Tuesday, 22 December 2009


I hated a list program the other day that was the 50 "iconic" tv adverts of the decade or somesuch. Instead of only highlighting some especially funny or clever ads, they chose to intersperse them with the many of the most ubiquitous and annoying ones (e.g. Howard from the Halifax). A mistake I think. Just because some company has a daft budget and no taste, doesn't make its adverts worth watching. This was not a TV program, just a one hour long ad break. And that's not good TV.

Murdoch-spawn Sky+ is roaringly successful because most people object to their viewing pleasure being interrupted by some venal, grasping tosser trying to get them to buy stuff (ironic non?). The contempt aroused is only ameliorated if the importuning is done with some wit and flair for entertainment. Or perhaps if genuine added value is being offered to you that you would otherwise have been totally unaware of (though this is rarely the case).

The program started me off on a proper rant (that the flu-stuffed Mrs really didn't appreciate) about Advertising: "the least useful contribution western society had made to the world at large; decadent, navel gazing, unsustainable, fruitless, self indulgent, tiresome, needy, keening, superfluous".

My mate the Ad Exec would have lost it here, in an orgy of self justification. (The Mrs didn't hear me anyway as she was all bunged up, she tends to agree with me out of expediency). But shouldn't the internet make advertising obsolete and usher in a new era of freedom of choice? We should be able to find what we want and procure it instantly, without interruption from anyone we don't know. (Another irony is how much of the web is paid for by advertising as Mr Ad Exec would no doubt have pointed out)

The reason the idea of an ad-free world is appealing is because there are so many people out there - politicians, estate agents, car salesman - apparently trying to influence (or even deceive) you. How much better to be the complete master of your own will and decide, based on an appraisal of the true facts of the matter, where to live, what to drive and who to vote for. Utopia for me is no one telling me what to buy; just me revelling in an orgy of well-informed choice.

Of course you need advice. A trustworthy and knowledgeable advisor is a gift from heaven. There isn't even a big problem with paying someone for advice (although almost all my experience of consultants thus far has lead me to believe I am paying a dog and still barking myself). What about advice that is paid for by the person who stands most to gain from it though, whilst you adopt a passive role in the relationship? Choice has been eliminated; only one option is presented. That's not good. That's not freedom. What about two or three options competing for your attention? Flattering maybe, but all of a sudden you are in the midst of a cacophony of hectoring and pleading. That's not true choice. You can only choose the best presented, the best marketed, the best designed to appeal to your demographic, not the best per se.

Gordon, David and Whatsisname will be testing how free you really are by choosing to engage in a live televised debate before the next general election. It will be interesting to see the results (although not as interesting as some might think. These guys face each other over the despatch box all the time. It could just be PMQT without the hecklers on green leather sofas; imagine Jerry Springer with no studio audience). I desperately hope the effect of this exercise in "democracy" is minimal, especially on the result of the actual election. Despite TV-led telephone voting being discredited as more corrupt than the Zimbabwean elections (though somewhat more lucrative), the technology available to vote on single issues is fairly well proven. Let's face it, the trudge to the local school or village hall to use a pen and paper to register a vote in anachronistic. There is also stronger detectable anarchistic - in the philosophical sense of the word - tendency in us these days as a result of the MP's expenses scandal; we are curious about the idea of the abolition of the "representative" in representative democracy. What would it be like?

My own view (and I've come a long way from reading Robert Paul Wolff's In Defence of Anarchism when I was 19) is that representatives - despite the way they have eroded our trust this year of all years - are there to balance the interests of consitutents and weigh them in the balance. They are the essential barrier against a tyranny of the majority. Capital punishment and equal rights would never have been enshrined in the law of this land if a popular vote alone had been used as the mechanism to introduce them to the statute books.

Were elections to be replaced by some Cowellesque public TV husting, democracy would die. The reason is simple and we have, in the now concluded race for a Christmas a good example. Neither Climb nor Killing in the Name are anyones actual favourite songs (except for a handful of aging skate punks). Rage Against The Machine's tune was not the Christmas No.1 we all wanted. It was just the opposite of a song people didn't want. You don't get to vote on X Factor for any of the following: the end of X Factor as we know it, the ritual disembowelling of Simon Cowell, Sony BMG to be taxed 100% on the sale of any record in December, Dannii Minogue (shame: I'd vote yes). You only get to vote for what they offer you. X Factor limits your choice dramatically; down to a handful of chosen tweeny hopefuls warbling bad cover versions of R&B ballads. The only reason it is more popular than the product it is actually offering you - tweeny hopefuls warbling bad cover versions of R&B ballads - is "water cooler angst"; the fear of rejection embodied in the idea that people might be leaving you out of a conversation.

What we want might be more choice than the current system of party politics. What we will get will be more hype and less verifiable information; a clamour for your vote from vested interests, manipulation and subterfuge, cajoling and wheedling. There would be no "none of the above" box for you to tick. In fact voter apathy is truly the only anarchism we have left. The X Factor is not the wholesale model to re-engage us eitehr. Only the technology to register our vote more easily is needed, not the razzmatazz and bullshit that goes with it. And it would seem that not one of the TV programs made with a voting element can avoid suspenseful pauses, manipulated voting systems, decolletage or gushing congratulation (of others, self or just the format - you know something is rotten when a TV shows keeps telling you how good it thinks it is).

The Reithian doctrine still holds true - I want to be informed and educated as well as entertained, and TV is a great way of doing this. How notable that the BBC is more popular than ever - despite its wearing such commercial attire. This is mainly because of iPlayer, where the viewer can just choose what to watch and when. All of a sudden Radio 4 has loads more listeners than ever and demand for factual, news, political and documentary programs is on the rise. Surely, with the wealth of information the web has arrayed before us, the public has shown an appetite for truth and fact, a broad interest in a variety of subjects, and demonstrated that they value a reliable and trustworthy adviser to deliver it; one that is not burdened (too much) by conflicting commercial imperatives? Why is this welcome development - and not the popularity of voting shows - not being trumpeted by social commentators? Simon Cowell, they have decided, and not John Humphries, shall be our guide! Mary on a motorbike!

Rebuilding trust (and the government could learn from this) begins with education not obfuscation. When you are being educated you have the opportunity to test your assertions against reality and find them to be true and your confidence grows in the world around you and in your guide. Obfuscation, which is what the present government has been so good at, diminishes trust. It treats you like a child and says "there are things you can't know. If you search for them we will complicate them to a hellishly labynthine extent that you will become demoralised and give up". Strenuous efforts to show the public only what they want them to see has lead to a complete breakdown in our relationship with authority and it is this that has made our anarchic streak come to the fore. Start being frank, Westminster (starting with the iraq war enquiry). That's the way to get us back.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

I am

The 13th July this year will be 216th anniversary of the birth of John Clare and the following day will see his house in Helpston opened to the public. I feel an affinity with Clare for a number of reasons. His deep knowledge of and abiding love for nature stands him apart from contemporaries. Many romantics were charmed by their surroundings but few chose to know them as well as he did, fewer still were as concerned about the possibility of their passing. 

Clare's illness was most manifest in confusion about his identity. I firmly believe that the tension between London high life and rural family life tore his mind apart. His mental health state was not helped by alcohol; I can certainly relate to that. We know now how much of a depressant it is.  He once walked from his Asylum in Epping Forest all the way to Peterborough and this walk is being recreated by enthusiasts from the John Clare Society in support of the Mental Health Foundation. I have often felt myself walking when it might make more sense to drive or take public transport and it really does leave you alone with your thoughts, with God and nature often, and with your mortality. Where running quickly exhausts you, walking offers a slow accretion of weariness that more closely resembles the passage of life. Your thoughts often slow with your pac,e and reflections and impressions grow deeper as they circulate in your mind. 

At some stage all walkers reach the point where they must decide to either rest of press on. Clare, in his most well known poem "I Am", so accurately sums up the agony of depression and describes the point at which, finally, the decision is made to surrender oneself ...to God, to the void, to fate; at least not to dwell any longer in the prison of one's own mind. I say God because his choice of the title was not only a reflection on his inner self, but also a reference to Mark Chapter 8 v 27. After claiming to be the reincarnation of Shakespeare and Byron, perhaps Clare related to Jesus identity being misunderstood by his followers. There is some dispute about whether or not Jesus was referencing Exodus 3 and claiming himself to be God. These days anyone claiming to be God would certainly be considered mad. And yet anyone who performed the miracles that Jesus did would have every right to claim immortality.

One's dissatisfaction with one's self is at the heart of depression. I think that's why Clare's poem resonates so strongly with people. I wish the walkers of the John Clare Society well and look forward to hearing not only of the sums raised for a worthy cause, but also of the fruit borne of contemplation on the long road from Loughton to Helpston.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Been a while

Self-discipline is not my forte. Maybe I need to get riled before I write on this and, now that our politicians are being upstaged by Iranians, I'm not so angry... One thing that is calming anyway though (and I haven't done it for some time) is fishing. I've never written about it, and now there's probably no point anyway, because it's being done terrifically well over at http://caughtbytheriver.net/ as reported today on R4.

The site was set up by the founders of Heavenly records (appropriately home of Doves and Saints such as Ettiene). A number of their roster are now converts to the divine art of fishing and some of their literary contributors are very impressive names who you might not have thought were likely anglers. But it is Britains most popular pastime. Anyone interested in where their food comes from (or what might happen if it didn't turn up one day), soon starts to think about how they would go and get wild food if they ever needed to. So knowing how to fish is a post-apocalyptic skill. It also presents the enticing posibility of being able to catch fish and then beach barbecue it over a massive bonfire before a bit of dancing and maybe getting off with someone. Think Man Friday in Big Wednesday.

But most little boys (and no small number of litle girls) simply want to get a glimpse of a fish up close and long to catch one and hold it in their hands. Take any six year old into a garden centre with an aquatic section and they will be rapt by the alien colour and exotic behaviour of tiny fish. The water is the first alien environment we encounter, the one we can't breathe in, one that is mucky and inaccesible. So it is the biggest mystery a child could unwrap. If there is a hint that there is life in it I am still intent on spotting it. We went to Mile End recently to help develop the park (a lot of weeding in the borders and painting in the ecology pavilion) and the section by the Hertford Union Canal had separating from the group of weary gardeners and dawdling the long way back just in the hope of catching sight of a suspicious eddy or a misplaced bubble, let alone a glimpse of sinuous movement below the surface. 

Tragically this week we were also reminded in the Anglian news of the dangers of being fascinated by water; a six year old cub scout drowned whilst on a river visit. The details haven't been released but such tragedies serve to highlight that the water is dangerous realm and knowledge of it must extend, beyond what it's natives like to eat, into how not to sacrifice oneself to it. I wonder just how much information children get about the risks of going near water, but it seems it would be a very good topic to take into schools. 

Having not done any fishing for over two years (the allotment having become my new outdoor mistress), I am very much looking forward to the day before my birthday in August when I go out on a cat into the channel with a few workmates to livebait for bass and fish a wreck or two. That's going to be some birthday week as I also have an Ashes ticket to Headingly. Feels like it should be a 40th birthday, with such treats going on, but it's only a 38th. 40 will be here son enough though; no need to push it.

One thing I won't be doing is going to glastonbury. Aforementioned Doves are there and I've heard they are good. I should have gone to see The Specials when they had some dates in London and I reckon that if you can't see them in a sweaty (preferably midlands) nightclub, then why not see them on a big sound stage and exploit Terry's singalong choruses; a very different vibe. Having Dreadzone on the Friday is almost like having the perfect support act for the Specials right there. And I don't doubt that a search through the listings would probably reveal a number of other glasto acts that would be worthwhile. But the event (an expensive and  oversubscribed invitation to lose ones personal effects and ruin one clothes in a field whilst trying to spot B list celebs) seems swamped by novelty acts that are not worth the grief. For that level of cost and aggro I would want a sincere and earnest band headlining who are on the very lip of a new cultural wave and who also happen to rock like f*ck. Rolf Harris and Status Quo and Spinal Tap, and even Madness and Bruce Springsteen, do not meet that criteria. Kasabian is the best they can offer and frankly Kasabian are recycling the baggy sound to distraction and I grew out of that in 1990 and have no intention of going back. 

Of course one is curious. And of course a considerable number of irony addled thirty somethings will appreciate the joke. But unlike a Bob Dylan, Nick Cave or Neil Young or when, a few years ago, Rev Al Green played his sunday morning gospel service (pitch perfect and definintely  something high quality that a lot of these attending would never have got into otherwise), these acts were never seminal, not even Springsteen. You can of course see Neil Young next weekend (and there is the tantalising possibility of seeing him hook up with CS and N as well, certainly more interesting than a reformed Blur). But that Neil Young is brilliant live is no longer a secret. The Specials have maybe the best chance of turning on a new audience. Amongst the more recent acts Friendly Fires may be in the box seat when it comes to taking momentum away from the festival on into the rest of the year. 

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Heather Brooke

The MP's scandal has enough momentum to still be current when Britain goes to the pols to elect MEP's on Thursday. That it still has legs owes much to the piecemeal way in which the telegraph has used the information it has. They're not doing it methodically out of probity. It's because they spent money on it and want to recoup the maxium return on their investment one day at a time. I have far more sympathy with Heather Brooke who chose to go about getting this information using the proper means.

When the FOI came out, we all should have seen it for what it was - a fillip. Some information the government never has any intention of providing, no matter how politely you ask or how valid your reasoning. One of Heather's commentors included the following from the Beeb website (can't find the original):

“A cynic would say that the reason they were not too worried about Parliamentary information falling within the Act’s sway was that they were pretty confident that they could keep the most sensitive and damaging material from being released, whatever the legislation. They were probably right, generally speaking. The fact that they were short-sighted about the danger of expense claims being made public is more an indication of how complacent they had become about the system than their ability to calculate risk.

It is blindingly obvious that a UK government will always be able to keep the worst of its secrets, so the FoI Act was never going to be a great leveller. While I welcome its principles, I still think it is a very bad piece of legislation and when taken in conjunction with the Data Protection Act and similar legislation, it is a nightmare for public sector bodies to work within and a gravy train for lawyers.

As a person who once had to respond to FoI requests - many of them ridiculous pursuits of non-existent information by obsessives or blatent attempts by commercial organisations to harvest sales and marketing information - I have to admit to feeling somewhat pleased that the legislators are having a taste of their own medicine.”

Interesting point. Legislation to some factions is bad per se. Whereas in reality bad legislation is doing damage to the principle that some things require legislating. Some distinction needs to be made. We have a crecession that could have been avoided with proper legislative control of the banking sector. And the banking sector itself is able to argue still that legislation would stifle innovation and economic development in the teeth of foreclosures and redundancies. The poverty of some legislation seems almost wilfull, as if the ability to make laws is some how compromised. Now we know; lawmakers themselves do not have a unalloyed approach to their business. Not only are the compromised by lobbyists and compromised by the despearate need to maintain an image of themselves in the popular press and compromised by the whip of party politics and compromised by the careerist pursuit of the right side of a fence; they are now exposed as fatally compromised in their personal probity. You can shrug off the other things as "politics" because they are all circumstantial in comparison. And the point was made ably by Ian Hislop: Think about what other things MP's decide to spend tax payers money on.

I do have one slight caveat where the lovely Heather is concerned. Journalists who request information who are on fishing expeditions are really helping their own careers, win or lose the information they're after. They're not prioritising in the way that the public needs. I must admit that the scatter gun record of Ms Brookes requests on her website suggest either she selects her targets randomly in order to illustrate that evasiveness is endemic in public bodies, and to fortify her reputation as a slogger through all the knock backs she is inevitably going to get, or else she has some pattern relating to personal interest (although I can't piece together what that might be). Her requests for fire inspection reports from the LFEPA in 2005 seems totally random to me. Anyone who has conducted the brigade through fire inspections can be pretty sure there is very little dirt to dig. Either the brigade fail to inspect properly (and it would take a second inspection of the same building by another expert to verify, and on a different day through different eyes there will always be a different verdict - 10 building surveyors won't agree; either way it's not a job for a hack however clever she is), or there was a proper inspection, a building is in dire need of improvement to avoid very obvious fire hazards, in which case the landlord must be taken to task. But that is the job of the fire brigade. If they fail in that duty, and they very rarely ever do, their own colleagues will have to risk their lives putting out a fire. Fire Brigade inspections are carried out by brigade officers who have previously served on machines, fought fires and lost colleagues. There is literally nothing the fire brigade like less than risking their own men, despite what you might think. They really do take their duties very seriously indeed, have the powers available to prosecute and are always anxious do so where the risk is great, and have been freed up by the Reform Order to get on with inspecting genuinely risky properties and leaving low risk office buildings to the landlords. They don't believe the inspection reports meet the requirements of the FOI but they don't have anything to hide. It's not evasiveness for the sake of it. It's that they have a job to do. Exposing the rather prosaic proceedings of systematic checks that reveal some fire doors in M&S have closing forces below 30N is hardly shaking the foundations of the country. No one wants less fires thatn the fire brigade and no one works harder to reduce the number of them. How can you reproach them for not creating golden opporuntities to undermine their work, even were Ms Brooke the proud possessor of a Masters in Fire Engineering from Strathclyde. What Ms Brooke should investigate is the record of the CPS in bringing prosecutions where the fire brigade request them. 

Nevertheless, Ms Brooke does deserve the plaudits she is now getting for her persistence. I just wonder if the Torygraph hacks hadn't done a deal with brown envelopes in a darkebned multistorey whether her investigations into expenses would have been as fruitless as some of her other investigations have been. I guess the really great skill as an investigative journalists is the correctness of one's instinct that one is realy on to something. No one likes being asked questions. Ask anyone who has been cornered by revenue protection officers on a London bus and asked to show their oyster card to a portable reader. 

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Been a few days

Had the week off (apart from going into work very briefly on Thursday to pick up a couple of compo CD's i made for two friends, taking part in the Law Society anual charity quiz (we came 4th) and then dropping in to the Coach for karaoke fun. So the allotment has improved markedly after some much needed attention. It looks occupied now. Also been enjoying the good weather and getting a bit red (hopefully brown will come later). But o twitters or blog updates because I'm relaxed and happy and not angry and bored.

I have been reading an interesting book called Albion about English legends, ghost stories, myths, old wives tales and the origins of various folk tales. It is fascinating stuff. It is noteworthy that the pattern recognition mode of thought is largely responsible for most folk tales. False etymologies such as the one that placed Camelot in the village of Upper Camel and wrongly propose the existence of a glass stone fort at Glastonbury, abound. Legends are appropriated, adulterated and transferred from one end of the country to the other. And the word welsh is a saxon word meaning foreigner. I mean to pass on more of this craziness when I've finished reading it.

Monday, 25 May 2009


I heard something today that turned my stomach. "What would Jesus do? Vote BNP". There is so much wrong with that it is almost impossible to keep my composure. I wouldn't do what Jesus would do. But I could readily do what Simon Peter did when I heard it; just put a sword in my hand. At a time when minority parties stand to make modest gains on the back of Westminster incompetence, Nick Griffin invokes the blood libel, out loud. One thing is certain. No one in the BNP knows Jesus. 

New England Bank Holiday NOISEFEST

Spent a part of yesterday down the allotment. The bloke across the way showed up and made a start on harvesting the vast swathes of cooch grass he has cultivated. Actually this is a bit unfair since he explained to me he had only just got over heart trouble and hadn't got around to doing much last year. He told me this as I was helping him to douse the flames of a wayward bonfire he had started earlier. Trying to sacrifice handfuls of grass to the allotment gods in the hope of a bountiful harvest is the mark of Cain. One must be like Abel and just flog out ones guts digging out weeds as they appear. But I am one of the allotment holders that doesn't seek out others and give them unsolicited advice, unlike a few "elders" who take great delight in the fact that their 20 years of making mistakes and their daily attendance on their plot are the real reason for their success rather than some innate communion with nature that you don't share.

John told me before he left for the afternoon how close our friend had come to setting himself alight earlier when getting it going with a container of paraffin and some matches. He has no hair or eyebrows. This could be either because of illness or pyromania, but more likely just venerability and the rigours of outdoor gardening. I noticed one or two pictures taken of me recently - bending down to weed some leeks - show a potentially monastic pate. If working an allotment causes one to lose ones hair, is that in itself the price of a Robert Johnsonesque deal with the devil to get carrots to sprout? 

Matey generously let me have some twine to tie up my tomatoes so I have decided to be his friend. It is just as well he has me as a new friend (a ready made fire warden). I went back at 6pm to do a bit of extra watering and pick some asparagus and he didn't even recognise me. There were several empty cans of White Lightning on the ground, the fire was out (having consumed only one third of the bonfire material, but most of the adjoining fence area between his plot and Johns) and he was tottering down the path commiting his brain first to controlling his left leg, and then his right, with barely enough capacity left to acknowledge any other task you might set before him, let alone incorporate it into his regime. I suspect his allotmenteering is an excuse to get away from it and get seriously trolleyed. I hope he continues to start his fires before he gets wasted.

I also had occasion to help the Romanian jazz-folk family next door with removing a satellite dish. This may mean they are leaving - to be replaced by who know who; we have had vietnamese cannabis farmers, lithuanian students, polish and kurdish families and the landlord himself lived there for a bit before he went to jail - or it may mean that their attempts (which included alot of shouting of advice from the wierd dad to the eldest of his sons) to jerry-rig Sky have finally been abandoned (you can't cheat Rupert Murdoch). 

They are a curious bunch. They organise improptu jam sessions and accompany traditional Romanian songs by conjuring of the lift music stylings of Earl Klugh as backing. On two occasions I have thought that the lady of the house was being murdered and have asked the local bobby to drop by. It seems she just gets hysterically upset, although she may have just been singing a transylvanian lament. Either way the noise was so blood curdling any self-respecting vampire would have considered investing in a new fridge. I have also seen the patriarch clip one of his lads round the ear. He speaks no english but tried to sell me some old boots he had found. They were obviously not a pair and he was disappointed that I didn't accept his bargain offer. The missus reckons he has occasionally loomed in at the front window and offered to play us all some music. She replied that we didn't need him to come round as we could already hear it perfectly well from our bedroom in the early hours of the morning . All of this is strange only because no one tells any of our foreign neighbours that English people have a thousand unwritten rules that you have to absorb by osmosis over many years and that the English are deeply troubled by any behaviour that doesn't observe these rules that are so impossible to learn, even for the earnestly rule-following races that do alight here on the journey arc from peasanthood to Martha Stewart.

Some rules, like the rules of the road, have now vanished from the streets around north Peterborough. In most cases though I think that the insulation provided by a car breeds selfishness per se. And the various nationalities - be it four shaven Polish lads in a 1989 Passat with no rear suspension, the British-Asian princess in the Peugeot parked so that no one can get by, the Mirpuri wideboy rapping on his mobile in the blacked out Range Rover, or the family of nine Kurds in the Toyota Camry - are ignoring the existence of each other in their cars as assiduously as they try to do in their houses. This is the first step to assimilation because it is mostly what we try to do; ignore one another. The only exception is the previously mentioned British male magnanimity when driving. Many people think this is a weakness, but generously allowing someone to cut in is a way of commenting on their relative incompetence at the wheel next to your own. 

A gang of boisterous starlings have taken up residence in the garden, feasting from the black bin bags next door and perching on the fence to argue vociferously with one another and to shit disdainfully when they hear a comment they don't like. They are the scruffy teenage thugs who will one day become a soaring smoky cloud, chomping early summer midges, undulating in massive columns and balls to confuse the sparrowhawks, and assembling in ever larger swarms before they flee to Eastern Europe. Although many do stay and many more will arrive in winter when the conditions in the East are even harsher than they are here. They might well have chosen another fence to sit on (not in a metaphorical sense; these fellows are extremely opinionated) but perhaps the contents of the black bin bags next door remind them of home. But their cacophony is the second element in an unholy trinity of noises that now beset the area. A satanic polish thrash metal band now practice in the back room of The Crown on Lincoln Road. They have a simple verse-chorus-verse style. The verses are plaintive angst-filled pleas for death to be swift and painless. The choruses are like the sound of a thousand demons bowels being emptied in an arctic windstorm. Quite catchy...
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