Archive for June, 2007

Gordon! What a pleasant surprise!

I woke up this morning, turned on the radio and heard the news Tony Blair was due to step down and Gordon Brown would take over as Prime Minister. Now this didn’t come as a massive shock to me, partly because myself and a colleague had already spent time speaking to local MPs, organisations, the IT man in my office [1] and general voxing to get a local angle on what was going to be the biggest issue of the day.

And big it was. Bar the weather and Wimbledon, nationally it’s been pretty quiet. But two things bothered me slightly. The first was the nature of the news itself.

Now, call me old fashioned, but when I was just considering starting a career in journalism I was taught two vital pieces of advice. The first was always ensure you go to work with a tie and jacket on hand. The second was ‘news’ should be to tell the audience something they don’t already know.

Now, unless somebody had forcibly kidnapped me a year ago, flew me to the moon and stuck large wedges of cheddar in my ears and eyes I think, even without working within journalism, I could have hazarded a guess that Tony Blair would be calling it a day today and there was a good chance a Scottish neighbour would replace him as Prime Minister.

I could have also guessed that he would have made a last appearance in the Commons before visiting the Queen, resigning and letting Brown put up the road to Buckingham Palace and take the reigns

Now, strictly speaking, under the definition I was taught – and largely stick to – this isn’t ‘news’. Perhaps it could classify as ‘olds’ or the less catchy ‘something we already know about but happens to be occurring this instance’.

But here’s the paradox. Really, Blair leaving and Brown’s coronation isn’t news, but is still the biggest story of the day. But could broadcasters have covered it any differently? I honestly can’t answer that. At a local level, I think my newsroom did a good job [2]: a range of opinions from a range of people, all equally valid and interesting. I would have  tweaked bits and pieces and got in a couple more voices had I had time, but in my office it was a job well done, I hope.

But if I’d been working in a national newsroom, I can’t honestly think of how I’d have played it differently from all the national feeds I saw at various points during the day. Odd thing, broadcast news. It’s up to date, right up to the minute often, but is also stagnant because if nothing significant or new is happening, that’s what gets reported.

Things picked up a bit later in the day, when Brown took over as we moved into speculation of the cabinet, but I was left with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction at what I’d seen. The best coverage: probably The Times’ News blog [3], which I’ve only seen after the event[4].

[As an aside, Iain Dale is fuming about the BBC’s decision to go to Wimbledon coverage of Eastern European tennis players in the middle of PMQs, as act that makes me wonder if my old friend, Guardian music journalist and female tennis obsessive, Alex Macpherson, had temporarily been installed as programme controller at the BBC. The mind boggles. But frankly, I’d have rather have watched Wimbledon than PMQs. At least with the tennis you genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen]

But the other aspect of today’s coverage was broadly deferential, which troubled me. Even the most ardent Blairite would have difficulty denying that Tony’s not exactly loved by the whole of the country, and there are plenty of vociferous, and not-so-vociferous, critics of assorted policies.

Yet we got Tony smiling and waving to the crowd. Tony getting an ovation in Parliament. Tony cheered by an adoring public as he popped into visit Mrs. Liz Windsor. Tony solemnly announcing his new job as Middle East envoy. You’d have thought he’d single-handedly solved every major issue at home and abroad during the last 10 years and rounded it off by rescuing a bag of drowning kittens on his last day in office. It’s as if Iraq and Cash For Lordships had never happened.

I don’t want to get into my own take on Blair’s legacy (although for an entertaining and distinctly partisan take on the last 10 years, Justin McKeating’s your man) but one commentator really stood out today – Jonathan Freedland:

For Tony Blair will leave today not with his head bowed, or drummed out of office, but on a day and in a manner of his choosing. He has choreographed his exit with a thousand send-offs: cheers at Sedgefield, a last hug at the White House, a final round of backslapping from European leaders last week and yet another ovation from a Labour conference on Sunday. No hint of a leader made to dip his head for a fateful, lethal mistake.

His whole piece could be used as a cool, reasoned argument of why Blair does not deserve lavishing of praise when he leaves office. I can’t think of another Prime Minister, save perhaps Churchill, who left to such fawning, and even the cigar-chomping V-signing one was voted out of office once inbetween.

Yes, we’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the past ten years. Yes, there will be plenty more time to reflect on Blair’s legacy. And yes, to sum up the gradual move from near-euphoric expectation in 1997 to a state of disengagement, apathy and malaise with politics today would take more than a bulletin’s worth to explain. But it would have been nice to have some genuinely critical voices around, to remind us of his weaknesses as well as his strengths.

Today went exactly as Tony Blair hoped it would. And that speaks volumes about the current state of politics, the media and the public.

[1] This wasn’t an arbitrary choice or one of my, ‘Oh shit, we’re running out of time, he’ll do’ moments. He’d actually first voted in ’97 and hadn’t moved away from the area since. 

[2] Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? Journalists are not noted for their lack of ego.

[3] HT: Martin Stabe.

[4] I had work to do today. Much as I could easily spend my day surfing around the internet, I’m usually too busy to even get a chance for my requisite number of cups of tea.


Proper journalism on teh interweb shock

Devil’s Kitchen:

 For some blogging at its very best head over to the Ministry of Truth for Unity’s comprehensive expose of the sinister folk behind the Silver Ring Thing.

As someone in the comments of the first post says, next time someone tells you blogging is irrelevent/self important/whatever other garbage they come up with – show them this.

Couldn’t have put it better myself. All bloggers and newsrooms should print out the article, pin it to the wall as a reminder of just how good blogging at its best can be.

Writing at its very best, and quite possibly the best blog post I’ll read this year.

Restaurant innabun

McDonalds probably gave their restaurants a makeover ages ago, but as I hardly ever walk past my nearest one, I utterly missed their redesign until today.

Put bluntly, it looks like a cross between a Costa Coffee and a Japanese noodle bar. But at least it looks like somewhere you’d want to eat.

To me, the old McDonalds felt like a school canteen, and therein lay the problem. A school canteen that serves burgers, chips and assorted unhealthy variations was brilliant. It was the safest rebellion you could possibly have, but rebellion all the same. Teachers, who favoured the salad bar at school, said McDonalds was bad. And that was all we needed to know.

But once the school canteen’s left behind, McDonalds seems a lot less appealing. Drab decor, dirty tables and everybody looking incredibly harassed and rushed. At least Pizza Hut was a bit more colourful.

The golden arches have been trying to rebrand desperately in the last few years, but nobody wants to eat salad in a school canteen. We’ve all got memories of Mr. Jones forcing you to stay behind and wipe the tables because you’d left the lettuce with your lasagne.

The healthier options may have been given a distinctly lukewarm reception, but at least the place no looks like somewhere a) you’d expect to serve salad and b) eat in without sitting on ketchup stains. Shame that wild horses still would entice me to bite into their food. Still, full marks for effort. Maybe when I’m a tad tipsy one night, I may stumble in and order a fillet o’fish in the belief I’ve just wandered into a sushi bar.

Three’s company

Last night saw one of the few, if only, films I’ve genuinely excited or interested in seeing this summer: Taking Liberties. In itself, this is quite a sorry state of affairs. Normally June, July and August can be relied upon to provide at least one or two enjoyably entertaining blockbusters with maybe the same number of quirky, independent or serious movies. Instead I’m getting excited about a wry look at civil liberties in Britain, and Michael Moore isn’t anywhere to be seen.

Ok, so complaining about a summer release schedule is somewhat akin to commenting the gastropub is a touch overpriced. But for me so far, this year has been one of the worst in recent memory for the quality on offer. The only film I’ve seen I’ve really raved about has been Kevin Macdonald’s wonderful Last King of Scotland. The last film I’ve seen that I’ve truly enjoyed was Zodiac.

Neither may be your typical blockbuster, but there’s no real blockbuster to get truly excited about. Compare this to a few years ago when you had the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek alongside films such as The Constant Gardner and Sin City, while throwing in flicks like the underrated Inside Man and enjoyable cult sci-fi Serenity. Flipping through this year’s schedules since January and up to the end of the summer, and there’s little to compare on the same level.

The love of the sequel in Hollywood’s another common moan but it seems in 2007 we’ve really reached saturation point. Spiderman 3, Pirates 3, Hostel 2, Fantastic Four 2: The Rise of the Silver Surfer, Harry Potter 5, Ocean’s Thirteen, Shrek 3, Die Hard 4. It’s pretty depressing viewing, with only Bruce Willis’ latest outing as John McClane giving any cause for optimistic, largely based on the hope that it won’t remotely try to take itself seriously in any way, shape or form.

Not that this deters the movie-going public. The Silver Surfer took a respectable 29 million in its opening weekend, while the Pirates juggernaut’s over 250 million and shows no sign of slowing down. And, frankly, as long as the bums on seats keep coming, its unlikely Hollywood will cut down on adding numbers. It’ll take two or three high profile crash and burns before they’ll counter the idea of trying something different. Indeed, in the current climate, you could give a five-year-old the director’s chair for Pirates 4 and it’d still do the business at the box office. The question is how long will the current climate last for?

Sooner or later the audience will cotton onto the fact they’ve either just watched a rerun or inferior version of the original or another, similar film. Harry Potter aside, as it actually has an already-written largely decent source, the rest of the sequels largely pale in comparison to the original. The first Pirates was a gem: a blockbuster that had humour, intelligence, action and a cracking storyline. Third time around some of the ingredients may still be there but is it really any better than the original? Whilst it can’t be classed as a turkey, the feeling isn’t the same as the one you get after the first one.

Spiderman 3’s budget of $350 million could have easily been used to fund 3 new blockbusters plus a quirky smaller movie. Would living without the poor third installment of the webslinger been such an ordeal, especially if we were introduced to a fresh set of characters to fall in love with?

This isn’t dismissing all sequels out of hand. Alien did the right thing by bringing in the gung-ho James Cameron after Ridley Scott’s cool, terrifying movie, Cameron’s Terminator 2 is probably up there with the greatest sequels of all time and then there’s the daddy of all second visits: The Godfather part 2. But generally once a franchise starts motoring past its second installment, the ideas start to dry up and we’re left with a sub-standard cut and paste of previous plots that usually don’t make for a terrible move, just a distinctly average one (examples in case: Terminator 3, the Godfather part 3. I’m probably one of the few who actually liked Alien 3).

But there is a bit of hope on the horizon, both sequel-wise and on a more general level. The 3rd Jason Bourne film may just buck the average-threequel trend and Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film, The Dark Knight, could well be even better than Batman Begins. Away from the sequels, we’ll have to wait until next year in the UK for the Coen Brothers’ new offering, No Country for Old Men and by all accounts its closer to Blood Simple than it is to Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, which is reason to get excited indeed.

But until that time, go see Taking Liberties, then hibernate for the rest of the summer will all the DVDs you said you’d watch but haven’t quite got time to see. And if you are poking your head round the cinema door, Bergman’s Seventh Seal is re-released on July 20th, which is well worth anyone’s hard earned cash.

Move along now…

Firstly, ridiculously busy, so I’ll do my usual trick of throwing a few thinks together and hoping people will think I’ve got something interesting to say, before resuming normal service in a few days and pretending nothing’s happened.

Secondly, is it just me or has WordPress gone a bit doolally tonight. It’s eaten this post twice.

Thirdly, the links.

Chris Dillow on why opinions may be a bad idea. Interesting debate in the comments as well. Had I more time I’d post my, erm, opinion on this. Probably for the best I don’t, then.

Via the ASI (and others), a physics teacher’s open letter to the exam boards. Now, at risk of coming all Express-reader on you, having read some of the example questions he uses, I reckon I could have probably got a decent grade in that physics GCSE, and this is from somebody who really struggled with the subject at school to the extent I didn’t even take it at GCSE level. Would be interesting to see how I’d fare on a paper then and now.

(Not, I’d hasten to add, do I want to start bemoaning the ease of today’s exams. I can still remember working damn hard for my GCSEs and A Levels. But even a physics ignoramous like myself can tell those questions have precious little to do with the subject. I had to answer similar stuff for politics and media modules and, I’d imagine, geography, had I taken it).

And finally, I’m still to see Taking Liberties at the end of the working week. I’m halfway through the book now. I’d endorse Rachel’s plea, as this isn’t the kind of thing you’ll get to see in your local multiplex, but is worth seeing nonetheless. Even if you don’t agree with the polemic (and I’m sure it will may no apologies for being so), at least it should get you thinking and formulate arguments as to why you disagree. Much better brain food than Spider Man 3, which you shouldn’t bother with under any circumstances. And if you’re watching it at Exeter Picture House, I can highly recommend the cakes and odd assortment of beers in the upstairs bar.

At the end of the day, Ron…

Jade Goody: Nasty piece of work. Quite possibly doesn’t like non-Caucasians.

Emily Parr: Posh upper-class moron who probably has no concept of the history of slavery, and quite possibly thinks she the female version of Ali G. She’s certainly funnier, although that’s probably unintentional.

It’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for her, even if she is unbelievably irritating and still highly punchable. For once comment is free actually has some sensible comments, including this one:

Seems like a social faux pas in which a person tries to ingratiate herself with a cooler crowd but makes an elementary mistake that lands her in hot water. More David Brent than David Irving.

Although my personal favourite:

Any posh rich white kid who uses that word in order to ingratiate herself with black people should be killed and eaten. Not because she’s necessarily racist, just to save society from any more excruciating embarrassment.

Oh, and she should be killed and eaten too, on principle.

Remember, this is a woman who thought indie was a new type of music. Grasping reality outside of drama school is probably a little bit beyond her. Still, at least it saves me from having to look at her face for another God-knows-how-long-they’ll-drag-this-one-on-for weeks. They really do know how to find them, don’t they. I bet as soon as she announced she voted Conservative, Cameron’s people were on the phone trying to persuade her parents to get her to vote UKIP instead.

The ironic thing is its just a teeny bit less racist than Celebrity Big Brother, although it does make for a rather stormy teacup with Keith Vaz making a cameo as the sugar. At the end of the day, she’s an idiot. Not a particularly nasty or malicious idiot, but an idiot all the same. That’s something we could have worked out for ourselves.

I think it’s worth finishing with a quote from Mr. Brent himself:

David Brent: This is Sanj, this guy does the best Ali G impersonation, Aiiieee. I can’t do it, go on, do it
Sanj: I don’t, must be someone else
David Brent: Oh, sorry, it’s the other one…
Sanj: The other what… Paki?
David Brent: Ah, that’s racist.

(Also, this is rather good. A blog that uses Big Brother as a starting point for philosophical discussion.)

How to stop the middle classes vomiting in our streets

I quite like wine. Not an excessive amount by any means, but the odd glass here and there. Perhaps I might share a bottle or two one evening with my three housemates. Maybe one will get uncorked [1] if I’ve spent time preparing a decent meal [2]. Maybe it’s just been a really stressful day and I just need to put my feet up with a good book and a glass of white. And it’s always worth keeping a couple of standby just in case an old friend pops round. There’s nothing like a good red to accompany a good catch up. And maybe some really good cheese, if I’ve not scoffed it all already. No I don’t have a bottle every night, or even every other night. Maybe 2 or 3 a week tops. More if I see a lot of old friends, less it I’m busy, as I frequently am, or just simply not in the mood.

According to the government, or more precisely Health Minister Caroline Flint, I’m most probably well on course to be a middle-aged, middle-class hardened drinker.

Now, if you’ve ever walked through a city centre at 2am, you can probably understand why the government wants to challenge this country’s drinking culture. It’s not actually the daftest idea in the world to try and encourage a more mature approach the alcohol. But frankly targeting the middle classes isn’t going to win any favours among, well, anybody.

This kind of initiative is the kind of thing that makes you start sounding like a Daily Mail reader. In fact, my feelings on this probably aren’t a million miles away from what I’d expect them to get outraged about.

Naturally we home-wine drinkers (or even those who pub down the pub for a quiet pint or two) are so utterly incapable of judging how much we’ve drunk, and so incapable of being able to look after ourselves we need ‘guidance’ at home.

And not just guidance but proper education, but possibly controls so all the 25 pluses don’t accidentally go too far and have that extra sherry after dinner. In fact, many of them are probably force feeding Pinot Grigio to their children foie-gras style right now.

We’ve moved on a bit from 14-year-olds drinking White Lightning in the park, I like to think. But perhaps we’re easy targets from policy. Easier than trying to take White Lightning off a 14-year-old at any rate.

Tim is cutting as ever:

No, a serious problem you’ll have to agree. People simply cannot be allowed to choose their own path to perdition, that’s entirely unacceptable. We’ll have to ban wine cellars, as this allows people to have too much alcohol in the house. All wine racks will have to be replaced so that only one bottle in a 24 hour period can be used, corkscrews fitted with a timer so that again, only one use per 24 hours is possible.

Quite. My house, my liver. Neither of these are public property. If I vomit on the curtains, its me, not that tax payer, that’s got the clean it up and possibly buy new ones. That’s why I’ve never vomited on my curtains. Or, for that matter, anywhere else in the house after a few glasses of wine. At worst, I get a bit sleepy and snore a bit too loudly.

Then there’s costs. Chris has a nice basic calculation:

Costs to the NHS?

Tax year 04/05, revenue raised from alcohol (VAT and excise duty): £14billion.

NHS expenditure on alcohol related conditions 2005-06: £1.7billion, for England and Wales.

But what’s really got me reaching for the Cabernet is this little gem from Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker:

“It is unacceptable for people to use alcohol and urinate in the street, vomit and carry on.

Quite right. I’m not big fan of stepping out my front door into last-night’s curry as the next man but, you know, when I hit the town for a night out I see so many middle-class drinkers who’ve necked a couple of bottles of wine at home, then spilled out onto the streets spoiling for a fight and depositing various waste products everywhere.

After reading the proposals, I’ll still be uncorking the wine at home as much as I do now, and will probably continue to do so now even if five years from now the unlikely event occurs of colleagues frowning at me and I say I’m going to wind-down with a nice crisp white [3].

If getting through a couple of bottles of wine makes me a closet alcoholic, then I’d like to stand up and announce to the world I’m an alcoholic. If, on the other hand, iust makes me an average bloke with an average level of alcohol consumption over the course of the week then I’ll raise a glass to that.

DK and Not Saussure are also unhappy. The latter also has some excellent calculations:

According to the chart, ‘A 175ml glass of red or white wine [represents] around 2 units.’ Now, I have no real idea what a 175ml glass looks like, but a bottle of wine is normally 750ml, so that means there are 4.28 of them to a bottle. So according to my calculations, a woman who regularly splits a bottle of wine over dinner at home with her partner is already getting pretty close to twice the recommended daily amount, and if she accompanies this with a decent sized pre-prandial sherry or gin and tonic, she’s well over twice the recommended daily amount and thus, according to HMG, a regular ‘binge drinker.’

[1] I know there’s no real difference in quality between real corks, plastic corks and screwcaps but I’m a bit of a sucker from traditionalism in this case. You just don’t get the same pleasure from undoing a screwcap as you do popping a cork.

[2] Not unheard of. Some people go to the pub to unwind. Others go to the gym. I cook. That’s my evening therapy. Unless I’ve been to the gym, in which case I bung a pizza in the oven, undoing my good work. I feel Aristotle would approve, though.

[3] If anything, they might want to look at why we’re so stressed as a nation that we turn to the booze. Not that I’m overly frazzled at the moment, but some days its just nice to come home to a good meal and a glass of the stuff.

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June 2007
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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com