Monday, November 28, 2011

Ken Russell

The film director Ken Russell died over the weekend at the age of 84. His death in the UK has been rather upstaged by the death of a footballer. Events in and around football sadly have the ability to upstage other news events - they are frequently given far more prominence than they deserve. Whilst the footballer was a talented and, by all accounts, good man who died young in what sadly would appear to be a rather desperate state of mind, his lasting legacy will be little compared to that of Ken Russell.

Ken Russell made difficult films. Sometimes very difficult films. They would thoroughly test the viewers' patience - woebetide those who ventured into a cinema not knowing they were about to be visually assaulted. His films could be beautiful but they could equally be graphically shocking but whatever they did, they would almost always leave an impression. His most commercially successful films were probably Women in Love, The Boyfriend and Tommy.

In interview, his opinions were always forthright, unpredictable but always imaginative and with a hint of mischief. But he always delivered those opinions with a charm and a wit and a twinkle in his eye. You could not dislike Ken Russell even if you hated his work, and trust me, many people did. He was invariably more watchable than many of his films.

I remember him being interviewed on TV when he must have been well into his seventies. Dressed colourfully, the way no portly septugenarian would normally be, with his trademark shock of white hair, he ranged over numerous topics. It was apparent he was completely unshockable and still felt he had plenty more to deliver if only he could get the finance together and be allowed to realise another piece of outrageous but possibly impenetrable cinema.

He was talented and original and a true eccentric but you know what - I can't think of a single one of his films I particularly like but I what I do know is that nobody will make films like them ever again.

This is a nice tribute...

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Percontation Point

There have always been grammar fanatics who rant and rave about poor punctuation. A popular book out here a few years ago called Eats, Shoots and Leaves (The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation) seemed to reignite the debate. I didn't buy the book as I suspected it was only really preaching to the converted - people who wanted to be reassured that that they were already right. I might be wrong but that was the impression I got.

I try to get my punctuation right but only because I like to get it right (it's a nerdy challenge mostly) and I also think - certainly in business - presentation is just as important as content. Your message is wasted if your intended audience thinks "I'm not reading this crap - the guy can't even spell/punctuate correctly." This also applies to emails - I don't really like receiving slovenly written emails and I flinch if I reread one of my own and spot a mistake in it. I worry my intended readers will switch off as soon as they see the error. I may be out of touch on this. Many people say it is an informal medium and presentation is unimportant.

The view today in education it seems is that only content is important and poor spelling or punctuation can be ignored if the message is good. I don't buy this because when I was at school, our work, however good the content was, could be downgraded to being utterly worthless due to grammatical or spelling errors. You really did learn by your mistakes.

Anyway, this isn't really my point. All the above was just preamble. What I was wondering today when I read something was, should a rhetorical question have a question mark?**

"This car stinks doesn't it." or "This car stinks doesn't it?"

"You don't say." or "You don't say?"

"How much longer are we going to have to wait in this bloody queue." or "How much longer are we going to have to wait in this bloody queue?"

Not the best examples I grant you but anyway, a little brief research and I find this rhetorical question mark question has already been asked - 430 years ago to be precise.

In the 1580s* Henry Denham proposed the percontation point. A rhetorical question should be suffixed with a reversed question mark. The idea soon fell out of favour. I really rather like it and wish it could return.

 * 1580s somehow looks better as 1580's but there's no reason for the apostrophe.

** Personally speaking, in the absence of the return of the percontation point, I think rhetorical questions should be left without a question mark. 

*** A prize (yet to be decided) to the person who can find a spelling/punctuation error in the above blogpost.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Killing II

The Killing II has begun - the first two episodes of the new series aired last night on the consistently good BBC4 channel.

It looks every bit as good as the first series. Sarah Lund is back, looking as moody and tortured as ever complete with her chunky woollen garments and complicated private life. She's been teamed with a new co-detective called Strange which makes for some intermittently confusing subtitles - when answering the 'phone he announces "Strange here."

Blix, the granite faced police chief whose narrowed eyes never give anything away contines to deliver a wonderfully minimalist acting performance.

A new set of shifty politicians continue to double cross each other at every opportunity.

It is SO good.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Final Countdown

For all the talk of catastrophe and crisis and meltdown it is difficult to do anything other than look a little wryly at the current problems within the Eurozone (the seventeen countries that have adopted the Euro as their currency) and the consequences for the European Union (the larger body of twenty seven countries) as a whole. The situation is, in most part, out of our hands and any amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth and protesting will have little or no effect.

The EU was initally formed in 1958 and has since then steadily grown by adding new member states and increasing its powers within those states. What was initally intended  to be a group of nations which would relax trade laws and movement of peoples between each other in order to reduce bureaucracy has grown into an organisation that's ultimate objective is, loosely speaking, The United States of Europe. Some may disagree with that statement but it is the nature of bodies such as this that their role, functions, responsibilities and powers must always increase.

I am, loosely speaking, pro European. Trade barriers have always seemed to encourage apathy within the country that imposed them because they just created inefficient domestic monopolies. Trade barriers between adjoining countries also invariably just causes resentment and wherever possible, people do their best to find a way around them. Restricting the movement of people between countries that share enormous borders has always been difficult and created foolish constructs such as the Berlin Wall. Some sort of European integration has always made a lot of sense.

Problems have arisen because European governments (and it has to be said, the USA as well), borrowed money throughout a period which they told their people was an unprecedented boom. Even in the good times, many countries could not sell more than they bought but credit was cheap and easy to get and, as long as "growth" continued, the debts could be serviced. People were encouraged to borrow using the relentlessly increasing value of their homes as collateral, to buy (mostly imported) consumer goods and luxuries which fuelled the "boom" even more. In the case of Greece, a lot of money went into creating a massive and well-rewarded public sector. Those public sector employees who could retire on generous pensions in their fifties knew who to vote for. Their votes had been bought.

When it all started to unravel, politicians were happy when most of the blame was laid on the bankers as it conveniently deflected any blame from them, but it's become increasingly apparent politicians were responsible for many problems wherein some countries massively mismanaged their finances believing the good times would never end. The loose morals and sharp practice of the banking industry may have triggered the crisis but it was the already weak financial position and poor anticipation of governments to plan for such an eventuality which exacerbated the situation.

Individual countries have seen the fragility of their economic models thrown into sharp relief. In the UK we have increasingly relied on a service based economy - that means we don't really make anything any more. Call it a knowledge based economy if you want - we hope to rely on being smarter than other countries, selling them our services and intelligence rather than our manufacturing output and then with the income we raise, buying a significant amount of our manufactured goods, food and energy from countries who can produce them more cheaply than we can. In the case of the UK, a major part of that service based economy has been banking and financial services and despite political rhetoric that demonises bankers, the harsh reality is that we need them here and if we want them to stay we will have to provide a climate in which they believe they can thrive.

The Eurozone crisis has called into question not only the validity of the Euro but also the long term viability of the EU. It was never anticipated that countries within the EU would mismanage themselves in such a profligate and foolish manner that they could not sustain themself or service the debts they accumulated. EU economic integration may have had a  rulebook that said that certain economic conditions must be met by its member states but it did not anticipate that countries might simply break the rules.

It has been said that The EU has been responsible for maintaining peace in Europe for that last fifty or so years. That is a depressing thought and one which I simply do not buy. Some European countries were operating under dictatorships or military rule well into the seventies and the rest of Europe chose not to intervene. If that were to happen in an EU country now then the EU would probably want to get involved in a very physical and robust manner. As Europeans, we like to think we have been instrumental in helping to create an outbreak of democracy in some countries in the Middle East but the EU seems to see no contradiction in manipulating the ousting of the elected leaders of Greece and Italy and imposing unelected technocrats to hopefully sort out their problems.

The problem is also that questioning the intentions or future of the EU or the Euro is seen by some senior European politicians as unacceptable. Belief in the EU by some individuals  has reached the fervour of the religious fundamentalist - to them it is above criticism. So much of their intellectual capital is invested in the great European project that their futures are inexorably tied to it.  Any failure of the EU or the Euro would almost certainly hasten their downfall and they are therefore obliged to unflinchingly believe the solution to Europe's problem is only more integration and not less. The EU's ability to railroad elections in its favour show that it does not like its authority to be questioned.

Every day a new development changes the game. Bailout plans seem to last no more than a few weeks before they have to be rewritten and the bailout fund increased by more unimaginable sums. These bailout funds do not actually represent real money that the member states of the EU have to spend. It also has to be borrowed; we were hoping last week the Chinese would step in and underwrite it. They didn't.

It really is simply a matter of wait and see. How interesting.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Great Restaurant Reviews

I first saw the following critique of a restaurant in one of my favourite autobiographies - Freud Ego by Clement Freud (now priced I see on Amazon at a modest £175 and I have a signed copy!) I have since seen the review somewhere else but I can't quite remember where.

Here goes with the shortest, pithiest and without doubt funniest, restaurant review I have ever read.

"If the soup had been as warm as the champagne, the champagne as old as the chicken, and the chicken as plump as the waitress, then it would have been adequate."