them a majority of seats or they had to gain at least a formal agreement (officially called "confidence and supply") from one or other parties that they would support the Conservatives in votes in the House of Commons. This would allow them to operate an effective majority. If neither form of agreement could be gained then they could not form a goverment because all the other parties could (and probably would) always vote against them meaning they were a lame duck and a goverment, only in name. If no coalition or agreement could be made then The Labour Party, having gained the second highest number of seats, would try to make a similar arrangement that gave them a majority.

A coalition formed with The Labour Party taking the lead seemed to confuse a lot of people (myself included). How could a party that had not gained the most number of seats get together with other losing parties and be allowed to form a government? This rapidly became known in the media as the "coalition of the losers". However strange it seemed to people, this would be a legitimate government.

Simply by historical reputation alone the Conservatives are on their own in parliament. Almost all other parties of any size feel ideologically opposed to them. They are not natural coalition partners to anyone. The mathematically obvious arrangement they could make would be with the Liberal Democrats who although they had had a bad election had sufficients seats to give the Conservatives what they wanted. The Liberal Democrats however were formed by a merger of The Liberal Party and The Social Democrat Party. The Social Democrats were formed in the 80s by a splinter group of disilliusioned Labour politicians. Not natural bedfellows to the Conservatives at all. If the Liberal Democrats were to align with any other party it would ideologically be with The Labour Party.

Whilst the above is true, the reality is that our major political parties are much more closely clustered around the centre of the political spectrum than ever before. The Labour Party throughout Thatcher's period in office had made themselves unelectable through a combination of infighting and ill-conceived policies. Throughout Tony Blair's period in office the Conservatives had done pretty much the same thing and both parties, having realised this, had subsequently moved towards the centre ground. The centre ground was always held by the Liberal Democrats who I might uncharitably suggest gained a lot of their votes by just not being Conservative or Labour.

The weekend following the election saw a period of intense discussions and political dealings. These were centered around the initially unlikely possibility of some sort of arrangement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Many people believed that even if the Liberal Democrat leadership could thrash out a deal with the Conservatives, their membership would find any sort of arrangement with them unacceptable.

The Liberal Democrats were also furtively but legitimately double-dealing with Labour and seeing what their options were if a deal could be made there. One of the Liberal Democrats non-negotiable conditions of any sort of arrangement with Labour was that it must not involve Gordon Brown as leader and ongoing prime minister. He was therefore required to announce his resignation as leader of the Labour Party in order to allow discussions to progress. The problem with making a deal with Labour was that the sums still did not add up. Even if they had an agreement they still would not have a majority unless they could could also gain the support of all the minor parties as well. The minor parties comprised of Scottish Nationalists, Welsh Nationalist and the parties representing Northern Ireland. You may be interested to know that there are a group of MPs representing some Northern Ireland constituencies who refuse to attend the House of Commons as their political objective is to unite with the Republic of Ireland. They therefore refuse to pledge allegiance to the Queeen and because of this, cannot take their seats in parliament. Even if they could have been lured into a coalition, their support could not be relied upon as they have never been seen in parliament. Getting this incredibly broad coalition to agree on anything would be almost impossible, and politically, probably highly unstable.

The outcome of the above wranglings was a full-on Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. On initial assessment, The Liberal Democrats seem to have been the winners. They gained a poor third place in the election yet appear to have gained considerable political influence in the new government. It is also however speculated that if the coalition fails The Liberal Democrats will have the most to lose as people will believe they made the deal only to gain power and in the process abandoned their political integrity. It is thought that a small but influential hard core of both Conservative and Liberal Democrats parties are deeply uncomfortable with the coalition and may actively seek to undermine and destabilise it. The phrase "won't last till Christmas" is freqently bandied around.



It's often been said that the coalition we have is the worst possible outcome because nobody voted for this sort of compromise government. It's true to say that nobody voted for a coalition because coalitions do not appear on the ballot paper but I personally believe that, as with most of our elections, relatively few people vote for a party because they believe unconditionally with everything that party says. They generally vote for the party with the most number of policies that they agree with, or for the party that has the least number of policies that they disagree with. Politicians hate to think any vote for them is anything less than a ringing endorsement of everything they believe in but you only have look at potential voters interviewed on TV to realise that very few are blindly affiliated to one party alone. Many people vote for the party that they least object to or they vote for a party simly because it is not one of the other major parties. If all the people who voted believed passionately in the party that they voted for then party membership would be considerably higher than it is. Only a small minority of the population is actually a paying member of any political party. In that respect, I think many people find some sort of coalition acceptable as long as it acts in the country's best interest which is really all that you ask from a government in the first place.

My normal, intermittent, and non-political blogging will return shortly. Thank you for listening.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Election Retrospective Blogpost Part Two

Come election day the pollsters were predicting a hung parliament. Well hung. This will require some explanation - stop sniggering at the back.

A General Election elects the Members of Parliament (MPs) for the House of Commons based in Westminster, London. The election is held across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which make up the United Kingdom. The House of Commons has approximately 650 MPs each one representing a constituency - a particular area of the UK. The winner of the most votes in each constituency wins a "seat" in the House of Commons.

There is a second unelected house called the House of Lords. Historically the House of Lords was supposed to be made up of made up of individuals who although unelected were expected to be sufficiently wise as to always operate in the country's best interest and act as a counterweight against the possible excesses of a rogue House of Commons. This has always been a controversial state of affairs and House of Lords reform is always a subject under discussion. Currently the House of Lords contains a mix of individuals nominated by the major political parties via the prime minister and the monarch( life peers), twenty six senior bishops (the Lords Spiritual) and a small number of hereditary peers (family connections). Yes, you heard me right, God has a say in our political process and also if an ancient ancestor of yours went into battle for the monarch and pleased him/her that may well entitle you through birthright to have a say in running the country. Controversial in a modern democracy I'm sure you would agree. Members of the House of Lords can be appointed to government posts and many are definitely politically aligned. Although life peers are chosen from across the political spectrum, as a whole The House of Lords is generally considered more inclined in favour of the Conservatives. But let's get back to the election.

In the UK we operate an electoral system called First Past the Post. This is actually a slightly misleading name but in the way of many things in the UK - we've always called it that so why change?

First Past the Post means the candidate with the most votes wins the seat. When the winner is declared, all votes for any of the losing candidates are effectively dead and lost. We don't do proportional representation (PR) which allows for the seats allocated in parliament to more closely represent the percentage of votes received nationally by each party. A system of PR has always been resisted by the Labour and Conservative parties as it has the potential to create a fractured parliament of minor parties. First Past the Post almost always creates an outright winner and this should make for a stable government. We don't want to end up like Italy which changes its government more often than the average Pom changes his grundies. The mathematicians amongst you will realise that under this system it is entirely possible that a political party could win a disproportionately higher percentage of seats relative to the percentage of votes they received as whole across the country. This happens. It also means that a smaller party who may gain perhaps five or ten percent of votes across the country wins no seats at all. The smaller parties consider this unfair and I can see their point. We have a long tradition of minor political parties and independent eccentrics trying their hand at getting elected. Even if they were to gain only 1% of votes across the country, PR would give them a small place in parliament but First Past the Post effectively shuts them all out.

At 10pm the polling stations closed and the exit poll was announced. The exit poll is the first indicator of how the election may pan out. On election day the media are only allowed to report on the barest of details concerning the events of the day. No politicians are interviewed and media speculation on the outcome is not permitted. A bit of a news blackout really which is a relief for the poor voter who's seen nothing but this for the previous month or so. The main news story reported on election day this year was actually about the leader of one of the minor political parties who was lucky not to get himself killed in a light aircraft accident - election day news reporting is rarely this exciting. The exit poll predicted a hung parliament.

To properly win an election a party must gain a majority. This does not simply mean they must win more seats than the second placed party. A majority means winning more seats than all other parties put together. First Past the Post makes this more probable than any system of PR. If a party wins more seats than anyone else but does not win a majority then this is a hung parliament and the shenanigans begin.

Come Friday morning we had a hung parliament. The Conservatives had won 306 seats, Labour 258, Liberal Democrats 57 and other parties gained 21. Politicians hate hung parliaments. Politics in the UK for the last 18 months or so have been dominated by two things. The failing economy and the way our MPs have claimed their expenses. As an electorate we had managed to upset almost all politicians in all parties. We had just reason to be proud of ourselves for delivering this ambiguous message to the political class who, because of the scandal over their expenses were viewed as little better than money-grubbing opportunists who seemed to think that charging for porn movies, garden landscaping, non-existent mortgages and state of the art plasma TVs were legitimate occupational expenses that should be financed for them by the taxpayer.

Trying to create a working government from this election outcome would mean the politicians would have to scrap it out like ferrets in a sack.

Final instalment later this week - if you want me to.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Election Retrospective Blogpost Part One

I have a strange desire to relate an account of the recent General Election here in the UK. It seems to have piqued the interest of people around the world and unusually as voters, even we were quite interested in it this time.

For the first time in 13 years we've had a change of government. Prior to the 13 years of Labour we had 18 years of Conservative government. This actually says less about our ability to form stable long-term governments and more about the inability of non-governing parties to form an effective oppostion to an incumbent government. Invariably whilst out of power, opposition parties spent more time fighting within themselves rather than trying to form an effective alternative to the current ruling party.

This time the country was ripe for change. Gordon Brown coveted the job of prime minister all the time Tony Blair was in the role. When he was finally handed the job on a plate 3 years ago he proceeded, in the most part, to cock it up big style. Convinced that he would and could impose his vision he was unable to cope with people being underwhelmed by his plans. His stewardship was marked by ill-judged, knee-jerk reactions to events or indecisiveness at critical moments. Despairing at his falling ratings he succumbed to the PR people who tried to teach him how to smile and appear engaging and approachable. These were characteristics he himself admitted he had never possessed and believed were trivial and irrelevant to a man of substance such as he. When he tried it, small children hid behind the sofa in fear. Adults laughed out loud in derision. He was encouraged by his handlers to pontificate on the outcome of popular televison game shows and talent contests. His unfamiliarity with these subjects was painfully apparent.

The low-point of Gordon Brown's election campaign was meeting a woman who proudly declared she was a staunch supporter of his party but raised some reasonable questions about his policies during the brief opportunity she had to meet him. He reassured her of his resolute intentions and that he alone was the man best able to represent her in the years to come. Immediately out of earshot he described her to one of his advisers as a bigot. He had however forgotten he was still wearing a TV microphone and his "bigot" remark was replayed relentlessly throughout the rest of the campaign.

The Conservative opposition went into the campaign looking to capitalise on recent record ratings. A few months earlier the polls had predicted a landslide victory for their party. Despite having the most money to spend they ran a confusing and unremarkable campaign and their initial popularity steadily ebbed away. The Conservative leader David Cameron's privileged upbringing was constantly used against him calling into question his ability to relate to the lifestyle and needs of the ordinary voter.

Stuck in the middle were The Liberal Democrats. Perennial bronze medallists in every election campaign within living memory, they suddenly and unexpectedly became popular in the polls. Many people believed this popularity was simply down to them being neither Labour nor Conservative. The Liberal Democrats woke up on election day morning convinced that although they would not gain outright victory they were going to sweep up like never before and become the genuine third force in British politics that they considered their birthright.

OK dear readers - if you're still with me (and if you are, I take my hat off to you), I'll stop for now. I've set the scene. Later this week I'll describe how our electoral system works and how the above events panned out on election day. Betcha can't wait.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Real Weather

Ever seen a swimming pool boil? If you can't watch it all, then at least watch the period between 1 and 2 minutes.

I hope they didn't leave the car out.



Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Please Don't Touch the Old Women

Us Limeys never like to miss an opportunity to have a pop at the Americans. Personally speaking, all the Americans I've ever met have been charming and courteous and we'd do better to look to our own behaviour. The way the British behave abroad and their contempt for foreigners is a subject of constant embarrassment. As a body politic, the Americans are sometimes a little worrying but as individuals I have never had any reason to complain.

One of our favourite illustrations of American naivety concerns the film The Madness of King George III. It is frequently said that this was renamed for the American market as simply The Madness of King George lest those silly Americans would think it was a sequel and not worth seeing as they had missed out on part I and II. This is of course an urban myth but illustrates the level of our humour sometimes.

Renaming of films is an interesting subject and I recently came across a list of film titles which were renamed for (generally speaking) non native English speaking countries.

Here's a list of a few of them with the country in which the new title was used which I got from this month's edition of the fantastic Word magazine. See how many you can guess and then scroll down to see how you get on. I'll start you off with a few easy ones...

  • The Teeth of the Sea (France)
  • Is There a Pilot on the Plane? (France)
  • Night in the Cramped Forest (Taiwan)
  • Two Crazy Guys and a Lot of Curves (Spain)
  • The Sparrow Becomes the Empress (China)
  • Six Naked Pigs (China)
  • Shooting Towards Tomorrow (Japan)
  • Please Don't Touch the Old Women (Italy)
  • The Eighth Passenger (various countries)
  • Breaking the Ice (Spain)
  • Mummy, I Missed the Plane (France)
  • The Hitman is not as Cold as he Thought (China)

I bet you cheated. Here are the original titles....assuming they weren't renamed for the British market of course...

  • Jaws
  • Airplane
  • The Blair Witch Project
  • The Dukes of Hazzard
  • Pretty Woman
  • The Full Monty
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  • The Producers
  • Alien
  • Happy Feet
  • Home Alone
  • Leon

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iron Man III

They don't make 'em like they used us.....ground breaking special effects and bangin' choons...

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Voting

I've just been to exercise my democratic right, do my civic duty, or whatever other euphemism you like to use for the act of voting in an election.

I assume in the rest of the world it operates in mostly the same way. Schools, village halls and other public places are given over for the day and a little gang of people move into the building to administer the voting process. Here, I vote in the local primary school. It's always nice to go in there and see the world downsized by 75% so tables only come up to knee height and everything is conveniently to hand about 50cm off the ground. It's like I imagine it would be to visit Lilliput. Lovely.

We have notoriously poor levels of turnout for our elections. Many put this down to simple apathy and indifference to politicians and their dubious credentials. I think it's more likely that because of the system we operate here, if you are in a so called "safe seat" it's very likely you know who's going to win and therefore, if you're contemplating voting for anyone other than the likely local winner, there's actually not much point in turning up. In some constituencies it is often said that a tactically shaved monkey wearing the right coloured rosette will get elected. This I suspect keeps a good few people away from the whole malarkey.

But I think the government is missing an opportunity here. Betting. Why, when you place your vote can't you have a flutter on the outcome as well? Polling stations seem to be abundantly staffed with mostly bored looking people. I'll have a fiver on the nose on the LibDem candidate and a £2.50 each way punt on Labour. This way, even though I might be voting for a certain loser (that'll be my free bet), I might still win a few bob on the outcome. The odds may be pretty short in some places but it'll be like the Grand National. Everyone will have a go and everyone could be a winner. The turnout will be up and the incoming government will get a few quid out of the process - and looking at our current state of our economy, they're gonna need it.


Because it's like the Grand National when even the most ill informed punter will want to waste their money you will get a fair number of people voting for probable losers. Little old ladies will bet on "that nice man with a pink hanky in his breast pocket". Astrologically challenged nitwits will perhaps bet on number four on the list "cos Mars is in my orbit this month and it's fourth closet to the Sun...man" and so forth. This improves the odds for the hardened gamblers who are betting on winners and also should improve the returns to the government. Turnout would rocket up to 90% in a trice I reckon.

In some parts of the world voting is compulsory. Here you don't have to if you don't want to. In the one the part of the world where I do know you don't have a choice, the entire country is populated with habitual gamblers anyway.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

British Pathé

I'm not a big surfer (of the web or the aquatic variety). With the former I like to think I don't have the time and tend to think I should be doing something more worthwhile and with regard to the latter, I am geographically and climatically disadvantaged.

I have a few websites I visit regularly - news and journalism sites, my favourite blogs, inevitably wikipedia and youtube and a few others. However, a website really has to grab me in order to make me consider making any sort of long term commitment.

Via a link in a blog I found over the weekend I landed on the British Pathé archive. I'm completely hooked. Pathé was originally a French company that came up with the idea of cinema newsreels. These were short films reporting a summary of the week's news or perhaps just something interesting to report from around the world. These were shown before the main cinema feature film and each newsreel was preceded by the distinctive Pathé rooster crowing.

The original link I was directed to is simply of a housewife visiting various shops and going about her daily business in an unremarkable area of north London in 1948. It's three years after the end of the Second World War so food rationing is still in place. The interesting thing to me is that it is my part of north London and the street she lives in (Crescent Road) adjoins the road where I currently live. I can see now somebody walking around the same streets that I walk around now, but 62 years ago. The street layout is exactly the same now as it was then. The Town Hall is unchanged. Incredibly, the fishmonger is still a fishmonger. I don't suppose it's of much interest to most people but here it is.

Housewife's Story




I tried a few other searches and found some footage from 1938 of the village I grew up in, 240 miles from London.

Gypsy Farm Fair - Yarm - Yorks




The fair still visits Yarm every year although it's now a fun fair with no horse-trading but I remember us being told at school about the original purpose and history of Yarm Fair but until now I'd only ever seen a few old photographs.

The archive spans the globe. I encourage you to try a few searches, maybe where you live, or a subject that interests you and I'm sure you'll find something to watch. The archive is comprehensive so there is some really weird and eclectic (and yes, sometimes plain boring) stuff in there but the good stuff is absoutely gripping. The quality is often poor and sound often missing but to me, that just proves they've saved everything which is what a proper archive should be. It should be comprehensive and not selective. I've lost a lot of hours in here this weekend.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Legs II

D'oh! It's obvious isn't it. This is the reason for the unusual leg activity described in my previous post....

Friday, April 30, 2010

Legs

We Brits love a bit of tradition and eccentricity. With an election coming up next week we like to put the candidates through their paces. Over the centuries a few tests have been devised for prospective prime ministers, some to test their ability to deal with a crisis and others to simply provide entertainment for the masses to sustain us through the relentless boredom of a political campaign.

In order to level the playing field they are obliged to tramp around the country for a month making mealy-mouthed promises and insulting the intelligence of their prospective voters. Most politicians can straddle this particular hurdle with ease. One of the other tests is that they must witheringly dismiss the views of one of their core voters but try and do it without the aforementioned voter actually finding out. Gordon Brown failed this test absymally earlier this week

The reason for one of the more entertaining tests has long been forgotten and quite why we have retained it is lost on me but it was on TV last night. Each prospective candidate must prove to the electorate that he/she can stand on one leg for a period of five minutes.

Here you go....










Poor show by Cameron on the left there but they're allowed a minute or two to prepare for this test and Cameron appears to be looking for divine inspiration before starting his legathon. I'll try to publish more illustrations of our arcane democratic process over the next few days.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Volcanic Ash Cloud - Breaking News

The crisis deepens. The novelty of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud is starting to wear thin with the chattering classes. UK reserves of Rwandan mangetout are running dangerously low. Cut flower supplies have been failing to get through. Kiwifruit have achieved a mythical status that was once only afforded to bananas during the second World War. There is talk of panic-buying but when people realise they can only panic-buy homegrown potatoes which they have absolutely no idea what to do with the frisson rather soon wears off.

The government has invoked the Dunkirk spirit and dispatched the Royal Navy to the continent in order to collect stranded holidaymakers who although happy to holiday in a country, as soon as they discover they can't get home start comparing the place to Beirut in the 1980s.

Whitney Houston, currently midway through an apparently career-destroying world tour was reduced to travelling on a ferry to get to Ireland in order to unravel her reputation even further. Oh the bravery.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Perspective

Right now in the UK all aircraft are grounded until 7am tomorrow morning. That's everything. All UK airspace is closed. Nothing is flying in or out of UK airports. Nobody can even fly over us. I think this is rather cool.

Way up above the UK and a little to the left, out in the Atlantic Ocean is Iceland. One of their volcanoes went off and has sent up an ash cloud which is currently passing over the UK. Down here at ground level it's no big deal. As I came down the A40 this evening on my bike I got a whiff of what seemed like damp fireworks. I don't know if that was the ash cloud or whether there was something else going on. It is apparently way above us at about 11km up where the planes fly. Down here we have blue skies and a pleasant evening.

We're kind of lucky in the UK. We have a temperate climate, no volcanoes, and the ground is thankfully not prone to opening up or shaking unexpectedly as it does in so many other parts of the world. We don't get cyclones, hurricanes, monsoons or typhoons. We don't get landslides on the scale we see in other parts of the world. On the whole, nothing much happens. If it wasn't for the Gulf Stream which brings warm air and warmish water to our shores we'd have the same climate as Moscow which as you may know, is no fun at all.

Quirky little anomalies like today however are always an opportunity for the media to go into overdrive. Typically, if the temperature varies more than five degrees away from the norm for the time of year - which is frankly the best we can hope for in terms of excitement - newsrooms clear their schedules and reporters are sent across the land to inform us in the minutest detail of exactly what is (usually not) happenning.

What I like about events like this is that it shows us that the planet still runs us, we don't run the planet. We are simply passengers, mere specs of nothing, here for no significant amount of time and subject to the whims of far greater natural forces which, at a moment's notice can stop us in our tracks. We flatteringly call ourselves custodians of the planet but we're really nothing more than janitors with an overinflated opinion of ourselves.

Last night as I went to bed we were unaware of this impending event. This morning, a mere six hours later and the country is apparently in turmoil. It isn't by the way. By lunchtime tomorrow things will be back to normal and people will be back to complaining about the price of petrol and what colour to paint the garden shed

Our politicians and scientists would have us believe we can influence the behaviour of this giant lump of rock we live on as it careers through the cosmos. We can't. The best we can do is respect it, appreciate it, enjoy it and look after it as best we can, leaving it as tidily as we found it when we arrived and just hope, that while we're here, it doesn't do anything too nasty to us. And if it does, then it's nothing personal, it's called nature and we're simply a tiny little part of it.

As a species, we really need to get things into perspective.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

And who the hell....?

I work for a very large multinational corporation. I sit on a comfortable chair at a well sized desk in agreeable offices located in a business park on the outskirts of a moderately large town to the west of London.

We are well looked after. I think our employers appreciate we need a pleasant and comfortable environment in order to work and they are good enough to provide it. I work with pleasant, courteous and friendly people and I do my best to reciprocate their good nature. All in all, I can't complain and so I do my best not to. On the whole, we're a good crowd. We don't socialise together much but the office chit chat is stimulating and the place is refreshingly free of nutters, weirdos, creeps, lechers and the other types of ne'er-do-wells you often encounter in life. All good, nothing bad, I hear you say. This is true.

So what's my problem? What I cannot understand as I look around this large building of such a congruous group of people is which of them are unable to use a toilet in a competent and hygienic manner? When I have to make the ineveitable visit to the facilities I'm invariably pretty disgusted by what I find.

There is obviously a minority - but certainly more than just a few - who seem to have not yet mastered how to leave a cubicle in a condition just bearable enough for another person to use. Who the fuck are they?

There is of course the inevitable evidence of someone not being able to hit the toilet and managing to piss on the floor. Don't invite me round your place for dinner thanks. And of couse there's the usual skid marks. Why can't you use the bog brush provided and clear up the mess you leave? And who the hell thinks it's ok to leave a turd floating in the pan for the next person to have to confront? Don't you check after you've flushed that everything's gone? And who the hell feels the need to throw what looks like an entire roll of toilet paper down the toilet and not even bother to flush at all? Is this how you behave at home?

That's not all. I regularly visit the toilet to find somebody has broken the seat. I don't just mean that the seat has come off the pan, I mean the seat is actually broken....in pieces. This is a substantial piece of heavy duty hard plastic that you'd have to hit against something considerably harder (like a fucking brick wall or something) to break. But somebody regularly manages this. Seriously, you'd have to go in there with a big pair of boots and really kick off to cause this sort of damage. Who are you?

I've even gone in there and found discarded packs of half eaten sandwiches on the floor by the toilet. Who the hell feels the need to multi-task so much that they have combined having a eye-wateringly stinky crap with eating their lunch?

A year or two back, we were all asked to nominate, by secret ballot, people in the company who we felt made a real contribution to the organisation. Who do you think won? It was the woman who twice a day went around our campus of buildings and cleaned the toilets. She's not even a direct employee of the company but works for the cleaning contractors - goddamn it she certainly earned that bottle of cheap champagne. I can only think that there are a lot of people with a guilty conscience who voted for her.

Is everybody's workplace like this or is this just a British phenomenon?

I apologise for the overuse of the phrase "And who the hell" in this piece.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Just Walkin' the Dog

The other day I said on someone's blog we lived in a less prurient and judgemental world. But as usual, once you make a statement like that, you're hauled up pretty short and fast when you find someone proving you wrong. On such matters of pith and moment the world turns.

Here in the UK there is a fashionable minor pastime of the slightly sexually adventurous called dogging. Dogging, and the exponents of the art, known as doggers, enjoy visiting local areas of natural beauty and indulging in sexual assignations with, generally speaking, whoever else might come along. No money exchanges hands. These are people live for the thrill of the moment. Video cameras are often involved to heighten the dramatic interest. Some people just come along to watch. It has been suggested in the popular press that a few minor celebrities are known to indulge in this particular hobby which doubtless adds a small frisson of excitement for the participants. It's all done by consenting adults and who am I (or anybody else) to judge.

Well, apparently a local council in the north of England feel they are in a position to judge. When the councillors discovered that a local area of woodland was being used for dogging they decided something must be done. You can just imagine the thought processes of petty local bureaucrats. They see something they don't like (it's usually not illegal but often frowned upon) and they will do anything they can to stop it.

In this case they decided the best thing to do was to cut down 6,000 trees. Yes, that's right. SIX THOUSAND trees. They were asked to justify their actions. As far as I can see from their responses, the exposure (as it were) of the doggers was a just a secondary reason for this drastic course of action (yeah right). The trees they say, were old, and in danger of falling down (What? 6,000 of them? At the same time?). They can be replaced with nicer trees. The Health and Safety people have been satisfied. Motorists can now drive safe in the knowledge that the trees alongside the road will not all suddenly fall down upon them.

It's amazing what lengths, even in these cash-strapped times, people are prepared to go to stop a few people having a quick knee-trembler in the bushes. It' s equally amazing and rather regrettable that these people are elected to an office which gives them a mandate to behave in this way but as they so often say, you get the politicians (ever silly little local village ones) that you deserve.

The two local coucillors quoted seem to share the same surname and I think, in small town politics, it's reasonable to assume they're Mr and Mrs. I bet they they don't go a-dogging on a Saturday night.

Darwen is a small, and as far as I can remember, rather dreary little place. Dogging is probably what passes for a pretty good night out in those parts. Unless you elect the type of local councillors who think it's their business to decide how a few of you should spend your valuable spare time.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Spring Has Sprung

THe UK has finally lurched out of the longest spell of winter weather that most of us have known.

I finally got out on my bike at the weekend for the first time in about three months and today used it for the first time this year to go to work. Normally I'd expect to get out about once a fortnight through the winter months.

Now I don't claim to be an all weather motorcyclist - I don't feel I need to prove I can ride a bike through a blizzard or a thunderstorm - trust me, I've done it and it's not much fun.

My journey to work is about 45 miles (70km) and I start early so I'm out the door usually at about 6:30am. This means, as far as I'm concerned, that the weather has to be at least bearable at that time of day. This morning it was about 3 degrees and had crept up to about 5 degrees by the time I got to the office. If you're moving through air this cold at any significant speed the wind chill factor is pretty cold so you still need to wrap up and even if you do, after an hour or so the cold is starting to get into your bones.

The payoff of course is the ride home at 5pm when it was about 10-12 degrees. Clear, electric blue skies and a light chill on the air. This, I think, is about right for biking. You can still wear the proper kit and not overheat but you don't get too cold either. I'm entering that part of the year when the daily commute is something to look forward to.

Happy days.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Struck

I'm not often moved by art - well not art of the paint and brush variety anyway - but as the doors opened and I stepped off the tube train this evening, right in front of me was a poster advertising an exhibition that's just opened at The National Gallery highlighting the work of Paul Delaroche.

The poster featured a close up zoom of what is obviously the major work featured in the exhibition. As soon as I saw the picture and the name Lady Jane Grey I knew what was being depicted. I've tried to reproduce the zoom in the jpg below.



For those of you not quite up to speed with your 16th century Eng. Hist., Lady Jane Grey was our shortest reigning monarch. She was on the throne, depending on how you interpret the dates, for between nine and thirteen days before being beheaded and that's all most people generally know about her.

Given that one is drawn to the eyes in any portrait work, seeing a painting where the main subject is blindfolded would, you instinctively think, detract from the effect but in this piece it absolutely is the effect.

Lady Jane Grey was it appears, something of a patsy. Her card was marked the moment the machinations of state got to work and decided she was to become queen at the age of only 16 or perhaps 17. Intelligent, elegant and sophisticated at a time when none of these attributes were particularly required, she appears to have been sanguine to her fate although you could look at the above picture for hours and wonder at what her state of mind might have been. Yes, you can say that there may be a great deal of artistic licence going on here but in the absence of photography 400 years ago, artistic licence was the order of the day. As was tradition, she was obliged to pay the executioner who then asked her forgiveness which she gave.

I am moved.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Where's the Remote?

There are films you instinctively want to dislike before even seeing them. In fact, you often actively avoid them - they have all the warning signs that tell you they will be a Bad Thing. Inevitably these films creep up on you when your guard is down and you end up watching them. And you know, some of them ain't so bad. In some cases, good even. So I've tried to name a few of them that surprised me. It's an extremely subjective and judgemental list but it's my time I'm wasting here so I don't expect a hard time if you don't agree with me. It's my party and I'll blah blah blah if I want to.

In my case, they tend to fit into a few key categories.

Romcoms. If you actually don't want to dislike them then your inner snob will certainly tell you that you're far too clever to enjoy this kind of lo-brow papp. The law of media osmosis means inevitably you end up seeing most of them and dammit, I suppose there are a few out there that are not so bad.

Disney. Bleahh.

Issue films. Films you know are just itching to lecture and patronise you about some worthy subject. They tend to be issue-driven rather plot-driven, and seem to exist solely to crassly misinform you about some mighty subject such as....I dunno...war, cancer, mental illness, political suppression etc. You get the idea. What happens is, instead of you learning something about the subject, a few facts (and quite a few complete falsehoods) are wrapped around a cheesy melodrama and clunking dialogue and the film solely exists to sledgehammer you with somebody's highly personalised view of events.

Star vehicles. That is, films that seem solely to exist because they've got a notoriously two-dimensional actor who for some reason always brings home the bacon at the box office. Adam Sandler. Eddie Murphy. Steve Martin's entire body of work for the last 20 years. Etc.

Add to the above all Christmas movies, all made for TV movies, and all movies that are spinoffs from TV shows.

I'm a bloke. I like making top ten lists and stuff like that. Just remember, these are NOT my favourite films so I'm not some dolt who has some sort of oatmeal based substitute for brains. These are films that have just appeared in front of me and I frankly couldn't be bothered to switch channels or read a book so I just let them float past and was surprised that I really rather enjoyed them. None of them are great films in any sense of the word but they're all films that caught me on the hop and I'd probably waste a few hours watching again. And they're all better than the bloody Shawshank Redemption.

In no particular order and not with a great deal of forethought, here goes.....


Starship Troopers
I saw this in Ecuador for the first time. Rotten acting, plot and dialogue but I don't think this film was pretending to have those in the first place so no point in attacking it it because it doesn't. Mindless and entertaining fun. There are a lot of politicians out there who I suspect would be happy to run the world along similar lines.


Tin Cup
A Kevin Costner, golf-themed movie. It's got Don Johnson as well. What more is there to hate? Entertaining stuff.


LA Story
Steve Martin. I really don't know where to put him. He has made some truly awful films, and then been allowed to make a sequel that was even worse. There are sufficient people out there who will go and see him just because he's Steve Martin. This means he can sustain not only his own career but an entire segment of the movie industry dedicated to turning out really, really bad films. LA Story doesn't fit that rule. Utterly ridicules the LA media/celebrity lifestyle and the people who inhabit it.


Nobody's Fool
I'm not sure this film fits my rules because it's got Paul Newman in it and I'll watch him in anything. But what's Paul Newman doing in a film with Bruce Willis and Melanie Wassername? He must be just padding out his retirement. I'll try and pretend it doesn't exist in his greater body of work cos I know I'm going to be disappointed. With any luck it'll sink without trace and be conveniently forgotten. No, I had to watch it in the end cos it's got Newman in it. Phew, so relieved to discover it's actually very good.


Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771

The title says it all doesn't it? "Mercy Mission" - no subtlety there at all. It's a made for TV movie as well. A bad start on two counts at least. Mawkishly sentimental in parts but it'll keep you on the edge of your seat right up to the end. And it'll make you get out your atlas and try and find Pago Pago.


Bridget Jones's Diary

How can an American do a plausible English accent? Damn - extremely well as it turns out. Not only was the accent good - it was exactly correct for the social circles in which she moved. And like most actual Londoners, she was portrayed living in a poky little flat and not the spaciously converted warehouse/ballroom that most films would have us believe is the average city dwelling.

And Renee Zellweger is sexy as hell. She apparently gained 25 pounds in preparation for the role - which as far as I'm concerned made her just about perfect. Without those 25 pounds she loses every ounce of that sexiness.


Bad Santa

A Christmas movie. The worst possible premise on which to base a film. Has there ever been a good one? It's a Wonderful Life is ok I suppose but you just know it's going to have a happy ending so what's the point?

What you really want to believe is that underneath every in-store Santa, there is an incontinent, foul-mouthed, degenerate, drunken thief. Who likes to beat up little people. This film delivers.


Cool Runnings

Not got a lot going for it has it.....a Disney feature (as oppposed to animation) so it's on shaky ground already and carries the dreaded warning "based on a true story". You know this usually means it'll bear little or no resemblance to the original events and the Americans will always emerge as the heroic rescuers. Because of the Disney connection, it'll probably be sentimental, riddled with cliches and clownish overacted performances.

Actually it wasn't. The Jamaican characters portrayed were not complete stereotypes. John Candy turns in a proper acting performance and it's a couple of hours of light entertainment with a reasonable nod to the original events.


JFK
Oh jeez, Oliver Stone having a go at the establishment....again. I'm tired of being told I'm being lied to but through the medium of feature films. If I want a documentary I'll watch a documentary. I don't want my factual events shot through the prism of someone with a massive chip on their shoulder. We're gonna be in for a real telling-off here aren't we.

Well actually, just watch the movie and forget real events have been fictionalised, dramatised and over-exaggerated. It's got some cracking performances from a bunch of people. Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy (again), Donald Sutherland, Gary Oldman and others.

There are probably more but I can't think of them right now.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Olympics

Let's face it - the Summer Olympics get all the coverage but the Winter Olympics have got all the action.

The Summer Olympics seem to be all about endeavour, fortitude and honest toil.....simple stuff like who can run faster, jump higher, or chuck various Grecian household objects the furthest. It's all in the highest Corinthian spirit but frankly I find it all a bit dull. I've been known to switch channels midway through a 200m race cos I got bored.

Compare this with the Winter Olympics which is just balls out speed and raw terror. Downhill ski racing....have you any idea how steep that hill is that they ski down? They go flat out for about 2 minutes on the absolute ragged edge of adherence where they could crash at about 80mph at pretty much every single turn they make. You don't get that sort of thing in the 1500m.

The Summer Games have got nothing on the luge, skeleton and bobsleigh racing. This is genuinely deadly stuff as was sadly seen recently. The fearlessness required to fling yourself down a solid ice downhill track at close to 100mph on nothing more than a tea tray is incredible.

How about speed skating? Not only is it exciting, it's actually quite beautiful to watch. Can you imagine watching the 400m where the runners were in danger of being flung sideways off the running track at 40 mph? Now that would liven up the athletics a bit wouldn't it.

The downside? Figure skating. You can't really call it a sport if you get points for artistic impression now can you?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Infinity

There's just been a great show on TV about infinity. Basically, a bunch of mathematicians trying to explain infinity; well perhaps not explaining it, but simply trying to understand it.

Try and think of a number. The biggest number you can possibly imagine. However big you imagine that number is, you can always add one to it. The potential size of this number is therefore infinite. It follows that you therefore cannot actually express infinity as a number. This is why they use that symbol of a figure 8 on its side. You cannot express it as a real number so you have to express it as a symbol.

If you accept the above concept of infinity as an infinite number then even though it is a number you cannot express because it is infinitely large then you can still use it in calculations.

Imagine you have a hotel of infinite size and therefore it has an infinite number of rooms. If it has an infinite number of rooms, then it can always accommodate another guest. But where do you put the guest when he or she arrives? Simple. The person in room one moves into room two, the person who was in room two moves into room three, the person who was in room three moves into room four and so on, ad infinitum. The new guest is therefore able to walk straight into room one. This therefore produces the formula

Infinity + 1 = infinity

Clever eh.

But what happens if an infinite number of guests arrive and wish to be accommodated in the infinite hotel? Simple again. This time, the person in room one moves into room two, the person in room two moves into room four. The person in room three goes to room six, the person in room four goes to room eight etc. Each person therefore just moves into the room number which is two times their original room number. If you double any number you always get an even number therefore all your odd numbered rooms will become free to accommodate the infinite number of guests that have just arrived. This therefore produces the formula

Infinity + infinity = infinity

I love this stuff.

Our mathematician friends then moved into cosmology which is where the concept of infinity becomes really mind-bending. First you accept that space is infinite. You then take the concept of Earth and our own known universe being a finite object. Given that our known universe is a finite object and given that our known universe is simply a very large (but finite) number of molecules arranged in a particular order, then in the infinity of space, sooner or later another set of molecules will arrange themselves in the same way and create another universe just like ours.

I don't mean a universe just a bit like ours, I mean a universe that is EXACTLY like ours. It will also contain you and me - identical copies of you and me. Because, in an infinite space with the possibility of an infinite number of things happening, that means an infinite number of the same things happening will happen an infinite number of times. If you accept the infinity of space, you therefore have to accept there are an infinite number of universes out there that are totally identical to the one we live in now. It's mathematically provable.

Heavy man.

One of our mathematician friends then got out a piece of paper and calculated how far away from us it is likely that our closest identical known universe is. He could do this......on a piece of paper.....in about 30 seconds.....and the maths involved was not that complicated - the numbers were quite big though.

I apologise in advance to any mathematicians or cosmologists reading this who want to disagree with some of the finer detail of what I just said but I think I've got the spirit of it right.

The programme is here - I hope you can see it wherever you are. It's a little dry to start with but then it gets very interesting.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Guilty Pleasures

It's a terrible indulgence to be sitting at home on Saturday and see a film in the TV guide that's three and half hours long and think, sod it, I'm going to watch this. When the film in question is Ryan's Daughter then it's not such a difficult decision.

This film's got everything, murder, betrayal, infidelity, revolution, nationalism and love and hate of course, all set in a remote Irish village during the First World War. Some of the scenery, particularly the beach and a storm scene are also stunning.

It's also got some great performances from Sarah Miles, Trevor Howard, Leo McKern, and even the famously wooden Robert Mitchum turns in a fair performance as he wrassles to get himself on the plausible side of a pretty poor Irish accent - not as bad as Tom Cruise in Far and Away but close.

The marquee performance has to be from John Mills as the village idiot. One of the great actors of his generation, he turns in an incredible performance and throughout he does not speak a single word or utter a sound.

Being a stiff upper lip, British sort of chap, I am of course immune to the emotional content of any film. Those occasions during the watching of the film when there seemed to be some moistness in the corner of my eye were simply a trick the light. I'm sure you understand.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Crossed Lines

Sitting quietly at home the other day my mobile phone rang. It was my ex girlfriend who would instantly lose her ex status if she would only come around to my line of thinking. I'm still crazy about her. She is not English. She speaks very good English albeit with an East European accent and a few grammatical slip-ups now and again. The line was poor - we were speaking mobile to mobile across a distance of about 500 miles. The conversation went roughly as follows...

She: "Hello, it's me. How are you?"
Me: ""Bune, multumesc. Ce faci?" I learnt a little Romanian during my time with her.
She "Haha, you're funny sometimes."
Me: "Awww thanks. Where are you?"
She "I'm in the bath." She's phoned me from the bath before.
Me "Grrr....I wish you hadn't told me that."
She: "Why?"
Me: Because now I will spend the rest of this conversation imagining you in the bath."
She "Why would you do that? You're weird."
Me "No I'm not. You know I'm still crazy about you and now you phone me while you're in the bath and expect me to act normally and not have my imagination run wild."
She "You are definitely weird."
Me "OK, if you say so. What's all that noise in the background?"
She "Oh, it's just some people."
Me "What people? Where?"
She "They're here with me. In the bath."
Me "What? There are people with you in the bath? I can hear children as well."
She "Yes, there are lots of children here."
Me "What? Are the children in the bath with you?"
She "Yes"
Me Whose children?"
She "I don't know. They're just some kids. They're very noisy aren't they. Sorry."
Me "What? You're in the bath with lots of people and also somebody's kids but you don't actually know whose kids?"
She "Yes. Why are you asking me these strange questions?"
Me "They're not strange questions. You're in the bath....with a bunch of complete strangers....and some kids as well."
She "Yes. So?"
Me "What? Eh?"

The conversation continued along this thread for a minute or two more.......remember the line was extremely poor. I finally worked out what was going on.

Try rereading the above conversation substituting "on the bus" whenever she says "in the bath". To her, it is more logical to say "in the bus" rather than "on the bus" and I just misheard this as "in the bath".

Monday, January 25, 2010

Weather

Blogging about the weather is pretty low hanging fruit but sometimes, when your mind is as atrophied as mine you go for the easy stuff and hope it might trigger some more interesting thoughts out.

Anyway, the UK has just emerged from the longest spell of cold weather and snow that most people can probably remember. This is especially the case in the south east of England where on the few occasions snow falls, it usually fades away within 48 hours. This time it stuck around for two or three weeks.

A consequence of the relative rareness of these events is that we don't really have the machinery in place to deal with a prolonged bout of weather like this. When we get a bit of snow, public transport tends to be unavailable for a day or two, but eventually the roads get salted and things get back to normal pretty quickly. There is the usual clamour from people saying we should be able to cope and why don't we have the resources to deal with things like this? Critics generally then suggest that in somewhere like Canada or Switzerland they get nothing but snow for three months a year and their buses don't stop running.

Of course that is exactly the point. If the UK had a climate like Canada or Switzerland, we would invest in snow ploughs and put spiky tyres on our cars for three months of the year but if you only get a bit of snow once a year, maybe not at all, there's no point in investing millions of pounds in lots of expensive machinery. You just take the hit, deal with a day or two of inconvenience and things get back to normal.

So, you would think that when people were caught out in the recent bad weather, the authorities who were unable to clear the roads and asked the hapless general public to be patient, would be sympathetic to those inconvenienced by it. But no. What happened was many people were out on their cars when the bad weather struck, the locals councils were unprepared or under-resourced to deal with the problem and people ended up having to abandon their cars as the roads were too dangerous or they simply could not move. Many roads were inaccessible for days, maybe weeks because the local council would not clear them as they concentrated on clearing more major routes or they were preserving their resources in case the bad weather lasted for even longer than was initially feared.

What then happened was that the same authorities who were contracted to clear the roads - and did not - in a decidedly unsympathetic manner, chose to fine the people whose cars had been abandoned.

Sometimes you just can't fuckin' win can you!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Kitchens

Isn't it nice when a plan finally comes together.

I've always enjoyed cooking but I'm also a touch obsessive-compulsive about my environment and I've always had to make do with less than perfect cooking conditions. Just under two years ago I finally got round to replacing my entire kitchen. This was part of a larger refurbishment of my entire flat which is still ongoing but pretty much complete. The kitchen was always going to be the room I did first. It makes sense because I live in a flat with only one entrance and the kitchen is not accessed via any other room therefore would not be disturbed by any subsequent work. I also did it first because my existing kitchen was the room I disliked the most in my flat - hard to believe if you'd seen my bathroom (which you never will cos that's now also also been replaced). And also because the kitchen is always my favourite room in any dwelling.

I know I'm not going to do this very often so I wasn't going to do it cheaply and regret any decision later. There's nothing worse than tolerating something you don't really like and trying to console yourself that it was cheap but knowing, deep down inside, that if you'd spent a little more money you would have had exactly what you really wanted instead of second best. If you like something you soon forget how much you paid and you'll always get a nice warm feeling every time you use it in the years to come.

I won't go into too many details but some of the decisions I will never regret are -

  • solid wood kitchen units with soft-close doors/drawers
  • a double recessed sink
  • a fancy mixer tap that will never drip (German engineering)
  • a double oven (conventional and fan)
  • a five burner hob with a huge wok burner in the middle
  • lots of very powerful lighting
  • 4.5 metres of solid granite worktops (the best bit by far)

Now I could really start cooking. But having done all this and seeking out all those interesting recipes I wanted to prepare, I found I still wasn't quite as ready to rock as I thought. I needed more stuff. I had to build up that background of core ingredients that a good kitchen should always have in stock. Herbs, spices, dried fruits, six different types of flour (plain, self-raising, strong bread, corn, semolina and whole wheat if you're interested), other dried goods (rice, pasta, oats, yeast), assorted condiments, various tinned essentials. Also I'd been making do with a crummy selection of pots and pans which I've steadily been updating as and when a recipe demanded it (French cast iron Le Creuset casseroles are my favourites here). I got a rice cooker, a hand blender, a good lemon/lime zester.

In short, after nearly two years I'm confident of not only being able to try any recipe I like the look of, I'm also now reasonably confident my kitchen is perfectly tooled up to prepare and present it. The only thing I tend to need to buy are the fresh ingredients and to keep that background selection of essential ingredients stocked up.

I've also still managed to hang on to items I've known with all my life. I acquired a few things from my grandparents house so I'm still using the same cutlery I used as a child. A good mixing bowl will never go out of date and I still use the same one I remember my grandmother using to make cakes. I also got their entire twelve piece dinner service plus quite a lot of silverware they received as a wedding presents in 1936 which I admit I don't actually use but I have it in reserve should I ever entertain twelve people.

Sorted.

I know a good cook can make excellent food on a one-burner camping stove in the middle of a field during a torrential rainstorm (probably at night as well) but I'm not that good. I need the reassurance of the environment being just right as well.

Think of a recipe and I'll try and cook it and send you a picture. You won't get to taste cos I'll have already eaten it by then.